MAKING PLANS IS BASICALLY A THING OF THE PAST, BUT THERE ARE WAYS TO DEAL.

How do you make plans when it’s impossible to make plans?

The ground beneath our feet is constantly shifting. Planning for anything more than a week out can feel futile — almost silly — since no one knows what the next week, much less the next month, will bring. A surge in coronavirus cases in your area? More lockdowns? Worrying about natural disasters? And concerns about health and financial well-being make matters even worse.


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“The questions are endless. And the answers are always changing,” said Nick Tasler, an organizational psychologist and the author of “Ricochet: What To Do When Change Happens To You.”

“One day the W.H.O. recommends this, and the next day the C.D.C. recommends something else,” Mr. Tasler said. “One day the economy is opening back up. A week later it’s closing back down.

“And all of this changes not just day-by-day, but country-by-country, state-by-state.”

It’s enough to frazzle anyone.

Knowing how to react when our plans fail, according to experts, is essential for recalibrating. Fortunately, there are strategies we can take that can help us cope when life resembles an endless stream of curveballs.

Overcome mental barriers

During a setback, it’s easy to get stuck in feelings of panic and disappointment. One of the most psychologically jarring things for many of us right now, Mr. Tasler said, is the radical upheaval to our daily routines.

“Many of us had already made pre-decisions that determined how we spend the majority of every day — what time we wake up, what we wear to work, what time we go to work, where we eat lunch, etc.,” he explained. “Now, suddenly, all those pre-decisions have had to be made anew.”

But the key to mental agility and not falling into an anxiety spiral, Mr. Tasler said, is to remind ourselves that it’s OK to switch gears. One way to achieve this mind-set shift is to use a technique called temporal distancing, which is like having access to your own personal mental time machine where you can transcend the here-and-now and visualize the future. Mr. Tasler suggests closing your eyes and asking yourself: “In 10 years, how will I want to remember telling the story of how I responded to this crisis?”

Dr. Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science, medicine and public health at the University of California, Irvine, agreed that focusing on the future rather than the past is what ultimately helps us cope with difficult experiences.

“Many people throughout their lives encounter adversity that doesn’t go their way or is unexpected,” she said. “And when people successfully navigate these new life adversities, they are likely to learn things about themselves they didn’t realize.”

This is not to diminish the very real feelings of disappointment and angst we all experience after a setback — especially when we’ve invested emotional and financial resources. But if we can approach our failed plans with a sense of our own resilience, we’re better able to overcome these challenges.

Don’t underestimate your ability to adapt

Those of us who are serial planners often get stuck in rehashing our losses, rather than trust in our capacity to find new solutions. But operating from a place of fear doesn’t allow us to tap into our full cognitive abilities, said Margie Warrell, a leadership expert and the author of “You’ve Got This!: The Life-Changing Power of Trusting Yourself.”

This mind-set also “undermines the quality of our decision making, stifles our creativity and impairs our ability to take the most constructive actions we have within us to take,” she added.

If we’re stubbornly clinging to canceled plans, for instance, then we aren’t leaving room for new possibilities to unfold.

“Right now, people are dealing with immense uncertainty, but the truth is, we’ve never really had certainty,” Ms. Warrell said. “We just thought we did. That was an illusion.”

When something changes, our mind goes into battle arguing against that change, because we’re wired to crave comfort and certainty, she said, adding that we can override that impulse “by trusting in our innate capacity to handle change and adapt to new situations.”

Instead of getting stuck in a thought-loop of what could have been, Ms. Warrell recommends we “zoom up” and look at what’s going on around us through a larger lens.

“Was it really realistic that your plans should have fallen into place just as you wanted?” she said. “I’ve learned that what is outside our control is teaching us a lesson on letting go of our attachment to how we think things should be.”

The bottom line: A big part of stretching our mental flexibility comes down to accepting that what we thought we knew was unknowable to begin with.

“Once we decide to accept that reality — scary as it might seem — most people find it to actually be liberating,” Mr. Tasler said. “Accepting the reality of what we can’t control sets our minds free to explore the possibilities of what we can control.”

Take action, no matter how small

When faced with unexpected change, taking immediate steps to improve our situation can help us quickly switch gears. “The key is to start almost stupidly small,” Mr. Tasler said. “Pick something that is so easy and so certain to be accomplished that it’s almost comical.”

A strategy he recommends is to approach your planning the way a scientist would: by conducting small experiments. For example: “If your plan consists of only online grocery shopping from a particular store this month, but you find that there are things you need at another store, then you still won because you invalidated the hypothesis that suggested you only need one store,” he said, adding you can apply this principle to other areas of your life, like work and exercise.

The idea isn’t that any of these small acts will solve your problem, “but they will start the psychological snowball rolling in your mind, steadily restoring your sense of agency, and rekindling that belief that what you do matters,” Mr. Tasler said.

He added: “Over a short period of time your mental state changes and you’re ready to tackle the bigger, more meaningful challenges.”

While it can feel like our options are limited, we can still get more comfortable taking the next step and adjusting if needed. “Don’t wait until you are sure what the future holds until you make a new plan,” Ms. Warrell urged.

“It’s important to be decisive amid the uncertainty, ambiguity and volatility of this time,” she said. “So make your plan and take action, but then be brave enough to quickly change course as the situation changes from what you had planned on.”

Reframe your situation

Many of us set intentions and made assumptions at the beginning of the year and were devastated when the majority of these plans fell apart. But according to experts, changing the way we view these experiences can help us focus on growth.

“Reframing unexpected change is saying, ‘I can learn from this and hopefully my future will be better from it,’” said Benjamin Hardy, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist and the author of “Personality Isn’t Permanent: Break Free from Self-Limiting Beliefs and Rewrite Your Story.”

It also helps to know this is happening to every person in the world.

For Charlie Gilkey, a productivity coach and the author of “Start Finishing: How to Go From Idea to Done,” “The grace that we all have right now is that everybody’s timelines are messed up.”

“This is the very best time to practice proactive communication, to practice updating our plans and having a flexible mind-set,” he said.

Another strategy to cope with the constant shifting of our lives is to embrace the psychological concept of hardiness, or “transformational coping,” which teaches us to perceive stressful life events less as threats and more as opportunities for personal development.

Choosing courage over our sense of powerlessness is what ultimately helps us cope with sudden change, and allows us to foster more empathy and meaning.

“While there is no denying the heartache and hardship of this turbulent time, it’s important to be intentional to look at ways we can transform it into a powerful catalyst for transformational change,” Ms Warrell said.

And no matter our situation, Mr. Tasler said, we can always stop and take a beat to ask ourselves: “Do I want to tell the story of my fear? Or do I want to tell the story of my strength of character? And what does that mean for how I spend today?”

Mr. Tasler added that reminding ourselves of the lessons we’ve learned from past runs of bad luck can help us cope with whatever curveballs are thrown our way in the future.

“We will remember that the way we triumphed and grew and became stronger in the past periods was not by having a perfectly scripted plan with perfect knowledge of the future,” he said, “but instead by making one decision at a time.”

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Sean McClay
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STM Asset Management
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