When you go on a special vacation, say abroad, do you designate ahead of time all the specific sites you want to see and keep to a tight itinerary in order to see it all? Or do you just make basic arrangements and then wing it once you’re there, doing whatever you’re in the mood for? Do you like to cook with a recipe and follow the steps carefully, or do you just start somewhere and then improvise along the way?

The distinction being considered is that between planning versus spontaneity. Some may argue strongly that it’s better to vacation or cook with a specific plan. Others will say being spontaneous is clearly the way to go. The answer, I suppose, is, it depends.

To plan or not to plan

There are pros and cons to each approach and these pros and cons will be weighted differently from one situation to the next. When launching a spacecraft into orbit, it’s a good idea to have that planning piece down pretty well. But when playing touch football with the kids in the backyard, spontaneity may be more your friend than having a serious game plan.

Planning and spontaneity each require different skill sets and abilities. Planning requires logistics and discipline, while spontaneity involves trust, intuition and a willingness to take risks. The planner wants to execute the game plan on schedule. The improvisor does not want to be restricted and wants the freedom to choose based upon how things feel.

Planning is future-oriented, tries to avoid surprises and minimize mistakes. Spontaneity is all about the moment, thrives on surprise and welcomes mistakes. The planner is happy if things go exactly as expected. The improvisor is happy if the journey was enjoyable, even if unpredictable and messy at times.

One risk of over-planning is that we might worry too much about covering all the bases and forget to have fun along the way. This can happen when we take too many pictures of the best sites on vacation and never really feel and appreciate their beauty. One risk of the “let’s just wing it” approach is that those little mistakes we were so willing to roll with can sometimes turn out to be big and costly. Taking a little impromptu hike in the Grand Canyon without doing the math and calculating how much water you’ll need may not be a fun time.

The two become one

When the philharmonic orchestra performs, there are, in a sense, no surprises. We know every piece that will be performed and every note is written on paper and played with precision. But perhaps the conductor makes spontaneous choices regarding how the piece is played depending on how things feel from one night to the next. Jazz musicians certainly know a thing or two about being spontaneous and improvising. But even they must start a performance with a basic plan about the pieces they’re likely to play and how they’d like things to go.

I don’t know if singer-songwriter James Taylor is known for his philosophy, but in his 1977 song, “Secret O’ Life,” he suggests that “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time . . . Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill. But since we’re on our way down we might as well enjoy the ride.” Mr. Taylor may be onto something here.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

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Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.