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The Planning Trap

A Personal Perspective: The perfect future doesn’t exist.

Unsplash/Drew Beamer
Source: Unsplash/Drew Beamer

Every morning, I burst out of bed with energy and anxiety. Immediately, I wake up and begin fixing and solving. I map and calculate and problem-solve and plan. And plan. And plan. Oh, the planning.

It's like a compulsion, a need to plan and tweak everything in my life. I walk to the kitchen, and consult the two dry-erase boards and one electronic family calendar, my paper planner, my work calendar, and my personal Google calendar. I march around, giving my children orders to get them closer to leaving the house for school. I mentally note all the things that seem imperative to do the minute they've left the house.

The burst of anxiety–I mean, planning—doesn't stop there. As soon as everyone has gone to school and work, my mind pokes me relentlessly about that yoga teacher training I still need to finish, those CEUs I wanted to sign up for to learn "The Next Greatest Therapy Technique" or the "Alpha Omega Theory of Personality" that will change my professional thinking. The vacation we were supposed to take. The constant dream I have of holing up in a mildew-soaked, wood-paneled room and reading every single book on my list.

For a moment, it's invigorating. I can do this. I can do all of this!

Then a few hours go by.

I'm still over here fiddling with a blog post draft I've been revising since last May. I'm responding to funny texts. I'm getting sucked into laundry and dishes. Eventually, I'm watching TV or listening to a podcast again, or I'm just sitting in my living room staring at the things that should have been done by now. I'm hit with the pain of what feels like inertia, which spreads beyond this house and into my sense of self: I'm lazy, selfish, and worthless. I can't do anything right–or at all. I'm a total failure.

Back on the horse tomorrow, I think. It will all be good, tomorrow.

It Doesn't Work Like That

I know it's not just me; I think we all have this fantasy that if we just make a few adjustments, everything will magically become easier.

When I lose weight, I will feel more confident. When I write a second book, I will feel like a real author. When my kids stop waking me up with tantrums, I will have inner peace again. If we move to that beautiful mountain city, we'll become camping people. When I get a better-fitting job, I will feel authentic. When X, then and only then, I will have true worth. I will belong. I will never feel sad. And everyone will know how good I am and love me for it.

Anyone who's accomplished a few things on that list knows that's not how it works. No matter how much we try to perfect our lives, there will always be challenges and obstacles to overcome. (I hate even typing that because I so badly want to believe it's not true!) By constantly chasing this fantasy of a perfect life, some part of us knows that we're setting ourselves up for disappointment and frustration.

The Naked Now

The future is sexy. The future is somewhere we want to be as quickly as possible. It's full of all the things we aren't, can't, and don't have. It's a booming utopia of pleasure and meaning, and hope.

By contrast, the naked now seems dull, even hellish at times. Like something we crave an escape from, something that twists and tugs at our heartstrings, telling us it’s not good enough. We’re not good enough. Nothing will ever be good enough.

Now, I have read many, many, many self-help books. I'm like an encyclopedia of guru-speak at this point. I'm not knocking you for trying.

But the authors, thinkers, and artists I've enjoyed the most in the past few months have resonated deeply because they have called for the abandonment of such treadmill living. They have focused on awareness, the present moment, and, most recently, the sanctity of the mundane. Even of the obscene. Mark Epstein, Fr. Richard Rohr, Carl Jung, Robyn Walser, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Bob Edelstein, and Pema Chodron, to name a few: They all know the dangers of looking to the future not with hope but with expectancy. They remind me that the sweet, sweet dopamine hit that comes from idealizing and imagining a perfect future is fleeting. They remind me that everything is here and now and is all part of living.

The parts of the world I'm frustrated with? They're part of it. The parts of me I hate? They're part of me. The people I can't stand are part of me, too.

When I widen my lens and look not for the positives, not for the silver linings, but for the sometimes harsh but always honest reality of what is actually in front of me, I can breathe again.

With some space and distance, I can acknowledge that all-too-human tendency to look for the next problem to solve, to want more, and watch my mind cry a little as I take zero steps toward my goals. I can give myself a rest day. I can celebrate the uniqueness of being. And I can put down the heavy load of striving, striving, striving for a lighter one of noticing.

Without the focus on everything that needs improvement, it's a little easier to smile at myself and giggle as I think, "There I go again!" and walk away. I can sit quietly and let the dishes be dirty, let the books go unwritten, and bloom exactly where I'm planted. Right now.


Energy and dopamine hits are wonderful when I've got taxes to do or kids to taxi around. Steps and formulae are great for math problems. Of course, motivation has its place, and growth is something to celebrate. But I've come to realize that growth and improvement are not the only paths to happiness and fulfillment. Sometimes, the greatest joys can be found in simply being present, appreciating what we have, and accepting ourselves and our lives just as they are.

The here and now might not always be perfect, but it's real, and it's where we can find true joy and contentment.

It's not always easy to stay in the moment, but it's worth striving for.

More from Julia Englund Strait Ph.D.
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