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Planning in Advance

This week, my client Jennifer told me that while her days have been going well, things have been falling apart around dinner. The first question I asked Jennifer was, “Are you planning dinner in advance, or are you getting to dinner time and then trying to figure out what to eat?” Jennifer told me that most nights it was the latter. She often thought about making a dinner meal plan but resisted the idea because she didn’t want to feel hemmed in. She wanted to be able to eat whatever she was craving that night for dinner and not something she had predetermined earlier in the week.

While I sympathized with this desire, I reminded Jennifer that in-the-moment decisions are the hardest to make effectively. In-the-moment decisions require us to use our “hot” brains, an id-driven brain that mostly focuses on what it wants in the moment and doesn’t take other goals into account. Future-oriented decisions, by contrast, allow us to use our “cool” brains, a rational brain that thinks through big goals and consequences and makes decisions based on them. It’s not a guarantee that an in-the-moment decision will lead us awry, but it is far more likely.

It’s no surprise that dinners haven’t been going well for Jennifer. End-of-the-day Jennifer, when she was tired and worn out, was not a great Jennifer to be making dinner decisions. Morning Jennifer was a great Jennifer to be making decisions! Morning Jennifer was fresh and sharp and could formulate how a successful day should go. Even though Jennifer understood this intellectually, something was still standing in her way. She still didn’t like the idea of planning dinners in advance.Hand writing out a list.

I asked Jennifer if she ever planned in advance or if she always waited until the last minute to make dinner decisions, and she said that sometimes she and her partner would decide in advance what to have for dinner. “How does that usually work out?” I asked her. “Are you happy when you get to dinner, or are you resisting the plan?” Jennifer told me that usually she was fine with the plan, and it sometimes was helpful because she and her partner often get frustrated with each other trying to figure out dinner every night.

I said to Jennifer, “I wonder, then, if the idea of planning dinner in advance is actually worse than the reality of doing so. The idea of planning dinner in advance makes you feel trapped, but the reality is that it keeps the peace between you and your partner, and it means you feel on track all evening long.” We discussed this idea more, and Jennifer was able to see that this was probably the case, at least some of the time. The idea of not being able to make spontaneous dinner decisions was worse than the reality. She made a Response Card to remind herself.

Jennifer also admitted that even though she resists making dinner decisions in advance, she often ends up eating the same things anyway, so it wouldn’t be that much of a hassle to make the plan more formalized, and that way it would cut down on tensions with her partner, she could make sure to have the food that she needed, and she increased her likelihood of staying on track all day. We also agreed that she should have an escape clause: for the first week, at least, if she really doesn’t want what she planned to have for dinner, then she didn’t need to have it! We decided that she would put some backup meals in her freezer that she could pull out if this happened.

I reminded Jennifer of one more thing: the reason to start planning dinners in advance was not to take away her freedom. It was because not planning in advance wasn’t working for her, and doing so would be in the service of a greater goal: achieving everything on her Advantages List. She would be doing it for hugely important reasons. Jennifer made a Response Card to remind her of this idea, too.