“I need a plan.”

I must hear that five times a week. It’s as if we think that the existence of the plan, a set of action steps which we intend to take, will somehow make all of the anxiety go away.

“No you don’t,” I often say, infuriating my clients.

“But I don’t know what to do about…”–fill in the blank:

“…my job.”

“…my mate.”

“…my being lost, stuck, frightened.”

Just tell me what to do, they often implore.

And just as maddeningly I’ll say, “Tell me what you want to happen.”

Because, in the end, it’s not really that we don’t need a plan to make the change we desperately know we want. The problem is we think the plan is the answer when it’s simply a means to arriving at the answer.

The hard part isn’t coming up with the plan. The hard part is bearing the stage of “No action” necessary so that the right amount of data can unfold. And then, when you know where you want to go, where you need to be, exactly how you’d like the change to manifest, the steps to getting there lay themselves out the way the Yellow Brick road revealed itself to Dorothy.


  • http://kirklove.net/ kirklove

    What if knowing where to go never reveals itself?

    • jerrycolonna

      Then having a plan is even more useless. :-) The work then becomes creating the conditions where what you want reveals itself.

      • jerrycolonna

        But I don’t mean to be flip. Not knowing is really hard. But much more important.

        • http://kirklove.net/ kirklove

          I didn’t take it as flippant at all, Jerry. 

          I can’t escape the feeling I’m indeed creating the wrong conditions precisely because it’s not revealing itself. Yet, I don’t know what the “right” conditions are. A bit of a chicken and the egg paradox I suppose. Thanks again for the response.

          • jerrycolonna

            I’m glad you heard my sincerity, Kirk.

            This is tough material and it’s not at all surprising to find yourself struggling a bit. As I wrote to Dave, when the question of what we want is existential, that paradox can be maddening.

            I wish that finding the clues to what we want were easy. I often find solace in Joseph Cambell’s quote, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances without own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

            To me, that means that if we follow what makes us feel the most alive, then chances are the plan that develops will be the “right” plan.

          • http://kirklove.net/ kirklove

            A path toward truly being alive. Love it. Thanks so much.

          • jerrycolonna

            You’re welcome. It can feel a lot easier to attain than the path to “meaning” or “the right thing.”

          • http://www.tereza.com/ Tereza

            I think the meaning of life — the deepest need — is to matter.

            Or maybe that’s just me.

          • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com/ Donna Brewington White

            It’s not just you.

          • jerrycolonna

            Me, too.

  • davearkoosh

    How do we know if what we think we want at the beginning is really what we want?

    • jerrycolonna

      I wish there were easy answers, an easy plan to find that. But that’s where the work lays. I often joke that the soul (or substitute any non-religious laden word you’d like) doesn’t tap you the shoulder saying, Pssst. You really want to be a firefighter. I wish it would. It can leave a trail of breadcrumbs though (perhaps even through Dante’s Dark Wood but now I’m REALLY pushing my metaphors). And the work, our work, tends to be looking for those clues to what you really want to have happen.

      If it’s a business, I’ll often ask a client to “stand in the future” and look backward. What does the company look like five years from now? I try to get them to describe it in the smallest detail. We then piece together a view…and from that point we can then start figuring out the plan.

      But the same holds true, really, for anything that you’re struggling with. How do you want to live in relationship with the other? (And oftentimes one of the questions that come up with that is, is this the person you’d like to be with?)

      Or, how do you want to spend your days when struggling with deciding what job you’d like to have.

      The point is, this work can be a little obtuse and it can be best to approach the questions from different angles. 

      • davearkoosh

        Thanks Jerry.  I try to practice some of that standing in the future and looking backwards.  It usually shows me either that I’m moving in the wrong direction or that my expectation of the future is misaligned with where I’m at.  I just wish there was more time during what we do every day to consider what the future looks like and how the way we’re working is moving us toward it or further into the weeds.

        • jerrycolonna

          Time is always in short supply. I don’t see any way around that. But I find that working backwards in a sense ends up being faster. I’m sure there’s a theoretical physicist who can tell me why that’s so. 

  • Bob

    If you wait until you know you’ll never go.

    • jerrycolonna

      Yes. Fear of  not knowing can lead to a paralyzing in action. I wrote about that in a post called Comfortable with Uncertainty. But what I was trying to identify is our tendency confuse planning with decision, our desire substitute planning for doing the work–that is, taking the action–of deciding what outcome we want.

      Planning isn’t really the action we think it is…it can make us feel great (I’m a huge fan of making lists) but it isn’t a substitute for deciding or wading into the difficult areas of simply not know.

  • http://reecepacheco.com/ reece

    “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

    i just try to be ready for anything and dive in. experience has been my best teacher yet

  • me

    Care to offer some help? I am in dire need of a plan, a strategy, a way, something. I seem to be stuck in such a bad habit in combination with a demotivated sense of enthusiasm because of my lack of direction. I guess it would be fair to say someone is just lazy if they knew how to build it, but just chose to sit around. But what if you just can’t figure it out and it grows and grows into your demise? Anyhow, feel free to get a sense of what this might seem like from my perspective, unedited. I am only placing it here, the first time. I have never invited anyone to read this before. 


    • jerrycolonna

      I’d paraphrase your own blog title: you must persist. 

      I know from my own experiences that that’s easier said than done. But I also know from my experience that there is a way. I don’t know you well but my sense is a plan per se isn’t as valuable as, say, a container…some structures coming from work, family, friends and even a deeper sense of self…could help put some ground beneath your feet while you sort through where you want to be. From what you shared, and I’m grateful for your honesty and depth, you’re in this “do” loop of criticizing yourself because of a lack motivation which is then only deepening the lack of motivation. Layered on top seems to be a fear that you’ll not get out from under.

      It reminds me of something I shared in a post entitled: “Closing Doors Softly.”

      When we find ourselves in midlife depression, suddenly hate our spouse, our job, our life—we can be sure that the unlived life is seeking our attention. When we feel restless, bored, or empty despite an outer life filled with riches, the unlived life is asking for us to engage. To not do this work will leave us depleted and despondent, with a nagging sense of ennui or failure. As you may already have discovered, doing or acquiring more does not quell your sense of unease or dissatisfaction. Stuffing down these rogue feelings or dutifully serving your life’s routines will not suffice. Neither will “meditating on the light” or attempting to rise above the sufferings of earthly existence. Only awareness of your shadow qualities can help you to find an appropriate place for your unredeemed darkness and thereby create a more satisfying experience. To not do this work is to remain trapped in the tedium, loneliness, agitations, and disappointments of a circumscribed life rather than awakening to your higher calling.” Robert A. Johnson and Jerry M. Rhul, Living Your Unlived Life.

      I’m not sure if this resonates with you as it did with me when I struggled with similar feelings but if it does, know this: not only did I find the book helpful, but I found my therapist invaluable. She was and remains another aspect of the container in which I can do MY work while I try to help my clients do their work. 

      Thank you for the invitation. Oh, and pick up Johnson and Rhul’s book.

    • http://twitter.com/friedmank Kevin Friedman

      Hi me,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your blog with us. I read your entire blog this morning and found your writing and YOU beautiful. I agree with everything that Jerry said… about the “criticism loop” and, perhaps more importantly, about there being a way for you. I was struck with how hard you were on yourself in your blog. Of course, I can understand that with the reality of your struggles and, I would imagine, a history of other people offering a similar message. But, I found myself wondering… maybe HE isn’t the only one with the “problem” even though the world and his own thoughts might be shouting that.

      As another 30-something that has shared many of your thoughts, I hope you’ll stick around here and continue to share yourself with us.

  • panterosa,

    Jerry, isn’t this a reiteration of Rilke’s Live The Question?

    • jerrycolonna

      I don’t see it as such but perhaps you’re right. I see Rilke’s instruction in Letters to Young Poet as an encouragement to engage with and not be afraid of the questions and not rush to answers.   My point is that we often times mistake motion for meaning and confuse having a plan with having an answer. Further, to develop the plan, we often need to have some sense of the result we’d like to get.

      Someone tweeted that the post helped them sort through their steps around developing code because they realized they were stuck on trying to identify the next step whereas by starting from the desired result (all the features they wanted in the product and then identifying the dependencies among the features, they were able to prioritize steps and ended up with a plan). 

      • panterosa,

        The idea of not acting, waiting for data to ‘unfold’ (love that image), listening, slowing down in my mind are how you connect to the deepness of your “questions” and find the inspiration to live them. 
        The idea of Rilke’s instruction to live the question is knowing the result you want, your goal. Not writing any plan per se, except to be present enough know when you encounter times where you can decide to really engage with that desire, is what brings you answers.

  • http://www.learningisdiscovery.com Shawn Cohen

    Great post, Jerry. Some people are good at goal setting, knowing exactly where they want to go but I’m not. I have to work at visualizing my ideal. But once I do, the plan often unfolds itself. At least it does w/ my relatively non-complex projects at this point in my career:)

    @kirklove:disqus Clay Christiensen recently wrote that experimenting is a key behavior of innovators. I hate to fail and experimentation leaves the door open for that. But if I don’t experiment, my inaction leads to a non-solution to my problem. So I experiment and fail. I have to accept the reality of that even though it’s scary.

    • jerrycolonna

      I love the notion of experimentation breaking through the dependency on “planning.”

  • http://www.mckeeverandsullivan.com Joe Marchese

    Bon Jovi gave a commencement speech several years back, urging graduates to have a plan but recommended they do it in pencil. [Dated reference but great point.] Most companies have strategies but translating it into action is where most miss the mark. Per Mayor Mike: “it’s about planning vs. acting… we act from Day 1… others plan how to plan — for months”.

    • jerrycolonna

      I love the dated reference (and both Bon Jovi AND pencils).
      Seriously, great image. Thanks.

  • http://www.thelancasterfoodco.com Charlie Crystle

    I’ve returned to what might be a simplistic tool, but during some very rough weeks it’s been helpful. 

    When you first learn to ride a bike, and you want to miss the tree ahead of you, you look at the tree, hoping you’ll miss it. But of course you hit it, because you ride to where you’re looking. 

    I don’t have the plan so much as that I’m looking to where I want to be, and any time I get down I look away from the tree and just try to focus on where I’m going. 

    Look to where you want to be and the rest will follow. 

    • jerrycolonna

      Or, skate to where the puck will be, right?

      • http://www.thelancasterfoodco.com Charlie Crystle

        I don’t think so. That’s seems to be more opportunistic and predictive of the future.

        I guess what I’m saying is that by having an exclusive focus on a goal, the obstructions tend to fall away simply by choosing the path that leads to the goal. 

        In practical terms, if my goal is to finish coding today, posting here is an obstruction. With an exclusive focus on coding, the other stuff falls away and I get  satisfaction of completion, instead of the frustration of obstruction. 

        For me though, it’s about putting certain emotion aside by exclusively focusing on finishing a year’s worth of work. I get two things out of that: less pain, and a launched startup. 

        Suppression through exclusion? :)

      • Jeff

        Look away from the obstruction!

        • http://www.thelancasterfoodco.com Charlie Crystle

          look toward your target

  • http://www.3pmobile.com/ Peter Cranstone

    Plans are great – but missions are better. No plan survives first contact with the enemy, so it’s easy for discouragement to set in. Now a mission is something broader, deeper and more sustainable. The plan then becomes a strategy with a set of tactics to achieve the mission.

    People need something (or you’ll end up where you started). For most entrepreneurs it’s never about the plan (although try getting a VC to listen to you you without one). So what’s more important is that you start with a mission. Missions have goals, missions have outcomes – and outcomes always trump “activities” which is the cross of every startup.

    Where you talk about “No Action” necessary, think of it as a plane on a holding pattern waiting for a chance to land. Every mission has a holding plan while “life unfolds”. You need to look for the right “visual cues” and then execute to an outcome. 

    And just remember that the Yellow Brick road is paved with lots of “side streets” which end up as dead ends. Look for the warnings signs “early and often”.  

    • jerrycolonna

      Well said Peter. Planning is a process with outcomes the metric of movement.
      That said, I think some dead ends can be informative.

      • http://www.3pmobile.com/ Peter Cranstone

        Dead ends are informative “IF” you have the courage to learn from them. The only way to really know that they’re a dead end is if you validate. That takes time and effort. Once validated then you have to collect the data, refocus and tweak the tactics. 

        For example. We’ve been working on our mission for 6 years. We’ve never had to change the core code design (we’re fanatics about design). However we sure have changed a lot of other things based on dead ends. Some times we code for weeks just to learn if there’s a dead end. But we always keep an eye on the mission.

        • http://www.3pmobile.com/ Peter Cranstone


          Here’s another thought on the topic. This time let’s use a sailing trip as the analogy. You’ve decided to sail from San Francisco to Hawaii – that’s the mission. There’s no plan other than to sail to the destination. All you have to contend with is time, currents and the weather (the prevailing forces). As you leave the harbor the wind changes – you’re not sure how strong the wind will remain but it appears to be blowing you in the direction of your destination. You stick with it until the wind changes and then you “tack” and shift direction again.

          You never lose sight of the destination – Hawaii. But along the way things change and you tack left and right of course to maintain your direction.

          What happens to a lot of startup is that they “mentally shift the position of Hawaii” until it aligns with the wind and where they feel most comfortable. What happens is that you “tack yourself into a holding pattern” never going anywhere. There’s lots of activities on deck, but the outcome is never reached.

          A plan wouldn’t have helped, simply because you had no real idea of what the destination looked like. A mission defines your destination – plans come and go, but never change the mission. Use outcomes to define and refine the direction to achieve the mission – and “a plan” to help you with that process.

          • jerrycolonna

            Again, really great analogy. It reminds me of advice I used to give entrepreneurs when they would talk about starting plans…the ability to take in data, and tack accordingly, is one of the most important skill sets.

  • http://www.thelancasterfoodco.com Charlie Crystle

    I need a post … 😉

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan


    Reminds me of the Wayne Gretzky quote that you mentioned below!

    And, in any case, a plan without a map and a destination is of no use.. 

    I just found your blog, Jerry – thanks to Fred. :) And I can’t believe I missed your blog for so long.That said, you are on my reader now and I’ll be colonizing it shortly (haha)

    • jerrycolonna

      LOL. Welcome. I don’t blog nearly as much as Fred (does anyone?). And I don’t write nearly as much as I’d like. But I love visitors…especially colonizers who add value as you have already.

      • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan

        Haha. I do blog just as much.. haha (www.alearningaday.com)  !

        Except I’m many many many years younger and less experienced. It began as a chronicle of my daily learnings and now has transformed me in more ways than I can imagine. Great about your love for colonizers. I’ll be here from here on in! Looking forward! 😀

        • jerrycolonna

          Well I’m jealous of anyone who can write frequently. Looking forward to you hanging out here.