Expect the Unexpected

notebook page with "new plan" crossed out and "new new plan" written

I love to plan – LOVE setting out all my upcoming adventures in my calendar, dreaming about what I’ll do on that weekend in Manhattan or what chores to tackle before a gaggle of teenagers fills my basement for a sleepover.

A lesson I have to learn repeatedly though, is that whatever story I tell myself about how the future will play out is wrong. Always. My imagination can’t ever create the wild realities that come to pass.

Don’t believe the story you make up about the future

I don’t remember exactly what I pictured for the month ahead back in March. I know I expected to find a winter camping trip fun but stressful, sharing close quarters with my kids and their friends. Instead it was a soul-warming reminder of the magic of being outdoors and easy family living in the simplicity of a yurt. We’ll go for even longer next year.

kids by a frozen lake

I’d been sure that I needed strategies to deal with the noise, with the differing bedtimes, with the physical discomforts. One of my strategies was to avoid getting hangry – minor irritants grow so big with hunger – so I got preoccupied with making a meal when we arrived. Luckily (what did we ever do without instant communication?) my daughter texted about being at the waterfront and that snapped me back to the real reality, not the story I’d told myself about how hard everything would be. I laughed as I slipped and slid down the icy trail to join everyone at the frozen beach, and soaked up enough enchantment there to feed me for days.

I could tell a hundred more stories of my faulty predictions, and even when I know I’m clinging to guesses, I find it hard to imagine any other version of events, so the guesses feel like truth. To break the trance, I used to play with outrageous possibilities in my head – then the universe would laugh at my feeble attempts, making my outrageous ideas mundane compared to how life actually unfolded.

So again, I’m learning to not even get on the ‘future fantasy’ train. I save my mental energy for enjoying the present moment, with time for doing concrete planning that’s necessary, covering the basics, getting started and trusting that things will work out. I’m picking general themes for future events rather than detailed plans – so our yurt adventure was about “savouring winter” before the thaw started. As soon as I stood on the shore and realized that, I didn’t give things like bedtimes a second thought.

Leave space for woes and windfalls

A month ago, I was oblivious to the version of the world where a vibrant colleague dies of cancer, sewage pipes rupture, I’m given a car, adopted cats join our household, and a freelance opportunity turns into a master class in creative writing. Yet a few weeks later, here I am, listing woes and windfalls that weren’t part of any plan.

two cats by a door
Rookie and Meeko ❤️

One of the monthly reflection questions in my planner (www.passionplanner.com, not an affiliate link, just an awesome product) is “How are you different between this past month and the month before it?” and there are months I write, I see it all better.

A wise friend described stages of her children growing up as a sheet of tissue paper being pulled back as each stage passed, removing some haze, and she could understand more clearly. Sometimes the haze that’s lifted is so thick, new light and understanding flood in and I See it All Better.

These leaps of insight are both surprising and not. With hindsight, I can see the ripening of an idea or an impulse, hear it bubbling up in conversations or echoed in quotations I saved from books. As with my broken pipes, there are conditions that make new insights more or less likely to happen, though there’s no telling what is going to flow when the break occurs. And while yes, some insights do turn out to be sewage 😕, thankfully not many do, so maybe a better analogy is a flower: I hear and read and share ideas as seeds, then water and feed them with stillness, breathing, meditation, time outdoors, walking, noticing, and they blossom. When my days and brain are too full to do those things, the seed doesn’t sprout, or if it does, I don’t notice. Having a decluttered life and mind both allows for more of these leaps of insight and gives me the space to respond (mostly) calmly to the broken pipes.

This is why I don’t put much energy into setting specific goals and tracking my progress towards them (How do you want to live your life?). Life is too wonderfully random and full of surprises to expect to move from point A to point B in a straight line. I plan, staying unattached to the specifics, and leave all sorts of space for unimagined possibilities to unfold. I know the directions I want to go, with clarity about what matters to me, so I know which opportunities to jump on, and what can fall by the wayside if need be.

Add a Contingency Budget

At work, budgets for big projects always include a contingency expense line of 10-15% for what I call the “expected unexpected” situations. We don’t know what will go wrong or turn out to cost more, but we know that something will. It’s also possible that an opportunity will arise and we want to have funds available to take advantage right away, not have to scramble.

I do this with my home budget too, and most importantly with my time/energy/life planning. About once a month we have a home day where we can simply be. No tasks, no ‘shoulds’, no planned social events. At work, I protect my first hour of the day for taking care of woes and windfalls. If it’s a dull day, I use it to maintain my zero inbox and decluttered space so I stay on top of my productivity game the rest of the time. And when there’s excitement… I can jump right in!

There are stars you haven't seen 
and loves you haven't loved. 
There's light you haven't felt 
and sunrises yet to dawn. 
There are dreams you haven't dreamt 
and days you haven't lived 
and nights you won't forget 
and flowers yet to grow. 
There is more to you 
that you have yet to know. 
~ Gaby Comprés


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