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Plan.txt : The Most Effective Productivity Tool That You’ve Never Heard Of

November 11th, 2008 · 51 comments

The Two Faces of ProductivityPlan.txt

Productivity can be divided into two main concerns. The first is capturing and organizing all of the “stuff” you have to do.

This is the fun part.

This is where you buy fancy notebooks and configure Remember the Milk to auto-sync with your iPhone. It keeps productivity blogs in business and makes David Allen rich.

The second concern is actually doing the stuff that you need to do.

This is much less fun.

This post is about this second concern. I don’t claim to have a universal answer. But there is a simple technique that I’ve been using since last January, and that has significantly increased my churn rate. This technique centers on a small, innocuous text file sitting on my computer desktop — a file named plan.txt

plan.txt

Once a week, usually on Mondays, I open a small text file named plan.txt and jot down my action plan for the week.

There are no hard rules for this plan. Some weeks it’s a few sentences. Usually, it’s a few paragraphs. Sometimes it spans multiple pages.

I tend to break down what I want to get done into the major area of my life (grad student, writer, etc.), but not always. I sometimes assign work to different days. Sometimes I don’t. On some occasions I’ll roll out a complicated scheme and on others I’ll just say “work on project X until it’s done!”

Here’s a screenshot of my plan.txt file as of this morning:

My plan.txt File

You’ll notice I don’t follow a rigid format. This week I’ve broken down my goals between my research and my writing. I have some loose date assignments (e.g., finish draft of a particular thesis chapter by Tuesday afternoon). I’m also linking these short-term goals to my long-term projects. I don’t always do this, but I felt like I needed to encourage myself this week that I was still on track with my big picture goals.

Here’s the important point: last week’s plan.txt looked much different. Next week’s will probably look much different as well.

Freestyle Productivity

My plan.txt strategy is an instantiation of a larger philosophy I call Freestyle Productivity. This philosophy is inspired by the following law:

The Law of Action Planning: No rigid rules or systems for figuring out “what to do when” can work effectively for more than a few weeks before becoming obsolete.

We can come up with task capture systems that work fine for years and years without a major change. But when it comes to planning out what we do each day, my experience is that there’s no magic system that applies to every situation. The realities of our daily lives change too much to be handled by any set rule.

And that’s okay!

Here’s my theory:

  • Our brains are terrible at remembering everything we have to do, which is why good capture and organizations systems are necessary.
  • Our brains are wonderful, by contrast, at coming up with short-term plans that balance the subtle demands we face in the near future. Trying to force a one-size fits all action plan to our lives constrains this natural ability.

My plan.txt file takes advantage of this reality. It allows my brain, each week, to do what it does best: figure out a very workable short-term plan for making progress on what’s important. This is freestyle productivity in action. My tasks are captured. My goals clear and steadfast. But my short-term work habits are incredibly pliable as I mold and re-mold them to the new challenges I face.

51 thoughts on “Plan.txt : The Most Effective Productivity Tool That You’ve Never Heard Of

  1. Greg says:

    The “To Do” list is a most under-appreciated orgaizational tool.

  2. Vincent says:

    Brilliant strategy, Cal. I think strategies like these are so simple that we pop ourselves in the head and think, “Why didn’t I think of that before.” But we get tangled in the mess of novel applications to keep us on task. I have not really played around with .txt documents before, but will now at your suggestion. Thanks!

    After reading this, I’m reconsidering your red-book method of having the today/remember daily sheet and calendar versus this method. The first gives a holistic and calendar view of everything you need to do, while this system is a lot more qualitative. I could use one and it will still work very well for me, but I wonder how my productivity life might be bettered by the second strategy. Thoughts, anyone?

  3. Jared says:

    I have recently implemented the red book strategy, where I use the calendar as home base and a daily planner. I have found that Cal is exactly right:

    “there’s no magic system that applies to every situation.”

    The red book plan has come through on many occasions, but has been the death of me on other days. I love the spontaneity of the plan.txt method! The trick for me will to find a consistent time each week to sit down and force myself to organize the txt document.

    Thanks for the advice, Cal!

  4. Study Hacks says:

    I’m reconsidering your red-book method of having the today/remember daily sheet and calendar versus this method. The first gives a holistic and calendar view of everything you need to do, while this system is a lot more qualitative.

    The red book is method is a starter method. If you’re new to time management, it introduces you to the idea that you capture everything and build plans. As Jared points out, however, the ultra-simple plan building doesn’t always work out.

    In case you’re wondering, GTDCS is a more advanced version of the red book method in that it doesn’t make you put all to-dos on a calendar. Indeed, it is much closer to using a plan.txt because you are making date-sensitive plans only for the upcoming week. But there is still rigidity in that it has you assign tasks to date. You can do this with a plan.txt file, but you don’t have to.

    My general advice is to start with something dead simple like the red book method. This gets you used to capture and planning. Once comfortable then you can generalize your planning portion to fit more of this freestyle approach.

  5. Awesome post Cal, one which has been on my mind for quite a while. It’s stupid to say, (but something I should admit,) that I’d tried a version of hard scheduling to find it’s totaly unproductive, and a more flo-orientated method is best.

    @Greg – to do lists are useless unless you time block.. ;-)

  6. Grad Hacker says:

    Damnit Cal, I suppose I should thank you for letting me now cross off “write a post about my weekly plans text file on my desktop”. I would say it’s called “work.txt”, except I have textedit on macosx saving things as an rtf so i guess it’s “work.rtf”, which sounds a lot less cool.

    Way to put the screenshot up, some differences I can comment on for discussion:
    -I noticed you have a lot more discussion of when you want to get things done, this is interesting, I experiment with this off and on, but I tend to shy away from it to prevent the bad feelings of never meeting my initial deadlines. But I your tone sounds not rigid and encouraging, which is good.
    -Yours seems to be written in a real journal like fashion, like thoughts to yourself, that’s interesting.

    How often do you look at it? I find some weeks I’m messing with it daily and other weeks I don’t even need to look at it, the notecard (which has turned into a little notebook, but don’t tell anyone) in my pocket suffices those weeks.

  7. Study Hacks says:

    How often do you look at it? I find some weeks I’m messing with it daily and other weeks I don’t even need to look at it, the notecard (which has turned into a little notebook, but don’t tell anyone) in my pocket suffices those weeks.

    It depends on the complexity of the plan. For something like the plan shown in the screenshot — which includes just a few large projects — I’ll remember it. If it’s more complicated, I might check in at the end of the day most days in the week to make myself feel better.

    Here’s an important detail about my use of a planning file: I don’t typically include real small tasks on it. If I feel like I’m falling behind I might schedule some “stable mucking” sessions, where, for each such session, I go through my small task lists and do the stuff I’ve been procrastinating on. Usually, I know exactly what this means, so there’s no need to list out the specific small things…

  8. Study Hacks says:

    I would say it’s called “work.txt”, except I have textedit on macosx saving things as an rtf so i guess it’s “work.rtf”,

    .rtf is for girls wimps.

  9. Jeremy Day says:

    You know Cal, writing things down is one of the most powerful strategies out there. Glad to see there is a blog like this for college students. We all need to lean these great techniques!

    Cheers,
    Jeremy

  10. Rob says:

    This is exactly the idea I’m looking for in my weekly planning. I always have an idea of what I want to do but don’t have set dates to get things done (such as working on a new image for my portfolio.) This definitely gives everything a more organic feel that isn’t so left-brained for all the right-brained people out there.

    Bravo!

  11. Diana says:

    .rtf is for girls.

    Is that meant to be derogatory? If it is, maybe you could take it down, or lose half of your readers.

  12. Jamie says:

    I’m just curious, once you’ve written this plan.txt, do you check it periodically throughout the week to make sure you’re sticking to your plan?

  13. Study Hacks says:

    Is that meant to be derogatory? If it is, maybe you could take it down, or lose half of your readers.

    I meant “little girls” (or equivalently, “little boys”). But I can understand the confusion, so I replaced it with “wimps.” The point stands: hardcore computer people use .txt!

  14. Study Hacks says:

    I’m just curious, once you’ve written this plan.txt, do you check it periodically throughout the week to make sure you’re sticking to your plan?

    During the weeks where I describe in my plan.txt how my current efforts fit into my long-term timeline, I end up checking it a lot just to keep reassuring myself I’m on track. It’s like my security blanket.

  15. gwinne says:

    I keep similar files, either in paper form (in a notebook), or as word doc, or even as a separate “work” blog. I’m wondering if there’s a reason you use the “txt” format in particular.

  16. This might not be traditional, but I find that sometimes it’s easier to write things down aka using paper and pen. I know we tend to forget about it, but it can be liberating.

  17. Study Hacks says:

    This might not be traditional, but I find that sometimes it’s easier to write things down aka using paper and pen. I know we tend to forget about it, but it can be liberating.

    Due to my terrible penmanship, a plain text file is as close as I come to the old fashioned appeal of ink on paper…

  18. Study Hacks says:

    For those of you who mentioned that you also keep plan.txt files…would you be willing to send me a (properly cleansed) copy? I think it might be a cool post to show what other peoples weekly plans look like.

    (If you’re interested, e-mail me: author [at] calnewport.com )

  19. Chris Yeh says:

    Hey Cal,

    One way to do this in the cloud is to use PBwiki. Just set up a private wiki, then set your page to be the home page of your browser. As an added benefit, this means that whenever you open up your browser, you get hit with your plan *before* you can mosey over to YouTube or watch the unstoppable Shiba Inu Puppy Cam.

    Here’s an example I set up in 30 seconds:

    http://plantxt.pbwiki.com/FrontPage

  20. Study Hacks says:

    One way to do this in the cloud is to use PBwiki.

    Not a bad idea…especially during periods of travel that get me away from my main computer…

  21. Mac says:

    I tend to do this everywhere. I did it on the plastic cover on my [sucky] laptop once. I went out and bought metallic sharpies and just started writing my plans on it. You know, world domination, forcing everyone named Joe to change their names to something that can’t be used along side the words average, six pack or plumber. And homework when it seems important enough.
    I wanted to thank you for writing that one post about Wiggio. It totally saved my [street] cred in Family Law. I e-mailed it to my prof and she forgave the fact that my retainer agreement was horrible. Now we’re using it to prepare for trial and practice case management.

  22. great idea here. Simple and efficient. I like it.

  23. Dave says:

    Where can I find more info on the red book strategy?

  24. Study Hacks says:

    Where can I find more info on the red book strategy?

    This article is good high-level summary of the ideas from the red book:

    http://calnewport.com/blog/2009/03/09/the-straight-a-method-how-to-ace-college-courses/

  25. Greg says:

    I found the Next Action lists (yeah, David Allen) very useful – if you can keep them up to date, that is…

    The weekly review aspect of the plan.txt is great (integral part of the Getting Things Done “path” as well), but in general it does not feel to make me closer to my goals, since its “to do list” aspect is too vague. The “next actions” have a sense of immediateness. Whenever I have time to do something or figure out what to do, they give the exact next step, reducing the cognitive effort of turning “to-do” items into actual steps.

    Anyway, the same method does not work for everyone, and if one gets down to do a plan.txt, it’s already better than nothing. :)

  26. Sara says:

    Do you create such file every week? What happens to the old one? For instance, you might have things that are not in progress at all and you might want to continue the file? Do you save all of them or do you delete the old ones and open new one every week?

  27. Study Hacks says:

    Do you create such file every week?

    Yes. I used to just keep the old ones in a folder on my desktop. Now I use Google Docs, and keep one doc per month, with a space for each week.

  28. nXqd says:

    Very nice . Todo is must be this way, I know there are thousands of “fancy todo” out there. Maybe you like RTM, tadalist, outlook .. But one time, u should look back what u want from a todo list is helping you get things done and focusing to your task.
    I really like your idea : Freestyle Productivity, It matches exactly what I mean :)

    nXqd

  29. Panda says:

    Your ideas remind me of the “The Planning Fallacy” by Eliezer Yudkowsky :D

  30. Anonymous says:

    Do you
    overwrite your plan.txt from the previous week, or
    create a new plan.txt for each week, or
    have one long plan.txt which you update every week?

  31. Study Hacks says:
    overwrite your plan.txt from the previous week, or
    create a new plan.txt for each week, or
    have one long plan.txt which you update every week?

    These days I’ve switched to keeping a separate document for each month. And in each monthly document I have a space for each week. So everything gets saved.

  32. Antoine says:

    Thanks Cal. I think the key here is “plan a week out on a weekly basis” as opposed to “do it freestyle”. For some, freestyle helps as it makes it less boring. For others, freestyle doesn’t help as they need structure for efficiency. But for everyone, thinking about one’s priorities for the week and doing “some” planning is useful

  33. Ond?ej Ture?ek says:

    I’m now implementing the following system using my Windows phone device: 1) Calendar with fixed basics like studying time, exercise, sleep…I am trying to have less and less of basics, just those that help me to be healthy, fresh, in shape, ready to study. At the “live tile” I see 4 upcoming events. Then every evening and every morning i briefly (5-10 min?) check the Flowdly app. (Simple ZTD/GTD app.) During the day, I write every minor task to it, don’t set a date. In the evening I clear the inbox and in the morning I choose from 1 to 3 tasks to do today. It’s kinda “minimal ZTD” by Babauta. I hope it’s a good combination of dealing with accute minor things and sticking to long-term plan.

  34. Josh says:

    This is a great and insightful post, Cal. Your law stating that systematic methods to determine what we need to is doomed to fail is quite true for me. I’ve found that a desire to make everything routine cannot apply to this aspect of daily (or weekly) life. It is as you said, that our brains already have the ability to adjust to the subtle demands of the day to work out a plan that is most suitable. We can’t have a routine in every single aspect of our lives.

  35. Anonymous says:

    I don’t quite understand how the plan.txt file and Getting Things Done for College Students can fit together when I’m planning my daily work schedule during the daily review, but I already have a plan.txt set up for the week?

    Can anyone help me out here?

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