If you say “I will do this”, you sabotage yourself. What really works is to say, “Will I do this?”
— Ran Prieur on the Willpower Paradox

I grew up in the heartland of planning. The hype surrounding those ceaselessly promoted Five Year Plans hung heavy in the very air I breathed. So when I fledged and left the nest, I planned. It was enjoyable then, the dreaming and scheming, but somehow it never got me to those lovely goals. That puzzled and disturbed me. Mostly, I blamed myself. Eventually, though, I matured into a heroic planning push. For two and a half years, I used a closely followed planning process to get me — late bloomer that I was — through college. It worked extremely well. Hey, I thought, it was just a matter of time, I finally learned how to do this! Now it can see me through the rest of my life!

And I tried, oh did I ever. And the harder I tried, the more my inner self balked. Eventually, I got to a place where the very thought of planning made me… unwell. My head simply refused to look yet again at the larger picture, refused to painstakingly envision my goals and destinations, refused to be herded by the drill sergeant-like presence of lists and tasks. I started having nightmares of interminable train trips where invariably I lose my baggage, meander off after it, and never discover wherever it is I am going. You figure my subconscious was sending me a hint?!

I used to muse about my ‘inner slave driver,’ desperately wishing I could liberate myself and not having a clue how. Well, in the absence of alternatives, I “liberated” myself by falling off the wagon almost entirely. My inner self went on strike, and my day-to-day life suffered. I forgot commitments, lost my day-runners, and accumulated ‘to do’ lists in dusty, carefully ignored piles. For a decade, I oscillated between refusal to do any planning and systematic doing, and desperate periods when the taskmaster gained an upper hand. I would run around trying to regain ground previously lost, getting a lot of stuff done but never catching up, then fall off the wagon once again, miserable, loathing all that stress and unpleasantness and feeling of futility.

Then, I went through a long period of chronic and acute illnesses, and mostly just stopped trying to cope at all, only doing what truly needed doing for survival’s sake, and letting the rest fall by the wayside. But lo and behold, I did not die, and a couple of years ago I gave some thought to the daunting prospect for having a life again. And I reasoned that either I must find an alternative, or it’s time to throw in the towel and go back to the taskmaster.

Perhaps my illness really gave me a gift. It gave me permission to be entirely self-determined and autonomous. It gave me a chance to let go, and see if something new would emerge in place of the old dysfunction. The cancer illness gave me the opportunity to heal my planning sickness? What a strange unfolding. Realizing this a year ago, I belatedly voiced appreciation to my own deep self that “we” (the multivoiced self that I am) finally did demote the slave driver. We’d become refuseniks of the planning mode, of all that drives modern people to run the treadmill. We suffered for it, as all refuseniks must. We paid the price. We understand that to mercilessly drive one’s own self is neither self-respecting nor a good example to others. So what now?

I pleaded with the universe to show me another way. Ask, and it shall be given. Over the last few months, I have finally come across and partially internalized another way of doing things. I call it unplanning. I am writing this in the conviction that I am not the only one who has dealt with the problem of counterproductive goal-setting. And I see evidence that politics, businesses and many other areas of life have been damaged — not helped — by the rise of the rational, technocratic planning. Wouldn’t heartlessness toward the self directly translate into heartlessness in the public square?

Did you know that those astonishing medieval cathedrals were built in the utter absence of a planning process? The builders, craftspeople and pious volunteers had no blueprints, no final design. They started with a prayerful dream and good skills, and let the edifice emerge. They tried bold things. Sometimes, they had to backtrack, or stop the project, only returning to it when understanding grew. The beauty and daring they infused into those soaring structures endures to this day.

It turns out that the builders of the Empire State Building in New York did not exactly follow a plan either. They did not even have a design when they started! Yet they finished the building in 19 months and under budget, not unusual in those days. This intuitive building process that relied on trusted experiential knowledge was trampled in the rush toward modernity. Instrumental rationality preened itself as the replacement for all that was old fashioned, all that quaint reliance on off-the-cuff, fuzzy local rules and traditional hands-on skills.

Planning has failed me personally. But my thesis is larger: planning — that imperious child of overweening rationality and pencil-pusherdom — has failed us all. I suspect that the many problems of human-crafted, urbanized environments — depressing architecture, alienating neighborhood layouts, user-hostile design, or especially the failure to provide for a livable future — have been made worse by a reliance on the planning process. As architect Christopher Alexander, who has been trying to conceptualize a different way in his many books, writes:

Eliminating the plan is not a call for chaos. Rather it is an attempt to overcome the difficulties inherent in this way of ordering the environment: the impossibility of making accurate predictions about the future needs and resources; the ignorance of the more minute relationships between places [and people] which are not prescribed in the plan; the insensitivity of the plan to the ongoing needs of users, and the alienating quality of the plan as an administrative device.

I have come to see planning as a way to colonize and dominate the future. It’s yesterday dictating today. It’s an example of instrumental reason, like Orwell’s pigs, grabbing the master’s spot. I invite you to come with me on an exploration of alternatives.

In a mechanistic view of the world, we see all things, even if only for convenience, as machines. A machine is intended to accomplish something. It is, in its essence, goal-oriented. Like machines, then, within the mechanistic view processes are always seen as aimed at certain ends. We think of things by the end-state we want, and then ask ourselves how to get there.

This mistake was widespread in the 20th century. For example, in the extreme 20th century view of some mechanistic sociology, even kindness might have been seen as a way of achieving certain results: part of a bargain, or a social contract, which had the purpose of getting something.

Real kindness is something quite different, something valuable in itself. It is a true process, not guided by the grasp for a goal, but by the minute-to-minute necessity of caring, dynamically, for the feelings and well-being of another. This is not trivial, but deep; sincerely related to human feeling; and not predictable in its end-result, because the end result is not a goal.

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