Welcome to the New Year! Any resolutions? Aim high and fall far, or perhaps be realistic and just go for small incremental change? Central to how you've crafted your particular plan for improvement (if any) will be how you see the future, and how you understand personal change. A fascinating piece of work called 'The End of History Illusion' by Harvard's Jordi Quoidbach suggests that people of all ages perceive that while they have changed greatly in the past, from this moment on they expect to change very little. People 'regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.'
When you are planning your personal future, should you see yourself as essentially a fixed, unchanging point in a world of flux, or try and factor in some change in yourself as well as the outside world? Is there a way to deal with all these cumulative layers of uncertainty? Surprisingly, perhaps, the world of business might have an answer useful: broadly in the adoption of a rational, objective approach to decision-making; and more specifically in the form of the technique of scenario planning, or at least a simplified version of it - a technique that enables businesses and organisations to plan decades in advance.
What scenario planning does is allow you to factor in uncertainty, to accept that the future may go in a number of different directions, and to build sensible scenarios (and responses) for a number of different, possible futures, rather than the binary, over-simplified success/failure future that we tend to imagine for ourselves come resolution-time - 'I will get promoted/I will stagnate'; 'I will find The One/I will die alone'; 'I will get fit and fabulous/I will lose sight of my feet,' and so on.
Many people seem to have a visceral objection to forcing an 'excessively rational' approach onto the personal, emotional sphere. There's a sense, for example, that planning your life too much will take out the romance. Planning, we feel, is what we do at work, when there are deadlines, other people to answer to, and a clear bottom line. But is there a situation where a clear bottom line in our personal lives would ever be a hindrance rather than a help? Just because we plan things and take a long hard look at our real motives for self-improvement or making big changes in our lives, doesn't mean that the future is going to pan out any differently. It does, however, mean that we might be a bit better prepared.
What Doesn't Work
Ignoring the Future: Thankfully, the Mayans were wrong; we need to keep at it for a bit longer. When in doubt- and this is an uncertain world- most people tend to muddle through, committing to a path and sticking to it even after it has stopped working for them. Of course we can't prepare for everything, but as long as you have some way of differentiating the things you can and can't control, rational planning in your personal life can actually decrease stress.
Focusing entirely on yourself: You are very important, but not in fact at the centre of the world (although obviously at the centre of your world - a fine but important difference). Most self-help techniques are very internally focused, but in reality our lives are powerfully shaped by external factors such as economic crashes, social changes, and even climate change. While many of us know this on some level, we don't take it into account enough.
Looking for a ready-made solution: There isn't one. You can't borrow someone else's life plan - it won't fit. What you need is a process for addressing your own life and your own circumstances, so that whatever strategy you create really works for you.
What to Remember When You're Planning a Great 2013
Planning doesn't ruin the romance or mystery of life; you can be as rational as possible in your personal life without denying your emotions; change doesn't just come from within, it comes from outside, but there are things you can do to prepare. You may not believe it, but your future is no more fixed than your past.
For more information, why not pick up a copy of Futurescaping by Tamar Kasriel (Bloomsbury, £9.99)