What Now? What Then? Some Thoughts on Life-span Planning


As a child, I assumed that life would always be predictable, that although I accumulated age, I would never be old or different. No one ever asked me what I would be doing in 1981—and even if they had, I couldn’t have come up with an answer.

It is not uncommon for us to plan our lives as far ahead as this evening or later on in the week, or perhaps even to set goals for the next six months. We steadfastly encourage our young people to get an education and to plan for the future. But who of us, after all, really plans and prepares for a different time of life?

Some people I know have acted, either from necessity or foresight, to make impressive futures for themselves. One Relief Society sister who had married after one year of college and become the mother of eight children suddenly found herself in the position of having to raise her children alone. A month on welfare convinced her that she did not want her life to continue in that manner. So, realizing that she simply could not provide for her family without more education, she went back to school. It took her ten years to get her teaching degree while working at a part-time “survival job” to provide the necessities for her children. But finally she was able to launch a successful teaching career, and throughout her life she has contributed significantly to her family, church, and community.

Another sister, a college graduate, taught school to help finance her husband’s education. Years later, with her children grown and life situations changing, she found herself interested in areas other than teaching. So once again she began planning and learning, this time gaining knowledge and expertise in selling real estate.

Three other sisters, their ages averaging in the eighties, regularly hire a taxi to take them to the local community college for their art classes. Another woman, having spent a good deal of time and energy learning what children like to play with, is now seeking to patent creative toys of her own design.

Professionals who study human growth describe various stages through which most individuals progress from infancy. Until a few years ago, however, little was said concerning the growth needs of mature adults. But life is not stagnant for adults; circumstances, together with our own physical, intellectual, and emotional abilities, make us vulnerable to change. Even our attitudes can alter over the years.

As we contemplate plans and goals for the future, we need to take time now to ask ourselves a few pointed questions: Just how important to me are these plans? Are they as significant to me as the events and tasks which claim my time and energy today? What will be the impact of my plans on others—family, friends, colleagues? Will my plans make a worthwhile contribution to my surroundings? How time-consuming will it be to plan now for later life? Will it create anxieties and pressures so much that I will not be able to cope with today? What have I learned from praying about my plans and goals? Facing these issues squarely at the beginning of our planning will lessen the likelihood of unwelcome roadblocks along the way.

The success of long-range planning in life is to a large extent dependent upon our aptitudes and attitudes. Thus we might say that a detailed knowledge of self is the foundation of lifespan planning. What things in life interest and satisfy you most? What captivates your attention, spurs your involvement? What past experiences, in formal education and/or professional endeavors, would you like to repeat in years to come? And how are you at managing your resources, finances, and time? Whether or not they seem important at this moment, each of these considerations will bear directly upon your plans for the future.

One important facet of lifespan planning is a willingness to thoughtfully make decisions, rather than take the “world-happens-to-me” attitude or procrastinate until the decision is finally made for us. Remember, too, that our Father in Heaven can help us with our planning: through personal stimulation and confirmation of our thinking and evaluation at various stages of our planning, answered prayers, priesthood blessings, and our patriarchal blessing. Keeping these vital resources in mind, here is a systematic approach to decision-making which may be helpful.

1. Identify the concern or the problem. Ask yourself just what it is you would like to do or become as your life circumstances change. If you can answer this question purposefully, you’ll be on the way to setting some meaningful goals and priorities. Since none of us know much about ourselves and our future, we should by all means seek as much help and information as possible.

2. Gather information. Search out reliable sources of information. If you’re looking at a future career, gather information about education and work possibilities, requirements for specific careers, earnings and advancement possibilities—all those factors important to making plans for ten, twenty, thirty, or more years down the road. Resources could include the Lord, your family, associates, and friends. The more information you have, the broader will be your base for decision-making.

3. Choose alternatives. With sufficient information at your disposal, you are in a position to identify a few alternate plans which seem closest to what you feel you may wish to pursue. Sit down with your list of choices; think about each one in terms of its strengths, weaknesses, potential, etc. (both long- and short-range). Write down the pros and cons, remembering the pointed questions you asked at the beginning. If it’s worth planning for, it’s worth stewing over for a few days or weeks or months.

4. Select and implement your final choice. Make your decision by comparing the alternative choices with your own values today; can the two be integrated successfully? Then, when you know (or hope you know) where your life is headed, you must also plot your course of action. What can you do this very day, this week, this year, to make your plan more certain of fulfillment?

5. Evaluation. Somewhere along the way to your own private change of seasons, look back to see if your initial choice is proving to be a good one. You may need to make adjustments in the plan based on changing circumstances or values; but you will likely still be able to move forward. In any case, the evaluation process will assist you in monitoring your progress—and help you to know whether to continue on or alter your plans. And if you have sought divine inspiration through each of the preceding steps, you will be entitled to that same guidance as you evaluate your plan.

As with any of life’s activities, the course of lifespan planning is seldom smooth or uninterrupted. But what is it that so often gets in the way of our preparations for another time, another situation? There are several obvious distractions, and the more readily we can recognize them, the easier they are to disregard or overcome.

Fear is the great immobilizer, with uncertainty its nearest relative. If only we could predict accurately, we would be more than happy to try! The fear of making mistakes keeps many individuals glued to the chair of indecision, and thus they fail in their desire to change or respond to new situations. Indeed, our fears cause us to be acted upon by the world instead of acting upon our own lives and futures.

Sometimes our goals and values seem to conflict because of the relative amounts of time we are able to give to them. But, with careful planning, tomorrow’s fulfillment need not be accomplished at the expense of today’s responsibilities. It is possible to devote time and energy to both ourselves and others at the same time. Sadly, our inability to view both efforts as complementary sometimes results in an entire lifetime of ineffectiveness.

Sometimes we have to steel ourselves against the biases of others. What will the ward members think, for example, of a Relief Society counselor taking an automobile mechanics course—or of your husband’s enrollment in a seminar on home care of the sick?

Possibly the biggest distraction of all is interruption—the little daily expected and unexpected demands that disrupt our focus and direction. These, of course, are a part of life; yet it is easier to respond to an interruption and then return to the focus if we understand that there is a longer view to consider. It may just be that such a view, coupled with faith, action, and the knowledge that “as we sow, so shall we reap,” can provide the impetus for each of us to begin an inspired look at our own lifetime planning.

[photo] Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten

Addie Fuhriman, professor of educational psychology, University of Utah, is a member of the Relief Society General Board.