#11: Create a personal five year plan
One of the great suggestions on my to do list came from someone I feel lucky to have as a mentor, colleague, and friend. She suggested that this is a good time in one’s life to to create a five year plan with key milestones. She’s a smart lady and someone I admire and respect so I figured that if such a plan worked for her, I might as well give it a shot.
I did some quick research on potential purposes and suggested frameworks for a five year plan. According to MindTools.com, making such a plan is useful for helping you:
- Decide what is important
- Separate the important things from the irrelevant or distracting things
- Motivate yourself
- Build self-confidence as you achieve goals
Each item seems like a critical piece of the “growing up and living life with purpose” pie. I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on the first item (what I think is important). It is the second piece (separating important and irrelevant things) that often presents a roadblock for me and yet seems to be the cornerstone to creating a real plan in the first place.
Now, I should be upfront here about my relationship to plans. I make lots of them. In fact, I feel out of control and downright cranky without a plan. My problem with plans is that I always want to do too much. I want to do the relevant things and the irrelevant things. I can prioritize like nobody’s business but, when it comes down to it, I hate to take any items “out of the scope of the project.” When I make a plan—whether for a bathroom renovation project, a social media strategy, or what to do when I’ve got family in town for the weekend—it often becomes bloated and unwieldy. Rather than being a tool for success, the plan becomes just another thing on my to do list that (a) stresses me out, (b) needs to be revisited and revised, (c) is humanly impossible to achieve, or (d) gets filed away somewhere while I flail my way towards the goal I’ve set. Learning to say “no” or at least “no, I can’t do that along with everything else, so I need to take some things off my plate” has been one of the toughest and most important lessons I’ve had to learn (both professionally and personally). I can’t say I’ve become expert at this but I’m making progress.
So problem #1 is making a realistic plan that isn’t overloaded with too many things. The second roadblock has to do with sticking to a decision; this problem seems to pop up more often in my personal life. Aligning work tasks with the mission and goals of the organization I work for seems like a cakewalk compared to the basic task of coming up with a personal version of a mission that I can live with for any length of time. Last night I watched the flick “Definitely, Maybe” and one particular scene, which felt like it was ripped out of the pages of my own life story, illustrates this point. Ryan Reynolds, who plays father to pinch-her-cheeks-she’s-so-sickeningly-cute Abigail Breslin, gets set to whip up dinner for himself and his daughter when he stops to ask her a question:
So, are you a vegetarian this week?
His query pokes lighthearted fun while respecting her right to make mature choices about her own life.
Yes, I am.
The 10-year-old’s reply is honest and to the point. She delivers her answer with a knowing smirk, letting us know that she’s not unaware of her fickle tendencies. It isn’t consciousness she lacks; Maya just doesn’t seem to care that maybe last week she was eating meat and maybe next week she’ll pick up the habit again. What’s important right now is that she’s vegetarian today and she’s not having any animals for dinner.
What does this have to do with five year plans and my life at almost-30? I too was a vegetarian, though for more than a week (more like 8 years). During that time I thought it was part of my lifelong plan to help save the planet by eating a diet consisting only of spaghetti and bean burritos. That plan gave way to the “oh my god I want a hot dog now and I’m not going to feel bad about it because I haven’t eaten one in nearly a decade” phase. And nowadays I’m on a semi-vegetarian bandwagon where a typical week’s meals might feature tofu, organic cage-free eggs, lots of locally-harvested greens, and a highly-processed cheeseburger and fries thrown in for good measure. My family still pops similar questions to me every time I join them for a holiday meal.
Like Maya, I seem to be at peace with my goals straddling two worlds. It is a priority for me to be conscious of the decisions I make about food (or insert any other kind of personal decision here) and to stay informed about how my choices affect the environment, the global economy, my health, my sense of what is ethical and moral. But—and this is no small thing—my personal sense of happiness and well-being are important too. These differing sides of the table sometimes, but don’t always, meet neatly in the middle. It seems that the more open I am to the diverse impacts and meanings of my decisions, the harder it is to create a neatly bulleted list of action items and measurable goals. The goal “become a semi-vegetarian” just doesn’t have that ring of grand achievement to it that “earn a master’s degree” (done) or “buy a house” (done) seem to have. The older I get—or perhaps the more I accidentally and purposefully achieve—the harder it seems to make real, concrete plans about what to do with my life.
The truth is that making decisions is always hard. But maybe that is why it is important to have a plan in the first place: so we don’t end up meandering through life, avoiding the tough choices and instead making lots of tiny unconscious decisions that lead us to no particular point. Grasping every which way at the things that satisfy us that day, that week, those eight years, just doesn’t seem like the best course of action. And if we have big ideas that we really want to achieve, we need some kind of map to get us there, even if we veer off the path every now and then or we change our minds about what our destination should truly be.
So, I’ve stalled long enough with my philosophical rants on the nature of plans. Without further ado, here is a list of goals that will go in my five year plan. I won’t bore you with the details of yearly benchmarks and individual action steps but I have made a promise to myself to work on them before my 30 days are up. They’re organized roughly into the categories suggested in the MindTools article (which is worth a read).
- Artistic: Write creatively on a regular basis (at least once a week). Maybe get paid for it some day.
- Attitude: Manage stress and anxiety more effectively. Get to Yoga level III (advanced).
- Career: Direct a program or department for a great museum or similarly-missioned organization.
- Education: Complete additional graduate work, possibly (but not necessarily) leading towards a PhD. Teach a graduate level class at a university. Finally (finally) speak and read intermediate level Spanish.
- Family: Play an active role in the life of my niece and nephew; take them to every Smithsonian museum in D.C. and the zoo before they’re 10. Call my mom at least once a week.
- Financial: Pay off at least 2/3 of my graduate school student loans. Reach 30% equity in our home.
- Physical: Keep my A1C below 6% and reduce wide swings in glucose levels to once a month. Join a rowing team.
- Public service: Serve on the board of an arts or educational organization. Become a hands-on volunteer for a hunger, domestic violence, or public health organization.
- Travel: Visit friends in Rwanda. See Michelangelo’s Pieta in person. Dive the Great Barrier Reef. (Note: I added this category!)
Phew, that’s a lot for 5 years! But you already knew my plan wouldn’t be short-winded, didn’t you? Now that you’ve gotten a (potentially too-close-for-comfort) peek into my life dreams, it seems only fair that I hear a little from you. I’m curious to hear about whether you have a five year plan or some other mechanism for guiding your life in a certain direction. Do you have a mentor who advised you to make such a plan or have you guided someone else to make one for themselves? Have you written your personal mission and vision down on paper (or more likely, typed it up in a Word document)? Do you revisit it on a regular basis to see if you’re achieving success or to determine if it is time to revise the plan? What do you feel is the most important thing you get from making such a plan? And how long do you plan to keep making new 5-year plans? And if you don’t have a plan or don’t want a plan, why?
Lesson learned: Planning to make a plan takes longer than it does to just make the plan already!