One of the biggest myths in all of productivity and time management is the belief that being organized or having a grip on your life keeps you from having any agility, spontaneity, or ability to act on an impulse to do something last minute. “But if I have everything planned, what happens when I want to disappear to Vegas for the weekend” the purposely disorganized cry! It’s important to realize that, in fact, the opposite happens. Once you have control over your priorities, you also have the freedom to explore without guilt.
Spontaneity is what happens when when you have a grip on everything else.
Spontaneity is defined as behavior that is natural and unconstrained and is the result of impulse, not planning. In this context, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that spontaneity is both “unconstrained” and is only made possible through a lack of planning. But there’s a subtlety here that may not be immediately apparent. Spontaneity (as defined here) implies that the behavior exhibited is the “result of impulse”, but not that the behavior couldn’t be better supported through a lack of planning. And defining spontaneous behavior as unconstrained is, in my opinion, invalid. There isn’t any human behavior that’s truly without constraint – everything we do has constraints, whether avoidable or not.
In truth, spontaneity is inherently constrained and while is the result of impulse, is actually enabled through proper planning around it.
Let’s walk through two different examples to see which one appears to have more in-built flexibility:
- Frank has never been a planner. He doesn’t keep a schedule, a to-do list, and has never defined any goals or documented any of his aspirations. He has a general idea of where he’d like to be in five years, but has never really taken the time to break it down. His email inbox at work is a mess – there are 375 unread items and the total count is approaching 10,000 from the past year. His personal account is worse. He knows he might be dropping some stuff on the floor, but doesn’t really mind. “If it’s important, they’ll write back” he says. Frank prides himself in the flexibility in his schedule – he never knows where he’ll be on any given day, he just does what inspires him in that moment. He loves to keep his options open just in case something more interesting comes along.
- Julie likes to stay on top of things. She’s always been a goal setter, and has taken the time to write down her core values, her personal mission statement, and the long and short-term goals that flow from them. She takes a day each year to break her goals down further into individual tasks, and she keeps them in a small notebook in her purse. At least once every day she reviews her to-do list, checks things off, and makes sure to add to it as new things pop up (as they always do). She’s diligent about tracking everything in her online calendar from her hair appointments to her vacations so she always knows what she’s committed to – both to herself and to others. She maintains a mostly empty inbox – every once in a while it may spike, but it never gets higher than about 30 items unless she’s on vacation (and she almost always stays disconnected). She always knows where she stands on her projects, both personal and professional.
Frank and Julie are polar opposites with respect to personal organization. Frank the spontaneous drifter, Julie the buttoned-up planner. Who do you think would adapt better to a last-minute trip to Vegas? Or an afternoon playing hooky? Or an impromptu trip to the wine region for an all-day taste fest?
Naturally Frank would think he’d be better prepared. But what about all his “open loops”? The people he hasn’t responded to, the haircut he needs to get before the trip, or most importantly, the things he doesn’t even know he’s not doing but was supposed to? He may not feel anxiety about those things right now, but that may change when he’s sitting in the Bellagio and one of his projects is on fire back at the office.
Julie on the other hand would know exactly what the next couple days have in store for her. She might have to send an email or make a phone call or two, but there’s no question about what she’s not getting to. Stress around spontaneity is almost non-existent for people like this because they just need to “connect some lego blocks” and everything’s fine.
Of course, it’s hard to say that planners actually desire spontaneity. In fact, many loathe it. But they’re constantly working to reduce the unimportant spontaneity in their lives, so they can be more agile about the things that matter. It’s this consistent chipping away and structure that produces freedom.
Have you found yourself to be more spontaneous when you’re organized? Or do you think you can be spontaneous without being organized, and still do it stress-free?