When you least expect it: making plans without expectations

If the old cliché is true, that things often work out when you least expect them too, can we actively cultivate this ‘low expectations’ mindset and use it to our advantage? For me personally it can be a challenge, but i’m starting to believe it’s possible with the right approach.

I often find myself facing the dilemma that if you haven’t clearly defined your ideal outcome at the outset of a project, it’s hard know how to go about even attempting to achieve your goal. Paradoxically, the optimal mindset seems to require both a clear picture of what one wants to achieve, complete with a strategy for doing so, but without the added pressure caused by the expectations of actually achieving it.

Take alpine climbing as an example. You want to climb a mountain by a particular route, so from the very outset your preferred outcome is crystal clear; climb the route, reach the summit and descend safely. The process involves carefully planing the ascent, before eventually going out and giving it a try. Furthermore you’re an optimist, you believe in your plan and your own ability, otherwise you wouldn’t even be trying.

Despite being an integral part of the preparation process, creating ambitious plans and fermenting the necessary self-belief to attempt them, can have unintended consequences. The most significant of these is that your expectations can become biased, overly favouring your planned optimal outcome. This can leave you with a fairly rose tinted picture in your mind of how things should ultimately work out, which can negatively impact your mindset when things don’t go as planned.

As you are walking to the base of the wall in the dark, cold and tired in early hours of the morning, it’s easy to let that ambitious and detailed plan of action morph into your expectation for the day. I’ve found that this can often happen subconsciously without you even realising it. Once your carefully planned ‘best case scenario’ outcome becomes your expectation, with it comes all the pressure to perform and achieve your ambitious goal. If the cliché that success comes when you least expect it is in fact true, it’s probably because of the lack of pressure that comes only in the complete absence of any such expectations. Having a fixed set of high expectations is far from ideal when the inevitable happens and things stop going exactly as you had originally planned. The stress and feeling that the day is not going quite right, can have a measurable affect on your actual performance and decision making in the moment.

So for me the key question is, how can I prevent my detailed and ambitious planing from leading me directly to the pitfall of a high expectations mindset? One strategy I have recently embraced from the world of paragliding is to simply make more plans. Having a clear plan A is essential, so you are equipped with a strategy to succeed if your best case scenario does materialise. But equally, having a plan B and C in place for when plan A doesn’t pan out helps prevent your optimal plan from becoming your default expectation. In the alpine climbing example this could mean considering detailed plans for how I might retreat from various points along the route, rescue myself or my partner in an emergency or even that I might abandon the climb entirely before starting off if the conditions are bad.

By focusing on a wider range of possible outcomes as opposed to a single optimal performance goal, you are less likely to find yourself thinking ‘things aren’t working out as I planed or expected’ because you simply have more plans and expectations to choose from. By considering more possible outcomes from the start you tend to get a more balanced perspective when forming your expectations, compared with focusing solely on your inherently optimistic plans.

This helps create more realistic expectations, which in turn allow me to benefit from the ‘low expectations’ mindset and actually perform better in the moment. This creates a win-win scenario where I can be realistic, while still having plans in place to achieve my optimal outcome should it be possible to do so.

A couple of weeks ago I was able to experience for myself this allusive combination of having detailed plans but no expectations. Having committed the day to some filming practice with my friend Barrie and his new drone we headed out to Pentland Hills. It was certainly a good forecast for paragliding, but perhaps not the best wind direction for the site. Despite this, the night before I took the time to clearly define some plans including my optimal plan A outcome, a flight to hillend, as well as a range of other options. That way I could still give Barrie the opportunity to capture some footage in the likely scenario that the conditions for my plan A flight did not materialise.

After walking up the hill I made two short flights for the camera landing again on the slope next to Barrie. During the second short flight the air was becoming increasingly turbulent and I was feeling a little intimidated. I decided to take a break and see how I felt in fifteen minutes. In the intervening time we discussed the situation and that I was on the verge of calling it a day. Barrie told me that he was pretty happy with what he had captured so far and that, combined with my acceptance that I was done for the day, made any expectations I may have still had instantly vanish.

But I still had my plans from the previous day and after a few minutes I had a change of heart. With zero expectations I decided to make one more attempt to fly. After all if it didn’t work out I had my plan B to fall back on, land safely at the bottom of the hill and wait for Barrie to walk down.

As I prepared my wing a textbook cumulus cloud began forming just out in front of the take off. I launched into the thermic cycle and soon found myself circling high above the hill. As I continued to climb rapidly towards the controlled airspace above me, without thinking twice I made the seamless transition to plan A. It was as if there was no need for any conscious thought on the issue. I turned downwind and found myself cruising effortlessly towards my optimal outcome.

One more conveniently located thermal carried me up and over Glencorse Reservoir and Castlelaw ranges, the last hurdle to overcome in order realise my goal. As I approached Hillend, the furthest I could legally fly before entering Edinburgh airspace, I was psyched. I had achieved a goal I had spent months working towards and I did it because I had plans, but no expectations.

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