Why You Should Burn Your Five-Year Plan Right Now

Many productivity gurus urge you to create a five-year plan. But is a 5-year plan really necessary? And can it actually hurt you in the long-run?

You can never plan the future by the past.

Edmund Burke, Irish statesman.

Agility is your ability to respond to change.

Five year plan

The pace of technological change is only increasing. That means your career and your lifestyle are becoming more and more vulnerable to disruption. In this brave new world, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances is the single most important skill for designing the lifestyle you want.

In the Industrial Age, you could spend a third of your life in school learning to obey instructions. You could clock in at a single profession for forty years, and then retire with a fat pension.

In other words, you could design your life plan sometime in your early or mid-twenties. Then you could ride that plan for the next sixty-odd years until your death.

It sounds great, except this set of circumstances only existed for some people. It was a nice fiction that convinced millions of people to defer their dreams and go into debt for college. All for the illusion of security.

But today, the 9 to 5 fiction is more dangerous than it’s ever been before. Technology is disrupting entire industries and professions every year. The internet and an increasingly interconnected global community are making low-value jobs no longer viable.

Yet, we still make these ridiculous five-year plans like we have any chance at all of executing them.

Why I don’t plan ahead further than a year

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

Mike Tyson, champion boxer.

Millions of people and businesses must either a) be clairvoyant or b) have access to their own personal Nostradamuses. Why must this be the case?

Because everyone has a plan. A three-year plan, a five-year plan, and a ten-year plan. A lengthy, detailed, and non-ironic exercise in writing about the future.

Too bad not one of those plans will turn out to be right. They might get one or two things right, like a future financial position or market condition. But what these plans get right will be almost by pure accident. A broken clock can be right twice a day.

No one can tell the future. Let’s stop kidding ourselves.

Fifteen years ago, dot-coms were all the rage while most people were still getting on the internet through dial-up modems and Napster was going to revolutionize the music industry.

Ten years ago, the housing market had nowhere to go but up and almost no one owned a smartphone.

Five years ago, the Euro was going to be the currency of the future and Twitter was a punchline on late night comedy.

What do we know for sure today that will be invalidated five years from now?

Or ten?

When people and businesses write down their five-year plans, it’s to feel in control of a world that is rapidly changing. It’s not a serious exercise in predicting the future.

In The Origin and Evolution of New Businesses, Professor Amar V. Bhide demonstrated that 93% of all successful companies had to abandon their original plans because their first assumptions and projections turned out to be wrong.

Bhide’s conclusion was that successful companies succeed in spite of their initial plans, not because of them. The key was that they survived long enough to pivot from their initial bad plan to a viable one.

Having worked in corporate America, I know most five-year profit projections are pulled out of an MBA’s ass 30 minutes before the presentation. I’ve sat in the meetings where they were pulled out, and they were not pretty. It doesn’t surprise me that this type of planning turns out to be a mug’s game.

Will your profession even exist in five years?

If you were a travel agent circa 1995, you probably had no reason to say no to this question. People were only getting richer after all, and they wanted to use that surplus income to travel.

With the benefit of hindsight, we all know what happened next: Orbitz, Expedia, Kayak, and others removed the travel agent from the process of booking flights and hotels. It turned out that the main value that the travel agent contributed could be done better by a computer with an internet connection.

Within 5 years, travel agencies began to feel the pinch. Within 10, travel agents lost their jobs in droves. 15 years later, being a travel agent is a punchline on 30 Rock.

So burn your 5-year plan right now. It is nonsense. You can’t predict what’s going to happen in five years. I won’t even argue the ridiculousness of 10-year and 15-year plans.

Instead, adopt agility into your mindset and your lifestyle. Rethink your objectives every few months. Fail quicker. Fail smarter. Iterate your lifestyle. Keep what works for you and discard the rest.

Do not accept the rigidity of a five-year plan. In fact, executing that five-year plan to perfection can be the worst of all worlds. It means you missed out on all the new opportunities you couldn’t have anticipated five years ago.

Five-year plans create rigidity

Welcome changing requirements, even late in
development. Agile processes harness change for
the customer’s competitive advantage.

- The Agile Manifesto.

The problem with planning so far out is you lose agility. Your mindset becomes about sticking with the plan above all else, even when better opportunities come your way.

Plans also stand in the way of iteration. How can you abandon your lengthy, detailed five-year plan after one year into the project? That’s difficult for most.

Planning so far out exercises the sunk cost fallacy part of your brain, the defective part of the operating system of your imperfectly evolved brain. You do not want to throw good effort after bad, but a big, long-range plan encourages that very activity.

I do not plan more than one year at a time. And even my one-year plans are nothing more than guesswork that I can revise without hesitation.

Not having a 5-year plan gives me the mental flexibility to get on a plane next year, next month, or next week to Sydney or Zurich or Beijing. Whichever is the right play for me at that time. I don’t know. Nobody knows. But I will be ready for disruptive change.

Staying flexible, being open to experimentation, and building time for self-reflection and feedback are far more important than trying to figure out every single contingency in advance. Because guess what? No plan survives contact with reality anyway.

Overplanning saps motivation

Career coach Aaron Morton, writing for productivity and lifestyle blog Dumb Little Man, makes an interesting point about planning, specifically the 5-year plan:

When you don’t feel motivated it simply means that the thought of what you are intending to do is not compelling enough for you to move …

This occurs frequently if the outcome you are working towards is far into the future (5 year plan, what?)

Motivation is a fragile thing.

Writers who outline too much before writing know what Morton is talking about. Sometimes the act of mapping out everything in detail beforehand kills the variety and discovery that comes through actual execution.

Bestselling author Dean Wesley Smith has conducted an incredible experiment in public transparency. He’s written a 70,000 word “ghost” novel in 10 days, all without an outline or even a very clear idea of where he was headed beforehand, and logged the process in real time on his blog.

Here was a response by Dean to a question about his organization tools:

I have a glossary of terms and what characters are wearing scratched on a note pad beside the computer. That’s it.

Sounds, from the comments, that many of you spend far, far too much time being organized and doing research and that sort of thing when you could be writing.

Dean’s emphasis on execution above planning is extreme. But after 10 days, he has a novel that will be published by a major book publisher. That’s more published writing in 10 days than any of us will likely do in our lifetimes.

So given the choice, would you rather spend the next week planning what you’re going to do?

Or doing what you’re going to do?

Commitment still matters

Supporters of creating a 5-year plan argue that success requires commitment. Setting and achieving goals is an important ingredient of success. People who operate without a plan are prone to aimless wandering, this thinking goes.

I agree that commitment is important. But few goals that are set 5 years in advance are achievable or even desirable. It’s a mistake to think that it’s possible to know what your priorities will be in 2018. It only sets you up for disappointment.

Instead, a commitment to continuous planning is a better method of productivity in an age that requires personal agility. Set the destination and initial direction, and commit to course-correcting along the way.

The flip-side of relying too much on a five-year plan is the problem of analysis paralysis: How do you get started when the task seems so daunting?

Starting now is always the right decision

There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting.

- The Buddha

Let’s all agree to stop this fetish we have with long-term planning.

Long-term planning is rigid. Long-term planning is not responsive to new opportunities or new technologies. Long-term planning is not agile.

Instead, let’s resolve to start more. Start new businesses. Start new projects. Start new works of creativity.

And the best time to start anything is right now.

You can hang out forever in analysis paralysis land. Believe me, I know. I’d been wanting to start a blog for more than three years. I could have stayed in that state of doing nothing forever, never starting anything.

But I finally opened up a blank Word document and started writing a year ago.

  • Maybe you’ve been thinking about starting your own consulting practice? Well, now is the time to hang out your shingle and see if you can attract clients.
  • Maybe you’ve been thinking about producing music? Well, now is the time to get that guitar out of its case and practice some chords.
  • Maybe you’ve been thinking about publishing that novel that’s been sitting on your hard drive? Well, now is the time to dust off that manuscript and hire an editor.

You will never anticipate every contingency. You cannot outguess the future.

What you can do instead is resolve to start, reflect on the initial results, give yourself feedback, and course-correct as you go. That is the essence of living agile.

Plans are easy, starting is hard. And it does not get any easier the longer you wait. So start now.

Image by blmurch.