I Have Always Found That Plans Are Useless, But Planning Is Indispensable — Analysis

The problem with deciding or cutting off, is that it is not sensitive enough to the requirements of trial and error. If there was a list of things you had to do, and some of which, you perceived as more or less important than others, then you can, in an orderly way, rank each item according to how important it is relative to the rest of the group.

But it is more often the case that you simply do not know. When the best course of action is clear, you do not need to perform this exercise, because the most urgent task would be obvious.

But if you were conflicted between several different options, all of which have their own merit, and you are perplexed by excess choice — then to “decide” or cut off an option, is a task that is not so straightforward. In which case, the advice recommended by many of these “self-help” books is not helpful at all.

In other words, the tasks that are urgent for you to do will need to be done regardless of how you choose to organize your tasks. The fact that they are urgent implies that they must be done. But all other tasks are negotiable.

To discover what you should be doing, it is not a good idea to create a plan based on your arbitrary assessment of what will be more appealing or rewarding in the present moment.

What if you plan for the next month which books you want to read and find yourself completely disengaged on the fourth or fifth day? After slogging through one more boring book, you find yourself either abandoning your masterplan, or moving on to something else, in which case, you become less trusting of planning altogether. Or, somehow, you continue with your plan, feeling disgusted and despondent until the very end. In both cases, you have failed to benefit from planning.

That is not to say that the benefits of planning are not immense. If a plan gets you to stick to solving a meaningful problem over an extended length of time, then there is no limit on what you might accomplish. Your imagination cannot begin to capture what a long-term plan, followed diligently over time might lead to.

The problem is what economists have called “the sunk costs” effect. Because you have invested so much time into this long term plan, you will find it very difficult to abandon it, even after you have established that it is no longer as appealing as it once was.

For the same reasons that plans are so powerful, they are destructive. They force an individual to commit, before they have had access to enough information. A more sensible way would be to, instead of planning first, to go through a period of trial and error, where plans are loose and susceptible to constant revision and update.

The idea here is not to avoid planning, but only to make provisional plans. “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Eisenhower (although he credits a soldier)

How is this connected to idleness? It is only possible to make provisional plans if you have allocated a certain amount of leisure that can accommodate a failure in your plan. If you have four things to do, and you allocate an hour each to them, and you have four hours to complete them, then there is no room for error. There is no way to make a new plan midway after you have discovered new information. But if you make a provisional plan, without any unnecessary commitments, then you allow yourself to change course halfway through, or to only do what you now are sure is the most important thing.

Parkinson’s Law is the adage that work expands to fill the time allotted. The idea is straightforward. Simple tasks that would have otherwise taken an hour to complete, end up taking 10 hours to complete, and develop into complex tasks, when enough time is given. Let us say you planned on cooking dinner. If you do not determine to complete dinner preparations within thirty minutes, you might find yourself in the kitchen, three hours later, tired and exhausted, in the middle or cooking a six course meal, with no end in sight.

Parkinson once wrote a humorous essay to The Economist ¬- that was how the idea was discovered. And there is truth to the idea, but the problem is that it can be taken too seriously. That is the logic of time management. If you can do things in the minimum amount of time, do not risk taking a minute longer, for such a sin would make you less effective.

Note that the difference between being effective and being efficient, according to the business literature, is that being “effective” means you know what do, while being “efficient” means that you know how to do things faster. But notice that by putting the emphasis on deciding within a limited amount of time, the productivity gurus are pushing for efficiency, not effectiveness.

If you are paying attention, then you would have noticed that even Parkinson could not manage to escape the trap of saying the same thing as everyone else in the Productivity literature — “Make decisions.” How can we reconcile the fact that there is truth to the idea of making decisions, and planning, and yet both of which can be terrible mistakes? Context.

The problem with advice, generally, is that it ignores context. What you should be doing entirely depends on your career. An executive in a bureaucratic company would benefit greatly from Parkinson’s Law or “Make Decisions” but a musician, artist, entrepreneur, inventor, scientist, philosopher, novelist, architect, or historian, may not.

Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com.

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