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how to make a plan seem real

John Lennon quipped that life is what happens while you’re busy making plans.

We have plans all the time. But how do you tell which one is a 'goer' and worth putting your shoulder behind and which ones are best relegated to becoming humorous conversation pieces? I once had a plan to build an underground house. Never happened. I got some good laughs out of it though. For other people an underground house and all the digging it involves is no big deal. It's a real plan for them.

Plans are easy to make but hard to make real. I do not just mean achieving a goal, I mean coming up with a plan that convinces you it is worth pursuing. How do you tell the plan with legs? At the very beginning there are signs. But which ones should we take note of? You can go through phases when all plans seemed doomed and pointless from the start because you just can't get enthusiastic. Then, at other times, every plan seems brilliant. Apart from your own mental state the signs of a good plan include simplicity, the desire to tell others about it and lucky breaks at the outset. Recently I have become involved in an exciting project that involves building a solar vehicle. It’s still at the planning stage and yet is already a 'real' plan. I am fascinated to see what form it takes as the plan itself is realised. I am sure it will, for various reasons I will outline below. Yet there are other projects I have started and wasn’t a bit surprised when they didn’t get to be realised. When we say someone ‘gets things done’ we are acknowledging, first of all, they have the power, or skill, to make plans real- and then realise that plan. So what are these powers and skills and how can we improve them?


First, the simplest way to make a plan real is having the use of money in the background when you make the plan. You want to look at the stars- you have money enough to buy a telescope- this plan is a goer. You want to drive across the desert- you have money to buy the services of someone who can drive you across the desert. You want to get into space- well, for several million dollars, you can hitch a ride on a Russian rocket though Richard Branson is not far behind.

Because money can make things real, some things, very easily we get all too caught up in the magic power of money. You become obsessed with raising money for an expedition instead of thinking of a clever way to do the expedition for less money, or even none. You can borrow gear, get it secondhand, use volunteers rather than paid hands- there are lots of ways to cut down the money costs of an expedition. By doing this instinctively you can make a plan seem real by having ways of achieving things which usually need money. Instead of giving up even thinking about a long trip you can nurture the idea, make it real.

Then, of course, there are the things money can’t buy: skill and enthusiasm. In any project, however well funded, there will be moments when giving up seems the logical thing to do. So, at the planning stage how enthusiastic are you? If you aren't so keen on the plan now you better be able to see a way to get enthusiastic. As for skills- if you can’t ride a bicycle then no amount of money will enable you to take a bicycle tour. So plans that use only the skills you already have will seem realer than those that need special training. Unless, of course, that training is extra fun and adds to your enthusiasm for the project.

For a plan to be real and therefore realised, the basic idea must be communicable on a simple level- to someone- even if it's just yourself. If you just have a feeling ‘that you want to write a novel’- then you probably will but it may take years and years to arrive at a good basic idea. I am not saying you have to communicate the basic idea to people who will tear it apart- which if you simply give an image, many unimaginative people will, but you need to be able to warm your hands, so to speak, at the hearth of your idea. You need to feel it’s a good idea whose time will come. And for that to happen there must be something arresting, new, simple or memorable about it. All this means is: be on the look out for ideas that have these qualities, especially simplicity.

Greenlight it!

So much for the externals. What really interests me is the moment when you yourself mentally ‘green light’ a project, plan or dream of your own. For me it becomes real at that moment. You get a strong sense of ‘knowing it will happen’. It no longer seems unreal. Strangely, you may have nothing to go on except a dream or image. When I knew I was going to make a long canoe trip across northern Canada what made me switch from uncertain to certain, was, after seeing a birchbark canoe in a museum, I had this constant image in my head of a birchbark canoe sitting on its own reflection on some unnamed lake. When John Fowles set out to write the French Lieutenant’s Woman all he had was an image of a woman standing at the end of a long curving jetty that was being pounded by the sea.

Lucky breaks are a sign

But a dream isn’t always enough. You can easily con yourself that some image in your mind deserves to be real – you plough in a lot of work and it comes to nothing.  This is when the second factor becomes important – the nebulous, but very real, notion of alignment. How do you know if you are in alignment with some project or plan? Coincidences pile up. Happy coincidences seem to find you out- the right book, a useful suggestion, people being interested, a few lucky breaks. However you can’t sit around and wait for them to happen. It’s a bit like those psychic experiments which revealed people are better at correctly guessing a random card when they have no stake in ‘being right’. It’s easier to win at poker when you don’t care whether you win or lose, in other words. Likewise, with a project, you can’t ‘will’ the good coincidences. You have to act as if there were none and then graciously accept them as they pile up. You can take, after a while, a ‘loan from the coincidence bank’- this is when you have faith that something will just turn up- but usually this is hard to do at the beginning of a project. You need to have some momentum first.

When you mentally green light a project there must be the feeling that there are no insurmountable obstacles, by this I mean no obstacles that are plain boring to contemplate surmounting. That’s all. Very little is unsurmountable as long as it still engages, energises and enthuses you. You might have to take years to get it done but then as the Samurai Tesshu liked to say “I only copy the Buddhist Cannon one page at a time- that way this big task is actually an easy task”. But a task that seems draining and boring- unless you have external forces propelling you- will seem tedious to contemplate and the image, the idea, will not catch fire. You’ll hold back and somehow the project won’t seem ‘right’.

Be Impregnable

One of the biggest helps I’ve found, after you have got a ‘good image’ or dream idea in your head is to build an impregnable position. If you say ‘this book gets published if it takes 100 rewrites and 10 years’ then that’s a powerful position. Somehow the energy of that decision will communicate itself and you’ll find that the plan will probably be realised much sooner than you thought. And, oddly enough, when I have set time limits and rushed things it takes much longer. So if you build an impregnable position you are giving your project the best start.

What are the obstacles? Do a mental checklist of obstacles. Does any obstacle seem harder than the project itself? For example: learn fluent Chinese to start business in China. For most people becoming fluent will be harder than mastering a few basics of the language and finding a Chinese person who speaks basic English. If you find you have obstacles that are bigger challenges that the final project then you should find a way of getting there more directly. For example, it may be harder to achieve credibility in a subject by writing a book about it than actually mastering the subject, and then writing the book.

Focus on the inessential.

I wrote the above because 'focus on the essential' sounded so boringly obvious...yet, unless you have a well defined end or finishing state in mind, you can lose your way tormenting yourself with the question ‘just how essential is this?’ However, the skill of focusing on the essential is not hard to acquire when you realise it is related to the simplicity of the idea. With a simple idea the endgame is obvious. You want to make a cake. The endgame is a piping hot cake coming out of the oven. To focus on the essential you only have to know what your endgame is. For the solar vehicle I know that it will have to be able to drive a certain distance. Nothing less is acceptable. Anything more is a bonus but certainly not worth wasting time over. When I know, and can imagine my precise endgame, what the jacket of the book looks like if the idea is a book, then focus becomes far easier. If you can’t seem to focus then it means you have an imprecise idea of what the end result should be and you need to get more precise- or ditch the idea for a simpler one.

When I was first interested in getting out into the Sahara and had no car and no camels I couldn't come up with a real plan. I kept changing my mind. Everything depended on doing other things which I had no control over. I couldn't get enthusiastic. Then I said- after a lot of messing around I might add- what is the basic end situation I want here? Getting into the desert carrying food and water. How can I do that? By rucksack? No. By bike? No. What about pulling a sledge or trolley? Now I was away. I had a trolley built in a Cairo metal work shop. It cost very little-$50- and was completed in a day. On that trolley I was able to haul food and water over 150km. I deliberately made it super simple- no proper steering, no fancy frame, no suspension. All of those things were inessential. if I had even thought about them at the planning stage they would have made the plan seem unreal and not worth pursuing. But because the plan was so simple and doable it felt real. And was realised.

To return to my current project: the image of a solar vehicle to be built inexpensively. This image is clearly in my mind. The low component cost can be shared between the interested parties involved. Friends seem positive and coincidences are already piling up- people with good connections, useful suggestions arising rather than useless ones. I have a clear image of the endgame too so this feels like a real plan.

Tell everyone about it

There are novelists who never speak about a book idea until it is written. They fear that criticism could kill off the plan before it becomes strong enough to withstand public inspection. But I have reluctantly concluded that if I am buzzing to tell people about an idea - and not just because it is outrageous or funny but because I am genuinely proud of it- then that is a key sign I am on to something: this is a real idea. if you suddenly get all shy and reluctant to spout your idea you either should simplify it or examine it again- it may not be real enough yet.

Find your own fun sensor

OK, so much for a big plan. But what about a small plan? Having a party, say, or painting your house. Increasingly I think you have to find what is fun and exciting in any project, you have to have a ‘fun sensor’ digging the potential fun out, wherever it may lurk. Actually I realise this is central to making any plan happen, big or small. Where’s the fun in it? Where’s the excitement? Building a shed in your garden may be boring to contemplate- but what if you designed it yourself, made it individual and quirky? For me this is a KEY turnaround for any boring idea. I can think: OK must get exercise- then do nothing. But if I add the idea of exploring some obscure cave up the canyon then exercising to get there is suddenly infused with fun. Simple stuff but it is surprising how easy it is to lose the fun habit and become a dutiful adult, even boringly dutiful about getting drunk and partying. Far better to give a party a theme or even a challenge. Raise the tempo any old way you can. Find the excitement.

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