Turning Old Cliches into New Maxims:
Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan
By Richard Eyre

Note: This column appears every two weeks .with an old clich replaced by a new maxim each time.  Click here to read the full introductory column. And if you’d like to travel with Richard and Linda Eyre, visit MeridianTrips.com

My first boss always said, “Plan your work and work your plan.” He was a disciple of detailed planning. He had other clichs, too – all related. “He who fails to plan, plans to fail.” “A goal without a plan is only a wish.”

Many of the clichs in this column need to be exploded, dismantled, and discarded; but this one only needs a little alteration and a few caveats.

Certainly work needs planning, and certainly planning needs follow-through. But when planning becomes too detailed or too set, it may work against the very flexibility and serendipity that we need in a fast-changing, unpredictable world. And it may remove the spontaneity and responsiveness that sometimes lead in to our finest thoughts and most productive actions.


My first personal clue to some kind of “counter-truth” that balanced or modified the idea of exhaustive preparation or planning came to me quite by chance several years ago. I was an aggressive young professional who had quite logically decided that I had so much to do that careful prioritizing and detailed planning were my only hopes. I had developed a ritual of getting up early each Sunday morning, setting some weekly goals, and then planning all the “steps” I would take during the week to reach those goals. I’d been doing this planning religiously every Sunday morning for several months.

Then one Sunday, just as I had finished writing down my goals for the week – and before I’d started planning how I’d reach the goals or scheduling my time – an unexpected phone call came in, and I ended up spending most of the morning on the phone dealing with a problem. Then things just got busy, and I never got back to the planning.

As the busy week unfolded, I was very aware of the goals I’d set, but didn’t have my usual detailed plans. Yet interestingly and, I thought, surprisingly, I found at the end of the week that I had reached the goals I had set. I’d just done things as they occurred to me or as the opportunity arose or the thought struck rather than following a schedule or a list.


Simply stated, goals are more important than plans. If a goal is clear and we are committed to it, we’ll probably find a way to reach it. And sometimes that “way” will be more sensitive, better tuned, and more direct if we’re open and flexible and watching for opportunities than if we’re rigid and locked into some specific plan and schedule that we thought was the best way or the best time to get it done.

Whoa, careful, wait, don’t misinterpret! This is not a case or plea for no planning or no preparation. Rather, it is an observation that over-preparation or too-detailed plans can make us less responsive and sometimes less creative and opportunistic. Goals without plans or with fairly general plans have an interesting kind of power. We seem to move toward them almost subconsciously, as though they were magnets that pull on us and on our circumstances.

The best speeches are often the unwritten ones where one responds to the feel of an audience. The best ideas often come as flashes of insight rather than the culmination of a long analysis. The best moves are sometimes made on the spur of the moment. (Michael Jordan said he decided what to do with the basketball after he had left the ground and was soaring through the air.)

Good, committed goals have a power of their own, and they can sometimes be smothered or weighted down by too many highly specific and carefully laid plans that may “stiffen us up” and block out spontaneous opportunities.

Hence the new maxim:


A wise, elderly friend of mine – a very creative and unique individual – once used a mathematical metaphor to express this thought. He said that we learn to do basic sums and timetables as children, but that as we get older and more confident, we want more creative mathematics – new approaches, new discoveries. Planning a rigid “one-way” approach to a goal we have is like using laborious, predictable hand calculations in math. Having a goal and constantly looking for a new and better way to reach it (or even for a new and higher goal) is a more-advanced and fun level of thinking.

In the next column we will explore (and explode) an old clich that has to do with change and rest.


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