“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”  ~Dwight Eisenhower

Reading that quote, you might think that Eisenhower didn’t have much use for plans.  In reality, though, he was both a meticulous planner and brilliant strategist.  I doubt he ever entered a battle without some sort of detailed plan.

I think his point wasn’t “Don’t plan” but rather “Things rarely go according to plan.”  It’s impossible to prepare for every conceivable contingency and variable.  Rather than trying, he relied heavily on a concept called Commander’s Intent.

Commander’s intent (or CI) is the end goal of the operation.  It is the final objective or desired outcome.  For all practical purposes, it is unchanging.  Subordinates, staff and soldiers can modify tactics and strategies to fit the realities on the ground, but the commander’s intent is the driving force behind every decision.

Why am I talking about old generals and battle plans?  Because there’s a lot we can learn from the parallels between planning for battle and planning for retirement.

With any major undertaking (like retirement), it’s impossible to think through every possible contingency.  That’s especially true the further out you try to plan.  Raise your hand if ten years ago you predicted the housing bubble, the failure of Lehman/Merrill/et al, or the European debt crisis.  There are plenty of retirements smoldering at the foot of that wreckage.

Rather than trying to predict the future twenty years hence and then rigidly adhering to an obsolete plan, it’s better to have a plan that can adapt and evolve.  That way, you can change tactics, while keeping your overall mission intact.

Key to having a flexible plan is having a deep understanding of your end goal (your personal CI, if you will).  Be as specific as possible.  Really think through things like where you want to live, what you want to do, and whom you want to do it with.  Once you know what you really want out of life, you can get up each day and make logical choices that get you closer to that goal.

If you fail to really understand your retirement goals, two things will happen.  First, you’ll find yourself copying other peoples’ tactics without fully understanding the strategy.  You’ll quit your job at 65 because that’s what your friends are doing.  You’ll take up golf or move to a warmer climate because that’s what they do on TV.  Rather than blazing your own trail with a plan that works for you, you’ll follow someone else down his or her road.  Inevitably you’ll look up one day feeling lost and asking yourself “How did I get here?”

Second, when uncertainty comes—a health scare, job change, or investment volatility—you won’t know how to react because you don’t have a clear understanding of the final objective.  Any action you do take will likely make things worse, because it’s not made in support of any overarching goal.  Without a clearly defined commander’s intent, the uncertain and unexpected will leave you feeling rudderless.

Unfortunately, I talk to people all the time who made this mistake.  What can you do to avoid the same fate?

The year-end plan

Circling back to Eisenhower, planning is indispensable.  At the end of each year, I spend time over several weeks thinking about life, reviewing the past year and planning for the next.  It’s a time where I can think about big goals and major priorities.  I have always found it valuable, because it not only helps me to be more intentional with life, but also ensures that each year is spent in support of the overall plan.

I’ll write more about my process in a future post, with the hope that you can adapt it to your own circumstances.  For now, I just wanted to encourage you to start thinking about what you really want out of life so you can build your plan around that.  It’s time to begin taking your plans very seriously.

Have a great Thanksgiving.  Thanks for reading.


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