The main lesson from 2020? Man plans—and God laughs

This should be peak planning season. But the last 12 months has revealed that we're not really in control of our lives
December 31, 2020

This should be peak planning season. In years gone by, we spent our winters beaverishly putting together plans of every shape and size. There’s the festive planning, of course—all that gifting and feasting entails logistical puzzles aplenty. Then in January comes the loftier business of planning for a whole new year: blocking out holidays and trips, dreaming up resolutions and goals as we strive to shape the months ahead before we’re swept up in the hustle and grind.

Not this year, though. On a practical level, planning for anything that’s more than a few weeks away remains pretty futile. Psychologically, after the hand that 2020 dealt the world, it’s hard not to feel a whisper of unease when eyeing that pristine new diary. Among the pandemic’s teachings is this: no matter how modern and secular our society, there remains ample truth in the old Yiddish proverb “Der mensch tracht, und Gott lacht”—man plans, and God laughs.

And yet the tools of planning show that it is an innate human compulsion. As far back as 1400 BCE, the Babylonians were inscribing clay tablets with dated charts recording lunar and solar movements. Planning is soothing. It confers a sense of sway, however illusory, and though spontaneity likes to claim a monopoly on creativity, planning frees up mental space. Denied the chance to plan, we tend not to bask in a zen-like “eternal now”; instead, even the chancers among us become as skittish as a spooked stock market.

Over three millennia later, those ancient clay charts have been replaced with another kind of tablet: screens through which we can inform ourselves about everything imaginable and more. But despite a peppy market for digital diaries, analogue planning has been enjoying a resurgence recently. Millennials in particular are said to be partial to pen and paper, and it’s easy to see why.

Becalmed amid the first lockdown, when all that seemed left to anchor any of us in each week was bin collection day, there was something undeniably reassuring about picking up a physical book and having the date confirmed, even if its pages grew emptier, as scrawled-through lunches and outings yielded to an unplanned and plan-less whiteout.

But there are diaries that attract cult followings, promising to help devotees not only remember their dental check-ups but also soar towards personal and professional dreams. These notebooks call themselves planners, and the first thing you’ll notice is that they contain very little blank space. Their pages are ring fenced by prescriptive enthusiasm, with subsections upon subsections urging the owner to track personal data, set goals and perform daily exercises of self-affirmation.

The Wrinkle & Crease Daily Planner, for instance, whose minimalist design and eco-credentials arrive jacketed in stone-grey linen, provides small areas in which to “take notes, practice gratitude, track habits, or scribble.” These planners prod and poke, quizzing their owners on water intake and inviting them to jot down a daily affirmation. “Intentions” and “visions” are their stock-in-trade. The Flow Weekly Planner even provides prompts, alternately channelling a clumsy suitor and the cryptic utterances of a spy. “What piece of art inspired you?” “Are the peonies in bloom?” These volumes demand so much effort from us, but their unremittingly upbeat personas will rebuke you for slogging through it without a beatific smile. They’re boot camp instructors masquerading as meditation gurus.

You might think that this style of diary would be ideal for a time of heightened uncertainty but I feel that they’re the last thing any of us needs: they’re all about control. Why, you can even control the unexpected setbacks. It’s how we choose to respond to them that determines where we go, they preach, a lesson whose immense challenges are starkly at odds with the whimsical font in which it’s written. Wouldn’t a retro icon depicting the moon’s waxing and waning serve us better? That celestial cue might at least temper the hubris inherent in all planning.

While that eighties icon the Filofax was bristling with outward-looking signs of self-importance—the international dialling code inserts, the global financial data—the mindfulness-boosting, productivity-charging planners of today are mired in navel-gazing self-scrutiny. If they also make planning seem more convoluted, that’s possibly because the sort we once recorded in datebooks became obsolete the moment that mobile technology went mainstream. All too often, simple plans involving a where and a when are only ever “pencilled in,” pending an apologetic text requesting a rain check.

Shortly after my daughter’s birth, I traded an appointments book for an uncluttered volume that Americans would call a journal, using it to record gummy smiles, tottering steps, the surprisingly tranquil joy of early-hours parenting. If the former is all about structuring future time, then the latter seeks to organise the immediate past. I no longer had working lunches or interviews to schedule, and with life coming at me in a blur of nappies and 3am feeds, I needed a place to discern the narrative threads of my new existence. In British English, we use just the one word for both types of book: diary. And in its early days, diary was also an adjective. Its meaning? Ephemeral.

Whether short-term or long, our plans are as ephemeral as anything in this life. It’s a truth those stargazing Babylonians were infinitely more comfortable with than we are—the older-than-old normal. With that in mind, perhaps the most helpful place to jot down any tentative plans and aspirations for the coming months might be in that most unnerving of spaces: a wholly blank page.