It is a fact of life that things rarely go exactly how we planned. I have heard people in business describe it at the “80/20 rule” – about 20% of the time things go as expected. The rest of the time, we have to manage the surprise or shock, the irritation or anger, the concern or the anxiety, and try to figure out what can be done now that we’ve hit an obstacle and our personal development plan has gone awry.

5 Ways to Cope with Life Interfering with Your Personal Development Plan

Here are five things you can do when life interferes with your personal development plan:

Job 1: Hold It Lightly

Our ability to hold a plan lightly will have a direct effect on how much distress we feel when there is a disruption. Holding a plan lightly means keeping in mind the possibility that something small or large may come along and become an obstacle to the plan.

If we are gripping a plan with white-knuckles, desperate for it to work, saying things like “this has to work,” in essence not allowing for the possibility that it may fail, we are setting ourselves up for emotional catastrophe. Another term for it is losing perspective.

Think for a moment about the employee who is passed over for a promotion and quits her job, or the actor who misses out on the role of a lifetime and leaves the business, or worse, anyone who loses relationship or opportunity or livelihood and decides to end it all. These are classic examples of people who were unable to hold onto themselves in the middle of loss because they could not hold the plan lightly.

There’s a parable in the Bible about a man who stored up a bunch of grain and was sitting back feeling pretty good about it, and God shows up and says, “You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you!” Understanding our mortality is the very essence of holding things lightly. Remembering that “this too shall pass.” This can be difficult when the stakes are high, but whatever the obstacle, it will not be made better by our worry.

Job 2: Keep Perspective

Going into panic mode is never helpful. When our anxiety or anger goes up, we lose our capacity to think and bond. We also lose our capacity to formulate an appropriate response.

Imagine for a moment two directors, both working on a movie for the same studio. Due to recent setbacks, the studio head decides he is going to have to defund both movies. Director 1 is terribly disappointed, incredibly frustrated, but manages to get off the phone without swearing at the studio head. His next call is to his production manager to talk about the next steps and to set up the agonizing conversations with cast and crew that will have to take place.

Director 2 loses his mind, screams at the studio head, smashes the phone down on the receiver several times, trashes his office, then goes and sets fire to the studio head’s car. Yes, I am using exaggeration to make a point. Director 1 was able to keep his perspective: this isn’t the end of the world, there will be other films, it’s going to be pretty bad for a while, but things will get better, and most importantly, what’s next?

Job 3: Keep Your Priorities Straight

Some days can feel like we are doing triage. So many things can come along and disrupt the plan; illness, shifts in personnel, our own feelings, or motivations. We may have something important due at work when a loved one calls with some problem with the car, or there is a problem with another family member, and immediately we are pulled away.

This is where having some sort of practice for relieving stress such as deep breathing or mindfulness can help us regain our sense of our priorities.

Relaxation with diaphragmatic deep breathing: When you breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth with slow, steady breaths, you are telling your parasympathetic nervous system it is okay to calm down. If you have never used this kind of breathing to relax, it may seem very counterintuitive at first. Try it for a couple of minutes. Some people feel better, calmer, right away, some must work at it for a while.

Mindfulness: Check your stress or anxiety level. Now locate yourself in the room. Describe objects in it. Pick something up and notice the weight, texture, or color. Remind yourself that the past is the past, it is not happening now, and the future is not here yet, it is not happening now. Engage your breathing as described above. After a few minutes, check your stress level. Did it go down? If so, this may be a useful tool for relieving stress

When it comes to a choice between work and family, the family must win every time. That does not mean there isn’t room for negotiation, or that we must drop everything in every instance. Take for example the difference between a call from a loved one saying, “The check engine light came on while I was driving,” versus “I’ve crashed the car out front of the market.”

These situations have different levels of seriousness and therefore demand different levels of treatment. This is where you must let your own assessment win the day. You know the people closest to you, their capabilities, and are uniquely qualified to assess what is needed. The important thing is to talk about it.

If a loved one calls asking for help, the next question out of our mouth should be, “What do you need?” not, “I’m in a meeting,” or “I have a presentation due tomorrow.” Of course, if the thing being interrupted is critical, we must weigh that against the severity of the loved one’s situation. We can be creative and try to find good workarounds.

We might call another family member and pass the problem off to them, but if the loved one is feeling lost or overwhelmed, passing them off will send the message that work is more important than they are. This can create a dynamic best described as, “When I needed you, you weren’t there for me,” which if unaddressed can become the kind of wedge that gradually pushes two people apart.

If you are put in the position of making a difficult choice like this, and you choose to prefer your work over your loved one, it is on you to sit down with them and do what you can to repair any damage to the relationship. This does not mean trying to explain or defend yourself. The only thing they need to hear is, “I am so sorry I wasn’t there for you. I understand if you were truly angry with me.” Unless an explanation is requested, trying to explain or defend only drives the wedge deeper.

Job 4: As Much as Possible, Be Flexible

This goes back to holding things lightly. Some plans require tasks to occur on a strict schedule, and as such must be adhered to, but many plans in life have a measure of flexibility to how they are accomplished, and so that the feeling that there is only one way to get it done may be based on a false assumption.

When life throws you an obstacle, revisit your objectives, and ask yourself what different alternatives might be available to you to overcome the obstacle. When someone realizes something isn’t working, it is the one who discards it and tries something new who is most likely to make progress.

Job 5: Dare to Be Hopeful

Even when the worst happens and we stand in the rubble of our best-laid plans, if we have life and breath, there is still hope. There’s a poem by Rudyard Kipling called “If” which begins with, “If you can keep your head, while all around you are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . . .” Recently, some wag, added, “You obviously don’t understand the situation!”

But there is another part which speaks to ruined plans, “Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools . . . .” This always sounded so sad to me, the brokenness, the loss, the having to start over, with inadequate tools no less.

But that is the point. No matter what kind of setback we have suffered regarding our personal development plan, it is up to us to decide if we will let it stop us, or if we will keep trying until we find a way to move forward. Any personal development plan can fail. But while we have life and breath, we can always make new ones.

Christian Counseling for Growth

If you’d like to meet with a professional Christian counselor to help you establish (or re-establish) your personal development plan, feel free to contact me or one of the other counselors in the counselor directory.

“Yellow Leaves”, Courtesy of Melissa Askew,, CC0 License; “Twig”, Courtesy of Anshu A,, CC0 License; “Through the Lens”, Courtesy of Redcharlie,, CC0 License; “Outdoor Meditation”, Courtesy of Milan Popovic,, CC0 License


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