Why Your Future Planning Isn’t Working Out

An Imagined Future

What hasn’t yet come to pass is always an imagined future – it can be exactly how you think it will be or starkly different. Sometimes we can predict with a fair degree of certainty yet other times we are so utterly wrong that it is sobering and shakes us out of our delusions.

The error in our planning is that we think the future will be an extension of the present. We think it will be similar to right now and we try to account for the fact it will be later in the linear progression of time. This ability, unique only to humans as far as we know, to think about the concept of future and past, to think of time in a linear manner, thanks to our prefrontal lobes. It takes cognitive ability and training to think of time in this way – to think of the concept of later (or before). It is an abstract concept after all. My 4-year-old daughter, for instance, still struggles with this concept. For her, everything in the past is yesterday and everything in the future is tomorrow and it is not a limitation of her vocabulary, it is in fact a limitation of understanding this abstract idea.

“Children have neither a past nor a future. Thus they enjoy the present, which seldom happens to us.” — Jean de La Bruyère

However, we must always be thinking about and planning for our futures, we are constantly making decisions and choices that cannot be undone and can potentially impact the rest of our lives. Those are serious responsibilities with serious consequences. How do we do this right? Considering the future can be quite uncertain and unknown.

The planning fallacy

When we plan for the future we mostly think that past experiences will indicate future performances. We think how things have happened in the past is how they will continue to happen in the future – with a few different variables. We are not able to take into account all the unknown variables and of course, we don’t know what we don’t know, how can we?

One of the key factors that we forget to take into account when we plan for the future, perhaps the biggest black swans of all – is ourselves. Our ever-evolving, ever-changing personality and self-image. Our view of the world changes, perhaps as quickly as the world itself and as we know, if we wear rose colour glasses then, to us, the world appears rosy. It is a common error we are all prone to make, yet that is the only vantage point we have – our own. Which is subject to our own biases and limitations.

Do you feel, think, act, and behave exactly as you did five years ago? If you do, then, unfortunately, you have not grown or learnt anything in this time. But my guess is you don’t feel, think, act, and behave exactly as you did five years ago. Your preferences, likes, dislikes, thinking, worldview and self-image have all evolved somewhat over this period. Having said that, what you planned five years ago with your old preferences, is perhaps not as applicable to you today – because you are essentially a different person.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus

Future and delayed gratification

Delaying gratification means choosing something uncomfortable now, for something comfortable later. Doing something hard now, to enjoy something easy or pleasant later. This literally goes against every fibre of our being. We are biological creatures and by definition, we are always seeking comfort and pleasure and avoiding pain and discomfort. To actively delay our comfort and pleasure is going against evolution, yet, in the modern world, we do that every single day, day after day. We are the powerhouses that are locally reversing not only entropy but evolution as well – go us!

Delaying gratification takes a lot of willpower, planning and foresight. Again, thanks to our prefrontal cortex we have this ability to plan and imagine a future where we are in pleasure so we decide to endure the pain now. Whether it’s staying up late, giving up sleep to finish a project or continuing our diets and running on the treadmill for a leaner self, or working now in a job we hate to retire on the beach or the golf course in 25 years – we operate with both short term and long term delayed pleasures.

Compromising the present for an imagined future.

“Be happy in the moment, that’s enough. Each moment is all we need, not more.” — Mother Teresa

Imagine delaying gratification for a lifetime of discomfort and discontent, and never actually arriving at the promised (read: imagined) land. Never actually getting the pleasures and comforts. What a shit deal! Right?

Life very seldom goes as we plan. It is always more complicated and complex than we imagine. There are always unknown variables and hidden problems, challenges, predicaments and pleasant surprises along the way. Life has a way of showing us reality in ways we could not have imagined. Which, again, can be quite sobering and shocking.

Now let me ask you this, how much of your life has turned out exactly as you planned?
People get divorced, lose a job, or a house, or even a loved one – we don’t plan for these things (perhaps we should) but what we do plan for is a rosy future – with our rosy perspectives. Where everything will eventually turn out alright. Isn’t that what we are taught as kids by our teachers and preachers? That in the end, everything will be fine. Everything will be just as it is meant to be.
And this is further reinforced in adult life via trashy self-help books and (fake) gurus and coaches – that in the end, everything will turn out fine. It is all part of a bigger plan!
Here is the thing about hindsight – it is always 20/20 and most times when we get to a future that is far from what we imagined – our minds make up these stories justifying our actions and the outcomes – making us believe that we did under the circumstances was the best course of action – making us feel good about the future at which we have arrived.

Many of us compromise our present for an imagined future. We think we will like something in the future – a job, a retirement, a car, a bigger house, a new wife – only to arrive at that future as a completely different person who has a very different understanding of the world. We have spent all this time, of our one and only life in this universe (sorry my Buddhist and Hindu friends, I still don’t believe in reincarnation) in the hope and pursuit of a feeling and emotion only to realise it is not what we want anymore. This absolutely sucks!

Recently I had an opportunity to discuss and advise a high school-aged family member on her career and university options. Her interest is in fine arts – painting, colouring, drawing, illustration and she’s quite good at it too. However, the (career) options she had narrowed down were things like; biochemistry, genetics, pharmaceuticals and the likes.
I asked her what’s going on? Why these options as opposed to arts?
The answer; an imagined future.
Because career prospects are better when you are a biologist, geneticist or pharmacist. In her mind (and she is not the only one who thinks like this), it is better to be an unhappy biologist who has an easy life than a happy artist whose life perhaps is not as easy.
At a collective societal level, we are all compromising our presents for an imagined future – and directly or indirectly, it is what we teach our kids too. We all suck at planning and predicting the future – no one knows how the future is going to turn. We advocate that safety and security are more important than desire and passionate pursuits.
The COVID-19 pandemic, if anything, has taught us that nothing is safe and secure, not your future, not your job, not your career, not your house and perhaps not even your life. Anything can happen at any time.

In the end

I am not advocating quitting your job, emptying your bank account, and moving halfway across the world to a beach. What I am suggesting is that you stop compromising on your present for an imagined future – a future you think you will like which is most likely based on someone else’s truth.

The present moment is all that we have. It is all that we can experience. We can reminisce the past, or imagine the future but not live in them nor experience them. Don’t think happiness is something that will happen in the future. Happiness, joy and contentment can only happen in the present. You can only experience it right here and right now. What can you do now to make your life more pleasant and enjoyable?

As Tim Ferriss suggests; we shouldn’t wait to make a million dollars to live a life that we think we want. What does the million-dollar get you, other than security? Think about how can you live that life – without having a million dollars.
More importantly, don’t operate with the assumption that what you like now is what you will like in 15, 20, 25 years. You may hate those options in the future. If you like them now, then design your life in a way where you can enjoy them now – don’t wait for your geriatric years, where you will have less energy and patience.
Delay your gratification as far as disciplined pursuits are concerned, where the pleasures and comforts are guaranteed (for example; go to the gym before you eat dinner with dessert) but don’t delay your happiness based on an imagined future which is not guaranteed and mostly out of your control.

Now go and be awesome and don’t compromise the present moment.