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When Plans Fail: The Times You Need a Plan B

Oh man, the plan was so perfect.

I spent two weeks crafting it: a killer surprise for my wife on Christmas morning.

I’m a sucker for those. I love being able to eliminate any suspicions of an epic Christmas morning gift so I can watch the look on her face when she sees it under the tree.

For months now, she’s been begging me to come up with some solution for our garbage cans. For months, they sat next to our back door, wide open so that anybody walking in and out could see all our trash.

If we fumbled with our keys and the key hook on the wall, they’d flop down to the bottom of the garbage bag (always a favorite when you’re trying to get out the door or something).

Being the amateur woodworker that I am, I wanted to build a couple of tilt-out garbage cabinets for her as a surprise. It’d give me an excuse to build something and give her a finished product that she would love. (Plus, we’d save hundreds of dollars over the store-bought versions of them.)

But, since we live in a rental space with no garage, and garbage cabinets are a little on the large side, I had no idea how I could build these things and keep them from her.

My woodworking space would be the laundry room, which she goes into pretty regularly. If I told her to stay out, she’d know something big was up.

Then, the perfect ruse was concocted.

Our son, rapidly growing into a toddler, has a passion for watching us cook. If we’re in the kitchen messing around with the stove, he wants to watch.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to cook and hold a child at the same time, especially if you’re working with something that spatters or trying to dice something with a sharp knife.

I had decided I wanted to build him an adjustable stand so that he could be at counter-height to watch the action and simultaneously be out of our way.

Looking at the calendar, I chose a Thursday as the Build Day for that project. But I also was going to build the two garbage cabinets.

I told my wife I didn’t want the fumes in our house. I would build his stand in the basement and take it to my parents’ house for staining.

I would do this all while she was at work, so she would never see any of the finished projects. Once the staining was done, I’d bring it all home – again, while she’s at work – and put the stand in the basement so she could see it.

I’d hide the cabinets elsewhere in the house, where they could be covered up without worrying about the stain not being dry.

Christmas Eve, I’d wait for her to fall asleep, put the cabinets under a blanket next to the tree, and watch the surprise on her face.

That was the plan. It was marvelous. I was thrilled.

Then, whoops.

First, on Build Day, my family left for the day and I immediately got ready to go to the hardware store.

I got halfway to my car before I realized that I had no keys in my hands.

It was 35 degrees out, and I wasn’t wearing a coat. Frantic calls to my landlord and a little wait later, and I was able to get back in. Lost a bit of time there.

While at the hardware store, I had to get some spare keys made. Then, I had to make a bunch of decisions on hardware, stain, and wood.

After I loaded my car (fitting 8-foot 8×12 boards into my ‘04 Sonata isn’t an easy task), I was hungry and knew I didn’t want to take any breaks during the build. So I grabbed an early lunch.

By the time I got home, ate, and brought in all the wood, it was 11:30am. Half the day was gone.

On top of this, I had mis-read the calendar. Instead of being able to work until about 6pm, I had to quit at 3pm to go pick up our boy.

And since I was working in the laundry room, I had a bunch of setup to do: placing the workbench, finding the best angles to set up my wood, digging out all my tools from moving boxes and organizing them accordingly.

Then, the cuts.

I did all of my cuts with a circular saw, which requires lots of patience, measuring, re-measuring, and so on. Building two cabinets and a toddler stand required somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-40 cuts.

Boy, 3pm came up quickly. And I wasn’t even done with all the cuts yet.

So, instead of having all the furniture assembled and at my parents’ house by the time my wife got home from work, I had a pile of cut wood and a laundry room that was about 80% sawdust.

Within a couple of hours, she had figured the whole thing out. No more Christmas surprise.

It’s amazing how quickly your “best laid plans” can go awry.

When you plan out your day’s activities, or a vacation for your family, or a goal you’re trying to achieve, you figure out the steps you want to take and how they’re going to go down.

Then, in execution, the steps shift. Things go wrong. You know, life happens.

That’s why it’s always important to have a Plan B – something to fall back on in case things don’t quite go the way you think they will.

The biggest flaw in my plan – apart from not understand how time works – was not having a Plan B.

Maybe I could have been upfront about working on something for her but kept it a secret. Maybe I could have hidden all the extra wood and worked on it a different day.

Instead, I just gave up, and let her figure it out.

Your life doesn’t go according to plan. That’s why I stand by the whole “go off-script” thing. There’s no way to tell how life will go, so you occasionally have to carve out a different route.

In short, you have to expect the best but always be prepared for the worst.

That’s a lesson I’m going to keep in mind next Christmas – and throughout the year, too.