Why I Ditched the Five-Year Plan—and How I’m Setting Goals Instead

Hot take: You can’t predict the future.

By Isabelle Eyman
probiotics for acne successful morning routine, drinking water, BIPOC

While I’m apt to look for inspiration everywhere I turn, there are three places that primarily propel my creativity: bookstores, libraries, and museums. Deep in the pages of a dusty paperback or in the halls of my favorite painters—these are the sites of my most profound epiphanies, and they’re where my ideas about the world are given shape. But I’ve recently tacked on a new source of revelation: my therapist’s office. And my latest life-changing realization of note? I don’t need a five year plan after all.

I once had a crystal-clear timeline of what I wanted my life to look like. Specific accomplishments corresponded with to-the-day deadlines marking when the “task” had to be completed (Type A, I know). The goals were all the usual suspects: write a book, get married, achieve X position in X career path. While I still want those things for myself (and am working adamantly toward goal #1), something my therapist said caught me when I reflected on the fear and pressure this pursuit set upon me: What if you took a break from the big picture?

Featured image by Belathée Photography.

Nitsa Citrine on bed in bedroom_five year plan
Image by Claire Huntsberger

I immediately felt hesitant, defensive even. How would I motivate myself? How do I get up each day and put in the work without a clear-cut roadmap for reaching my goals? After taking a deep breath and feeling the emotion run through me, her suggestion suddenly didn’t only make sense but felt like something akin to… permission. Permission to release the control I thought I had over my future and letting go of the five year plan that had kept me stuck in my fear of failure.

This structure of goal-setting is everywhere. I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked to share my five year plan in job interviews, on dates, and even when I’m getting to know new friends. It’s a question that seems to be on everyone’s mind, but in an ever-changing world, the plans I had for myself five years ago have shifted drastically.

Below, I’m breaking down the shortcomings of the five year plan and sharing actionable tips for setting goals that help you feel refreshed and renewed every week, month, and year.

Ashley Robertson home office_five year plan
Image by Danielle Sabol

First off, what is a five year plan?

I’m so glad you asked. If you haven’t been subjected to the common interview question, tell me where you see yourself in five years, here’s the low-down. Whether personal or professional, your five year plan lays out what you want to achieve and where you want to be once that timeline is up. Of course, folks formulate 10-year and even 15-year plans as well, stretching the span of years with perhaps loftier and more long-term goals.

According to BetterUp, a professional coaching platform, five year plans often also include “smaller, concrete goals, to help you achieve the larger goals on your list.” As a result, your five year plan might look like a series of larger goals (buy a house! start a business! grow your social following!) and an outline of smaller, actionable steps that’ll get you there.

The idea is that by writing your five year plan, you’re laying the groundwork for the career and life you want. And it’s true that when your goals align with your values, you’re well on your way to living your best life. Dream it, do it, make it happen.

Megan O'Neill in hallway_five year plan
Image by Belathée Photography

My Issue With the Five Year Plan

I have to emphasize: There’s nothing inherently wrong with the five year plan mindset. As I wrote above, it can be an effective way to take you from Point A to Point B. What I do have a problem with though, is the unrelenting pressure we put not only on young professionals but adolescent students to know what they want for themselves before they amass much experience or perspective.

And because I belong to the millennial “job-hopping generation,” I’m well aware that the expectations have shifted. As Emily He, CMO of talent management solution Saba, shared with Business News Daily, “Research suggests that today’s college graduates will have a dozen or more jobs by the time they hit their 30s.” She goes on to add that we don’t enter this decade knowing what we want for ourselves—instead, it’s more a time to learn, explore, and grow in ways we could have never anticipated a mere few years prior.

“You don’t have to see the end from the beginning—you couldn’t possibly.”

AmyAnn Cadwell

And while this wiggle room for exploration might make us assume that we’ll one day have things “figured out,” I have news to share—we won’t. But that’s the beauty of life: the more we see, the more experience we amass, the more our curiosity is piqued and the more our interest is ignited. Because of this, inevitably, more questions always appear.

The Beauty of Embracing the Unknown

Earlier this week, I opened one of my favorite newsletters, The Daily Good, to discover an inspiring quote that would set the tone not only for my day but for the direction of this piece. AmyAnn Cadwell, founder and CEO of The Good Trade, writes, “You don’t have to see the end from the beginning—you couldn’t possibly.”

Her words rung throughout my thoughts with a discerning resonance, repeating with their truth and fulness of meaning. They vibrated with the same permission I was given by my therapist, and while it may be obvious, it’s a significant departure from the misguided belief in our omniscient control.

With that influence, I’ve decided to lean into a softer approach. It’s one that allows me agency in the flow and formation of my goals, but that also creates space for shifts and the inevitable changes in the direction our paths and journeys take. So while I have no idea what my dream life might look like five years from now, these are the steps I’m taking to living that dream today.

Anine Bing working at home_five year plan
Image by Steven Simko

3 Ways I’m Pursuing My Goals With Kindness and Compassion

Future You Journaling

Camille got me started on “Future You” journaling with a particularly salient and inspiring issue of her newsletter, Breathing Space. In it, she encourages you to dream without boundaries, imaging what your life would look like if you could live a day fueled only by what’s important and meaningful to you. She asks you to reflect on the following four questions:

  • Where are you?
  • What are you doing?
  • Who are you with?
  • What does it feel like?

This level of visualizing helps you set your sights high, but learn to keep your expectations loose. As Camile shares, it’s the perfect antidote to those moments when you’re feeling ungrounded, scatter-brained, or like you could simply use a little direction to guide your focus. I find that instead of centering on some unknown future, the exercise feels like a gentle nudge connecting us with our present truth.

Ty Haney walking dog
Image by Kristen Kilpatrick

Hot Girl Walks

Isn’t it funny how a niche social media hashtag can turn into a full-on trend in what feels like minutes? Of course, in this case, I’m referring to so-called “hot girl walks”—the TikTok-initiated movement of people using their daily walks to visualize and reflect upon what makes them feel, well… hot. And thankfully, in 2022, this definition goes far beyond the antiquated, appearance-specific connotation.

Instead, “hot” is more a state of mind, and hot girl walks, coined by TikToker Mia Lind, means walking four miles while listening to an inspiring podcast, mentally sharing your gratitudes, formulating your goals, and reflecting on your “hotness” (whatever that means to you). Now that’s a wellness, goal-forming habit I can get behind.

Image by Jessica Attie

Vision Boarding

Nothing new here, but if you haven’t joined the vision boarding craze, take comfort: it’s never too late. While there are many reasons to love it, I’m particularly fond of this goal-setting method because of its back-to-basics, tangible nature. The pre-teen in me loves the thought of spending an evening parked in front of my favorite show, flipping and clipping through magazines, and pasting the more inspiring, eye-catching images, words, and quotes on a collage for my eyes to drift toward every time I need a little motivation.

While you might be tempted to transfer this process to Pinterest, pause before you go digital. What I love about analog vision boarding is that you’re selecting images from a limited supply. And when you think about it, that’s a bit how life is, isn’t it? You work with what’s presented to you. Plus, the process is inspiring, creative, and fun—as every journey through life can be.