When Planning is Impossible

Jul 18, 2020 | Change, Stress

Struggling with future planning?

How can we make plans for a future that is so uncertain right now?

How do you even think about the future when each week – and even each day – can be met with new information, challenges and decisions?

For leaders charged with creating plans, and for those who are natural planners, the pandemic presents a real challenge.

But challenges and chaos also present real opportunities for resilience, growth and mindful leadership.

Why we like to plan

Our brains are constantly trying to predict the future in order to guide our actions and decisions. So of course we like to plan.

According to one study, people think about the future three times more often than the past (as cited by Martin Seligman and John Tierney in The New York Times).

Without our consciously asking it to, the brain automatically sorts through current information and past experiences to predict what’s coming next, similar to the way Google’s search engine responds to our search requests.

So not being able to plan can feel like not getting relevant information from a Google search, or having to go through 10 pages to find it.

The possibility of present awareness

Since the brain is naturally trying to predict, it makes sense that we might feel some anxiety about our inability to predict and plan in the middle of the pandemic.

But we can’t ever really know what the future will look like. So we might need to create multiple contingency plans (e.g., schools reopening or closing according to COVID-19 data).

Still, the only time we can make an actual decision is in the present moment. So what if we shift our focus to what we think, say and do in this moment?

We can’t change what we’re not aware of. But by becoming aware of our present-moment experience, we hit the pause button on old thoughts and existing patterns, become open to new information, and create opportunity for new ways of thinking.

Creativity and change are born not of habit but of a new awareness which creates possibility for new neural connections, new thoughts and new solutions.

As I once heard the wise Jon Kabat Zinn say, “The future is made of infinite present moments.”

Present awareness is information

Since our brains are constantly working to predict the future for us and keep us safe, we can help them out by paying attention to what is present.

The more we build our present awareness of external and internal experience, the more conscious we become of the information that the brain is automatically processing in order to make its predictions and guide our behavior. The more we see and create different options.

If we pay attention, we might notice that we are always feeling some kind of sensation in the body and some kind of emotion. These sensations and feelings are – usually without our awareness – constantly being processed through the nervous system and brain in order to predict the future and guide our behavior.

For instance, if you are speaking with someone and notice that you are suddenly feeling uneasy about his/her demeanor, depending on your relationship or past experience, you might decide to ask him/her what’s wrong or you might cut the conversation short. If you are not aware of the feeling, it may lead to miscommunication, disagreement or hurt feelings that you don’t even recognize until later (if at all).

Similarly, if you’re making decisions based on facts but are not aware of your present emotions that you’re having about those facts (e.g., fear or anger) – emotions that may be connecting to prior experience or beliefs – then you may not be making the best well-reasoned decision for the present situation.

The more we can bring awareness to our present-moment experience, including our feelings, not only are we making better use of present information, but we are getting off autopilot, creating choice, and building neural connections that support self-regulation.

The gifts of present awareness

Since longterm planning is nearly impossible these days, we have no choice but to adapt. And there are 2 gifts in this:

(1) If we let go of habitual tendencies to plan, from present-moment awareness we might discover creative ideas or new ways of thinking. We might begin to make new neural connections in the brain which deepen its integration and our resilience.

(2) By deepening present awareness, we deepen our understanding of our current experience and how that is guiding our thoughts and behavior. From there, we expand our choices.

There is power in the pause.

Just by bringing awareness to your present experience, you can begin to change it. And from there, you can either open to new and creative possibilities, or you step into greater choice by becoming conscious of the information that is feeding into your feelings and thoughts.

Either way, you and your brain become wiser and more resilient in the process!

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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