The autoimmunity of planning

I am a very routine-oriented person whom life rarely allows to fall into a stable routine. I compensate for this by planning. Planning is central to my strategy for overcoming my travel anxiety, for instance — if I spend enough time imagining myself on the trip, the steps required, the ideal things to pack (for me it’s a kind of game to pack the absolute bare minimum required), etc., then the trip becomes part of the plan, and suddenly not going on the trip is the disturbing break with routine.

Planning is also how I manage to get non-teaching work done during the semester. For me, the biggest obstacle is the sense that I shouldn’t even bother trying because I’ll never finish whatever I start. But if I plan it out, I’ll see that over three weeks if I spend Tuesday and Thursday afternoons I’ll get X done, and that can be almost as good — almost — as the monasticism of summer. With the time that remains in this semester, for instance, I’m currently thinking about how I can do revisions of the portions of my translation that I’ve already completed, draft at least one more section, revise the devil chapter I’ve done, and write at least one more chapter. There seem to be enough nooks and crannies in the semester that I’ll be able to do most of this.

The problem comes when I overdo it, when I invest too much intellectual energy in studying the calendar. At a certain point, I turn the corner and instead of enjoying a calming exercise in realizing how much time I (perhaps unexpectedly) have and how under control everything is, I begin treating the whole list of priorities as a single complexly articulated task — one that must be completed in toto before I can ever know rest or freedom again. This leads to self-undermining behavior as I attempt to get everything done much sooner than I need to, just to get it out of the way — things like trying to force myself to write when I’m drained from teaching, a pointless endeavor that results in no actual writing and significant stress and anxiety.

I know someone is going to come along and say I should learn to relax. I promise I do know how to relax. I almost never work evenings or weekends. Even at my most monastic, I take naps during the day, go for walks, watch some TV over lunch. I take days off, I indulge in TV marathons, I get drinks with friends. And you’re all familiar with how much time I spend dicking around online, which is not always relaxing but is mostly fun. You just don’t hear much about that side of things, because the first rule of relaxing is that you don’t elaborately plan out your relaxation. Nor is it the case that I experience all my goals as a huge burden — except when, as described above, my methods for juggling a variety of tasks backfire and produce what Derrida might call auto-immune effects. I’m enjoying my symptom for the most part.

Does any of this resonate with you, dear readers? Do you have your own bizarre strategies?

7 Responses to “The autoimmunity of planning”

  1. Hill Says:

    You and I have very similar tendencies, but you are much further along than I am in developing strategies and discipline to work within them. Really valuable advice and thoughts.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It may not be totally surprising to learn that the point of this post is to keep me from doing the “single complexly articulated task” thing.

  3. Kampen Says:

    Yep, sounds about right. And having the plan is what makes the spontaneous relaxation time possible. At least for me, not only do I not feel the need to plan what relaxed time will consist of, because the plan is so well thought out, there is actually flexibility built into it so that if something doesn’t go according to plan or one night I really don’t feel like doing xyz, I can spontaneously take relaxation time because I know the plan will still work out. Part of what allows for this is that with any deadline I create at least one (if not more) buffer zones by putting earlier due dates in place (which I do stick too – I don’t need the pressure of the real due date in order to work because I’m almost entirely internally motivated and external pressure of actual due dates usually make me less productive because more anxious) and then I have alternative ways of getting the work done should something unexpected come up.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m the same way with deadlines — my own are helpful, but external ones just drain the energy out of me.

  5. jcmindset Says:

    Very practical advice. Having a clear plan of everything I’m gonna do in a given amount of time is my best strategy to avoid stress. Thank you for sharing

  6. Adam Roberts Says:

    A long time ago I think I decided, without really thinking about it, that ‘just doing the thing’ was more more time efficient and satisfying than ‘planning the thing and then doing the thing’, For example, many writers carefully plot out their novels, timetable their writing time etc., where I just write mine. I figure the writing process is, amongst other things, a way of plotting out and timetabling, and that either way (planning + doing, or just doing) I’m going to end up spending the requisite time revising and correcting at the end. But this has serious downsides. One is that I’ve fallen into a work habit where I’m offered a gig (fiction writing, academic article, whatever), say yes and then either do it at once, or else shelve it and only get back to it when the deadline suddenly rears up and yells at me. As a result I very often work evenings and weekends, rarely relax, and — judging by what you write here — experience a much less satisfactory life-work balance than you. There’s always something pressing that needs doing, or so it seems.

  7. Adam Roberts Says:

    The plus side is that I am very productive: I publish a lot, both in terms of creative and academic writing. But sheer productivity is a pretty sterile marker of value.


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