Thursday, June 30, 2022

The shadow side of making a Plan B

I'm going to France next week for a vacation!

But I'm not trying to make you jealous. Instead, while planning for the trip, I learned an important lesson I want to share in case it will help you.

For the last year, anyone flying to the United States had to have a negative Covid test to board the plane.  If positive, you would be stranded for at least a week.

Being "stranded" in France actually sounds lovely! But, there would be hassles. Lodging, arranging another test, new plane reservations, extending our dog's stay at the kennel. Not to mention re-arranging everything already planned for that time back home.

I became pretty anxious about this possibility. I may have even lost some sleep.

I needed a Plan B.
Plan B:  "a strategy or plan to be implemented if the original one proves impracticable or unsuccessful."

The original plan was to get on a plane to depart from France. A positive Covid test would make that plan "unsuccessful."

For the next several weeks, I gathered the information needed for the plan. But, the worrying did not stop.

On June 10, I decided enough was enough and spent four hours finalizing a plan. I finished at 12:13 pm.

At 12:15 pm., I jumped back on the web to check out one more detail.

What greeted me was a New York Times "breaking news" headline. The Covid test requirement was to be dropped the next day.

I was thrilled! But then...

I started thinking about all the worrying I had done. 
Had the time I spent on the plan been worth it?
All this thinking helped me understand the dynamics of making a Plan B.

The upside 

If the original plan goes awry, instead of scrambling to make a plan from scratch in the heat of the moment, you can plan calmly, with the benefit of time and access to needed resources. 

Having a Plan B gives you confidence in your ability to move forward even if the original plan goes off course.

The shadow side

You have guessed it: Worry.
Worry (n).  “A state of anxiety over actual or potential problems.  As in, ‘he's demented with worry’.”
That was me. Demented. The more I worked on the plan, the more worried I got.
And then I thought of an additional dynamic: superstition.
Have you ever said, "I think I'll take an umbrella so it won't rain?"
My rational self knows this is a superstition, but another part of my brain believes it. I always take the umbrella.  It's not much of a leap to "If I have a plan for this Plan A  problem, it won't happen."
Superstition feeds the need for frantic planning. 

Ideas for dealing with the shadow side.

A little worrying provides motivation for planning. Incessant worrying is counterproductive.

The trick is to learn how to make a plan without continuing to worry.

I won't claim that it's always easy... But changing your "self-talk" (as used in cognitive therapy) can help.

Perhaps something like this for worry:

" I know things seldom work out exactly as expected, and most of the time, nothing bad happens."

"This worried feeling is letting me I need to plan. Any more worrying is of no use at all."

If mere superstition is driving my planning:

"I cannot control the future by planning. There is no plan I can make, no matter how elaborate, that can prevent things from going wrong."

However, - and this is very cool! - it turns out that there is a benefit to following some superstitions! (I thought this merited two exclamation points - actually three!)

From the psychologist and cognitive scientist Stuart Vyse:
"There is evidence that positive, luck-enhancing superstitions provide a psychological benefit that can improve skilled performance. There is anxiety associated with the kinds of events that bring out superstition.

The absence of control over a vital outcome creates anxiety. So, even when we know rationally that there is no magic, superstitions can be maintained by their emotional benefit
Who knew!

How to make a Plan B.
  • Do it writing.  (Typing allowed!)
  • Do a risk assessment of your Plan A.
  • What could go wrong?
  • What is the likelihood of each?
  • Which things, even if unlikely, would have the most negative impact on the outcome.  
  • For each likely event and each unlikely but significant adverse impact event, make an if-then plan:  
IF  this happens, THEN I will do this
  • Put the plan in a place that will be accessible when you need it.
  • Monitor your emotions and use self-talk to avoid excessive worry and superstition.

Post Script

You may be wondering if the time I spent planning was wasted.


A plan B can be helpful even if the exact thing you were thinking about doesn't happen.

For the France trip, one of us could get symptomatic Covid and not be able to fly. If that happens, I can pull the plan out.

In other situations, you may do something you will do again. I have a Plan B for when I travel by air to give professional presentations. By now, I know by heart. Whenever there is the hint of a disrupted flight, my plan is ready to go.

Au revoir!

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