Why Most of Us Never Follow Through on the Plans We Make

The other day, as I was helping a friend organize his attic, I stumbled across an old and abandoned children’s book. Curious, I looked inside and I read a story that I couldn’t forget because of how much I could relate to it. The story is about a family of mice trying come up with ideas to avoid the cat; they thought of a great one, but none of them had the courage to follow through. None had the courage to take action.

The story goes something like this:

A family of mice lives in an attic of a three-story house. The kitchen, where they scrounge for food each night is located three-stories down and in between is a cat that seeks immense pleasure in eating mice.

Fearing for their lives, the mice decide to get together and discuss what they can do to avoid the cat. They talk and talk and eventually, one of the mice comes up with the idea to tie a bell to the cat’s neck so they’ll always know of its whereabouts. It’s a great idea and the rest of the mice agree until they realize that one of them has to bell the cat. None of the mice are willing to risk being eaten so the plan fails before it’s even started.

The lesson of this story can be summed up exactly as T Boone Pickens quotes it:

“A plan without action is not a plan. It’s a speech.”

We all want change. We all want an even better lifestyle than the one we already have. We all want to be better versions of ourselves. And so we plan, we fantasize about what it’s like to be at the pinnacle of our proclaimed success, but more often than not, that fantasy never becomes anything more. Eventually, the plans we have for how we achieve that success, the better version of ourselves, will slowly be forgotten and become nothing more than just a speech in passing.

The analogy that best describes it is like going to the gym.

When we say we’re going to start making it a habit to go to the gym, what it really means is that we’re going to start planning. We’re going to spend hours researching the best diet, hours watching Youtube tutorials on different workout and techniques, perhaps read a book or two about nutrition, browse countless forums, order protein and supplements, shop for workout shoes that look pleasing to us and be on the hunt for a gym that’s affordable and pleasant.

We send hours preparing for what’s to come and when that moment finally arrives, we falter. We hesitate. We ask ourselves if we’ve forgotten something in our plan and consider with seriousness all the reasons why we shouldn’t go. We hesitate until it we either find an excuse or until it’s too late to go to the gym. So we promise ourselves that we’ll go the very next day.

The next day comes but we still don’t go because we’re too full from eating, because it’s too late to go with work the next morning and because it’s raining or because it’s too hot. Eventually, we never go at all.

The plan never comes to fruition, the action never taken. And as the months go by, we wonder why we’re in the situation that we are.

In 2015, I was running a startup with a few friends. We were building a third-party tool for the medium platform. As a tool for Medium, we knew the best way to promote it would be to actually use it ourselves, in our own posts. We made plans to write — we brainstormed every week the kind of posts we should write, did research on the topics people were interested in, the niches we wanted to target. But as the months went on, we realized that that despite all the planning we had done, there had been little to no action. There was only one person on our team who had really written and it did bring a lot of traffic but when compared to the growth we had been looking for wasn’t enough. The startup eventually gave out, mostly because we couldn’t monetize it properly but also largely due to the fact that we didn’t put in the effort needed. We planned, but never took action.

When I look back, I sometimes wonder if things could’ve been different. I wonder if we would’ve stood a chance had we all put in more effort. I wonder if our business at this very moment could’ve been self-sustaining. But it’s something I’ll never know because it’s already too late. We didn’t take action we should’ve.

And that’s the kind of thing that really gets you as you grow older — realizing the blunt naivety of your past mistakes, mistakes that happened because you weren’t willing to take action and put in the effort. I turned 30 recently, and it’s surreal in some ways. It’s an age I knew I’d eventually reach but not as fast as it did, with still so many things in my life I’ve yet to accomplish. It came as a wakeup call and it’s taken me 30 years but I’ve finally taken action by writing almost every day for the past month. It feels good to finally do more than just plan, to take action for goals I desire.

It’s not difficult to understand why we plan but never take action. Plans are easy to make because planning doesn’t take much effort when compared to the actual effort required to execute those plans. We want our plans to succeed, but it just takes more effort than we’re ready for. Mark Manson in one of my favorite books, The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck relates to this experience perfectly:

“I wanted the reward and not the struggle. I wanted the result and not the process. I was in love with not the fight but only the victory.”

The reason why we make plans, the reason why we make plans in the first place is because we believe that we’re capable of more. We believe in our ability to change, to shape our own destiny. When we think about the potential success of our plans, we’re motivated, driven, so we tell ourselves, promise ourselves that we’re going to work hard in order to achieve what we want. The way we see ourselves in that very moment is exactly as described by one of Aristotle’s greatest quotes:

“I am so convinced that I can reach my purpose in life through the achievement of my goals that there is no doubt in my mind that I will do it. I believe in myself and my abilities.
I am a person of action, immovable in my determination, confident in my abilities, unshakeable in my convictions. impervious to doubt, insensitive to the negative opinion of everyone who does not have an interest in my goals.
I am successful and will not settle for anything less. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence therefore is not an act, but an habit.” — Aristotle

We see ourselves as able of achieving the plans we create, but all too often we give up before we’ve taken action, before we make good on our promises to do better. We give in to the temptation of the quick and easy instead of the longer, more fulfilling success earned by painstaking efforts. The promises we make become empty ones when we realize that we’d rather give our attention to things that matter less but are more familiar with. The temporary benefits we seek gives us instant gratification, gratification that overcomes the need of the long-term happiness achieved by following our plan with unwavering persistence. The plans we’ve made then fails because they’re no longer of priority and action that we’re supposed to take no longer happens as a result.

It’s important to realize that when we make plans, what’s often more important than the intricacies of those plans is our actual execution of it. When we make plans, it’s because there’s something we want to achieve — we have to remember and constantly remind ourselves that the only way we can achieve it is to actually take action. We have to remind ourselves that even a single moment of action on our part will be greater than all the planning we will have done because that moment is the very first moment when we’ve taken the first step towards achieving what we’ve planned for.

It’s never been about the planning. It’s always been about the actions taken, because without action, your plan will be nothing but empty words, a mere speech in passing.

“The distance between dreams and reality is called action.” — Anonymous

About the author

Jon Lee

I travel the world in search of lessons worth sharing. Addicted to culture shock and transparency. Currently working on heeyy and duuck.

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