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Of planners and promises: A New Year’s Day dilemma

To put it simply, many of us are so mired in the busy-ness of everyday life that we don’t, or can’t, look up long enough to assess what we do and when we do it and how effective we are in doing it in our daily lives.

Amid the gloriously wrapped and heedlessly opened carnage of Christmas morning, an innocuous present: A leather-bound black 4-by-6-inch volume, looking like any sort of Moleskin journal but opening into a whole can of wishes, wants and won’ts. This is my #ThisIsYourVibe planner, which promises to be “The Ultimate Tool in Your Quest to” fully actualize My Vibe. (N.B. I have changed the product names in a manner that any savvy self- and product-promoter will likely find laughable.)

Paper planners are all the rage among a certain segment these days. One aspect of their appeal comes from their retro interface. This is high-quality paper bound in beautiful leather, after all, and my participation with it requires me to take up pencil or (better yet) pen. This particular version includes added philanthropic appeal, as the company promises to donate one “stationery kit” to a needy child; this pledge is accompanied by an adorable photo of a sub-Saharan African child in a school uniform, holding up a hand-drawn sign with the planner maker’s tag line (or hash tag). You mean I can do some good (providing writing materials to the needy) while also doing well (facilitating my own success by reprioritizing the many needs in my life)? Sign me up!

Now that we’re at it, of course, signing oneself up is integral to the planner maker’s business model. The back of the insert that shows the grateful third-world writer-to-be promises a “special FREE gift” once I enter my salient details via a website. And the gift I will receive? An email from the planner producers featuring “useful tools that will help [me] with [my] goal setting, goal tracking and productivity.” And opportunities to buy more products and services, no doubt—a boon indeed.

This “gift,” of course, points toward the primary objective of the planner producer complex: profit. In that respect, its efforts to make, promote and sell its wares are no different from those of any other vendor, and its terms will be recognizable to anybody familiar with the “self help” sector.

This is not to say that planners aren’t valuable. In fact, those of us who can find the time to attend to the daily work of “planning”—an endless loop of goal-setting and performance analysis—are likely to benefit from this kind of reflection. To put it simply, many of us are so mired in the busy-ness of everyday life that we don’t, or can’t, look up long enough to assess what we do and when we do it and how effective we are in doing it in our daily lives.

The title page from the first edition of Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ (1854)

A century and a half ago, Henry David Thoreau—whose “Walden” reads like a meticulous planner, the marginal aphorisms and esoteric allusions of which have been integrated into the body of the composition—famously opined that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” We might revise that to suit contemporary America thus: “The mass of people lead lives of desperate superficial engagement.” In other words, we have gotten so accustomed to the frantic demonstration of our productivity and engagement that we carve out no time and space for actual contemplation. Fifteen minutes of a morning putting pen to paper is a worthy and welcome counterbalance to the endless torrent of pixellated data that characterizes our lives. (This boundary-free deluge seems to hold true in both the work space and the social sphere as well as in the family environs, all of which look increasingly similar.) 

My new planner prompts me to establish SMART goals at the outset, complete with “action steps,” priority levels, and target and completion dates, kicked off by inspiring messages from various self-actualized achievers. Once I get past that section, I come to a two-page monthly review with space for “top 3 goals” and “3 lessons I learned.” As this version is a quarterly one, a popular set-up in the sector, I get three months to work with and will need to purchase three more volumes to make it through 2019. Price points change based on which coupons, offers and lists one subscribes to, but I can purchase the one that Santa brought me for $24.99 at this moment, and a four-pack goes for $83.88.

Further along in this volume, we come to weekly reviews, each of which begins with a recap of the “wins/accomplishments” and “lessons” from the previous week. There is space to note five goals for the week and five action steps for achieving them, with plenty of space set aside for “notes.” The words of Michael Phelps, who could be said to have set the gold standard for goal achievement, peer down from the top right of the first weekly review I open to: “With hard work, there are no limits.” 

Michael Phelps at the 2016 Summer Olympics. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

But Phelps’ dictum points to the heart of the matter and the illusory promise of the planner. He is an interesting case study in motivation: Described by his coach as “a solitary man” with a “rigid focus,” Phelps has been open about his childhood diagnosis of ADHD and adult bouts with depression. No one could question his hard work or the extent to which that hard work, married to the gifts he was born with, led Phelps to become the greatest swimmer of the modern era. By the time he was 10 years old, Phelps had set an age-group record, and he enjoying parental participation throughout his childhood as well as extensive regional and national support along the way. So all Michael Phelps had to worry about, or needed to focus on, was the pursuit of excellence in the discipline that he seems to have been born to dominate.

But for how many of us is that true? How many planner users can or should aspire to GOAT status in any aspect of our lives? What if the most we can honestly aspire to is a participation medal at the local amateur event?  For me, surveying the highly contingent prospects for distinction in middle age, my moment has long since passed. But, you may say, just because I can’t get to “best ever” doesn’t mean I shouldn’t aspire to “best I can be.” True enough: We should all aspire toward becoming the best versions of ourselves and to living meaningful lives along the way, and understanding how we allocate our most precious resource—time—is essential.

Individual days come last in both #ThisIsYourVibe and the MyPenguinPlanner: three months’ worth with a few to spare. The morning review/reflection section in each prompts me toward gratitude and aspiration, with plenty of space set aside to generate goals or tasks or priorities and to reflect on wins/lessons at the day’s end. Each daily spread features a blank schedule with hourly increments from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. (The earliest risers and the graveyard shifters may balk at this limitation.) This simple feature may be the most crucial, for it prompts us to consider what we will do and when, and to anticipate how long our various objectives will take to accomplish; in other words, the daily pages propel us beyond the vagaries of aspiration into the specificities of actualization.

“When you take control of your time, you take control of your destiny. And the world needs what you have to offer,” exhorts Tony Robbins from another page in my planner. Yet this dictum reveals another planner paradox: We have to set aside enough time to “take control” in the first place. Then we have to continue to carve out the daily minutes in our actual lives to update and itemize and analyze. More than that, a fully implemented planner requires large amounts of autonomy. Anyone who works full time (or more than full time) in a job (or jobs) for which the schedule is inflexibly established and the task list predetermined will scour the margins of their daily pages for opportunities to revamp or recalibrate. Tack on the demands of parenting or partnering, and time available for planning and prosecution gets slight indeed.

I can imagine some contemporary types for whom the planner seems like fertile ground from which to “tend your garden” (Voltaire): twenty-somethings who have somehow escaped crushing educational debt and can make a go in the “gig” economy; early escapees from professional athletics or hedge fund windfalls or Powerball fortunes or initial public offerings and more traditional retirees who haven’t yet run out of vigor, health or funds; and those with partners or patrons who will underwrite their ongoing journeys.

In full disclosure, my own spouse is the source of my planners. A novelist, marketer and writing coach, she seems much more developed than I on the path toward self-actualization. Sadly, she has not yet secured an income stream steady or substantial enough to cover my daughter’s college tuition or my son’s recreational pursuits, let alone keep the proverbial roof over our heads. So I will need to hang onto my full-time job for the time being.

Those of us with limited means and real-world families and traditional employment will likely find it hard to attend to our planners and, even if we have gotten to our daily pages, to continue to find energy for the continual process of self-improvement that these products point us toward. Thoreau dropped out of society and Phelps dove into the pool, but most of us just forge ahead, trying to survive our day-to-day challenges and to meet the unending stream of demands that modern life seems to impose on us.

Yet our souls cry out for order and clarity and purpose while our phones and our families notify us nonstop about the unlikeliness of same. Thus do our aspirational selves wake our acquisitional selves, which might have remained a while longer in their comatose post-holiday state, and prompt us toward a purchase that1 promises to refashion our lives. Thus do we find ourselves face to face with a whole new modern paradox: the challenge of carving out enough time in our crowded lives to reorder the chaos of ongoing existence. And thus does the spirit of Tony Robbins, the self-help guru and marketing maven who has accrued close to half a billion dollars of net worth in the past three decades, overshadow the examples of Thoreau and Phelps and so many other strivers. 

As for me in this moment, I am hesitating on the threshold. I have daily pages left (though no months or weeks) in MyPenguinPlanner, and can’t quite summon the energy for a whole new round of goal-setting with which I will need to commence #ThisIsMyVibe. I think I’ll stick with the former for one more day at least; the latter can wait for the brave new year.


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