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How to plan your life

The rule of p’s clearly states that ‘Proper planning and preparation prevent piss-poor performance.’ I have found this to be true, so every now and then I carve out time to plan. In the short-term, that’s usually ten minutes or so on a Monday morning to think about what I want to get done that week, or sketching out the structure of a new book. This kind of short term tactical planning saves a lot of time, and is really useful, but it’s not what this blog post is concerned with. I’ve been working on long-term life planning recently, and I thought I’d share the process with you in case you  find it useful.

If you had been keeping track of what I’ve been up to over the last couple of years (not that there’s any reason why you should), you would have noticed that there have been a lot of changes. Moving to Italy for three months; ending my regular teaching at the Helsinki branch of my school; moving to the UK. Part of the root cause of all this is that I have been feeling somewhat directionless for a couple of years now, and that is not normal for me. I’ve been circling around the issue for a very long time, and the circles have been getting smaller and smaller. It has taken me this long to get to the state where I can actually figure out what’s going on, and properly plan for the future.

It came to a head two weeks ago, in the come-down from launching two courses and a book within a couple of months. I set a goal for myself to take a full day off, and to do some long-range planning (not at the same time, obviously. Planning is work).

I make my living from being productive (as most people do, of course), and because I'm self-employed, there is a very close relationship between how much I produce and how much I get paid. Money is a store of value, and so it is very very easy to conflate ‘this project will make money’ with ‘this project is worth doing’. I try to avoid taking on any project that I wouldn’t do for free- in other words, whether it makes money or not, it’s worth doing. It’s impossible to predict which projects will do well financially anyway, so it's a good idea to only do things that also have intrinsic value.

Audatia is a good example. It is, from a personal perspective and from the perspective of serving the art, hugely successful. But while I didn’t lose any money making it, it has paid me precisely no money at all (yet!). Who knows, it might take off, or get made into an app and go all PokemonGo on me. That would be nice. I don’t actually mind though, because our artist and game designer both got paid, and I have this glorious little body of work to call mine.

Still, it’s too easy to confuse money with value, and busy with productive, and productive with worthwhile. So I took the promised day off, which meant that from 9am to 3pm I had no commitments of any kind, and nothing I had to do. I chose to spend nearly two hours training, have a snack, and then go for a two hour walk, pausing for a cup of tea with a new friend. This put me into a non-productive, almost meditative state, where I separated productivity from value in my head. I don’t value my children for their productivity; why should I value myself for it?

This was a necessary precursor to the following day, which I again took off in the sense that I didn’t try to get anything done. I could just think, and wonder, and wander, and do whatever. As it turned out, I spent most of the morning talking to my wife. We figured out the following things:

1) the reason I ‘do swords’ is, as I have said many times, because they have the capacity to hook people out of whatever they are stuck in, and into their best, even knightly, selves.

2) there are many other things I can do that would have a similar effect.

3) In essence, what I really do is get people unstuck. Anything that does that is part of the mission; anything that does not, is not.

There have been clues to this littered through my life for the longest time. For years now, when someone emails me for advice, I have usually added at the end of my answer, “Does that help?”. In other words, does that answer the real question, that may be buried under the question you actually asked? I’d never really noticed it before, but now it’s obvious.

The question “does this serve my ultimate goal?” is an excellent tool for prioritising tasks, projects, and strategies. In the past, the  question was: “does it serve the Art of Arms?” If yes, do. If not, do not do. If it makes no difference, do or do not, it doesn’t matter. And that has lead me to where I am now. Every single time I did anything just for good business reasons, it failed. Everything I ever did with a pure intention to serve the Art has worked one way or the other.

But the reason the Art of Arms should be served is that it has this capacity to ignite a fire in people who might otherwise remain stuck. I have seen it hundreds of times, and it’s the reason that swordsmanship is a worthy profession not just an amusing pastime.

So now the question I ask of every project or task is “Does this help people get unstuck?”

You might reasonably ask how this is actually applied, and how it relates to planning.

I hope you’ve read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow It’s an amazing book, and explains in modern psychological terms what I’ve been doing for 15 years. My conscious mind is  slow, thoughtful, and limited to just a few bits of data (5-9 for most people), so I use it to consider moral issues, and really short-term projects like cooking dinner or writing the next chapter of a book. I use my unconscious mind for anything that requires managing lots of data at once, such as deciding whether I should put energy into a new book, or create a course, or prioritising the projects I have on hand. Conscious thinking isn’t very helpful for that, because it can’t handle all the data at once. The unconscious mind needs direction, or you end up just following the path of least resistance. If I let it, mine would have me watching re-runs of Game of Thrones while shoving chocolate into my face all day. So I set long-term goals or priorities with my conscious mind, and let my unconscious figure out the details. A bit like an emperor giving impossible orders and confidently expecting his generals to just get it done.

Let me reduce the process to its bare essentials and express it as a set of instructions.

1) Set aside non-productive time off, to clear the buffers and detach from actually getting stuff done.

2) When the buffers are clear, look back on what you have done for clues as to where you are going, and think about who you want to be and how you want to help people.

3) Compose a question you can ask of any course of action. Be as specific as possible, and concentrate on values rather than productivity or external validation.

4) Evaluate any course of action in the light of that question.

5) If there is insufficient data, or too much, then let your instinct answer the question for you.

With a clear direction (well, it’s clear to me at least), I can confidently leave the short-term tactical decisions to my instinct. This makes the nitty-gritty tactical planning very fast and easy.

This is an essential process, I think, to any self-employed, self-directed person. I have no set career path, and no employer or boss giving directions, so without this kind of thinking I would have no way of knowing what to do. But I think it is probably equally useful to others in different circumstances. You have only one life and you will come to the end of it, sooner or later. Once your basic needs are met, it would make sense to plot your own course according to an overall goal or set of values, so no matter what actually happens you can live with your decisions and accept your circumstances because you had a hand in making them. “I was doing the right thing but it failed anyway”, is a very different position to be in than “I was acting on autopilot and it all went to hell”.

Of course it is impossible to predict the future, and there is no way for me to know exactly what I will be working on in a year’s time, and whether it will work at all. For example, the idea of creating online courses didn’t even occur to me until I listened to Ankur Nagpal on Joanna Penn’s podcast in January this year. It took me months of planning, preparation, and thought (both fast and slow) to get to the point when I was ready to hit ‘publish’ on the first course, but it was so clearly in line with my inner goals that the decision itself was instantaneous, and when I make a decision, I act on it. I could not have predicted in 2015 that the idea of launching an online course would even occur to me, so any plan would have left them out. There is no point in planning what exactly I will do in 2017. I have set my mission, and will follow my gut, and it will take me there in ways I cannot yet imagine.


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