Deep Habits: When the Going Gets Tough, Build a Temporary Plan


The Temporary Plan

As I’ve revealed in recent blog posts, there are two types of planning I swear by. The first is daily planning, in which I give every hour of my day a job. The second is weekly planning, where I figure out how to extract the most work from each week.

These are the only two levels of planning that I consistently deploy.

But there’s a third level that I turn to maybe two or three times a year, during periods where multiple deadlines crowd into the same short period. I call it (somewhat blandly, I now realize) a temporary plan.

A temporary plan is a plan that operates on the scale of weeks. That is, a single plan of this type might describe my objectives for a collection of many weeks.

When a lot of deadlines loom, I find it’s necessary to retreat to this scale to ensure things get started early enough that I can coast up to the due dates with the needed pieces falling easily into place. If I instead planned each week as it arose, there is too much risk that I would find myself suddenly facing a lot of uncompleted work all due in the next few days!

Logistically speaking, I typically e-mail myself the temporary plan and leave it in my inbox. My general rule is that if a temporary plan is in my inbox while I’m building my weekly plan, I read it first to make sure my weekly plan aligns with the bigger picture vision.

A Temporary Plan Case Study

To help make this strategy more concrete, let’s consider a temporary plan I developed last spring to make sure that the papers I was working on for a May deadline would come together in time while I still made progress on some other efforts that also had looming deadlines. I replicated this plan below. (I added my commentary in square brackets):

DISC abstract registration is May 9th. Final submission is May 14th. Here is my plan until then…

[Note from Cal: “DISC” is the name of the conference I wanted to submit my papers to. (This is a good time to remind the reader that in computer science most publication activity happens at competitive peer-review conferences with submission deadlines.) I put the deadlines at the top of this plan so I wouldn’t forget where I was relative to them.]

April 21 – April 27

Finish full technical draft of Radio Networks (including related work); double check relevant details with <peer>.

Big push on full technical draft of Unreliable Links paper.

Talk to <colleague at Georgetown> about SDN paper.

[Note from Cal: “Radio Networks” and “Unreliable Links” were two papers I was working on for DISC. The “SDN” paper was not for DISC, but I wanted to keep it active.]

April 28 to May 4

Finish full technical draft of Unreliable Links paper.

Resubmit Wireless Survey as soon as that is done

Make PODC CR plan

[Note from Cal: These last two elements have nothing to do with DISC. But I needed to address them.]

May 5 to May 11

Go back and forth between polishing DISC papers and PODC CR work

[Note from Cal: “PODC CR” refers to the fact that I had to submit camera-ready versions of papers for another conference called PODC. It was bad luck that this deadline fell so near the DISC deadline. Most people would probably just leave the PODC CR work until the last minute, but my fixed schedule productivity commitment requires me to be more thoughtful about such efforts to avoid late nights.]

May 12 to Deadline on May 14th

Final polishes.

This is the place to really <polish the intro writing>. Also a time to add  any <extra technical results I know and have space to include.>

Notice, the plan is informal and concise. I just include a few sentences for each week, but a few sentences was enough to guide me through that month of work in an efficient and effective manner. I ended up making it to the relevant deadlines above without spending a single late night working and ended up with a nice result for these carefully scheduled efforts.

A Tool of Last Resort

I call this type of plan “temporary” because I want to emphasize that they’re short-lived and used only when the circumstances absolutely require them. To plan at this level regularly would be, in my opinion, overkill.

But when the going gets tough, I’ve found this bigger picture view to be an immense advantage.

P.S. I’ve been calling these “temporary plans” for years, but I do recognize that this is a terrible name. Let me know in the comments if you have a better term for them.


My friend Chris Guillebeau’s new big deal book, The Happiness of Pursuit, comes out today. I’ve known Chris since the beginning of his blogging days and have always been impressed by his thinking. This book is no exception. His main thesis is that the pursuit of grand goals generates great satisfaction somewhat independent of the content of the goals. This is an idea I toyed with in Rule 4 of SO GOOD, but Chris takes it somewhere more concrete and compelling. He also lived it with his personal quest to visit every country in the world. Check it out…


13 thoughts on “Deep Habits: When the Going Gets Tough, Build a Temporary Plan”

  1. Hello there! I love the insights you share, thank you. But on the planning thing, I’ve found that what the planners among us don’t seem to realize is that not all of us think that way. I spent years beating myself up for not planning better (daily schedules, long terms goals, etc.), until I realized that my biggest insights (and as a result, business and personal gains) were the result of my mental wandering. The freedom of no plan allows me to accomplish (I think) much more and enjoy myself more along the way.

    So while I have deadlines for client work (which I never miss), my days are not very structured. But it seems to work.

    What do you think?

  2. While temporary plan has a nice ring to it, and conveys the information that it overrides some other planning cycle, it might better be called the strategic plan, with your daily and weekly plans being more tactical in nature.

  3. I think that ad hoc plan is a better name than temporary plan. It’s a plan done for a particular purpose: managing multiple deadlines in a short time period.

  4. Instead of “temporary plan,” let me suggest “campaign plan.” A campaign is characterized by a series of related elements all moving towards a conclusion. A colleague of mine will soon complete a campaign of submitting five papers within the space of a few weeks. When he reaches the end of those five submissions, I expect it will be more satisfying to view it as the end of a campaign rather than just the end of a “temporary plan.”
    I also want to thank you for all the productivity tips. Am now pushing my son in college to read your “Straight A’s” book I got from Amazon.

  5. Thank you for your tips that you are sharing with us.

    My recommendation for the proper term of this type of planning would be The Backup Plan , because you are not using it on a regular base, but only in some crisis period of the year and thinking this strategy as a backup plan makes sense.

  6. I don’t see anything particularly wrong with the name “temporary plan,” especially if it’s a plan that is temporary. I actually like it much better than something flashier but less meaningfully descriptive.

    I do wonder, though, why you don’t have a consistent “monthly plan” or multi-week “project plan” (where the “plan” part of it is mostly tracking where you are in different areas of your life relative to where you want to be).

  7. I call this a “semester plan” – and do it regularly about 3 times a year – at the beginning of each term and then the summer. It lays out my major goals for those time periods and rough estimates of the timing for related steps, just as your does. I refer to it throughout the term as I’m planning my weeks and days.

  8. I’ve been using the daily and weekly planning as well and have seen the immense value in it. However, this morning, I was “given” an unexpected downtime whereby I managed to finish up the things I set out to do a little earlier than I expected. I noticed that interestingly, I didn’t know what to do with this unexpected downtime, and ended up surfing mindlessly.

    Have anyone else encountered this before? If yes, how did you deal with it? I would love to understand the mindset and approach taken.

    • I can suggest three things.

      One is to have small but meaningful actions to take already pre-decided for many areas of your life. This may be burpees, time spent learning something at Khan Academy, sentences you want to add to a spaced repetition system for a foreign language you’re studying, or whatever. If you keep these low, so that you’re sure to be able to do them every day, whenever you do have free time, it is easy to just double up for that day.

      Another option is to have a “to read when I have time” bookmark set up in your browser. I put everything I’m tempted to read into this, and then cull it randomly whenever I remember to. Most of it really isn’t that important, which is why I rarely remember to process it, but some of it is worth reading when I have time and not a lot of energy. If you have something like this, especially a list that’s been culled over time, you have much better options than whatever happens to be in your Twitter or Facebook feeds when you’re free.

      The last option is perhaps my favorite. Invest that time in making the next day easier. Answer such questions such as what you’re going to wear, do some of the work you know you’re going to have to do then now, and so on.

      None of those actions are big in themselves but as one of my favorite sayings goes, even dust if piled high can make a mountain.

  9. Having a frame work for the big projects you need to tackle over a long time is a great idea. Coming from a constructions back ground, I see it a bit like so: You can’t build a stable house if you try framing before you lay the foundation for it, nor do you paint the drywall before you install the sheetrock. Either of these things will get an important and needful thing done, but in the wrong order, so as to ruin it. In like manner without a temporary plan you may get one important project done on time but shoot yourself in the foot for other important projects or deadlines.

  10. Planning is something i definitely need to work on! so this was right up my alley lately I’ve been letting a lot of deadlines slip by. (Reading and responding to your blog was one of them, the irony is strong) I found your blog very helpful though as i’m always thinking about the things that need to be done I often let myself forget the things that are approaching and that’s why I loved the email it to yourself idea. as far as temporary plans go I liked what you had to say about how you have to use them when it comes down to the nitty gritty.

  11. I actually like Temporary Plan. It is a plan, and it is temporary. To give something a more formal name might encourage its use. It reminds me of Harry Roberts shame.css file ( ) where he would put CSS he didnt have a clear place for, or was temporary/hacky. The implication is that it’s not something he wants to use, but must, and it should go away soon.


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