Plan but don’t tell: 4 reasons for secret missions

Slowly, slowly, I’m coming to realize that my plans work out better when I don’t tell everyone, or anyone, at first.

The idea has been marinating in my head for a while, secretly – go figure. Recently, though, I found a post by Tyler Tervooren where he mentions “secret missions.” I think of them differently than Tyler, but I like the name. The way I think of them, they’re ideas you consider or plans you make or goals you set but don’t share publicly.

Here are a few examples of my past secret missions:

  • Writing a novel in one month: In 2007, I participated in NaNoWriMo with the goal to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I didn’t tell anyone, until I completed it.
  • Finishing two Bachelor of Arts degrees in three years: I think I first got the idea in the middle of the spring semester in 2007. But until it was pretty much a done deal, I kept telling everyone I was just trying to knock out as many classes as possible.
  • Moving to Korea to teach ESL: I looked into moving abroad in 2009, but I was thinking more as a volunteer. I didn’t know anything about ESL or Korea until spring 2010. I mentioned something about it to my parents that summer, I think, but only told them seriously in November. I didn’t tell most of my friends until February or something, unless they happened to catch the news on Marshallogue.

Question is, why do this? Why not tell everyone to get the accountability, the peer pressure? Doesn’t that help motivate you toward the goal?

Lots of people assume the answer is yes. And for many, maybe that’s true. For me, though, as I’ve experimented around and assessed past projects, the answer seems more like no.

Here’s why:

  1. Experiments are easier than challenges: It’s easier to try something new, go in full steam, but still quit or pivot if I don’t tell the whole world. It’s why scientists don’t announce all their experiments beforehand. Failure isn’t bad. The goal isn’t to win.
  2. Well done is better than well said. It’s hard to train myself to shut up and do the work. If one of my rules for operation includes telling people about my plans, I’m adding to the disconnect between idea and action.
  3. Big things seem bigger when they come out of nowhere: Hearing about plans isn’t nearly as exciting as hearing about the completed project. There’s some doubt that I’ll follow through. On the other hand, once I share my plans, the completing it isn’t as exciting. Everyone’s already heard about it. By sharing the plans, it’s like I get the downside of people doubting me and the downside of people believing me.
  4. Anticipation is a powerful motivator: I get a certain high from sharing my plans. It’s better to delay that reward as long as possible, saving it to stay motivated to do the work.

Young Christians often like to tell my dad about their plans to go to seminary or Bible college. “Of course I like their enthusiasm,” Poppy says. “But once they tell everyone, they’ve had their reward. It only gets harder from there. Until they’ve followed through with it.”

That’s why I think I do better when I don’t tell everyone. It’s easier to keep the carrot dangling in front than hork it down before the work begins.

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