Is It Possible to Over-Plan Your Life?

Alexa Pugh

overplanningLauren Galvan always knew she wanted to be a doctor.

But the 18-year-old also knows she wants to graduate medical school by 2020, have her career up and running by 2022 and be settled in a suburb with a husband and kids by age 30.

And as a member of an eight-year program from which she’ll graduate with both a bachelor’s and a medical degree, she is already well on her way.

For people like Galvan, the future is a detailed blueprint with a timetable for completion. For others, it may be a general idea of where they’ll be in 10 or 20 years, or even a blank slate.

What motivates some of us to set goals for ourselves? And is there a line where ambition crosses into obsession? We took a look inside the minds of super-planners, like Galvan, and asked experts to weigh in on the best way to set goals that may help improve our health, wealth and long-term happiness.

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How Do You Know If You’re Over-Planning?

Making life plans “helps us think concretely about our future—our wants and needs and the steps to get there,” says Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis, a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University. “But there is such a thing as over-planning.”

Healthy planning, she says, is about creating general goals that reflect what you want and making conscious choices that will bring you closer to realizing them. Over-planners, on the other hand, focus too much on specific details, she adds, sticking to a timeline even when it no longer makes sense. For example, while a planner may decide he wants to be married by a certain age, an over-planner may stay in a relationship past its expiration date in order to achieve that goal, a phenomenon also known as a sunk cost.

“Over-planning comes from anxiety. It’s a way of dealing with worry and can give people a false sense of control,” explains Bryant-Davis. “It can go too far when a person loses flexibility, when they have set goals that are unrealistic or too rigid.”

Over-planning, Bryant-Davis adds, can also result in never feeling satisfied and be a way for people to avoid actively pursuing their goals by getting caught up in the dream rather than the reality.

So, who tends to over-plan? Those with their whole lives still ahead of them. “Younger people are more apt to set rigid goals when it comes to family expectations and careers,” says Bryant-Davis.