Proverbs 19:21 observes, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” Does this verse mean to say that our planning is futile? I don’t believe so. But I invite you to examine this for yourself.
Here I’ll lay out a rationale and strategy for planning under the will of God, and I’ll also lay out how I use a spreadsheet tool to “Plan by Threes” (right click to download here) and manage my activities according to my priorities. Because this is a “how to” post it is a bit lengthy, but I trust it will pay off for those who take the time to consider it. It has proven highly valuable to me over the past decade as I’ve tried to apply it.
“If you want to hear God laugh” the saying goes, “tell Him your plans.” Are we out of line to plan? Not at all. But I do believe we easily get out of line when we plan without clearly acknowledging the will of God. God being sovereign always has the last word, and His redemptive plan, which we can only perceive in part, cannot be overcome by anything planned by any person.
In case we want Biblical confirmation of God’s primacy as a planner, Psalm 33:10-11 offers this awe-inspiring reminder:
The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.
In this post, I’d like to offer what I believe to be a sound approach for planning our work, along with my own basic tools to accompany the task. But before jumping into these practicals, I encourage you to wrestle with the fundamental question: why plan at all?
In his book on Proverbs entitled Be Skillful, Warren Wiersbe notes:
It is inconceivable that our loving Heavenly Father would give His Son to die for us, and then abandon us to our own ways! We are not our own because we have been purchased by God (1 Cor. 6:19–20), so it’s reasonable that our Master should have a perfect plan for us to fulfill for His glory.
One of the things about being a Christian that I have always found difficult is confronting perfection. How does one properly appreciate the Biblical notion of trusting God’s perfect plan for your life? Popular evangelists talk about this idea frequently. But this idea of perfection has always felt static, as if I am nothing more than a spectator in my own life, and that no matter what I do all will work out in the end.
When I would think of this as a younger Christian, I would be tempted to lose heart and accept that the Christian life is mere fatalism. Have you ever experienced it? I still do sometimes, I hate to admit, but for the most part I have settled on what I see as a more hopeful and motivating Biblical view of how to reconcile God’s plans with my need to make sound plans.
There is an undeniable mystery and tension existing between Biblical ideas of human responsibility and Divine sovereignty. But I believe this tension is designed explicitly to fuel effective planning, if we think rightly about it. Perfection need not dull our sense of looking ahead and the wisdom of mapping out various courses of action.
When I accept that there is a perfect plan outside of which I can never step as a Christian–even as I remain fully human, frail, and mistake-prone in the process–I (ironically) end up with a firm foundation with which to confidently make wise plans.
This is what I mean when I say confronting perfection.
Once we confront perfection and find a Biblical foundation for planning, what next? There are many ways to move forward here. Recently I used the Lord’s prayer to make my next move in the planning process. This move can be called alignment.
In the Lord’s prayer, Christ instructs us to seek God’s will by first aligning our hearts with His God’s righteous reign. We see this in the famous phrase “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.” It seems to me that effective planning should begin with bent knees and fixed eyes looking to a Father who has proven Himself committed to getting His good and perfect ways into our world through His people.
Is this not why Christ came, to glorify the Father and bring us good? Is not the atonement our proof of God’s commitment to His kingdom breaking into the earth to set captives free and to set all things right?
When we purposely and prayerfully submit our lives to God’s ways in Christ, we can make plans based on the freedom for which Christ has set us free.
We don’t make plans to get ourselves free, we plan because we are free.
Consider: God does not need our plans to fulfill Him in any way–He is perfectly fulfilled in Himself. Because God is free, He can graciously extend His freedom to us in Christ. This is what union with Christ is all about, and in planning it gives us the opportunity to participate in His gracious rule where we once rejected Him in our sin.
Conversely, if we make plans in such a way as to earn God’s favor, we slip out of freedom into the oppression of legalism.
There is much to say here, but I’ll leave these three attributes of God for your meditation as you seek to reject legalism and align yourself with God’s kingdom as you start to make your plans:
Providence — Hebrews 1:3 asserts that Christ upholds all things in the universe by the word of His power. Note that word is singular, suggesting that one simple speech act by the Son of God undergirds the rich expanse of creation. Any plans for our work that we make in Christ can become means He providentially uses to bring good into the world. That’s pretty cool.
Wisdom — Let Proverbs 8 blow your mind in stating that wisdom has a special role as the first work in creation. When James 1:5 tells us God generously gives wisdom to those who ask, we should ask for wisdom anticipating a big impact as we apply it.
Strategy — The God who knows the end from the beginning tells us in Ephesians 1:10 that God has a clear redemptive strategy for all the actions taking place in the visible and invisible realms in which we live: “to unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.”
Take time before you plan and consider these grand categories, and then let your plans flow not from legalism but from God’s gracious call to have you participate in these things.
PLANNING BY THREES
I plan by threes. There is something powerful in the number 3. Obviously, it is trinitarian. There is a unity-in-diversity thing going on with this number that strikes me as unique and compelling. But for a burnt-out dummy like me who can’t remember all I need to, I find comfort in planning for only 3 things at a time.
In the “Work Goals” tab in my planning spreadsheet, you will see a structure for planning based on the number 3. I set annual, quartely, weekly, monthly, and daily goals always striving after the 3 most critical things I need to do.
Because my plans are not perfect and adjustments will always be necessary, I try to capture 2 more backup goals just in case.
But I don’t want more than 5-6 goals in view, otherwise I am less likely to stay focused on defining the three most critical goals I need to meet for each unit of time.
Scheduling to this form of planning is easy. If you are into annual (or more frequent) retreats, the output of those retreats can be your annual goals in this sheet. And from there, you can schedule regular planning times that set goals which roll up to your annual goals. It is not rocket science. But it is a difficult discipline to maintain over time. But the disciple is worth it.
I’ve also included in my spreadsheet a few side lists of key dates, dependencies, tasks, and relationships that I like to keep in front of me as I make my plans. The reality of work is that things pop up all the time that demand our attention. Placing them in these buckets enables us to track them and insert them into our plans as appropriate whenever they arise. Again, this reinforces the discipline of planning, but it keeps us flexible.
EXAMPLE: THE $1MM SALES QUOTA
As an example, let’s say in my planning retreat I set an annual goal to close a $1 million sales deal (the more concrete the goal, the better!). I can then use the quarterly, monthly, weekly and daily goals to align with that larger annual goal. Following my planning by threes, I can prioritize my activities and then drop them into place on my schedule.
This may include a traditional sales process, such as crafting the right messaging, conducting sales calls to fill the pipeline, holding prospect meetings, doing the follow ups, and negotiating the deals should show up as planned activities here in my time management sheet.
Any number of standard organizational processes can fit within this planning framework.
The final step in my planning process is tracking. Any goal worth setting is worth measuring. Also, there will be competing priorities and distractions, so tracking helps us, well, stay on track.
The Time Management tab in the spreadsheet is what I use to scheduled my day and work on my goals in order. I try to begin my day with a 10-15 minute planning time. I include a planned vs actual column in this sheet because what I set out to do at the start of each day in my is often NOT what I actually accomplish. But this system allows for that, and it also reveals where I get distracted from my plans into secondary tasks.
All this reinforces the underlying reality I have discovered through this little system: Planning in this way is basically a spiritual discipline. It draws me closer to God, it can be improved over time, and it reveals flaws in my character. And like any spiritual discipline, the best I can do is to sow faithfullly. The reaping is always a gift from God. But because I am in Christ, I have confidence the reaping will exceed the sowing–even if the reaping tends to come later than I want.
I hope this has helped you think through a simple and yet fairly comprehensive approach to aligning your goals to God’s goal to work through us to advance his providence, his wisdom, and his redemptive strategy in the earth each day. I have found this plan “sticky” and hard to replace because over the years it has proven to be a straightforward path to position myself to hear “Well done” when all is said and done.