A Cure for the Overplanner

I have not been sleeping at night recently.

Sleep itself comes easy, just not when I want it to. It sneaks up on me and catches me off guard while I’m sitting in the living room at 3 in the afternoon. It wraps me up and refuses to let me out of bed in the morning. Sleep is present, just not when I want it.

Sleep hides from me as I lie in bed at night and watch the clock pass through midnight, 1 a.m., 2 a.m., etc. I think the dead silence and relative comfort of my room offers too much empty space in my head and not enough of the seemingly autonomous functions that keep it busy during the waking day.

I can’t sleep because I am caught in the elastic snap between panic and excitement.

I can’t sleep because I start the Appalachian Trail in 24 days.

It doesn’t help that I’ve been reading To Shake the Sleeping Self, a book about a man’s sudden and underplanned decision to ride a bicycle from Oregon to Patagonia. I won’t pretend to hold my coming trip in the same regard as his, as he faced far more austere conditions and uncertainties that I will, but I can’t help but see the parallels so far. The lack of preparedness coupled with the urge, the NEED, to plan and schedule, resonates with me.

I have been, at least since I left home at 18, a chronic overplanner, usually to my benefit. A short weekend trip requires the same level of preparation as the landing on Omaha Beach. I even find myself planning out my day-to-day movements into regimented, blocked-out, 15-minute segments. When I pack clothes for a trip, I do so as if I intend to shit my pants at least once a day for the duration of my time abroad.

Like I said, this propensity to over-engineer my environment usually works out in my favor. Trips go according to schedule with minimal hang-ups. I make it a goal to maximize enjoyment while minimizing stress. I make it my mission to reach my hand into the muddled water of the future and pull forth the outcome that I want.

But then it stopped being favorable and it started seeming selfish and exhausting. When I took my brother to the Buffalo River last month, I occupied myself with the planning and outfitting of the trip. I packed my gear, and then the things I was loaning to him. I bought maps and planned daily mileage. I searched for backup campgrounds near our own, just in case it was closed. I did the math and added up the road miles to figure out when was our last chance to grab gas.

When we got there, our campsite was open, the trails were clear, gas was plentiful, and the maps weren’t needed. But I had over-engineered to trip, reinventing the wheel until the slightest deviation caused me to panic.

It makes sense when I think about it. My last job required me to hit incredibly precise time markers and deadlines. Fifteen minutes HAD TO mean 15 minutes, and every plan required supplementary and tertiary plans, always leaving an escape route or a bailout point. Every situation had 1,000 different outcomes and it was my job to be prepared to handle every single one, even the ones I couldn’t yet see.

That was control. That was me holding the reins and cutting my own path through the river.

Everyone talks about the physical fallout of an expedition or an adventure. Every mile that passes underneath you puts a little more wear and tear on your body. Every mountain that you climb and every river that you ford runs up your internal odometer just a little bit more and one day your ticket is going to get called, whether it’s a blown-out tire or a blown-out knee.

But what about the mental odometer, running independently from your physical one? What about the wear and tear on your own head? Chronic overplanning is an excellent catalyst to the quickening erosion of our own mental health. At the end of the day, regardless of the outcome, the overplanner’s head will still be teaming with plan B through X and the mental and emotional burnout of the unknown variables will drive them insane.

I can feel them adding up right now, even as I type this. I know I should be studying the map more, looking for better road crossings, or running the dehydrator and bundling up care packages to myself for later down the road. I should probably be scanning the forums and websites, reevaluating my equipment and digging into the weather statistics of the last decade and perfecting my own plan. But I’m not.

This is control. This is me letting go of the reins and refusing to fight the river any longer.

Since letting go, I’ve found a freedom, a loosening of the elastic bands in my mind that have been so tightly wound. I’m only thinking about point A now, and the few steps that will guide me to point B. I refuse to think too hard about the what-if and the might-be, but I don’t refuse to acknowledge their existence. There is also something very visceral and primitive about the unknown. There is a healthy fear of the shadows in the tall trees of the future, something that makes me conscious of my actions and aware of my surroundings. When you over prepare and over plan, it’s so easy to just turn off and run on autopilot, trusting that your research was right and that no harm will befall you as long as you stick to the carefully crafted script that’s been laid out.

Don’t mistake me, I’m not advocating for anyone to stop planning things. I still make rough plans, I still set goals and itineraries. I still study maps and I always have a bailout plan in case something goes awry. On the surface it may seem like not much has changed, and that’s fine. What I’m concerned about fixing is the stuff that’s behind-the-scenes. When you allow yourself to plan to the point of a mental breakdown, you ironically lose the ability to control all the variables that you spent so much time identifying.

The perfect balance of paddling and following the current probably exists, though few have probably found it. That is the goal. Controlling the uncontrollable is a pipe dream, but controlling myself and my reaction to the uncontrollable is within reach.

I have let go of the reins and I’m following the current. Let’s hope it takes me to Maine. See ya’ll on the trail.

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