5 Things That Are Better Than a Plan

Note: This is a guest post from Mike Reeves-McMillan of Living Skillfully
I spent a lot of my life with no sense of progress.
Now, I didn’t say that I wasn’t making progress. In fact, of all the many jobs I’ve done – youth worker, book editor, technical writer, corporate trainer, systems analyst, business consultant and hypnotherapist – not one has been a waste or failed to teach me something important which I still use today.
But my sense of progress comes from what a friend of mine calls “retrohension” – comprehension that only occurs in retrospect. I had no plan.
Even now, I have only the most skeletal of plans, and it’s subject to revision at any time. I know from experience that life throws curveballs.
What’s more, I take this lack of planning into my therapy room. I’m a client-centred therapist, and I’ve adopted the motto, “No plan should survive first contact with the client.” Real people are complex, and what works for one won’t work for another.
So how do I work without a plan? There are five things I can think of that are better than a plan, and here they are.

1. A sense of purpose

Deciding what you want to achieve should come before any discussion on how to achieve it. All too often we start with what we can do or what we know how to do and then figure out what we want to do. That’s what I did after university – I had a degree in English (because I was lazy and that came easiest), and I didn’t want to teach, so I decided to be a book editor.
The most successful people turn that round the other way. They find their purpose first, and after that figure out how to achieve it – even if nobody else believes it can be done.
What is the thing you want to achieve more than anything else?

2. A direction

Once you have a goal, you automatically have a direction: Head towards the goal!
Of course, you may not know exactly what direction the goal lies in. So: Head in the direction that looks like it will take you closer to the goal than where you are now, and closer to the goal than the other possible directions. (Here’s where you also get that important sense of progress.)
I use a system I came up with for myself called “two-level goals”. I have big long-term goals that don’t change much, and in the shorter term I come up with smaller to-do-list-sized goals that contribute towards the big goals. (And if something on your to-do list doesn’t contribute to your goals – why are you doing it?)
What’s the next step towards the thing you want to achieve?

3. A moral compass

But wait. Not every direction is one you will ultimately be glad you walked down. And many times, you can figure out which paths not to take in advance, based on your own sense of what’s right. If you want to achieve world peace, yet the path immediately available to you involves harming people who get in your way… do you take it?
It’s important to be clear on your moral and ethical standards, and to stick with them. Otherwise, reaching your goals will be a hollow, self-betraying and disappointing experience.
What actions are you ruling out in advance?

4. Awareness of opportunities

If you have a plan that you’re following rigidly, your risk is that you’ll overlook opportunities to head in a new (and maybe better) direction. If you have a goal, though, and you’re pursuing it flexibly, any (ethically acceptable) path to that goal becomes available to you. You just need to keep an eye out, recognise opportunities when you see them, and be prepared to add them in to your short-term goals if they serve your long-term goals – or let them go if they don’t.
What opportunities have you been overlooking?

5. A range of tools and techniques

When all you have is a hammer, even if not everything you encounter looks like a nail, you don’t have much option but to treat it as if it is. To take the opportunities that arise, and to deal with the challenges on the way, needs skillful resourcefulness. And if you’re reading this, you have more access to more resources than all the great achievers of previous centuries. You just need to use them.
What life skills, tools, techniques and resources can you pick up to help you towards your goals?
One of Mike Reeves-McMillan’s key goals is to help people increase their skills and resources for dealing positively with life, finding purpose and reaching their worthwhile goals. One of his main tools for this is his blog, Living Skillfully: Change Your Life.
Photo by Kyle Kruchok


  1. I feel that it’s important to visualize (and write out) your ideal lifestyle. Once that is done look at the gaps between today, the reality, your ideal vision. The ideal lifestyle is the goal (I am not referring to just where and how long one would vacation, but every important aspect of life. Mine are health, family and relationships, work, and financial independence). The difference between ideal and reality help formulate plan how to achieve the ideal.
    I write down each goal and plan of action to achieve it. These plans are always flexible as I find that I missed many steps in initial planning. Sometimes a goal becomes obsolete, but the process of achieving it helps me become a better, stronger, wiser person. so, I never feel that the time and effort was wasted.

  2. Agreed,
    I think having those tools makes a huge difference than just reading about making changes and reaching goals.
    I work on tools for that same purpose everyday. It’s a great feeling helping others.

  3. Interesting article and I agree that a plan without a clear purpose or direction is worthless because you’ll end up down a dead-end. I learnt a long time ago that authentic success is an inside out game. Self knowledge gained through personal development and soul level work alongside an ability to surrender control facilitates wonderful opportunities provided by living in the moment.

    • Well put, Kath. I sometimes talk about “inner success” – not the “outer success” of material wealth (though that can sometimes be a side effect), but the inner success of becoming your authentic self.

  4. What an excellent post. The one piece that I would add which I think is implicit in your post, and certainly an inherent part of your work is to be of service or contribution. I used to think that passion alone was enough, but how are you going to use that passion to benefit others is where the real magic happens. This does not mean altruism, it really comes from a place of abundance and generosity.
    Thanks for sharing this.

    • Well spotted, Allan. I think that could fit under the Moral Compass point – a compass points in two directions, after all. I talked about what your moral compass needs to point away from (harming others), but you’ve just reminded us of what it needs to point towards (serving others).

  5. This one is really great, “Awareness of opportunities”
    Plans force people to see only one way of doing things, just to stick to the plan!
    What proved to work much better for me is to move with a sense of purpose and be open to the opportunities the will show up.
    When passion goes up, opportunities show up!

    • So true. Consistently showing up and being ready for the opportunities when they occur is what uninformed observers sometimes call “luck”.

    • Completely agree. That’s why people should never stop looking for ways to improve themselves and their business. When one is opened to learning and is learning opportunities come frequently. It’s when people just stick to the plan, they miss out on other things. Plans are, or at least should be often reviewed and amended based on new knowledge.

  6. There are some very accurate points within this post, and there are two in particular that I agree with.
    2. A Direction
    This is a very practical & common sense approach. Big goals in life can be thought of as complex problems, and the best way to deal with complex problems is to break them down into smaller manageable tasks. Once all task have been completed, you will have reach your goal & solved the complex problem.
    4. Awareness of opportunities.
    Absolutely correct. If you become to focussed on a goal, you can become blind to other opportunities that may arise.
    I think that generally speaking life goals are a good idea, but should remain fluid to a certain degree, as life itself is very fluid. To be successful in life it’s important to be able to adapt to changes as they occur, and to evaluate every opportunity that lay before us.
    Great post!

    • Yes, if you have no direction you don’t really head anywhere – but if you focus too narrowly on your goal, you may get there only to realise that it’s not where you want to be. The trick is to steer a middle course.

      • Mike, I must respectfully disagree. I believe that each goal should be in sharp focus (now, it often takes time to develop focus for any big goal, especially when it comes to building the action plan how to achieve it). However, before embarking on the journey one should carefully assess the cost he/she will pay to achieve the goal. I believe it was Jim Rohn who said “if I knew the price I would have to pay for some of my achievements, I would have never gone after some.” (I paraphrased it, but it was something very close).
        So, IMHO a person must know what he’ll pay in terms of time, effort and sacrifices he will have to make in order to achieve each goal before starting. It’s not always apparent what it will take to get to the prize, but careful assessment will give one a good estimate.
        Aside from my personal development project, I work on bridging gaps between reality and vision of small business owners. It is shocking how many businesses are started without having any written plan. Owners often don’t know how long it will take to get their business to what they want it to be or, worse yet, don’t even know where they are going, other than “make money.” This lack of planning and often vision. leads to devastating results. Got to have clear focus and plan how to get there AND know what it will take to get there.
        Two most common complaints coming from entrepreneurs are “I don’t make enough money” and “I work all of the time and don’t make enough money AND barely see my family AND my family suffers because of that.” If only they planned carefully before starting business, all of these things could have been avoided.
        Thank you for reading my rant 🙂

        • Thanks, Sasha. I think we have a difference of emphasis rather than a difference of opinion here.
          I’m not suggesting that having focus or goals is a bad thing, nor that you shouldn’t assess the cost of going after them upfront (while remaining aware that there are likely to be hidden costs). What I’m saying is that a rigid plan can be counterproductive when it prevents you pursuing (or noticing) better opportunities.

  7. Seeing and acting on opportunities has always been a game changer for me.

  8. Nice insight. As one of six coaches in my federal agency, we often talk about goals. Somehow I’ve always been a slacker when it comes to pushing folks into a typically organizational goal-action sequence. Because I’ve always been highly flexible with my life, yet never felt as though I didn’t make progress, I don’t embrace rigidity. I try to help folks find that path(s) that are right for them without locking them into a goal-path that won’t let them flow and ebb, which is so natural. Thanks for this thoughtful post. (I love the concept of retrohension.)And now I know I’m not alone!

    • “Retrohension” is one of two words coined by friends that I particularly like. The other is “prodivalent”, meaning “equally happy with two good options”.
      You’re far from alone. I think a lot of people live this way these days, because everything changes so fast. I make some of my money in a way that didn’t exist until long after I’d finished school, for example. So I think it’s useful to articulate that flexibility is the new consistency.

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  10. Great list. #2 and #4 really hit home for me. I find that I am the one who gets in my own way. There have been times when an opportunity has presented itself and I haven’t fully taken hold of it–only to be envious of those who have. Had I been less rigid about my “plans”, I might have been able to react differently.

  11. Hey there, Mike! From the title alone, I knew this was gonna be a great read. Not just another post but something to genuinely learn from.
    True, there’s a lot of things much bigger than a plan. While planning is important, it must never be tended too seriously to an overkill point. There’s a whole world out there beyond our control. The open-minded and flexible ones would do good at “spotting opportunities,” while all the others who are following a fixed, narrow road lags or get lost.
    Just because we have plans rooted on our purpose or hold plans in sync with our direction and possess the exact tools, it doesn’t mean we have to implement these plans by hook or by crook. I totally agree with the moral compass point and the stress on openness opportunities. The moral compass makes gives us that sense of completion; our awareness of opportunities humbles us, makes our efforts more interesting, push us to learn some more and all the nice things life has to offer.
    Now this is long, but don’t get me wrong. You pushed me to think deeper than I usually do, Mike! LOL!

  12. I have a plan my whole life with markers along the way. it’s funny that people say I should live in the moment when so far I have met all and exceeded some of my goals and most people have not.

  13. awareness of opportunities, that is the place we get stuck. But this is worth trying. thanks for sharing this.
    Happy Holidays!

  14. Great article, King Soloman also provides a similar wisdom: “Give portions to seven, yes to eight, for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.” Eccl 11:2

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  16. Great post, Mike.
    Purpose has always been number one for me. Once I have my purpose, I have the motivation necessary for me to really start running with whatever it is I’m working with.
    An easy way to build more purpose has always been to make things bigger than myself. For example, when I started making financial goals for myself, there were smaller goals dictating that I donate a set percentage to charity. Thereby making the goal about more than just me becoming wealthy.
    Alex W

  17. Love the article, and thanks for using my photo!

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