The Limits of Planning

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

The title of this post calls to mind the Jim Jarmusch film The Limits of Control. While the film itself doesn’t directly relate to this post, the title does, as planning is primarily about control of future events. (Although, Jim Jarmusch, as a pioneer of the independent film movement, certainly sets an example of creative control over mass commercialism – surely part of a deliberate plan.)

This topic really came to mind while I was driving home one day and ended up behind a series of drivers who seemed to not know where they were going. One hesitation after another, while drivers sat at intersections pondering which way to turn, frustrated me at first and then got me nostalgic for the days of physical maps. When I was younger, I learned my way around new places by planning routes with maps. The maps weren’t perfect. They couldn’t predict rail crossing delays, traffic jams, or more serious infrastructure glitches. It still gave me a feeling of control, a greater confidence that I could get from A to B in a timely manner, and it helped me avoid obstructing other drivers with uncertainty.

Sketch of sample road map
A conventional road map for a conventional journey – despite some unknowns, still relatively easy to plan

Today’s GPS devices – usually our smartphones – eliminate the planning aspect of maps. They tell us to take a particular road or turn in a certain direction as we make the journey. That gives us back the time previously spent on route planning, but it still seems like we’re losing something in the trade-off.

Collection of paper maps with smartphone displaying a map function
Physical maps to GPS – which most reveals the limitations of planning?

Planning can be an essential step to starting a business or implementing any creative project.  A business plan, a book outline, a sketch before a painting, they give us the project equivalent of a road map, a degree of control over our future.  They break up large, potentially overwhelming undertakings into smaller, manageable steps.

Of course, there are limitations to planning.  All the planning in the world can’t guarantee a future outcome.  There are too many variables in life.  The road maps I used to rely on were generally equally reliable through my entire journey – disruptions were about as likely five minutes from my departure point as they were five minutes from my destination.  That’s because choices of individual drivers were unlikely to alter the route.  It’s one reason the U.S. transportation system generally works, despite the inefficiencies of automotive travel.  But we’re talking about a different kind of planning; this is dependent on decisions that accumulate over time.  That results in an exponential increase in variables with each step of our plan.  Think of a game of chess:  You may confidently predict your opponent’s response to your next move.  The next two moves adds a level of complexity.  Each succeeding move we try to predict introduces a new set of alternatives and a corresponding range of responses to those alternatives.  After three moves by each player, a chess board has over 9 million possible layouts.  Life is the same way.  Each day introduces new variables – new unexpected events – and our responses to those events take us in a new direction as we encounter the next day’s surprises.

Chaos Map showing different steps of a journey with multiple choices at each step
Creativity is not a conventional journey – instead it involves a multitude of choices at each step, and the outcome is often uncertain

Having a plan is still important, it allows us to establish milestones and formalize our goals (for example, how do we know the work is finished?), and it encourages us to anticipate obstacles we might not have considered otherwise.  We still have to navigate the unexpected, things we could not have anticipated with even the most disciplined plan (In other words, “known unknowns” vs. “unknown unknowns!”).  Maybe the research for that historical novel requires hard to acquire documents.  Maybe the market where you planned to sell your ceramic works has gone out of business.  Maybe Apple upgrades its operating system before you finish developing that killer iPhone appThere’s a reason project managers – and creative types – have to be diligent problem solvers.

Approaching problems as they occur is often handled in similar ways as the initial planning.  Define the challenge, identify the desired outcome, break the problem down into small, manageable pieces, and brainstorm possible responses.  As always, persistence is crucial, because it’s when things don’t go according to plan that many people give up.  And life rarely goes according to plan.  A creative life is a practice that needs constant attention.

That leads to planning’s greatest limitation – when it becomes a substitute for action.  Don’t get so bogged down with planning that you lose your passion for the work.  Too detailed an outline might discourage spontaneity while writing your novel.  Too rigid a business plan might cause you to miss out on a hot new market opportunity.  If planning’s greatest asset is that it allows us to see the big picture – including the indirect routes that can truly inspire our creativity – it’s greatest weakness is when we rely on it so much that we miss the unexpected details that are equally inspiring.  It’s good to know where you’re going, but you don’t necessarily need to know how you’ll get thereAnd that’s a known fact.

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