planWhen Jon suggested that our team consider “preparation” for our next theme, I did a little celebration dance. I like preparation and planning as much as Buddy the Elf likes smiling — they’re my favorite. I’d even go out on a limb and state that making a plan is just as exciting for me as accomplishing the actual goal.

I spend weeks before vacation putting together a spreadsheet that highlights all the things I want to do and see and eat. I take an hour every Sunday night to lay out the coming week’s schedule and make sure there’s plenty of time to complete all the tasks I’ve committed to — spoiler alert, there never is. Even this post was an outline that I put together several days before I ever sat down to write it.

I’m a consummate planner. Preparing ahead of time lets me enjoy the rush of anticipation and gives me a momentary illusion of control before reality inevitably steps in and jumbles my plans.

It’s true, even though I recognize that life loves nothing more than to mess with my plans, I continue to make them earnestly. While I’m certain I’ll have to adjust things mid-project, preparation time never feels like a waste when I’m up to the waist in mucked up plans.

How the Cubs Tried to Mess with NaNoWriMo

This month has been a prime example of what happens when an intricate plan is blown to bits. I’m participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writer’s’ Month) for the first time. It’s a creative project in which writers are challenged to draft a 50,000-word novel between November 1st and November 30th and let’s face it; it’s a planner’s dream.

Knowing I have a trip over the Thanksgiving holiday, I spent time carefully scheduling my writing, doling out my daily words, and front loading the month to ensure I didn’t fall behind and could hit my goal by the 30th. Then the unexpected occurred — the Chicago Cubs won The World Series! Loveable Losers no more, the roller coaster 7-game series was happily unexpected. Suddenly the writing time I planned during the early days of the month was consumed with rallies and a blue river and celebrating the team’s first World Series appearance in 108 years. How could I miss this cultural experience? But what about my very rigid NaNoWriMo plan?

When Life Interrupts the Perfect Plan

I was not about to let the Cubs’ victory derail my NaNoWriMo. When life disrupts a plan, you just have to make adjustments. Here’s what to do to get back on track.

1. Remember that Failure Isn’t Imminent

There’s no denying my plan was in disarray by the end of the series. It was bad enough to admit defeat, throw in the towel and tell myself, “Wait until next year.” Luckily, I was so busy celebrating that dread and dismay didn’t kick in when my plan went the way of the Indians (sorry Cleveland fans, I couldn’t resist). I don’t always have such a happy distraction, though. Typically, when my plans start to take a nosedive, I have a momentary panic and assume that failure is imminent. However, once my inner drama queen takes a breath, I rely on my preparation time to get back on track. I remind myself that I’m equipped for this re-route. Though this detour wasn’t in the plans, I have the skills to navigate it. I remember that I am perfectly capable of doing a little improvising to get the train back on track. Truthfully, this part is all self-talk. It’s a matter of convincing myself I can do it before I actually dig in and do it.

2. Admit that Something Has to Go

All the celebrating meant that I fell perilously behind on my wordcount. The time that I had intended to spend writing was re-allocated. That meant I had to find that time elsewhere in my schedule. It meant that something had to go. I had to look at my calendar and decide what I could miss/give up/forego to get back on track.

Now, if I’d been dead set on sticking to my writing plan come hell or high water, I guess the Cubs celebration could have been what I decided had to go. This time around I had a choice. We don’t always have that choice, though. When a plan gets disrupted, things are generally out of our control. We’re forced to figure out a way to our goal that’s different than the anticipated route. Figuring out that new plan takes time, energy, and sacrifice.

I’m afraid I’ve been tempted, in the past, to give up sleep or exercise or my mental health (by trying to do too many things) in an attempt to reach my goal. Take my word for it, keeping the essentials and cutting out a negotiable is a wiser option. Maybe it means bowing out of a meeting just this once, or delegating a task to a co-worker. Remove something from your to-do list to accommodate the added work, though, and choose wisely.

3. Refocus and Dig In

Once you’ve cleared the time and mental space, in the immortal words of Elsa, let it go. Let go of any lingering guilt. Don’t beat yourself up because your plan changed. Turn your gaze from what’s behind you to what is ahead of you. Focus on the future and dig in.

It’s easy to get bogged down in what might have been. It’s natural to fixate on past mistakes. However, neither is productive or encouraging. When I found myself behind my word count goal, I could have wasted time beating myself up and regretting my choices. Nothing squelches my creativity like a little self-flagellation, so I try to avoid it as much as possible. I put myself in front of the computer, turned off all the distractions and wrote. Sure my word count wasn’t as high as it could have been, but every word I wrote got me closer to my goal. My mantra became 100 more words. No excuses, no retreat. I dug in and got to work.

4. Celebrate Success Even When it Looks Different

I’m guessing that you’ve already figured out that if I had a plan for my daily word count, I also probably did some preparation around what I was going to write. And you’d be right. I did a rough outline, a tiny bit of character work, and decided on a time and place where I would set my story. Though, the strangest thing happened when I sat down to catch up. I figured if I was going “off book,” I might as well give myself a little bit of creative leeway and see what would happen. When I let up on myself and relaxed about my plan, my creativity flowed. I caught up to my word goal for the week (and more) and ended up with a story that I couldn’t have planned for ahead of time. Sure, the preparation is informing my story, but it’s doing so in surprising ways.

My story looks a little different than I thought it would, my characters may end up at the World Series. That was certainly never part of the plan, but I’m celebrating what I’ve got and enjoying the process.

You will never hear me advise anyone to skip the planning stage of a project. And I suspect I’ll continue, long after NaNoWriMo is over, to relish the anticipation that comes while preparing. Planning is good. It’s necessary. It’s useful. To a point. When it leads to a belief that you’ve failed because you’ve deviated from said plan, then it’s a problem.

What I’m learning is that it’s when you deviate from the plan that the really helpful lessons are learned. You grow and flex your creativity in those moments of divergence. You stretch your mind and use resources you never even knew you had, and the end product is better for it.