woman with weekly planner
Mental Health

What happens when planning stops being productive and starts being obsessive

In theory, organisation and planning should make life easier, but can you take things too far?

Many of us take pleasure in and pride ourselves on a love of planning – whether that’s prepping the coming week’s meals every Sunday, booking exercise classes ahead of time, or adding our favourites to yet another holiday WhatsApp group. Planning is generally harmless – it’s enjoyable and energising when we have goals and plans to look forward to.

But for some of us, planning is an unhealthy and a borderline obsession. “As women, we often have a lot of spinning plates in our lives. This can create the desire to control every aspect to ensure we are on top of everything,” says Life Coach Directory member Laura Caunter. “When planning, we feel in control and this helps us deal with worrying about consequences and outcomes. Often, the need to be in control of the consequences and outcomes can lead to over-planning.”

An obsessive planner is someone who needs to be in control of planning everything from start to finish, adds Laura. “They may be disinterested in other people’s opinions or ideas and like to organise everything in their own way.”

This can lead to unrealistic expectations of the outcome, she adds. “They may put too much pressure on themselves for everything to go perfectly and the idea of something not going to plan may feel overwhelming or simply too much to handle.”

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Personal development coach Tammy Whalen Blake, 31, took her planning habit to the extreme by making a business out of helping others make plans. For her own life, Tammy has a 10-year plan, a five-year plan, a one-year plan, a three month-plan, a monthly plan and a daily plan which is sometimes hourly.

“Determination and personal development are core values for me, and for that to happen, you need to plan,” Tammy says. “I wouldn’t describe [my relationship with planning] as obsessive, but rather, essential.” Having said that, she says it can often spiral to some “obsessive extremes”.

When putting together events for her social circles, Tammy typically devises a floor plan, an agenda and provides links to further information. Romance-wise, planning her love life led Tammy to find her ideal life partner after designing what she calls her “Mr 100%” bar chart. If potential flames didn’t meet the minimum threshold of any one of Tammy’s categories – including attractiveness, good health, a propensity for intimacy and more – she’d discount them. 

“The dating process became enjoyable and allowed me to communicate what is important to me and my romantic relationships,” Tammy explains. “It also gave the guys closure if we weren’t compatible.”

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Planning isn’t always clarifying or productive, however. But, when exactly does a planning habit go from harmless fun to unhealthy and destructive? 

“When the need to be in full control overrides everything else,” says Laura. Signs to look out for include anxiety caused by over-worrying, feelings of frustration or anger, and a lack of flexibility – being unable to take others’ opinions or ideas on board – which may create fractious relationships with friends, loved ones or colleagues.

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“It’s important to make plans, otherwise life becomes disorganised and disoriented. However, when planning becomes central to someone’s life, the habit becomes unhealthy,” adds Yuko Nippoda, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).

“It can be unhealthy if people try to plan fanatically,” adds Yuko. If someone makes a detailed holiday plan well in advance, say, if they’re constantly making lists and thinking about contingency plans B or C in case plan A goes wrong. For them, it’s almost like their planning list is the Bible.”

Mayah Riaz, 39, a celebrity manager and publicity coach, admits she plans her life “somewhat obsessively”. Mayah plans her days in half hour slots and has broken her 2022 goals down by the month, week and days, which she says will make her more likely to achieve them.

She also prepares all her meals and exercise sessions (plus the accompanying podcasts or audiobooks) for the week ahead, and schedules her downtime meticulously, using a Trello board to list the Netflix series and audiobooks she wants to listen to. She stays on top of her social life by arranging to see as many friends together as possible, or arranging to call them while she’s driving or on the treadmill. “I guess if you’re not a planner, this sounds extreme, but I hardly ever end the week thinking I’ve not done all I need to do.”

Mayah admits there are downsides to this level of organisation. “When something happens that I haven’t planned for, it does put me out. Last week my car wouldn’t start as it needed a new alternator. That totally threw off the plans I’d made around my car and it took time to sort out as my dealership couldn’t get me in within a reasonable time. It was a headache I didn’t need and meant a lot of time was spent on it when I could have been doing other things.”

Would she alter her personality if she could? “I could perhaps relax a little more but it’s just how I prefer things, and if it’s not hurting anyone or becoming annoying then I’ll continue.”

Tammy says she wouldn’t change her propensity for planning either. “I’m very happy with it as I’ve accelerated my life, and clients, suppliers and employees are attracted to me because of the speed with which I can achieve my goals, both business and personal.”

Being an over-planner has become easier with today’s technology, Mayah believes. “Whether that’s shopping while preparing a meal or watching the news, accessing your bank with your fingertips, or being able to automate processes within your business.”

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It’s therefore not a stretch to assume that many of us are wrestling with an unhealthy relationship with our iCals, Google Docs, planning apps or even paper diaries. So, how can we pull back and achieve balance?

“My advice would be to set realistic goals,” Laura encourages. “Often, over-planners can create big, unachievable goals which result in feelings of failure when they’re not achieved within a certain timeframe. When we set realistic, achievable goals and give ourselves appropriate time to complete them, this creates even more motivation and productivity.”

Look inwards and ask yourself: are you making plans from a place of joy and comfort, or do you feel compelled to plan out of fear, and consider it a burden? According to Yuko: “As long as you enjoy making plans and gain energy by doing this, it’s healthy, but if it becomes a predicament or if your habit becomes disruptive and affects your life, you might need to seek help. UKCP has a list of practitioners, psychotherapists and psychotherapeutic counsellors, and help is available.”

Try not to take responsibility if something you organise doesn’t go according to plan, adds Yuko. “Nobody is perfect and it’s OK to make mistakes. It’s much more productive if planning is seen as a joyful activity. You can then relax and be happy regardless of the consequences.”

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