What Is Special About Planning?
Thus far we have seen that when people say their thoughts are about the future, they are usually planning. But this is not always true.
About a quarter of prospective thoughts are not described as planning. What's the difference? Given how important planning is to any pragmatic account of prospection, it helps to know more about the mental states associated with this important activity. The large study of everyday thoughts furnished plenty of reports of both kinds, namely planning thoughts and other, non-planning thoughts about the future (Baumeister et al., 2015). Comparing these two sets of thoughts offers insight into what planning involves.
First, planning is mental work, and not the easiest. People reported exerting more control over their thoughts when they were planning than when they were having other kinds of thoughts about the future. Apparently, the mind doesn't just drift into planning the way it drifts into mind-wandering. Rather, planning takes mental effort.
The requirement of effort probably explains the next finding, which is that planning is associated with low levels of mental fatigue. When people are mentally tired, they do not make plans. Planning appeals more to the vigorous mind that has energy and is ready for a challenge. Given the preponderance of planning among prospective thoughts, it seems reasonable to say that planning is people's preferred way of thinking about the future, but that preference goes away when people are mentally tired.
The work aspect of planning is also evident in people's ratings of how involved they were with what was happening right there and then. These ratings went up when people were planning. Again, planning does not just happen, like a stray thought intruding into a wandering mind. Rather, one has to be focused and working mentally at it. People who are planning say they are quite involved in what is going on just then. Planning is thus thinking about the future while being involved in the present.
Planning gets high ratings for meaningfulness. Thoughts that involve planning are considered much more meaningful than other thoughts about the future. Although technically all thoughts about the future use meaning (indeed, probably most thoughts of all types involve meaning, with the possible exception of ones that are focused on here-and-now sensations), ratings of meaningfulness probably go beyond that. Planning is meaningful for several key reasons. One of those is that it connects across time, which is inherently a meaningful connection and one that enriches the associative network of any thought or idea. Indeed, in the study of everyday thoughts, there was a general pattern linking meaningfulness to connection across time. Thoughts that combined past, present, and future were rated as the most meaningful on average of all thoughts. Those that combined any two of those "time zones," such as present plus past, were next highest on meaning. Thoughts that involved only one time zone (past, present, or future) were on average less meaningful. And thoughts that did not have any time aspect got the lowest ratings on meaning. So planning is meaningful because it connects across time—like a good story.
Another likely reason that planning is experienced as highly meaningful is because it is about getting what one wants, which is central to pragmatism. Planning is sketching out a path from where one is to where one wants to be, whether in a literal or metaphorical sense. People generally make plans for themselves, as opposed for unknown other people, and so their plans are highly relevant to their lives, including their wants and needs. Planning is meaningful because it sets out what you are actually supposed to do.
Thus far we have depicted planning as effort and work. Its emotional coloring paints it in a more pleasant light. Planning seems to feel good. When engaged in planning, people reported higher level of happiness (as compared to having other kinds of thoughts about the future). Meanwhile, negative feelings, such as anger and anxiety, were lower with planning than with other thoughts. Planning was marked by low levels of surprise and disappointment.
People rated their current stress level. Stress was lower with planning than with other thoughts. One might have expected something different. When times are stressful, it might make sense to plan how to deal with problems. That may well happen sometimes, but in general, stress was negatively associated with planning. Quite possibly, making plans is a way of alleviating stress. When someone is faced with a daunting set of challenges, problems, and obligations, it can be comforting to make a plan to deal with them. Planning transforms the ugly, chaotic mass of concerns into an organized sequence. Part of stress is feeling overwhelmed by a set of problems and threats. Making plans makes them seem more manageable, because the plan is precisely about how one is going to manage them.