At the beginning of this trip, a key focus for me was ‘planning not to plan’. An obsessive list maker at work and play pre-SE Asia, I wanted to see what life was like without the constraints of my daily to-do list, short-, medium- and long-term goals, multi-coloured pens, trackers and so on.
And when I arrived, I got bronchitis, so any even fledgling plans I might have considered at the back of my brain got thrown out anyway. I spent the first couple of weeks mostly in bed, taking me up to a Christmas that I played very much by ear, and enjoyed all the more because of that.
But then I needed to do a visa run. Arriving with a 30-day Thai visa, I needed to get out of the country to renew it, and didn’t want to waste a trip, so I decided to use a visit to Cambodia as that visa run. And my dedicated planning not to plan started to cause me some challenges.
I forgot some things. Important things. Things that I am embarrassed to share.
For example, I got the dates of my Thai visa wrong, so I over ran by a couple of days. This sent me into paroxysms of panic, and meant the cost of an extra (earlier) flight to Bangkok, and a couple of spent days panicking about whether I would get thrown into a Thai jail at the border, or not be allowed back into the country in the future. Of course that didn’t happen (that would definitely have been a post!), but I did have to go into a special office at immigration, pay a fine and get a ‘bad Ellen’ stamp in my passport.
Then in Cambodia, I realised I didn’t have quite enough medication for the trip, I’d miscalculated by a couple of days. Not a nightmare – I could spread the ones I had out a little more so withdrawal didn’t kick in, but the impact was a higher baseline of pain, at a time when I was already doing more activity, which also impacts the pain. Not ideal.
Once back in Thailand, still not learning from my mistakes, I arranged to meet someone for coffee, and messed up which day I had organised so missed him, so my planning not to plan started spreading in impact to others.
What happens when you don’t have a plan?
There were a few other things I forgot too, or missed, or got wrong, that normally, with my planning and lists, I wouldn’t have. Which made me feel deeply uncomfortable – integrity is a deeply held value of mine.
Now, I learnt from all this that you (I) can get by without a plan. The sky didn’t fall in, no-one died, I didn’t go to prison.
But the consequences for me of not having a plan, a list, a set of actions, felt extremely uncomfortable – physically as well as mentally as it turned out. In addition to the missing medication, stress itself aggravates my pain as the muscles clench and tighten, and pull on the delicate and overly-sensitised structures in my shoulder and arm.
Going back to a plan
So I started back with a list.
I got a small, light note-book, and jotted down things I wanted to do, needed to do. And immediately I felt better.
But what was interesting was how quickly I then became attached to my new plan and lists.
A friend asked me if I wanted to do something, and I thought no, I have other plans today. I’ve already decided and numbered the items on my to-do list. But I checked myself when I realised that almost nothing I do out here is fixed. I can be infinitely flexible. I can make my plans from a place of what I want to do, rather than what I should do, or what I think I need to do. So, fine if I don’t want to go to lunch, but I need to remember that it’s not that I can’t go to lunch – it’s entirely my choice.
That’s freeing, but also a responsibility. How many people have that freedom? But what’s the point of being out here if I continue with the unconscious habits that tied me up in the UK? To plan or not to plan?
The middle way
So I realised, of course, there’s a middle way. I have allowed myself the notepad, the coloured pens (they make me happy :-)), and some goals and ideas. But goals that energise rather than drain, and goals I can be relaxed about meeting and achieving. Like, going to cooking school. Or writing a blog post. Or going for a long walk. Or taking more photos. Or chatting to strangers.
And I have a to-do list, each day. It enables me to be on top of visa requirements, pills, and coffee with friends. But if I don’t do everything on the list, I’m fine. And if something better comes along that day, I can dump the list, or push it to the next day, without penalty or consequences.
The pros of plans, the goodness of goals
I also realised that some of my energies come from the pursuit and meeting of goals. Goals in themselves aren’t a bad thing, it’s when they and the to-do list run your life that you need to worry.
So I’m happy where I’ve ended up on my ‘planning not to plan’ journey. I’m still flexible and open-minded about the future – much more so than ever before. I have a medium-term plan of working and travelling in Asia for 6-9 months, but around that, I’m versatile. But I write mini-goals on my to-do list each day, and I enjoy achieving them and ticking them off.
What’s your attitude to goals and plans? Do they help or hinder you? Do you use them in work and personal life or one or the other? Can you get by without them? How flexible are they? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.