When the Plan Goes Awry.

Image: KTVee/Flickr

Image: KTVee/Flickr

I’m a person who likes to plan.  I like to know things are in their right place, and ideally segregated by colour. And alphabetised.  Some people might refer to me as a control freak, but I couldn’t possibly comment on such outlandish rumours.

In 2006, though, all my plans went a bit pear-shaped.

Without delving into emotional messiness, my marriage fell apart, I had a new baby, I had to move to a new town where I didn’t know anyone, and I had a five figure bank balance. If only there hadn’t been a minus sign in front of it. My ex and I put the house up for sale, dispensed with the nanny, and divided our belongings. I got the Dualit toaster, he got all our friends.

It wasn’t a great year.

But, as I tend to do, I made a plan. In fact, I made a five year plan and set out 10 things I would achieve by the end of 2011.

Some of the goals were personal, some professional, others financial. The ultimate goal was to provide Flea with a secure, happy home. I promised myself that for those five years I wouldn’t worry about my love life, my social life, my figure or my hair (boy, did I stick to that one). I would just keep my head down and work towards the goal.

Until a year ago, I was on track. Then something happened. I made a seriously bad judgement call, and we almost lost everything. It got pretty scary for a few weeks, there. Life likes to throw you curveballs, doesn’t it?

When you’re a parent, of course, you don’t have a choice in this kind of situation. You pick yourself up, you work hard, you fix things, and if something can’t be fixed, you make a Plan B. We came through the tough spot, with some valuable lessons learned in the process. Things are fine, now.

The real casualty was my five year plan. My set-back basically put me a year behind schedule. I caught up through 2011, but not all the way – so at the end of the year, I didn't get to tick off everything on my five year plan. 

Of course I’m pleased we weathered the storm, and I count the many blessings I do have – everyone in my family is healthy and happy, we have a nice home, I have the best friend in the world, and I really love my job. In this day and age, I don't think many people can say that. And I'm grateful I learned hte things I did last year – it's made me so much better at what I do, and I won't make those mistakes again. Although, obviously, I look forward to making brand new mistakes in 2012.

Still, I can’t help feel like I’ve stuck a big FAILURE label on my own forehead because I set myself a completely arbitrary target I didn’t reach. So I wonder whether plans and targets and bucket lists are a negative approach to life. Did putting an arbitrary timescale on my projects motivate and inspire me? Or did it simply serve to make me feel bad when I didn’t meet it?  

I wonder if a “bucket list” of things you want to do sometime is more effective, but then I wonder whether I’d just be unspeakably depressed by a daily reminder that, basically, I could die at any moment.

What do you think? Do you have a five-year-plan or a bucket list? How do you adapt when life gets in the way of those goals?  Or perhaps you think a life plan robs you of spontaneity – I'd love to hear how you inspire and motivate yourself. 


Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

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  1. Ruth @craftbdairies
    16th January 2012 / 12:34 am

    Hi I can relate to this! I make plans but when I don’t meet goals I feel like a failure! So I tend not to set my sights on things which are Unachievable. You could say that’s not being very ambitious! But I feel more realistic x

  2. 16th January 2012 / 12:38 am

    Sally, plans are plans. They aren’t reality. Just because you didn’t tick everything off on your plan does NOT make you a failure. I mean, for a start, a plan is you sticking your finger in the air and working out what can be achieved. You can’t plan for everything and it sounds like you had not expected what happened last year at all. Now, if you had planned to get to London on Tuesday by train and all the trains were cancelled, you wouldn’t call yourself a failure, would you?
    I read something today that said anyone that never makes mistakes is playing it too safe. Mistakes are not a bad thing. As you said, you learned from it and you’re a better person now. Doing things in an arbitrary timescale doesn’t make you a failure. What would have made you a failure would have been if you had given up there and then last year and not even tried to get back on track. That you have nearly got there and got back on track is a matter of enormous credit to you.
    For what it’s worth, five year plans need to be living documents and should really be revisited frequently to check they are still relevant, realistic and achievable and updated as necessary. Some things might be achieved more quickly and others might be taking longer so you adjust to what’s realistic. Had you done so, I suspect you wouldn’t feel the same way about this right now.
    There is no point in flogging yourself over this one. You have come an incredibly long way and you should be exceptionally proud of what you’ve achieved in that time.
    Currently, I’m trying to work more in the present, whilst working on a longer term plan. That’s part of why I started running Life Circle on my blog.
    I’ve rambled, I’ll shut up.

  3. Nina
    16th January 2012 / 1:17 am

    I have a quote on a post it note by my desk that I try to read every day. It’s from a Jasper Fforde book (I can’t remember which one) and it says: “Failure concentrates the mind wonderfully. If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.”
    Anyone who hasn’t made a mistake is either lying or not doing anything at all.

  4. Sara
    16th January 2012 / 1:48 am

    You know what I make plans but with the idea of this what I want to achieve if life plays fair. 5 years ago my plan was to keep teaching dance, work on fighting for the cure for Rett syndrome, get my degree and maybe a job I love.
    Then just after that plan was written I got severely beated, my immune system shut down ( bye bye dance).
    3 years ago my daughter died, so I guess I am still fighting for the cure for Rett syndrome but it’s to late for my baby.
    The degree was started but stopped as grief just left me unable to focus or care to be honest.
    I guess you could say I have a job I love as a foster carer but if Livvy hadn’t of died , well.
    Life got in the blooming way and my plan changed completely but that wont stop me writing a new one.
    For 2012, I would like to start a degree, completely different from my last one.
    Would like to get some level of fitness back.
    Would like to trust friends again.
    Continue with my blog and my writing.
    But this year I think I’m going to write my plan in pencil, just in case.

  5. Domestic Goddesque
    16th January 2012 / 7:58 am

    I honestly think that you are being too hard on yourself. Plans are just plans: I planned to marry a millionaire and write a bestselling book. That’s still on the list. The whole point of planning (and we are BIG planners, so don’t think for a second that I am mocking THE PLAN) is that you have an idea of where you want your life to go. No-one can plan for setbacks.
    So you have to focus on the things that you did achieve, and frankly, your plan to give Flea a secure and happy home environment is the best plan I ever heard. I’ve never met her but, from what you write, it sounds like you achieved that, with bells on. Make a new plan, because it’s what you do: you plan. It’ll focus your mind, and give you security. Add a haircut to the list. And maybe you’ll excel yourself this time around!

  6. 16th January 2012 / 9:49 am

    Oh I always make plans. Always have. Rarely achieve them, but I think I get closer for having the plans than just bobbing along.
    Having said that, I made a list of five things to achieve last year and I managed one – and I got someone else to do that for me. Impressive, huh?

  7. 16th January 2012 / 10:03 am

    I used to have a plan. Now, though, I have goals, and am not so much on the time limits. So, I’ll finish that novel, definitely. But I’m going to live my life too…

  8. 16th January 2012 / 10:11 am

    I’m so very sorry that you’ve had such a difficult time, but boy, do you narrate it brilliantly! Preserving a sense of humour through it all may not have been on your bucket list, but the achievement is a triumph. As for advice…I love plans, order, control too and a year ago our comfy life suddenly and briefly exploded. It taught me a useful lesson. Bucket lists are useful as guidelines when things get nebulous, but life and human nature do not recognise the sanctity of long-term planning. Things always go awry at some point. That doesn’r mean you’ve failed yourself. Look in the mirror. If your hair is still a mess, you’ll know you’re still along the right lines!

  9. 16th January 2012 / 10:13 am

    I think plans and outline targets are good, I’ve had my own in roughly the same period of time, and with same ultimate goal. To provide a happy home for my child. Things don’t always map out brilliantly, and that’s when tippex or a brand new spreadsheet comes to good use.
    However I must say I think bucket lists are nonsense. Folks should have rather have growing lists of accomplishments, rather than doodles of yet-to-achieves.

  10. 16th January 2012 / 10:38 am

    I’ve always got to know where I’m heading and plans, goals and dreams do exactly that.
    Life throws curve balls all the time. We dodge a few and learn that getting smacked in the face means we get up and go again. Sometimes in a new direction?
    You did the right thing setting out a plan. A successful person is one who kept on trying when others stopped. It’s good to reflect and evaluate what’s gone on before. It helps so you don’t make the same mistakes again. It really helps if you see others and can learn from their mistakes- doesn’t happen much though.
    Life is full of seasons…..sleep depravation…..infatuation ( we wouldn’t want them going on and on now would we!)
    This too shall pass…

  11. Nikki
    16th January 2012 / 11:04 am

    5 year plan? Crikey I’ve not got a 1 yr plan! Wing it – much less pressure, lots more pleasure!
    Stick to alphabetisation and small tasks Sally – much more achievable!

  12. 16th January 2012 / 12:57 pm

    I think my goals are a bit ambitious but still achievable, for the most part. I just think having timings on your goals might be a bit of a mixed blessing, sometimes.

  13. 16th January 2012 / 12:58 pm

    Thanks for commenting Kate – you make a good point that it’s important to be pleased with what you DO achieve, and plans should be flexible. I just sort of wish I hadn’t stuck a timeline on my plan, because a six-year-plan is so much less catchy than a five-year-plan. Sigh.

  14. 16th January 2012 / 12:59 pm

    Oh, I embrace and celebrate my ability to make cracking mistakes in almost any given scenario…

  15. 16th January 2012 / 1:00 pm

    Oh, I understand where you’re coming from – bereavement takes all your life plans and just tosses them in the air. I’ve lost two brothers in recent years, and I know that both losses had an impact on me, in different ways. I think you’re incredibly strong to keep making plans after such a horrible loss, and hope things go your way in 2012.

  16. 16th January 2012 / 1:01 pm

    So long as you’re not planning to marry the same millionaire as me, that’s okay… but I think you’re right, I guess it is time to make a new plan, I just hate to make a new plan when I haven’t done everything on the OLD plan. I’m aware that sounds a bit neurotic, doesn’t it?

  17. 16th January 2012 / 1:01 pm

    Hey, one out of five is better than nothing. And you did it in a labour-saving way, which earns extra points.

  18. 16th January 2012 / 1:02 pm

    Yes, I think goals are good, without a deadline – although I’m horribly prone to faffing… as anyone who follows me on Twitter may have observed.

  19. 16th January 2012 / 1:02 pm

    My hair is SHOCKING, so thanks for that 🙂

  20. 16th January 2012 / 1:03 pm

    Tippex. Why didn’t I think of that?
    You’re quite right, though, life does have a habit of being unexpected, and I love the idea of having a list of accomplishments rather than a bucket list. In fact, I’m stealing that one.

  21. 16th January 2012 / 1:03 pm

    You’ve got to have plans – the more the merrier I say. You may not achieve all the end-goals within the prescribed time but at least you know in which direction to head and at each New year, birthday, whatever, you’ll be a little nearer. Without plans you couldn’t even say if you’ve achieved anything or if something just happened by chance. Just living for the moment and surviving until the next moment is as boring as it’s precarious.

  22. 16th January 2012 / 1:04 pm

    Life is indeed full of seasons. I’d quite like the one where everything goes exactly my way next, though – what are the chances? 😉

  23. 16th January 2012 / 1:09 pm

    Blimey. That’s anarchic!
    I do think it’s useful to have a big picture on some level, though. As Ferris says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
    By which I mean it’s so easy to get caught up in the details that life passes you by without ever getting round to the big stuff.

  24. 16th January 2012 / 1:09 pm

    I think I agree with you about surviving moment to moment – it’s not what I want, definitely.

  25. Nadine Hill
    16th January 2012 / 1:25 pm

    LOVE this post – well done you on getting your head down and single mindedly working towards your goals – just shows what determination can do.
    As for not hitting your targets on time – who cares! You have done awesomely (is that a word?!) to get this far! You will get there in the end – like a steam roller.
    It takes one to know one! I am a steam roller too- once on my way, nothing will stop me but I may take a little longer to get there than I’d planned!
    I found your post inspiring – give yourself a pat on the back for what you have done – not what you haven’t, and remember – the growth is in the struggle.

  26. 16th January 2012 / 1:32 pm

    I did have a 5 year plan, then mother nature sent me twins. I think it was a valuable lesson that you can’t plan everything. Now if I make it through five minutes without a disaster I’m happy.

  27. 16th January 2012 / 1:37 pm

    When I left home at 17, I made a list of stuff to do- I was going through an arty stage and kept a book of highlights of the month, so it went in there.
    Amongst them was to give up smoking, have some savings, to stop buying unnecessary clothes from Rocket in Rochester High Street, to be married, to own my home, to have a career, and to not be reliant on anyone. All by 30.
    I am 30 on the 10th of next month. I still am not married. I have the grand sum of £5 in my personal account. Whilst I no longer buy stuff from Rocket in Rochester, I buy other unnecessary (but kick ass) stuff from EBay. I am renting a pit which I do not own and have no career to speak of. I gave up smoking though. But discovered gin.
    However, all is not bad. I met Ed and we are together after 12 years, despite my being engaged to someone else at the time (that’s how desperate I was to be married). I left the things which made me miserable behind- like my family, the town I grew up in and a disastrous and frankly boring career in retail. I may not have everything I wanted, but I’m pretty happy with how its turned out!
    And the only person I am reliant on is me.

  28. Deb
    16th January 2012 / 1:43 pm

    I feel a bit…overawed by this post (and the comments). I have never planned anything. Which might explain a lot. I really wouldn’t know where to start.

  29. 16th January 2012 / 1:53 pm

    Please don’t feel like a failure. I think it’s good to have goals and things to work towards but they should be more of life’s wish list than an actual to-do list. Life is a funny old thing – you really don’t know what’s round the corner. The fact that you’ve survived the past five years and appear to be a good place should be enough to say your life is a success. Here’s to the next five years. I’m sure you’ll be accomplishing loads xxx

  30. 16th January 2012 / 2:01 pm

    I think it is important to have BHAGs- big hairy audacious goals- with timescales, otherwise what would motivate us to move forward. Without a timescale and drive behind a goal it very easily stays a dream! …and in that same vein, it is important to review the plans regularly in light of the circumstances, those factors outside of your control to see if your goals are still realistic. There is no point in doggedly going after some old goal when we are just setting ourselves up for failure, or if it is stopping us from picking up on a new opportunity which can propel us forward, but possibly in a different direction.
    My BHAG- sail around the world with the children in 10 years time- I made this in 2006 before any of the kids were born, before I knew Little Miss has extreme motion sickness. Will we reach the goal? Who knows? We may just adjust it.

  31. 16th January 2012 / 2:08 pm

    5 year plan but with the ability to tweak it when things don’t go according to plan (our 5 year house plan has been slightly derailed by a couple of redundancies meaning insufficient funds to do what needs to be done)
    Career-wise always expect a curveball and things to move around – great to have objectives and a plan but in my experience when you have other people involved things never go to plan. Oh and try to not get bitter and want to slay those people who cause the problems in the first place. Not that I’m looking at anyone specific. Not really…

  32. 16th January 2012 / 2:37 pm

    You have a beautiful, happy daughter who is an absolute credit to you and you have achieved some amazing things despite the obstacles that have been put in your path.
    Give yourself another year – a six year plan sounds much better to me, but then I don’t like odd numbers.

  33. 16th January 2012 / 5:15 pm

    I absolutely think that plans are great and without them we’d probably achieve almost nothing. That said, there is nothing that annoys me more than people who only ever write about what they want to change but never get on and do it. I think a plan, a personal, private, broken down into steps, all your own thing, plan is best in many ways. Anything not achieved in whole can be evaluated and reasoned with without a sense of failure or loss of face. And it does save us all the blog plans.
    When dh first came into my business,I was at the end of a three year plan he had helped me write and I mostly succeeded. Where I hadn’t, we just made those things, if still relevant, the next plan.
    Well done you.I really felt for you in the bits of last year I knew about and I’m seriously impressed by what you achieved.

  34. Zoë
    16th January 2012 / 5:44 pm

    I don’t set myself goals – more I have a set of good intentions, things I hope to achieve, but I have learnt the hard way not to beat myself up and trash my self esteem if I fail to meet them. Life has a funny habit of getting in the way of the best laid plans – sh*t happens and so on. Good intentions are far kinder on the ego.
    I do have a bucket list, I drew it up when cancer came and threw a spanner in the works and set all my goals in disarray. This lesson taught me, dont make a rod for your own back, enjoy each day as it comes, and be happy.

  35. TheBoyandMe
    16th January 2012 / 7:43 pm

    When I was 25 I set myself a target to have my first child by 30 and to have become key stage co-ordinator. I was doing well with the career as I was offered a deputy headship at the age of 27 to stay in my school and not return home to Wales. However, my homesickness was quite extreme and I politely turned it down. We moved back, took a year and a half before we moved into our house and the same amount of time to get a permanent teaching job, let alone any form of management. Hence, when I hit 30 I completely freaked out! No promotion and no baby! Now, I realise that I was unrealistically hard on myself and I *never* write down a to-do list or any form of plan. Vague guidelines are in my head and I prioritise.
    Don’t be hard on yourself, you have done so brilliantly and I am in awe of you.

  36. 16th January 2012 / 7:51 pm

    I’ve been reading a lot about entrepreneurs recently. Not one of them, NOT ONE, has achieved today without failing at something first. I used to hate failure and view it as something that meant it was better to give up and not try. This year, for the first time ever, I’ve decided to take some risks and take some control of my life and start writing that 5 year plan. I used to let others decide my future for me and hated the lack of control and the fact I was treated as incapable. This year, I’m taking the control back. I’m writing out Plan A. There will be a plan B because life is like that. You’ve achieved incredible success over the last year. Keep doing what your doing and when it doesn’t go right, we always learn from it. Keep going Whittle, you’re on the right path.

  37. Nikki
    16th January 2012 / 8:34 pm

    I guess it depends on what you class as a “plan” – I’m not sure what “the big things” actually are. My big things would be to be more relaxed and flexible with the kids, be happy with what I’ve already got and not work so hard – hardly quantifiable. I don’t need a big house, a new car or a directive to take 4 holidays – we just go with the flow. I’m happy enough as we are….Is that odd? My goals would end up like a to-do list – replace lino, paint walls – is that what you mean? Somehow I don’t think I’m on the right track lol.

  38. 16th January 2012 / 8:38 pm

    I think it’s when you find yourself in a crisis that a plan is good – we didn’t have a home, didn’t have friends, I didn’t have a career as I’d been on maternity leave, and my financial situation was precarious for various reasons – so I had some very specific goals that I wanted to achieve.
    Writing them down was private to me, and I didn’t share them with anyone, but it just helped me to think, “Okay, these five years are going to be hard, and I won’t have a lot of fun, but at the end of that time, I’ll be in a place where I can do those things” if that makes sense?

  39. 16th January 2012 / 8:39 pm

    Wow, I’m so glad I inspired someone – thanks!

  40. 16th January 2012 / 8:39 pm

    Mother Nature has a fine sense of humour, I find.

  41. 16th January 2012 / 8:39 pm

    Well, as you know, I am awe-inspiring*
    * may not be true.

  42. 16th January 2012 / 8:40 pm

    Love the idea of wanting to sail and having a child with motion sickness! Life does make us laugh, doesn’t it?

  43. 16th January 2012 / 8:41 pm

    Crikey, I know where you’re coming from. This last year or so I just have a mantra which people who know me must be SO bored of hearing. “That’s how they choose to do things. That is not how I choose to do things. And that is all.”
    IT sort of works.

  44. 16th January 2012 / 8:41 pm

    Thanks – I’m so lucky to have Flea, and we do have a lot of fun. Six years does have a ring to it!

  45. 16th January 2012 / 8:42 pm

    I agree on the private thing – I didn’t share my five-year-plan with anyone. I had this vague idea that at the end of five years I’d blog about it, and be all like, TA-DAA but, erm, instead I did this. Bit less impressive, really 😉

  46. 16th January 2012 / 8:43 pm

    Having lost two brothers prematurely, I am a HUGE believer in having fun. Every single day. Love your philosophy.

  47. 16th January 2012 / 8:44 pm

    I think part of being happy is recognising in yourself when priorities have changed and not being rigid about goals – that sounds completely sensible. But I’m not sure I could be as vague as that without being a *tad* anxious. Not that I’m a control freak, or anything…

  48. 16th January 2012 / 8:46 pm

    Oh, absolutely! I remember a few years back reading Branson’s autobiography and what struck me from that was that his success wasn’t down to having amazing ideas all the time, but just having lots of ideas and not being scared to try them all.
    I took a lot away from that and I am the sort of person who will try, and not worry if something doesn’t work. I’ve had websites and work projects crash and burn over the years, and I have projects now that might work, or might not – I don’t worry too much about that.
    Anyway, your plan sounds perfect, and you’ll be doing amazing stuff in 2012, I bet!

  49. 17th January 2012 / 7:59 am

    Do you know what Sally, give yourself a break! If you made a life plan 5 years ago, and are on track to complete it in 6, AND had a major setback in the middle of that time you’re doing pretty bloody well. I’ve known many major IT projects that haven’t run as smoothly as that! As others have said, take some time to celebrate your (MAJOR) successes, rather than focussing on not having completed it all in your own, completely arbitrary timescale. You don’t become an Evil Overlord overnight y’know!
    John has a saying, which is “no battle plan ever survived the battlefield”. Stuff changes, life happens, shit happens. You frequently have to change the plan or at least adjust your expectations a bit.
    I have a very strong belief that those big, unexpected experiences make us stronger and better people. As a family we’ve experienced redundancy, bereavement, other threats, and every one changed our lives in amazing ways. I’m a better person because of my life experiences, and I try to embrace that.

  50. 17th January 2012 / 11:49 am

    Love that you wrote this post – it’s important for everyone to realise that plans can go squewiff and that even people that are deemed ‘successful’ and ‘strong’ have to make adjustments sometimes.
    I was chatting to a mate about this yesterday – in the ‘coaching’ industry we are often encouraged to make plans, and they have very little leeway for life or anything else to get in the way. We get told off for getting distracted – I’m kind of ‘my childs got the chicken pox, go scratch yourself’ ;o)
    I don’t believe in mistakes, so for some reason this one will have worked for you. Maybe it will save you from a much bigger one later?

  51. TheBoyandMe
    17th January 2012 / 10:29 pm

    Oh trust me, I’m constantly anxious. And all because I don’t have a to-do list! But the metaphorical length of it scares me, and combined with lessons learnt in the past, I bury my head in the sand!

  52. Nikki
    18th January 2012 / 12:14 pm

    Perfect sense. We hit a crisis point about 5 yrs ago and although I didn’t write a plan as such, we did get our arses into gear and step up to get ourselves out of the dire financial nightmare and last year we hit our first savings marker. I think crisis situations spur you on and plans can help there. I just wouldn’t like to give myself other plans and goals outside of that as it’s important to be flexible too and I think – as you’ve said – planning does disappoint you when you don’t hit those markers. These no sense is reinforcing failure-type feelings.
    My glass is half full nowadays – can you tell 🙂