On planning, worrying and Imaginary Future Problems
Being a planner has so many advantages. I can find things in my purse, for one. I know what my week looks like from the outset, as my schedule is a colour-coded thing of beauty. Things rarely sneak up on me. I know what I’m doing and when and how much of it. Planning is my buffer against chaos. It helps me deal with reality, which is obviously terribly unpredictable.
And it doesn’t always work.
The thing about planners, most of the time, is that they’re also worriers. You don’t plan for something unless you’re worried about it. I’m not exactly a Doomsday Prepper, but I’m constantly on the lookout for the next big disaster that’s heading for me. I don’t know what that disaster is going to be, but I’m going to make damn sure that I’ve got whatever I can control, UNDER control when it hits. In some ways this is really good, because when things like cancer or family health catastrophes happen, I know I’m organised enough to deal with it without something minor tripping me up. But in other ways it’s really bad, because when good things happen I immediately begin foreseeing future problems that will make them terrible. And then I try to plan exit strategies for those totally Imaginary Future Problems, which are capitalised because they’re a thing.
This takes up a lot of space in my head.
Yesterday I was talking out a work issue which was seemed really big, because I had knotted it up so much in my head with Imaginary Future Problems that I couldn’t see the end of it. Then, on the way to his real point, Giles gave me maybe the best advice of my whole life:
Don’t try to solve problems you don’t have yet.
Just think on that for a minute, because it’s brilliant. To me, this makes so much more sense than saying “Don’t worry about the future,” because THE FUTURE is nothing but a nebulous, ill-defined concept and the imaginary problem I’m trying to solve is always very specific. Completely hypothetical, yes. But specific.
What I realised is that there’s no point in trying to solve problems that you think you may have someday, because you may never have them. Problems can’t be planned for or dealt with ahead of time, because there’s no such thing as foreshadowing in real life. That’s the thing about setbacks and disasters: half the time, the thing that makes them so disastrous is that they catch you off guard. All you can do is handle them as they happen, which I’m actually very good at.
My mind was blown. And then a friend sent me a link to a page about software development (stick with me here) and a well-known principle called YAGNI: You Aren’t Gonna Need It.
And my mind was blown some more.
YAGNI, the more logical and detailed brother of the KISS principle, states:
Always implement things when you actually need them, not when you just foresee that you’ll need them.
This means that you should only try to solve problems that you have right now, not problems that you think you might have in the future. Because by the time the future gets here, not only are your problems are going to be way different than the ones you thought you’d have and got stressed about, but you will have wasted potentially good times by stressing about them. You will have ruined happy things with imaginary problems and solutions which, as the name tells us, YOU AREN’T GONNA NEED.
I know I’m far from being the only worrier and planner in the world, or even in the Land of Blogs. I also know that the things instrumental in causing me pain are also some of my strengths. It’s all about context. It’s good to take the very long view and try to anticipate future events with work, but not so much when it comes to dudes I like. A certain stubborn dedication is needed to get independent projects finished, but probably doesn’t need to be brought to my friendships. And so on.
I don’t know what it’s going to be like to wake up in the morning and not start torturing myself with what-ifs. I probably won’t even be able to do it cold-turkey; for one thing, what am I even gonna do with all the extra time in my day? But I’m going to try every single day until it stops. Life is really fucking short, and there’s no worse way to spend it than paralysed by the fear of Imaginary Future Problems.