‘What you need is a plan.’
It’s something we often hear when we’re a little lost or else when we set ourselves a goal.
It’s something I was told a lot. Particularly in my early 20s when I had dropped out of university and had no idea what I was going to do with myself. I was overwhelmed, panicked and drowning and being told to magic up a plan wasn’t helping.
Generally, there are two scenarios where people look to develop a plan. The first is when we have a goal already in mind and we need to lay down a path to get there. This form of planning stems from a need. We need to increase our income, we need to move house, we have decided to build our family or take care of people or even take better care of ourselves. When something is lacking it’s not hard to get to the 'making plans' stage.
The second form of planning is the one where we first must decide upon a goal and this one can be far trickier. This is what I wrestled with in my early 20s. It wasn’t that I was afraid of hard work or making decisions. In fact, I relished a good project. The issue was I had no idea what I wanted. So I went on autopilot. I did what many people do and resolved to take opportunities that came my way and allow the universe to unfold as it saw fit. That’s how I ended up building a career in marketing. I enjoyed it, so I got better at it, kept reaching for that next rung of the ladder and made plans as I went to bolster forward momentum.
This is how most of us progress through our lives. By doing the next right thing. Finding the weaknesses in our structure and repairing them then building bigger and building higher. The main goal is discovered during the journey. Sometimes it alters and sometimes it may change completely but there is often a sense that our goals have chosen us as much as we’ve decided upon them.
For a while, this all worked reasonably well. Along the road, I had to redirect myself somewhat and find new goals. For instance, when I became a single mother and an 8am-6pm working day wasn’t going to work for me anymore. Overall, I set my goals by balancing what was achievable and practical with what I thought I might also enjoy. Then everything fell apart. See my 2020 story to find out more.
Just under three years ago all the plans I’d made were suddenly redundant. I found myself with no goals and, consequently, no direction. It's not an understatement to say my thoughts were also paralysed. I was unable to think - I don't mean 'think clearly', I mean to think at all - because life was so turbulent and so chaotic. But also because all I could do was feel. There wasn’t enough space inside of me to both think and feel. After so many wrong decisions, making a new plan was also the absolute last thing I wanted to do. So, since I couldn’t think I let myself feel. I stopped planning and went back to dreaming.
You see, I was always a daydreamer. An 'away-with-the-faries' child. One who loved long car journeys for the opportunity to stare out of the window and imagine. I’m a storyteller too, or maybe more accurately, a story creator. I’ve conjured so many stories in my head that never make it to paper. So when we went into lockdown and I needed a new career and a new life, I headed for the hills - in a good way. Out in the countryside, where the world appears so much larger, there was space for dreams. I reached into my imagination and felt my way through. For what felt right, what felt uncomfortable, what felt exciting. If I could write the story of my life, I thought, what would it contain? What would it look and feel like?
The life I have now is what I imagined for myself then and for the first time, I’ve never questioned if I was headed in the right direction, because it has always felt right.
Of course, dreaming without making plans is just wishing. It’s no good knowing where you want to be without having some directions to help you get there. What is often lost when we focus on goals though, is the enjoyment of the journey. Blending plans and dreams means imagining every stage of the journey - what it will look like, how you might feel and the impact your achievements will have. I imagined falling on my face a few times, which was useful because it happened. Fortunately, none of it was as bad as I’d imagined but even the worst-case scenarios were important to visualise because until I’d done that I couldn’t be sure I was going to be brave enough to move forward. I wouldn’t have known that not relentlessly pursuing my dreams would doubtlessly feel worse. The scenario in which I settled, took safer routes and made myself and my desires smaller, appeared the riskier path.
The idea of dreaming being an aid or even driver to planning is backed up by science too. Where once daydreaming was considered a respite for the functional mind, science now believes that this act of mind-wandering serves multiple fruitful purposes. Our brains are engaged when using the Executive Network, a communication system operating between core parts of the Frontoparietal areas, responsible for core cognitive functions, problem-solving and decision-making. When this part of the brain is not in full flow we switch to the Default Mode Network, aptly named since this is the part of the brain that kicks in when we daydream. It is the place where we revisit memories, envisage our hopes for the future and even develop our social skills. As daydreaming enables us to play out scenarios, it is thought that using this technique strengthens our ability to form and maintain relationships. Furthermore, we use this part of the brain to explore potential choices and construct our goals. Or at least, we can, if we trust it. The difficulty is because daydreaming has so long been dismissed as unproductive and indulgent, we tend not to consciously build our plans from here when perhaps we should.
So, as the New Year approaches and it’s tempting to think in terms of goals and lists and plans, why not take a different approach? Why not imagine the most beautiful life you can? What does it look like? How does it feel? What are you doing? And then imagine your way to it. This does not make you impractical and this is not only open to those with money or status. Although, it may make your dreams different. Mine weren’t huge because I was a single parent without any income or security when I found myself in need of reimagining my life.
In this capitalist, status-fuelled world it’s very easy to get swept up into thinking we want certain things. We splash out on expensive holidays because what we really want is to spend more time with our families. We take jobs that won’t make us happy because they pay well or look good on a CV. This can mean that we end up in debt, unfulfilled and uninspired.
When we do a little dreaming though, we get to test the waters. To sit with our dreams and imagine how they might feel, whether they might really make us happy. You might be surprised at where your imagining leads because the dreaming stage is where we often find our most authentic selves. Then, by all means, make the lists and plans and unleash you vision.
Make dreams not resolutions and don’t ask what you can live with but what you can’t live without.
Happy New Year.