Planning for the Unexpected

planning for the unexpected

As a project manager by trade, I always advocate drafting out a good plan to reach new goals. Setting objectives, analyzing scenarios, and executing tasks will make it easier for you to get to that final destination. When the going gets tough, you can oftentimes go back to your plan, evaluate how to fix any roadblocks, and then move forward.

Of course, life doesn’t always follow a script, which is why it’s important to plan for the unexpected. That sounds impossible. How can you plan for something which you cannot anticipate? The truth is, you can’t plan the details, but you put yourself into a certain mindset that will help you succeed.

My friend Evan* had this mindset. Evan is not from the United States, but he wanted to work here full-time (and perhaps become a citizen). He thought he had everything planned out when his first postgraduate job promised a green card in two years. But when the economy tanked in 2008, so did his company, and they let him go. He spent almost a year finding new work: networking, filling out job applications, and learning new skills to make himself more marketable. He almost ran out of money and had to return to his home country, but he decided if he did that, he would save up again and return Stateside in a year or two. Fortunately, he found work at the eleventh hour, got his green card, and now he’s even engaged to an American woman.

If Evan’s story sounds straightforward, it isn’t. I watched Evan struggle throughout that year looking for work. American citizens were having a hard time landing decent jobs after the recession hit. What odds did he have of finding a job, especially without a green card? But instead of succumbing to the glum outlook of his situation and returning home, Evan pushed through and managed to find meaningful work in the States. Without having that “I can do it” mindset to push through the unexpected, he would have given up long before his money ran out.

So how can you plan for the unexpected? A few things I’ve found useful over the years:

1. Keep positive. Just because you believe something will happen doesn’t magically make it happen. On the flip side, if you tell yourself you can’t do something, there is zero percent chance it will happen. Keeping a positive attitude will help you weather unexpected hurdles and obstacles. If you are not naturally good at being positive in the face of adversity, find others who are. Their positive attitude and/or their belief in you will help push through the hard times.

2. Know your priorities. If you are truly determined to reach a goal, it should take precedence over others. New entrepreneurs struggle with financial stability over bringing their product to market. The key to jumping the hurdle is having faith in the product over a dwindling bank account. If you find other priorities getting in the way of your goal, you may need to reassess if the goal is really right for you.

3. Favor the long haul over the short-term. If you know what goal you’ll want to reach, you’ll find the means to get there, even if prospects aren’t good in the short term. Evan was determined to stay in the United States. Even if he hadn’t found that job in 2009, he had plans to return to try again. If you aren’t determined to meet your goal, then in the face of uncertainty, you may waver and fail.

4. Keep up with current events. If you are forced to take a break from your goals, put aside some time to stay current so you can jump back in the game later. One of my friends got laid off from a sports marketing job he loved and had to work retail for several years. He kept his skills current through networking, reading, and job searching and finally landed a new position several years later. He’s now a director in the company he works for, due largely in part that he didn’t just “take a break” from his old career.

5. Take time to recover from a crisis. Sometimes tragic events happen. The death of a good friend or family member, for example, may justifiably warrant our time and energy. As much as possible, don’t feel bad about taking time off to recover from a personal crisis. Just like your physical health, your emotional health is worth carving out time for. Ignoring emotional turmoil could result in further disaster, compounding the problem and making it harder to reach your goals.

All plans, even the best ones, will change once paper meets reality. So don’t despair if everything isn’t going to plan. Instead, go with the flow, and find new solutions to unexpected problems by having the right mindset.

Do you have any suggestions for planning for the unexpected?

*Name changed for the sake of anonymity.

Photo by Harold Navarro

22 thoughts on “Planning for the Unexpected”

  1. Deborah, it seems like the unexpected happens a lot more than we expect it to these days. These are great tips for dealing with it when it does happen. I really liked tip #2. Keeping our ultimate goal in mind, can help us make the right decisions about our next step. Thanks for sharing.

    1. #2 is my favorite piece of advice too. It shows up directly or indirectly in many of my columns. Having a sense of what’s important to you (not necessarily to others) can give you clarity on what choices to make.

  2. Deborah, great article. For me is focusing on the bigger picture when the unexpected happens. Plans are not a straight line and as long as we recognized that we will be okay. I would also say don’t give up on your goals and stay positive.

  3. You are right Deborah, the only constant in life is change, and it does not always change in ways we like or expect. Knowing your priorities and keeping the big picture in mind are great pieces of advice. You have to be realistic about priorities, sometimes the priority is just paying the bills.

    I like to take your advice for staying positive to a deeper level. When unforeseen things happen, and they have a few times, I remind my self of a couple things: 1) when one door closes another opens and 2) to always look for the silver lining behind this set back. I always focus on something better about to come my way. With this attitude I have had a few beautiful surprises come my to me.

    1. I’m happy to hear that you maintain a positive outlook and it has worked out well for you. I’ve found the same things in my life; that if you stay positive, you can overcome challenges more quickly and sometimes an unexpected event can define you in a great way (even when it appear negative at first).

  4. Deborah I love this piece. It brings up for me the importance of trust. Trust that there is a path under our feet, trust that our sense of timing might not be the best and trust that there is a more wise plan in the works. Also I think there is wisdom in holding balance between surrendering and engagement. As we engage in our goals (hold intention and heart), while also letting go of expectations and fear, our goals will often show up bigger and better than expected.

    1. Trust is extremely important. I’m learning about that now as I balance working part-time and staying at home with my young children. I have had some incredible opportunities come up, and some I have been able to take because of my situation, and others I’ve had to pass up. Knowing that opportunities come and go as long as you keep looking for them makes it easier to forge your own path.

  5. Hi, Deborah!

    I am going to paraphrase a popular bumper sticker. S**t happens = Something unexpected always happens. Its how we deal with the unexpected that matters.

    Successful large businesses practice a routine called scenario planning. Scenario planning means that the company looks at lot of things that might happen to their business, even some that seem really unlikely. Large businesses do scenario planning because they are too big to respond rapidly to the unknown.

    Small businesses do not the have the time and money necessary for scenario planning. They can respond to new circumstances, however. The key for a small business is for the owner/manager to keep a cool head when something unexpected happens.

    All five of your recommendations fit the bill for effectively dealing with the unexpected. Evan might have had some trouble but he did the right thing and became successful.

    Thank you for sharing your advice, Deborah. I feel better whenever I hear about to deal with problems constructively.

    1. As someone who’s worked for both large and small businesses, you’ve nailed the point on the head. Big businesses do more planning because they have to. Smaller businesses can turn on the fly. All long-term successful businesses try to find ways to catch new opportunities and use them to their advantage. Going after the “same old routine” in business will eventually found you obsolete, so knowing how to use the unexpected to your advantage is key.

  6. mahavir nautiyal

    Unexpected can happen any time. Life is not a linear progression. It is cyclic in nature. Recession in American economy and its fall out in International economy was not anticipated by many. It has taken years to recover. Some countries are still under cloud. Falling is easier but it is not so easy to stand up and recover the momentum. It is not a once in life time phenomenon. Fearing the worst and hoping for the best helps cope with uncertainties. Deborah is right when she says that,” if you tell yourself that you can’t do some thing, there is zero percent chance that it will happen”.

    1. Thank you for your global perspective. Economic downturns are a part of life. They will come again, so knowing this may help ease the transition with the next one.

  7. Planning for the unexpoected is what in business speak is risk management. Some of us are great at taking risks and never think twice before jumping but can come unstuck through lack of a safety net. Others approach life with more caution but risk not doing anything at all.
    For me the middle ground is managing risks through simple things like having a plan B. The biggest thing we can sometimes do for ourselves is to put a little cash away as a financial cushion should things fall apart.
    And the unexpected isn’t always bad. Sometimes we come out stronger or it helps us to find the right track. Loosing an average job might help us find a better one, a car breakdown might mean we start cycling and get fit. There’s normally an upside!

    1. If you can afford putting away money, that’s really great advice. Especially when you’re young and don’t have much, it’s easy not to “upscale” your life when you get your first decent job. Staying moderate in your finances can help you take more risks and weather unexpected outcomes. Thanks for reading!

  8. Nice post Deborah
    In my experience, the best way to deal with the unexpected is to keep your ultimate vision in sight (related to point#2: know your priorities).
    And for that, what REALLY made a ton of difference in my life and my motivation levels is Visualization.

    I have found sometimes when the going gets really tough… the FAITH provided by Visualization is the ONLY thing which kept me going.
    It is like a candle which refuses to die even amidst a dark storm.

    Find more details about it here:

  9. Hey Deborah,
    That was a great piece I will pin up in my room and read everyday. Beautiful. :’)
    Thank you so much. One name I will remember.

    1. Nimisha,

      Thanks for reading my article. I’m glad you enjoyed it. If it can help you deal with your life in any small way, than I feel it was time worth spent writing it.

  10. Hi Deborah,

    Lots of great advice in this article, I agree that you cannot plan so much for the unexpected but you can be ready to act positively and with confidence if other things in your life are taken care of. I find that if I do not let the everyday things, the small things get big by non action, it easier to concentrate on the new things that may come up.

    1. That’s great advice, Michael. Not letting the little things pile up can often free you to focus on bigger issues. I’ve found that to be true in my life. Thanks for reading.

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