When Things Don’t Go As Planned

I love to plan.

I’m sure it has something to do with control, but to me it feels more like a combination of power and pleasure: looking at an array of choices, choosing what suits best, then making it happen.

Recently I had an epic planning failure.

I sat on a plane for four and a half hours, hearing the updates about the weather affecting connecting flights. We were late but would arrive at O’Hare 20 minutes before my connection, then I’d miss it entirely. Then we would be early enough. Then we wouldn’t. Then we would. Then finally we would not. As we waited to deplane in Chicago, I received the notification that my flight to Paris had left the gate.

My next steps were to see what options I had for rebooking. I asked the gate agent about who to speak with. She directed me to a sign and said “scan that QR code for help.” I would hear this direction repeatedly.

The airline had eliminated human booking agents, in favor of bots.

First, I tried the QR code. It took you to several options. I tried a video call and was queued for that. While I was waiting, I decided to walk to my departure gate for Paris, to see whether there were any gate agents wrapping up details on the flight. Nada. Still queued for a video call. Switched gears and tried calling the phone number. Another queue. Meanwhile, a group of 10 or 11 showed up, having missed the same flight to Paris. They had been delayed, too. An agent came on the telephone, and fumbled through some questions for me about my situation. After accessing the QR code, one of the things the initial screening requested was your boarding pass info. The same technology that was supposed to help me now had earlier removed my digital boarding pass from the airline’s app as soon as my flight had left without me.

The large group managed to corral a human airline rep, and they had bigger issues than me: they had checked bags and in some of them were things for the kids – baby formula and the like. I went over to horn in on their conversation, and the agent said there would be a human agent at a gate farther down the concourse who could help. It was like getting a tip from a covert operative for rendezvous with a handler. We all headed over. Meanwhile, the agent on the telephone had dropped my call.

A ways down the concourse, we found Chad. This guy was the best part of the day. (Going on a three-week trip to the south of France, and somehow having an airline employee being the highlight says a lot about this vacation.)

By the time I reached Chad, I was out of sorts. It’s not unusual for me to travel in a heightened state of stress, but this was different. My heart was racing, I could feel the cortisol swishing around my body, and my usual tools for calming myself weren’t working. I had a massive headache and I had already been crying openly in a public space. Every trip has its glitches, but this was not my best moment.

Chad offered two choices: he found a path for me to my final destination not through Paris, but through Newark, then on to Nice. I would have to stay in Chicago overnight and I’d be a day late. There was a strong possibility that either weather or the crush of holiday weekend travel or both could upend this new plan. Or I could just go home.

I booked the flights through Newark and started looking for hotels nearby. Pinged a couple of friends I had in Chicagoland. In my head, I knew what I needed to do to continue on the trip, and I was taking these steps. But in every other part of my body, I just wanted to go home.

There are times when you just have to give in to the idea that you have to change course. At a different time, I would have been able to power through all this and continue with the trip. But not today.

There are infinitely worse things that can happen to upset the best-laid plans beyond a canceled vacation: illness, accident, the unexpected death of your partner just as you’re starting to plan all that travel you’ve postponed until retirement. A divorce, a terminal diagnosis, the abrupt exchange of the family home for a retirement community in one’s later years.

I’ve worked with clients facing changes in plans like these.  Some of the best advice in these moments involves buying yourself more time and space to weather the storm, or find new ground, or both. My version of slowing down to take a curve in the road ahead looked like this:

1. FEEL – Let the feelings happen.
2. FOCUS – Find a quiet place to think.
3. REST – If you’re too stressed to think, try sleep.
4. REGROUP – See if you can find yourself a way to buy yourself more time before the final decision has to be made.

I did three of the four. (Note to self for next time: Try all four.)

Sometimes it is a wonderful, amazing event that changes things: a financial windfall, a new relationship, a new opportunity. In these instances, too, it helps to slow down the decision-making process. To give yourself a “decision-free” zone of time to check in with what you really need. This process sometimes goes more formally by the acronym “STOP”:

S = Stop – pause before reacting
T = Take a breath – literally. Calm your body
O = Observe – Set aside whatever you’re thinking and listen to your body. Your feelings (fear? anger?) are there for a reason; pay attention to what they might be telling you (do you feel unsafe, threatened, hurt?)
P = Proceed – move forward, in the direction you were headed, or someplace new.

The STOP method can help anytime you’re feeling overwhelmed or reactive to something (or someone).

I canceled a three-week trip I had been planning for almost a year. It was, I imagine, like canceling a wedding. A friend from grad school did this, called off a wedding, realizing that even with all the time, and money and effort, all the hopes she had for the future, and all the people she would disappoint, it just wasn’t the right thing to do. To me, she was courageous. Brave. It is hard to push back against the momentum that can come with expectations and a set course of action.

I would not say I am “courageous” for coming home early, for giving up what I’d hoped this break would be. But it was still the right decision for me. There was more to the saga of my trip than what happened at the airport. What happened there was just “la goutte qui fait déborder le vase” the French expression for “the last straw” (literally: “the drop that made the vase overflow”).

Planning isn’t really about control, but about letting go. Planning has the power to let you choose from a variety of actions, what best fits the vision you have for your future. Spending time setting a course and choosing those actions isn’t to lock you into a certain outcome, it is to free you from the worry today. Once your itinerary is set, you can relax and let the journey unfold. And if an unexpected curve in the road shows up along the way, taking a moment to STOP can help you take in and evaluate new information to see when changing the plan might be the right move for you.