David Amerland
Planning as a cognitive skill

Planning

When Benjamin Franklin said: “If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail” he was being glib. At the same time he was being deep.

Planning is a complex human activity that utilizes a number of inherent capabilities which are themselves driven by the simplest of evolutionary directives: survival. To understand this better I need to unpack it a little.

From an evolutionary point of view we’ve been built to survive. Whatever change happens to our environment, circumstances and personal condition our body and brain have been bred to adapt. More than that, from a neurobiological point of view we’ve developed to do what trained snipers call “Adapt. Overcome.”

This is a specific mindset fashioned by the need to get through every perceived difficulty, however unexpected it may be. The key components of planning are: mission, objectives, principles, processes, vision, resources and strategy.

The motivation for all this apparent complexity lies in the simple task the brain has to achieve in order to succeed in its function of helping us survive: predicting the next moment. Only if it can do that does any planning acquire meaning and importance. But in order to do that it employs a specific pro-social soft skill called empathy.

So, to recap: in order to help us survive the brain tries to predict the immediate future and in order to do that important task, it begins to plan ahead so that each future moment is understood as well as it is possible to understand. Understanding the future requires the employment of pro-social skills like empathy and altruism, caring, helping, sharing and cooperating.

Survival is not easy. The threats we can face are hard to predict in both complexity and magnitude. Nothing can really prepare us for it. Which is why so much of our cognitive energy is devoted to building trust, forging relationships and creating a safety buffer of social connections.

How does planning fit into all this exactly? Beyond the obvious pro-social skills it hones as we practice planning, we also develop knowledge structures that help us develop mentalizing skills which lead to a deeper understanding of the world we observe and the reality it represents.

Planning is a basic survival skill. Failing to exercise it will lead us to situations we are totally unprepared for which will only increase our chances of failure.

It’s the first Sunday of a brand-new year. I know you’ve planned ahead so, despite the holidays there is coffee. And some donuts (I hope). Some cookies, croissants and chocolate cake. Have an awesome Sunday, wherever you are.

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