Planning Ahead and why You’re Screwed

Updated to Business, Productivity on January 23, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

It’s that time of year again – the days are shorter, malls are full, power drills are on sale and your year is winding up.

How are you feeling?

Optimistic? Fearful? Regretful? Confused? Exhausted?

I’m feeling all those emotions and then some – I want to turn a fresh slate and start clean next year, but…

The reality is I’m one list away from repeating 80% of the mistakes, bad decisions and procrastinations I made this year.

In short: I’m screwed.

Sure, I can blame it on our wiring—we’re all predisposed to see what we want to see. If I think I’m a shitty planner, or prone to procrastinate, or perennially overwhelmed. Well, that’s what I’m going to see more of.

Psychologists (who have nothing better to do than name things) call it cognitive bias – I call it being screwed.

Confession: In January I wrote the goal: “Publish book about becoming a speaker”. Guess how much I got done.

Nada, squat, zero, zippo – nothing.

I could write a book on speaking over a weekend. It wouldn’t be great, but give me a month for research, interviews, writing, and polishing and I’d have a pretty presentable piece.

I didn’t even create an outline.

What about you? What did you plan on doing, but didn’t even start?

Well, dear reader, as we get ready to put a bow on this year I want to share 5 steps I’ll be taking to break my deja vu time trap and make next year my best yet.

Follow along if you really want change (or go back to playing Tetris).

We start with a review.


This week, I was in a bookstore marveling at shelves full of shrink-wrapped calendars and day planners. I thought of all those goals and plans that get carefully recorded (“I WILL lose 15lbs by March”) only to be replaced in a month or, worse yet, ignored altogether.

I’m not sure what’s the perfect solution, but I know it’s not about new journals and making lists.

It has to start with a review.

Not some analytical, pocket-protector, Excel spreadsheet with weighted-averages – just an honest look at priorities.

A great question to ask is: “Moving forward what do I need to stop, start, or change to get what I want?”

If you want to know more about completing a review for yourself or even teams, read this post.

We also need to celebrate.


I don’t celebrate enough. You?

Celebration is good for the soul, for your troops – it’s also an incentive.

When my brother Dan (I was a minor partner) sold Whitewater Adventures – one of the first whitewater rafting companies in Canada – we celebrated! Not only did we arrive in limos to the oh-so-austere Brock House, in Vancouver, Dan had commissioned silver belt buckles with the company logo for all staff.

That was a celebration.

Was the expense and effort absolutely necessary? Of course not. But that night was invaluable.

We’re all wired for rewards and even a little celebration pre-programs us to want more. It’s the reason why couch potatoes will lace up and train for a charity walk or why we save for a vacation or new car.

This week, take time to celebrate – it could be nothing more than a few minutes going through your calendar and recognizing your hard work and all the wins you created.

Next, forgive.


In most cases I’m my own worst enemy. Okay, in all cases I’m my own worst enemy. This applies to letting go.

I love to put a death-grip on misery and let it suck me down a toilet bowl of lost dreams. Even though I’m the only one in this pity party, I have a hard time shutting it down.

The hard truth is our mistakes are fodder for a better decision. “Good judgment comes from experience,” says American author Rita Mae Brown, “and experience comes from bad judgment.”

Without our screw-ups life would be one sad party.

So, what missteps, failures, or nonstarters are you hanging onto?

  • Business?
  • Relationships?
  • Health?
  • Fitness?
  • Time?
  • Money?

There are 2 types of forgiveness:

Forgiveness with resentment and blame. This is a disaster of raised cortisol levels, chronic stress, depression, weight gain and heart disease. Nasty.

And then there’s forgiveness with release: You choose to move on without baggage.

I need to let it go before I can get real.


Most people over estimate what they can get done in a year and underestimate what they can get done in a day. The trick is to get real.

When I sat down to write Give Me a Break I was nervous as hell.

I’d never written anything longer than 1,000 words and I wanted this to be my magnum opus. On paper I mapped out a huge project with support staff, promotions, an agent and off-the-chart sales.

The only problem was, I still had to write the damn book.

How many times have you made something so big you never get started? Like that house renovation, weight loss plan, business start-up or transforming a moribund relationship?

I do it all the time and it leads to, well, nothing.

So I got real, and just wrote the book. Once I got momentum on just that one goal, it only took 2 months to get a rough draft. It didn’t smell very good, but it was a start.

Only then did I start to seek out editors, get printing quotes and start to think about promotion. Two months more and it was in my hands, in stores and making sales.

Creating a big, detailed list could just be your excuse for not getting started.


In the story of Buridan’s Ass (French philosopher Jean Buridan, 1300-1358), a donkey finds himself halfway between a pile of hay and a bucket of water. The donkey looks left at the delicious hay, then looks right at the thirst-quenching water. Left, right, left, right, left, right.

But no movement.

Because the donkey can’t think about the future, it’s stuck in the present – torn between going for the hay or going for the water. So it does nothing and eventually keels over from thirst and starvation.

Don’t be a donkey.

You’re always better to do something, mess it up, learn and move forward than to be a donkey and do nothing. Irish novelist, James Joyce, put it more poetically: “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”


You might be reading this and thinking it’s old hat—you’ve nailed the planning process. Or you might be thinking: “Holly crap it’s like he’s in my head!”

Either way, do me a favour.

Tell me in the comments what you’re doing about planning for next year. Are you boycotting lists altogether? Are you trying a new process? Maybe you’re doing nothing.