Are You An Over-Planner?

By Alexa Pugh, Learnvest – September 26, 2013

Reaching Your Goals While Still Living Life

Lauren Galvan always knew she wanted to be a doctor. But the 18-year-old also knows she wants to graduate medical school by 2020, have her career up and running by 2022 and be settled in a suburb with a husband and kids by age 30. And as a member of an eight-year program from which she’ll graduate with both a bachelor’s and a medical degree, she is already well on her way.

For people like Galvan, the future is a detailed blueprint with a timetable for completion. For others, it may be a general idea of where they’ll be in 10 or 20 years, or even a blank slate.

What motivates some of us to set goals for ourselves? And is there a line where ambition crosses into obsession? We took a look inside the minds of super-planners, like Galvan, and asked experts to weigh in on the best way to set goals that may help improve our health, wealth and long-term happiness.

How Do You Know If You’re Over-Planning?

Making life plans “helps us think concretely about our future—our wants and needs and the steps to get there,” says Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis, a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University. “But there is such a thing as over-planning.”

Healthy planning, she says, is about creating general goals that reflect what you want and making conscious choices that will bring you closer to realizing them. Over-planners, on the other hand, focus too much on specific details, she adds, sticking to a timeline even when it no longer makes sense. For example, while a planner may decide he wants to be married by a certain age, an over-planner may stay in a relationship past its expiration date in order to achieve that goal, a phenomenon also known as a sunk cost.

“Over-planning comes from anxiety. It’s a way of dealing with worry and can give people a false sense of control,” explains Bryant-Davis. “It can go too far when a person loses flexibility, when they have set goals that are unrealistic or too rigid.”

Over-planning, Bryant-Davis adds, can also result in never feeling satisfied and be a way for people to avoid actively pursuing their goals by getting caught up in the dream rather than the reality.

So, who tends to over-plan? Those with their whole lives still ahead of them. “Younger people are more apt to set rigid goals when it comes to family expectations and careers,” says Bryant-Davis.

Sarah Dewan* aspired to attend Harvard from an early age. After being waitlisted, she quickly readjusted—to attending Yale.

“I’m overscheduled on a day-to-day or month-to-month basis,” the 24-year-old says. Working an office job as a reporter during the day, Dewan juggles three other jobs on the side in order to afford the kind of lifestyle (and retirement savings plan) she wants. When friends want to grab dinner or drinks, they usually have to schedule two or even three weeks in advance.

“It’s just my personality,” Dewan says. “I’ve always been type-A.” She doesn’t envision ever wanting to pare down her hours, even though she aspires to work a single job with a higher salary in her current field.

People who have more experience—read: those who are a little bit older—”tend to be more flexible because they’ve had time to realize that we have a limited amount of control,” Bryant-Davis says.

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