The Psychological Benefit of Not Planning

By Nat Eliason in Productivity

Published or Updated on Jul 31, 2017

A few weeks ago, I was stranded on a mountain in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Cosette and I had visited Doi Suthep, and on the way back down the mountain, asked our mini-bus driver to drop us off at Wat Pha Lat on the recommendation of a couple friends who had visited before.

It was well worth the stop. Wat Pha Lat was more beautiful, tranquil, and impressing than the much-hyped Doi Suthep, and was largely ignored by other tourists. We saw fewer than 10 other people during the hour we were there. 

As we left, we ran into a problem. We had asked our driver to drop us there, but it was a shared taxi so he had continued on to drop off the rest of our group. This temple was ignored by most tourists, so there wasn’t the normal line of taxis fighting to pick up each passing visitor. And, there was no city or outpost for a mile.

We were stuck.

We stood by the side of the road and tried to wave down passing taxis, but after the first five waved us off, we gave up and started walking down the mountain. We knew there was a zoo and small town a mile away, so worst case scenario, we’d arrive there and find another taxi.

Fifteen minutes of walking and waving wads of Baht at passing cars later, one finally pulled over and picked us up after a bit of hand-waving negotiation.

While we were riding down the mountain, it occurred to me that there’s something less stressful about improvising in this way. Yes, we got stranded and had to wait for a ride, but we didn’t have any expectation of immediate service. If we had scheduled a car to pick us up and had to wait for it, we would have been disappointed by the wait, but by having no expectation of a ride, we were never upset about the wait. It was an adventure, with its own suspense as to if anyone would pick us up before we got to the zoo.

It made me realize there’s psychological value to not having a plan and to playing as much of your trip by ear as possible. When we visited the main temples of Chiang Mai, we made a list of the 3-4 we wanted to see and made it up as we went. There was no schedule, only an order, and it felt much less stressful than on trips where you’re getting in and out of the same van trying to keep to a plan.

The question then is where else can you apply this? I’ve noticed for my work that I much prefer operating on an order than a schedule. It allows for finishing things quickly, or getting into flow and spending much longer on them.

But there are also other, subtler ways you could use it. Go to the grocery store and see what’s fresh, then find a recipe to fit your ingredients. Come up with a few possible stops for a date night, then improvise within that list based on how it’s going. Open up a number of potential article drafts, then write the one that feels the most natural at that time. In each case, you focus on creating options instead of obligations that can create frustrations and sunk costs.

Disappointment usually comes out of expectations and rigidity. But by ditching the plan and letting serendipity, personal interest, and, for lack of a better term, fate decide how it plays out, you can create a more enjoyable and natural experience.


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