If we've all learned one thing over the last two years, it's that the world is not going to make planning easy on us anytime soon. 

Creating a marketing plan, forecasting demand, or even just deciding when to take the kids to Disneyland was never easy. None of us owns a foolproof crystal ball and even an exceptional entrepreneur like Elon Musk declared of business plans in 2018, "those things are always wrong." But between the pandemic, its economic aftershocks, the climate crisis, and the outbreak of war in Europe, planning now can feel particularly futile.  

Still, despite the nagging sense that, as the old saying goes, "We plan, God laughs," you still need to decide how much product to order from suppliers, what to contribute to your IRA, and how to spend your summer vacation. How do you balance acknowledging the incredible uncertainty of the world while still moving forward with your long-term goals?

This is not a question that can be thoroughly covered in any 700-word column, but time use expert and author Laura Vanderkam made a good start of wrestling with this problem in a recent Medium post. She even managed to boil her wisdom down into just 10 words. 

"Hold the near future tightly, hold the far future lightly." 

When you have to consider whether to finally plan that trip to Paris against the likelihood that some new virus wave or mutation will upend your plans at the last minute, or when you need to choose whether to open that second store or let the rumblings of an upcoming recession dissuade you, what do you do? 

Vanderkam's answer is brief: "Hold the near future tightly, hold the far future lightly." 

"You can and should plan the next few weeks in full detail. You can have a resilient but solid action plan for the next 6-12 months. Past that, though, you're better off thinking in terms of intentions and desires, rather than specific plans. This mindset allows you to focus your efforts on where those efforts will yield the best results, while leaving yourself open to opportunity and life as it comes," she advises.

Uncertainty is always a part of life, she points out. Even leaving your umbrella at home on a sunny morning is an exercise in calculating the probability of rain. But the further out in time you go, the fuzzier the probabilities get. And given the state of the world, the rate at which the future grows unpredictable increases steeply. 

Making definitive plans a year or so out is often not only reasonable but required sometimes. Weddings take months to plan and books at least a year to write. If you want to get published or get married you're going to need to take concrete steps well in advance. But beyond a year or two at the absolute max, "'plans' need to be thought of more as desires, with the understanding that things might change," insists Vanderkam.  

Musk and Branson agree. 

Vanderkam offers as an example from her personal life. She's set an intention to visit Hawaii, Japan, and Norway in the next five years but is waiting to see how life pans out to actually slot those trips into her schedule. In business that approach translates to having a clear, compelling long-term vision while accepting that you're going to have to roll with events over time. 

And many top entrepreneurs support that approach. Musk, for instance, may not be a fan of business plans, but he did tell founders, "you really have to ask whether something is true or not," and think through whether a business idea "makes sense." Richard Branson once wrote that "a business plan doesn't have to be a lengthy, well-thought-out proposal. It can be as simple as some notes in a notebook, or a scribble on the back of an envelope."

The thinking behind both these pieces of advice is similar. To accomplish great things you need to inspire yourself with a well-thought-out long-term goal while staying flexible enough to be responsive to ever-changing short-term reality. But don't expect to plan every detail before you get started. Because then you'll never get started (or just waste a tremendous amount of time). The only way to make progress towards long-term goals in our chaotic world is to "hold the near future tightly and the far future lightly."