Are You A Planner Or Spontaneous? When And Where Each Personality Type Thrives At Work

Unlike chronic planners, spontaneous workers value the freedom in their days. But in the business world, some semblance of structure needs to be maintained for a good (and timely) product. So which one are you?

I’m a planner. I schedule tasks for exact times—work on this article at 10 a.m. on Thursday, August 22—and come what may, I stick to the plan. I hate "playing things by ear" and seeing how I feel in the moment. I know how I’m going to feel in the moment: angsty, because I don’t have a plan.

More spontaneous sorts, on the other hand, are "energetic, and very flexible and adaptable," says Kerry Schofield, cofounder and chief psychometrics officer at, a service that helps people find employers best suited to their personalty type. Such people are often creative. "They love new things. If they have to stick to a schedule, they’re not getting to try new things. It’s too restrictive." Planning out a day or a week bothers them, "because it ruins the surprise."

In the world of personality tests and types—the Myers-Briggs juggernaut and the like—it’s not cool to call one type better than other types. But there’s this reality: Planners have an advantage over spontaneous sorts in the workplace, where you have to meet at certain times, and big projects involve meeting multiple intermediate deadlines. Spontaneous types can do well in startups where "they wear a lot of different hats at once and jobs are very flexible," says Schofield, but even if you’re working in a friend’s garage, "there has to be some planning and some scheduling," she says. "There’s no getting around that."

And if you work in a larger organization? The flip side of creative spontaneity is that "you create an incredible bottleneck, which can cost the company a fortune," says Julie Morgenstern, the organizational expert and author of Never Check E-mail in the Morning. If you’ve got five people who earn $100,000 a year wasting a day waiting for you to be inspired, that’s $2,000 lost to your whims. "It’s a very self-centered way of working in a community."

But there are ways that people who hate to plan can honor their gifts while fitting into the schedules of the real world.

One approach? What Morgenstern calls "time blocking." Spontaneous sorts "work really well once they’re up against a deadline," she says. "Creating some structure can fuel their creativity. They just have to create the right amount." Somebody who hates to plan can create a broad rhythm for her days. Mornings are devoted to quiet work. The middle of the day is devoted to getting back to people. Afternoons are devoted to business development.

In that same vein, you can create time blocks for "important things that don’t get done," says Morgenstern, like the "administrivia" that burdens everyone. Try giving yourself two hours for administrative work on Tuesdays from 1p.m. to 3 p.m. Don’t say "I will file my expense reports at 1 p.m. Tuesday" because that makes any good spontaneous sort want to rebel. But creating a time bucket in which you can work on administrative tasks in whatever order you like preserves some feeling of spontaneity. "You’ve got to have some freedom inside the frame," says Morgenstern.

Spontaneous sorts can also benefit from recognizing that breaking big tasks into chunks—so you’re not missing deadlines—is a skill that can be learned, even if you aren’t naturally inclined that way. Introverts learn to ask people questions about themselves as a way of making cocktail party conversations. Likewise, spontaneous sorts can learn to estimate that a job takes 10 hours, and practice breaking it into 10 one-hour chunks that can be done over two weeks. Suggests Schofield: "You can see it as a training opportunity. Rather than something that gets in your way and drives you crazy, it can make you happier." After all, getting to sleep the night before a deadline is priceless.

As for playing it by ear, thoughtful spontaneous sorts come to understand that you can shape what you feel like doing in the moment if you’re smart about it. Often, just starting something for a few minutes will trigger a virtuous cycle. "Persistence feels like a long way from being spontaneous, but at least you’re now visibly making progress, which has its own reward," says Robert Kelsey, author of the self-help book What’s Stopping You? These positive feelings make the task at hand feel more fun—maybe even like something you’d choose to do.

Finally, leave some time open. "You’ve got to keep the release valve in the system," says Morgenstern. She suggests that you try "structuring half the day, and having freedom half the day. You could start that simple." If you can’t pull that off, even leaving just a morning or afternoon open every week can give you the free time you crave to be open to whatever possibility the universe brings you.

[Image: Flickr user DoodleDeMoon]

Add New Comment


  • Jason Teitelman

    I think the solutions here are perfect for the spontaneous/creative mind. I am not sure why all the other commenters fail to see it. I am not a planner, yet the idea of chunking time is one I have used well in the past. I hate to-do lists, but if I know I am going to spend two hours on some design work, two hours on administrative stiff in the morning it at least gives me the semblance of a plan with enough freedom to nail down the particulars as I go. I love that you bring up the fact that making people wait on your ideas is somewhat selfish and creates a bottleneck. I don't think a lot of creative people always grasp the fact that time is money especially when other team members are dependent upon your ideas/work being done so they can proceed with theirs. I have worked with many designers over the past 7 years and the best ones are the ones who are highly creative, but also organized to deliver work on a set schedule. I agree that (in most cases) your creativity needs to be balanced with an ability to schedule and plan in order to be really successful.

  • epistememe

    I will try and answer why I am not that impressed with the solutions offered.
    Here are some of the issues:I never really know when I will be in my best creative mind.  I can be "forced" by deadline or schedules to do creative work, but it is usually not near the quality of my best work.  The difference can be substantial and it is difficult to be happy with average work when you know you are capable of so much better.

    The best creative work is done over a fairly long time-frame that does not conform to the typical schedule of (initial assignment-----work time-----progress check------more work time------project due date).  Again, this can be done, but the quality of the product produced suffers.  My best work is done as follows.  A possible project/assignment is lightly discussed WAY AHEAD of any possible due date.  I work on other projects while knowing that there is a possibility I will be assigned this new project.  THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT.  I will have my most productive/creative period frequently during this time, i.e. the time between initial mention and when actually assigned a project and while working on something completely different.  Why is that you ask.  Well, as a creative/spontaneous type person we naturally rebel against schedules, planning, conformity and the like.  So while we are working on our existing project we are contemplating about the other projects that have been mentioned as possible successors.  While working on the current project we are not currently under any pressure to be creative on the next project and so we can be at our best to free-associate, dream-wild, dream-big, dream-different.  We are avoiding our current work pressure by thinking about other work.  My best work is done during this time.  Not on the current work I am doing, but on the next project I am likely to do.

    My SO is an extreme case of a hard-core planner type.  I understand her mindset I think rather well.  She is almost completely clueless about mine.  I think this is frequently the case as I am mostly around planners and understand them, their mindset and motivations rather well.  But the mindset of fellow creatives usually takes a lot more effort to parse.  

    Managing spontaneous/creatives is very different and more difficult than managing "normal" people.   First, flexibility and experimentation will be needed to determine what works best.  Second, an individual plan will probably have to set-up for each one, for them to work at their best.  Third, these plans may need to be changed so as to "shake-things-up" to re-motivate the creative/spontaneous out of a rut.  Change is good for our type, we need it, we work best with a certain level of uncertainty.

  • It takes all kinds

    Here's some obvious tips: spontaneous types thrive in the ideation phase, planners thrive in the execution phase... Maybe this is a series and you're going to explicate on the headline in future installments?

  • Joe Kramer

    I'm not at all spontaneous. I live for a defined schedule that I've planned in advance, and I don't understand the mentality of people who constantly feel the need to change the plan. Creativity (ideation) to me is the planning phase. Execution is not at all creative in my mind -- it's going through the steps of what you set in motion during planning.

  • Spontaneous Girl

    An over planner trying rain on our creative parade, as usual. "

  • Guest-MC

    Nice effort ... but if spontaneous/creative type's habits actually fit into the "chaotic" description you provided, then all spontaneous/creative would have fail to achieve the basic goals in life and work.
    You start the article saying that you need planning. I would humbly suggest you to try to work withOUT plans for a day.
    I guess the article could also benefit from a good chunk of multi-cultural vision as not every culture handles organizational issues in the same way (although you may think that some cultures handle things better than others).

  • epistememe

    I appreciate the effort but the author demonstrates a lack of understanding of the spontaneous/creative type's mind.  To put it simply, you are making recommendations to the spontaneous/creative mind that would most likely work for the planner mindset.  The spontaneous/creative needs a more creative and spontaneous solution than the ones you offer.