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The Science of Changing Your Plans


Tue Mar 05 2024

The Science of Changing Your Plans

As young children, many of us learn how to set goals. As we grow, we’re taught how to work toward our goals. We’re encouraged to put in effort, to try our best, and to never give up.

But we’re not often taught what happens if life throws a roadblock in our path. We dedicate significant effort to going for the goal, but we spend little time learning strategies for what to do when the goalposts move. With a single-minded commitment to a goal and few skills to adapt, it’s no wonder we get frustrated when change happens.


Resilient people can let go of a story that no longer serves them—a story that no longer makes sense. To be truly resilient in the face of change and challenges, we have to be less committed to a specific version of life and instead be willing to rewrite the story.

But we can’t even start to rewrite our new story without first throwing away the old story. The old story has a tendency to creep back in and cloud our thinking. It can happen to individuals but also to organizations.

So how can you (or your organization) let go of your old plan and begin building a new plan?

Strategy 1: Recall What Worked in the Past

First, think about past experiences when you were heading into an unknown situation. If you struggle to start your list, remember that as children we faced unknown situations with much greater frequency than we do in adulthood. Kids walk into a new classroom with a new teacher every single year! Children try new sports and activities regularly. They make new friends or say goodbye when old friends move away. Teenagers pack up all their belongings and go off to college. They go to their first dance, or on their first date. Young adults start their first job and pay their first bill. Every time you do something for the first time, you’re heading into the unknown and facing ambiguity. In fact, children may be better at letting go of the plan than adults are, maybe because they do it more often!

Being able to point to a list of times you successfully navigated an ambiguous situation is a good first step. Next, think about what actions you took in those situations that helped you get through it. Did you keep an open mind? Did you control your anxiety? Did you befriend and lean on someone else going through the experience? Remembering the strategies that worked for you in the past is a good tactic, because each person is unique.


Ultimately, remind yourself that each of those ambiguous situations was ultimately resolved. It was unknown and uncomfortable in the beginning, yet at some point your path became clear. Whether the end was enjoyable or successful (and I hope many of them were!), the situation didn’t stay a mystery forever.

Strategy 2: Differentiate Between Plans and Goals

Another way to get more comfortable with ambiguity is to realize that letting go of the plan isn’t the same as letting go of your goals. Being forced to change your plans doesn’t lessen your chances of success. It may change your methods of success or your timeline. Or it may change the type of success you achieve. That’s what happened for me.

When I left the world of performing arts, I thought it was for good. I put my creativity and communication skills into action in another way, working in public relations for corporations and nonprofit organizations. I gave TV interviews and built community engagement and marketing plans. But one day someone said to me, “I love the passion you have when you talk. You’d be a great motivational speaker.” That moment shifted everything for me.

Now I’m back to using the performing skills I developed at NYU, but in a completely different way than I ever expected. This isn’t the version of success I dreamed about when I was 12, but it’s still success. In fact, I could argue that it’s even better success, because I’m able to run my own business and create my own opportunities in a way that I’m not sure I would have been able to do in a traditional acting career.

There’s always more than one route to your goals. You just have to be willing to find the best path for you.


To learn more, join me at the ATD 2024 International Conference & EXPO for the session ReVisionary Thinking: The Science and Strategy of Adapting to Change.

Editor’s note: This post is an excerpt from ReVisionary Thinking: When You Have to Change Your Plan to Reach Your Goals.

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