Planning requires two things. It requires agency, believing that one can act and influence the future world that one inhabits and an ability to look forward and make predictions about future outcomes. Making predictions about the future has its own requirements – stability and causal reasoning. Luckily for most of us, we have relatively stable lives, impressive causal reasoning abilities, and agency in our lives to influence future outcomes. But that doesn’t mean that planning is easy or that it is something we always do.
We may fail to plan for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons may come from a lack of agency, some may come from uncertainty about the future, and some reasons may be a simple failure to think ahead. When we don’t plan, we don’t think about what our lives may be like in the future, what we would like our lives to be like, and what causal structures exist to help us reach that desired future or avoid an undesirable future. However, sometimes a failure to plan can also be a defense mechanism.
“At the very heart of planning,” writes Elliot Liebow in Tell Them Who I Am, “is the assumption that one has the power to control or influence the future. If one is truly powerless to influence events, planning makes little sense.” Without agency, planning leads to disappointment. If you make plans, even simple plans, but you cannot possibly take the actions necessary to execute those plans, then you will necessarily be let down. The imagined future you tried to plan for will not occur. Your desired states will not materialize. Liebow continues, “in the extreme case planning [is] to be actively avoided, for down that road lay failure and disappointment and still further confirmation of one’s own impotence.”
When plans fail it reflects either a lack of agency or an inability to predict the future. The failure of our plans means that we don’t control our surroundings, or that we do not have good causal reasoning skills, or that we do not have stable lives. None of these realities is comforting. The first reflects a lack of personal ability, the second a lack of mental capacity, and the third reflects a dangerous and tumultuous life. Improving our lives requires an ability to plan and execute. Failing to do so reflects inward failures or inadequacies. Rather than risk failure, the defense mechanism is to not plan at all. Not planning means we can deny that we have a lack of agency, that we lack causal reasoning skills, or that we have ended up in a place where our lives are unpredictable beyond our control. If people want to be able to plan their lives, they need control, need to be able to see into the future to predict desired outcomes, and need some level of stability in their lives.