Five-Year Plans Are a Bad Idea

I’m a huge planner. I love sitting down to a blank page to dream up scenarios and make lists. I plan my week ahead. At the end of the year, I like to plan my year ahead. And I‌ love daydreaming about my future self and all the things she’ll have achieved and tried and experienced.

Problem is, it’s a bad idea to make plans based on what you’d like to achieve in five years.

The logic goes like this:‌‌ In five years, I want to be a traveling and performing musician. So then I‌ work backward and figure out what I‌ need to accomplish this year, and then break that down further and figure out what I‌ need to accomplish in the next quarter. Makes sense, right?

This is how I’ve always done it. But life doesn’t work like that.

The universe is really interesting. Some of the coolest opportunities that come to us are totally unexpected, things we could’ve never predicted. We meet new people. We receive a job offer out of left field. A friend tells us they’re working on a creative project that sounds fun, but is completely outside the realm of anything we’ve done. So why plan for a future you can’t predict?

I’m not saying don’t plan at all. And I’m certainly not saying to submit yourself to the whims of the universe, floating goallessly through life.

But there is an approach that makes more sense. It’s in two parts.

1) Take action now. If I‌ want to be a performing musician in five years, that means‌‌‌ I’m really interested in music right now, at this very moment. Therefore I should ride that wave, and take advantage of the energy that this interest in music creates. If I‌ write some music, maybe play with friends, maybe try an open mic night or other type of performance, then I’m already a performing musician. If I enjoy it and keep at it, perhaps I’ll end up a higher-level touring musician in five years. Or perhaps, after taking action on it for a little while, a totally unforeseen opportunity for something else comes up. Maybe I play a show, and meet with someone who’s making a film, and end up collaborating on a film score. You really never know.

But you need to take action on what seems fun and interesting. We often get stuck in research/analysis mode. There’s nothing wrong with research, but it can be a way to delay taking action. You spend three months reading about writing music instead of just writing and experimenting, and you’re no closer to being that performing musician. Whereas in the first example, maybe you’ve already gone up on stage in front of others.

2) Instead of making 5-year plans, consider your 5-year character. We can’t predict the things that will happen in five years. There are way too many wildcards, and life would be boring if you could. What IS worth thinking about, and working toward, is the kind of person you want to be. The character traits you’d like to develop.

Is your five-year-from-now self more courageous? More emotionally expressive? More organized? Honorable? Forthright? Energetic? Fun? Creative?‌ Intuitive? Self-sufficient? Loving?‌ Kind?

Sometimes opportunities arise that allow us to upgrade our character. Perhaps you go through a devastating experience that ends up making you a more compassionate person. Perhaps an experience with being swindled makes you develop more honesty in your own character.

Even though we can’t control the things that happen to us, we can control what happens within us. The kind of person we are right now, and the kind of person we become.

Taking action now on those crazy-exciting ideas is going to make your life immediately better – no waiting for five years. And thinking about how you might improve your character is also something that can happen today.

Who is the person you want to become, and how can you be more like that person right now?