Why planning helps your mental health

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A mindful life can also include planning. Photo by Roman Bozhko on Unsplash

Planning sometimes gets a bad name.  Some people associate it with a lack of spontaneity, an inability to roll with the waves.  We are all supposed to live in a free and easy way, without bothering to plan the future.  Live in the present, the argument goes, rather than planning for the future.

Certainly there is justification for learning the art of presence, the art of being in the present moment.  But, equally, presence can include planning.  Indeed, if we did not allow for planning, we would be excluding at least two experiences from the present moment – the experience of structure, and the experience of future.

THE EXPERIENCE OF STRUCTURE

Planning is, in part, the imposition of structured intention onto our days.  Instead of just winging it as we go along, we decide to shape our future in certain directions.

This structure usually has two aspects:

  1. A closed system
  2. A chosen direction
This may seem unduly simple, but it is important to recognise that no one can plan without those two things.  We have to reduce our world to a manageable size, and then choose which direction we want to go in.

For an anxious person, this can have a beneficial effect.  When the world seems large, a plan can reduce it to something conceptually manageable.  And when it seems messy, choosing a direction gives us a journey to make, which can reduce uncertainty and indecision.

THE EXPERIENCE OF FUTURE

Planning is also, in part, the deliberate contemplation of the future.  Instead of hiding from it, we let our imaginations live in it for a while.

Again, for an anxious person, this can have benefits.  When the future seems hard to think about, spending some time there can, ironically, reduce the difficulty and fear.  Instead of worrying about all sorts of possibilities, we can gain a bit of focus and perspective.  For instance, a person who sees no future for themselves can realise that:

  1. Everyone dies in the end (although morbid, this can take the edge off a sense of personal missed opportunities)
  2. There are a few things to hope for (even if the future is generally bleak, many people can find a few things to look forward to)
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A MEDITATION

Am I anxious about the future?  Does life seem big and messy, daunting and confusing?  Do I hide from thinking about the future sometimes?  Does the rest of life seem bleak?  Do I feel guilty because of missed opportunities?

Perhaps making a few plans could reduce my anxiety.  Perhaps it would reduce the world to a more manageable size in my mind.  Perhaps a bit of direction would stop me feeling so chaotic.  Perhaps contemplating that we all have a finite life span will help – at least I know all humans are in the same boat.  And perhaps I can find one or two future things to hope for, to give me a little motivation, something to look forward to.

I can be in the present moment, but also, sometimes, be contemplating the future.

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