Planning ahead has been so key for me in changing my life and how I manage it.
I was floating through life for so long, unorganized and stressed with no idea how to manage it. As soon as I got myself organized in my life, as well as mentally, so much changed for me. Some people (my past self included) just do not realize how much easier life is when we plan ahead. I thought I was going to be tied down and boring if I was planning and scheduling everything, but damn was I wrong!
Some people theorize that every day we all wake up with a certain amount of cognitive ability. We all have a certain amount of willpower and decision-making abilities, and these are not infinite resources in our day, which makes perfect sense to me. This is why, at the end of the day, it is so much harder to stick to new habits or tell our kids no; we just don’t have enough of that resource left! But when we plan ahead, we’ve already made the decision. So we can save that precious resource for other decisions and things that require willpower in the day.
Some others theorize that willpower, decision-making, and memory (all cognitive functions of the prefrontal cortex) are like a muscle; we have to use them so they become stronger. This makes a lot of sense too—that’s how habits work! The more we do something, the deeper and more saturated that neural pathway in our brain will be.
Every time we do something, we cement it just a tiny bit more into ourselves. We can try to plan and automate as many of our habits as we can and make them so routine that we don’t even have to think about them anymore—like brushing our teeth or drinking our coffee in the morning.
When we automate our habits, we create space for other life decisions that require willpower. We don’t have to decide or make ourselves do the things that are already cemented in our brain; we just do them. Like driving to work, when we’ve done something for a long time, we don’t even have to think about it. Automate as many habits and things in our life as we can (like using automatic bill pay or putting birthdays in our phone calendar) so we have the time, mental space, and willpower to do the important things in our life.
Planning ahead can be tangible or intangible. It may include writing or typing our plans into a calendar or planning what we will wear the next day (tangible), or it may be planning out how we will respond to a person or when we will leave an event (intangible).
For a tangible way to plan, use a written or typed schedule to help you stay organized. Pick a day to plan the week. I use Sunday afternoons because it gives me plenty of time, and it’s usually a day I don’t have much going on. However, you can pick any other day that works. Find a quiet spot and take 10 minutes or an hour—whatever is needed and can fit in—but try to give enough time to truly plan and organize the week.
Use a notebook, a calendar, or a phone. Write down a list of everything that has to be done that week, like doctors appointments, laundry, dinner dates, kids activities, work stuff, down time, self-care routines, even new habits that you might need to pick up; put it all down, and don’t leave anything out.
Once it is all written down, pick the day, what time, and where each thing will happen and write or type it into the calendar. Schedule it all out so we have the mental space to start out each day fresh and clearheaded without the burden of having to figure out what our day will look like.
Try doing the most important things in the first part of the day (like working out or meditating) when our willpower resource is most abundant. And set up a plan for the evenings when our willpower resource is waning (like having some seltzer we love in the house to replace that wine.) Be mindful of how we are using our precious resources and plan things ahead of time (like that outfit for the next day or which day to do laundry—including folding and putting away) so we aren’t distracted from our plan with small decisions and can have a full tank for the day ahead.
For some of the intangible plans, we can still use tangible ways to plan them. We will want to put some of these plans into our schedule. A perfect and simple tool we can use are sticky/post it notes as reminders. Stick some affirmations (internal sentences that give us self-support) or behaviors we want to practice (picking our battles with a child) on a mirror where we will see it often. Maybe we might want to meditate more or make time to walk in nature. For this, we could use an alarm on our phone as a gentle prompt.
We always have ideas in our heads of what we want to do, but when we plan it out and attach a time and a place to it, we add clarity to our plans. If we plan to do something but don’t label a time and place for it to happen, most of the time, it won’t. We have a foggy understanding of the things we want to accomplish and do, but we don’t approach them with clarity. Plan each thing we want to do, plan the goals we want to accomplish, and plan how we will change our habits with precision and transparency. Be super specific!
Planning ahead frees up so much mental space, especially when we have the plan written down and visible. When we already know what we are doing and what we have scheduled, it leaves us space for spontaneity and daydreaming. Sounds crazy, right? It isn’t.
When we plan ahead, we don’t have to worry about making choices that are hard. This is key when we are trying to get rid of a bad habit. When we already know what we are going to do during the times that are most triggering, we don’t have to make decisions in the moment. Our past self has already made the decision for us! If we are trying to give up something like alcohol or overeating, don’t be afraid to plan and schedule everything.
What will we have for breakfast? What will we do after work instead of the bar? What will we do in the evening if that is a triggering time for us? What will we do when we feel an urge or a craving? If we have an event coming up, plan what to eat or drink. Plan what to say if someone offers us a drink or something off the eating plan. Plan what time to leave and practice (even write this on your sticky notes) what to say if asked why. Go so far as to practice your responses in the mirror.
Having everything planned out and practiced is essential. When we don’t have to think of what to do or say in the moment, when we have already planned it for ourselves, we don’t have to worry about sliding back into a bad habit or making the wrong choice.
Planning ahead and carrying through on these plans won’t only organize our lives and minds but will also build trust within ourselves. When we plan ahead of time and honor those plans, we learn to trust ourselves. As time goes on and we have that trust and know that we will do what our past self asked of us, this will build confidence in ourselves and our abilities. And we know when we make our plans that we can trust our future selves to carry through and honor them.
Planning ahead and organizing our lives may seem like it will make life boring and lack spontaneity, but the opposite is true. Planning will create space in our lives. It will open our minds up in so many surprising ways. Give it a try for a few weeks and see what happens!