Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Can the Plan? Why 5-Year Plans & a Pandemic May Not Mix – & What We Can Do Instead

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Can we plan at all during these Covid years, let alone create 5-year plans? Sarah Lang tries to see around the corner.

We’ve all (or most of us have) been in that job interview where a prospective employer asks ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’. They’re likely trying to gauge how well this job fits with your career aspirations, or whether you’re going to bail in a year. We have our prepared answers, usually pointing to our willingness and ability to excel at said job, and perhaps to progress toward promotion. (Best not to say ‘I want your job once you quit,’ though.)

And we’ve all heard of a five-year plan, right? It’s where you write where you want to be in five years, and work backwards from that, setting goals to reach at specific times. It’s the kind of thing you might think about looking into, but you don’t because, well, life happens and the laundry needs doing.

Write a five-year plan? Unlikely, given I don’t even write to-do lists. I’m just not a planner. Heck, I can’t even plan what’s for dinner some nights (I HATE meal planning). But I’m lucky that I’m happy where I am in my career (though, PSA, don’t go into journalism for the money). However, I should probably plan my finances past next week’s sale at Augustine.

A former flatmate of mine had a five-year plan on her wall. At the one-year mark, she had ‘stop flatting’ (as in, get her own place) and ‘lose five kilos’. At the two-year mark, she had ‘get a promotion’ and ‘meet a man’. At the three-year mark, she had ‘travel to at least two countries’. At four years, she had ‘get a better job with a bigger salary’ and ‘buy a house’. At the five-year mark, she had ‘have a child’.

Guess what? She actually hit all these goals – yes, really. And genuinely, yay for her. But also, it’s not that straight-forward for most of us. What’s the saying? Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

Writer Ruth Dawkins used used to use Susannah Conway’s Unravelling the Year workbook every December. “That included the space to do a plan for one, five, even 10 years ahead. I used to find it quite helpful for articulating ambitions, but since the pandemic started I haven’t done one. It just feels impossible at the moment to plan ahead with any kind of certainty, and it’s more disheartening to set goals that don’t feel achievable.”

We hear you on that. None of us can predict when we’ll get Covid (the first time or – ARGH – the second time), whether the job we want will even exist in a few years, whether we’ll wear lippy again (lipstick sales are down because of masks), and what the looming recession might mean for us, etc. Trying to see years down the road may seem futile, even foolish, in such uncontrollable times.

Sometimes, five-or-more-year planners are people who wish to control things, otherwise they feel ‘at sea’. Some may qualify as ‘control freaks’: people obsessed with getting certain things done a certain way at a certain time, and who get upset when things don’t happen that way. That’s often not healthy given much in life is beyond our control.

A friend’s ex-boyfriend, who was very rigid about what should happen and when, had a five-year plan. “He had this big wall chart – a mind map – of everything he wanted to achieve, so it was always confronting him,” my friend tells me. “He had ‘go to Africa’ on there. He should probably have had ‘move out of my dad’s house’ first!”

He pushed her to make a five-year plan, but she just wrote “go to the U.S” and declined his suggestion to put it on her wall. “I threw it away.” Now, he no longer works in sales, but works at a camera store, which my friend says definitely wasn’t in his plan.

The 5 Year Plan – But Why?

Five years seem to be the favoured number of years for such plans, likely because it feels not that far away but also far away enough to get us cracking on with our goals. There are life coaches who specifically focus on five-year plans. There’s even a book on this topic: The 5 Year Plan: Helping You Do What You Have Always Wanted To Do by James Mills.

Melody Wilding, an author, career coach for high-achievers and human-behaviour professor, has written the Covid-era article ‘Your 5-Year Plan Is Useless: Here’s What To Do Instead’.

Melody says “the idea of a five-year plan is so popular because it promises certainty. That if we follow a linear path to success, happiness will follow. But trying to predict the future is a losing battle. It’s impossible to know what your priorities will be a few years from now, let alone the opportunities you’ll be presented with.”

“In my coaching practice, I see how a rigid fixation on planning your future can backfire, closing you off from important opportunities to grow.” So actually, paradoxically, you can get stuck. Instead, Melanie recommends not five-year plans, but one-year plans with goals to reach every month or quarter.

Anyone heard of ‘whole of life’ plans? An acquaintance of mine recently mentioned that she was planning to plan one. I thought, great, but also, what? Yes, this is a thing. Simon Jarvis, a designer and data scientist, wrote a 70-Year Plan when he was 20 (reaching 90 may sound optimistic but he’s a cyclist and runner, so sure). Read about it here. Yes, it’s making my brain hurt too.

Me? I might consider planning to plan – or consider planning to plan to plan – at some point, except TBH that probably won’t happen. I’m ok with not seeing too far down the road. But if you can, great. It’s whatever approach works best for you.

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