Monday, September 10, 2012

The Planning Fallacy

I recently finished reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow – a fascinating read that starts out slow but touches on everything that we think we know about the way we think. One of the points that Kahneman talks about in the book is the planning fallacy.

In short, the planning fallacy is our tendency to underestimate the amount of time as well as the associated costs of completing a project. It seems we do this as we are prone to wishful thinking because we hope that the task will be quick and easy to complete. This sounded rather similar to my initial plan on the road to publication, which went something like:

Write book à Find Agent àGet Published

It’s only after I’d written the first complete draft of said book that I realized there was a hole in my planning. So I made another plan:

Revise à Find Agent àGet Published

But then again I fell prey to the planning fallacy. I had been sure that I could revise in a few months’ time and make progress in my planning checklist. But I got stuck. I wasn’t able to finish the revisions within the timeline I’d set myself. I’m more of a plotter than a pantser in my writing style (which is helpful as I like to write mysteries) and not completing my revisions the way I’d planned created a hole in my attitude, which became much more difficult to correct than the hole in my initial plan.  Why wasn’t I able to plan properly? Why couldn’t I finish my revisions on time? I was letting myself down and I felt all the things we feel when we are disappointed in ourselves –that we’re not disciplined enough to be writers, maybe we don’t want it badly enough, maybe we’re not good enough and maybe this is just a dream or simply a hobby that won’t see the light of day.

The disappointment was seeping through but I continued to make my plans. To make up for lost time, I made my deadlines tighter, stopped weekend TV watching and stared endlessly at my laptop screen. All of my planning was in vain. My characters weren’t making sense anymore; my plot was sounding flimsy and the dialogue unnatural and wooden.

So, I took down my plan for my cork board, in fact I took them all down, crunched them into the ugliest possible balls and threw them away. Next, I stopped revising. I put away all my revisions, edit notes and critique comments. My desk was neat at last and not the white sea of paper it had been for months. Now my early mornings were spent reading the New York Times instead of re-writing my scenes and instead of going to my critique groups, I hung out with friends in the evenings. I just couldn’t deal with feeling awful all the time and it was in these months that for the first time I thought of giving it up. I’d been working and going to school full time and my plans hadn’t worked out. It was time for a different plan.

Thankfully, I had become tired of planning. The winter was over. It was summer again and since I wasn’t writing I had all this free time to travel and visit old friends. I’d start planning in the Fall, I told myself. I needed a break. I needed a break from feeling miserable and disappointed in myself.

But then a funny thing happened. Not right away. But pretty soon I started writing again. At first, it was just a few pages in my journal. But then by the middle of summer I took out my revision notes and started typing again. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t analyze it. I didn’t make plans to write. I didn’t try to figure out the next step. I just revised for however long I felt like it and then put it away until I felt like it the next day or the next weekend.


Today, I’m back to my morning writing but what I learned was that not only do we all plan optimistically but planning can really be tough on our psyche. It drained my positivity and self-belief, which only led to lower productivity which in turn made me feel worse – a vicious cycle that is so easy to get caught in.

So this Fall I refuse to plan. Maybe this is an extreme reaction but I’m willing to do what it takes so that I don’t end up feeling so dejected that it’s counter-productive. Which means that I can revise at 2 AM or 6 AM or whenever I have a couple of hours and not limit myself to my plan. I don’t know if I’m behind or ahead in my writing goals. What I do know is that I’m enjoying the process. I’m enjoying writing and revising again. Which is so much more gratifying than being on the constant treadmill of publication.

How has your experience with planning been? Are you able to keep to your schedule or do you prefer to stay un-structured?



  1. I don't think one can really 'plan' creativity. Sometimes it flows and sometimes it doesn't. I set goals for myself (my stories are usually pretty plotted out in advance), but I gave up on keeping a schedule a long time ago. Now I go with the flow :)

    1. That's such a great attitude. Thanks for sharing! I'm hoping to do that this Fall and simply go with the flow!