Plan Your Life Like a Road Trip

Stick figure image of man standing at table looking at a map.

You get better results when you have a plan.

It is a truism that “life is a journey,” yet we often fail to treat it like one; either setting off with no plan at all or focusing exclusively on our destination without any regard to the process of getting there.  For many Americans the summer road trip is an annual ritual; something to look forward to all year.  We spend time dreaming about possible destinations, researching stops along the way and planning the best route to take.  Like a road trip, life is a journey with many destinations along the way.  How far we travel and our experience of the journey is shaped by our attitude and our planning (or lack thereof). The summer road trip is a microcosm of life and can act as a parable for how to plan your life as a whole.

As we approach the New Year goals and planning are on many people’s minds.  With that in mind, I would like to spend the next several weeks exploring how to use the metaphor of a road trip to more effectively plan your life so that you can achieve more while simultaneously taking more pleasure in the journey.

Plan Your Route

Before setting off on a road trip most people set out a clear outline of where they intend to go and roughly when they intend to get there.  Having a clear destination sets the direction for the trip.  It keeps us focused and moving in the right direction, reducing the tendency to be distracted by every billboard and advertisement.

Without a clear agenda, we are unlikely to get far in our travels.  We drive from one attraction to the next with no clear plan and find ourselves backtracking and going in circles.  Looking at the odometer, we have traveled as many or more miles than the group with a plan, but we have made much less progress.  While they are halfway across the country having seen many exciting and unique attractions, we are still near home and the sights we have seen, while interesting, were mostly not exceptional.

Likewise in life clear, well-thought-out goals will allow us to make significantly more progress for the same amount of effort and lead to deeper more satisfying accomplishments.

Establish Habits and Routines

While our destinations set the direction of the trip, they do not, in themselves, move us along the road.  The map of our trip is not the trip itself.  Rather, the act of driving is what moves us along the road.  To make steady progress we establish a routine. Perhaps, get up at 8 am each day, eat a hardy breakfast, pack our gear and get on the road by 9:30.  We drive for 2 hours then stop for lunch. Overall we drive 300-400 miles each day.

Likewise in life, our goals set the direction we intend to go, but our daily habits are what drive us to accomplish them.  Setting a goal, for instance, to raise my sons to become compassionate young men is only the first step.  The key to reaching it is establishing the right habits for how I speak to them and respond to various behaviors.

Enjoy the Journey

Depending on our approach, a road trip can be a pleasure or a death march.  While it is important to make steady progress towards our destination, if we focus exclusively on the end we lose the pleasures of the journey.  A good road trip requires finding a balanced pace, a pleasant route and making the most of the opportunities along the way.  We move steadily towards our destination but stop regularly to eat a good meal, go to the bathroom, stretch our legs and just enjoy the sights.  When we get to our destination or a significant stop along the way, we take the time to enjoy it.  For a minor attraction, this might be just an hour or two.  At a more major stop, we might stay for a day or more to get the full value from the experience.

While at times we may wander aimlessly through life without a plan, at others we find ourselves so focused on our goals that we forget to enjoy the process of getting there.  We rush from one goal to the next, never taking more than a bare moment to savor our successes and enjoy what we have accomplished.  Like the best road trips, the best lives involve a balance; moving steadily towards our goals without neglecting the small moments along the way; making time to acknowledge each success and milestone; spending more time to celebrate the major accomplishments before moving on to the next goal.

Share the Journey with Friends

You can take a wonderful trip all on your own, but a friend to share the journey makes the experience richer.  Having someone to share the driving, commiserate on construction delays and enjoy the attractions with adds greatly to the pleasures of travel.  Even a primarily solo journey can be enriched by visiting with friends (or making new friends) along the way.

Just so with life.  Sharing the journey with people you care about, whether by traveling steadily together or meeting from time to time along the way makes the journey richer.  Life is (hopefully) a long journey.  While a week alone on the road may be a relief from the bustle of daily life a life alone is a lonely thing, much poorer for the absence of friends.

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