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Do More By Planning Less: The Power of the Anti-Plan


Seeking Full Capacity

Since becoming a professor, my productivity (as measured by original publications in quality venues) has improved.

I’m happy about this fact.

But I’m also convinced that I’m still leaving capacity on the table. As my expertise in my area grows, I’m reaching a point where I have more ideas per year than I have time to publish (which can be frustrating). If I could increase my deep to shallow work ratio just a little more, I could, I think, close that gap.

Accomplishing this goal, however, has proved difficult.

According to my Monthly Plan archives, since September 2012 I’ve launched at least six different plans aimed at increasing my research output, with the goal of closing this final gap.

None made a major impact.

With this in mind, I’m taking advantage of the beginning of summer to try, as I like to do every now and again, the most radical of productivity plans — no plan at all.


I’m a believer in something I call anti-planning.

A normal plan requires you to figure out in advance when and how you’re going to accomplish important projects.

An anti-plan has you to throw out all such rules and just dive in, adapting, the best you can, to your circumstances. It requests only that you keep a record of your experience, capturing, for later review, your thoughts, triumphs, and frustrations.

(For this purpose, I like to keep a gournal — my word for an electronic journal based on automatically filtering Gmail messages, sent to a special address, into a journal label. See the screenshot above for my setup.)

The Anti-Plan Theory

The theory behind anti-planning is that it exposes you to a much wider swath of the productivity plan landscape. Your journal will keep you updated on how well you’re doing, which provides the selective pressure needed to drive you toward some novel approaches to getting more depth out of your working habits.

People sometimes worry that anti-planning will tank their productivity. The reality is usually the opposite: the flexibility and constant self-reflection tends to increase the rate at which you produce valuable output.

For these same reasons, however, anti-planning can be draining (all that reflection and decision making reduces willpower). So I usually only last a month or two before falling back onto a more structured set of rules.

The key, however, is that the system I end up after anti-planning is often more effective than where I was before.

Bottom Line

I’ve only recently begun my most recent bout of anti-planning, so I don’t yet have new grand conclusions. But even the initial reflections now trickling in are proving quite interesting (I’m starting to realize, for example, that deep work is deeply cyclical, and not something that can happen every day of every week).

In the meantime, if you’re frustrated with the effectiveness of your productivity plans, spend some time without one, and see what bubbles to the surface.

46 thoughts on “Do More By Planning Less: The Power of the Anti-Plan”

  1. Could you give the specifics? How do you do an anti plan?

    Try to journal regularly about your efforts to produce important outcomes. Avoid any other rules for when and how you work on these projects. See what happens.

  2. I was just reading Leo’s, from ZenHabits, article on the idea of having No Goals. It made me realize that this idea is very me. I’ve always been someone who doesn’t really plan specifically, but has a general idea of where to go. Then I thrust myself into the situations and allow myself to adapt, just as you’ve described.

    I feel like setting goals limits you too much because you always get this idea that you’re “off-task” even when you aren’t. Having a no goals plan, or anti-goal, lets you still have that direction and drive while being able to expand what you deem as “goal-driven.”

    It’s a bit complicated and I’m sure some people are raising an eyebrow, but try not being so specific in your goals. Have a general direction and “naturally” work towards it. Don’t micro-manage yourself.

  3. A few of the masters documented in Mastery had no real productivity plans to fall back on – they were just insanely focused (and did a lot of deliberate practice). A lot of them lead weird lives (Marcel Proust comes to mind), but they got it done.

    I’d like to see how this theory develops, because it’s so different from all the productivity literature out there. Maybe the flexibility to do whatever they wanted and adapt to the moment is what made them so great?

    Nice post.

  4. Cal I have downloaded your entire (unique , awesome )blog archive in the fear I might miss something ( have the books , but not read yet )
    Is the book the same as the blog ? Might I miss something if I read only the books ?
    Thanks ,I appreciate your work really much.

  5. A few more details on the gournal…

    –> Setup a label in Gmail for the entires
    –> Setup a contact for the address: “[email protected]“. Notice, when you send an e-mail to this address, it will arrive in your normal Gmail account, but it will leave the “+journal” in the To field, making it easy to filter.
    –> Under Settings, setup a filter that takes any e-mail addressed to “
    [email protected]“, and labels it with your journal label and archives it.
    –> To journal, you just shoot a quick note that that special address, and it will automatically be stored away in your journal label for you to later review.

  6. The relationship between anti-plans and anti-goals is interesting.

    For example, I maintain a relatively involved system to help me choose what research projects to focus on (participants in my Deliberate Practice Pilot are learning about this now). In some sense, this provides clear goals.

    When I am in anti-plan mode, however, I do not try to impose any particular system for making progress on these goals. I just experiment and see what works and what doesn’t, changing as needed, recording my thoughts along the way.

  7. This does remind me of “Getting Things Done”, more than “Zen To Done”. In David Allen’s system, you do keep track of your most important stuff via a weekly, monthly and yearly review, but you choose your daily actions based on what just happens to be accessible and urgent (use of context lists -> whereas in ZTD you also make specific plans for each day).

    Perhaps it just depends on the current situation, but in school I prefered a well organized, strict schedule for my activities and now, where this seems impossible to me (unplanned events, no fixed schedule of any sorts) I prefer the “mind like water” thing

  8. Hi Cal, interesting post. I’m wondering if it would be effective in a time sensitive environment though. For example, to use anti planning at a job with lots of deadlines .

  9. I have a terrible time with journaling. Setting one up is the easy part. Knowing what to record is a whole different story. Would like to hear about guidelines or suggestions on what to journal that you may have.

  10. Anti-planning?

    For me it means leaving my home without thinking where I want to go and journaling my trip itinerary. Not very clever if I want to do something meaningful – for example buy some groceries…

  11. The whole thing with planning is that it is in fact an excellent tool. This led many to believe that you should always plan everything you do. But in some cases planning isn’t appropriate. In those cases, planning would be pretty much like using a hammer to fasten a screw.
    But planning is a excellent tool when you’re working on projects that can be divided up in well-defined and predictable steps. It really helps to keep on track then.
    I’d say: use the right tool for the job, planning when the situation calls for it, and anti-planning when that is the best thing to do.

  12. Neil Fiore talks about this in the Now Habit – he advocates an UnScheduler (your anti-plan Cal) that’s less planning focused and more just ‘do it’

  13. Hmm that’s an interesting approach, and from my own experience, I can see how it can be beneficial – some of those most productive days were when I discard my “tasklist” and just worked on I felt like in the particular moment.

    I think altering between plan and anti-plan could be a good pattern as well, giving yourself a break from too much “structure” or too much “aimlessness” before one becomes overwhelming!

  14. Sounds pretty sensible. Come up with a system of think/do. I courses you can really plan and strategy your way through them. You can even be a little slow, but through effort, get great marks in just about anything. The working world (esp at the high creative end where you are working) requires constant adaptation to new results. Seems like a pretty commonsense approach to things that aren’t structured like classes.

  15. Improvise, adapt, and overcome – sounds a lot like anti-planning. It does sound like you have a general idea of where you want to go – your intent. You just use the present circumstances dictate the method to get there.

  16. Great article. Thanks. My two bits : Anti planning probably works brilliantly when thrown into the mix as one option.

    To me it’s all about mixing it up. Works with exercise, writing in my blog and a just about anything I can think of that requires creative energy (which most things require some amount of)

    What works best for me is to have an overall game plan … Outcomes I want to accomplish … And then the planning and/or anti planning process all contributes to that output.

    Having said that I have spent quite a few “mindful” months overcoming analysis paralysis which anti planning would have worked against excellently.

    Another point is that planning can often be used as a procrastinating tactic which the anti planning approach would also address right away.

  17. Very interesting. I don’t understand Is this the exact oposite of what you said in how to become a straight A student in which you recommend to plan your day in a sheet of paper?

  18. What caught my eye was your first comment – you’re having more ideas than you can process. Speaking from experience, this is normal for a researcher. But you will never close the gap, respectively you don’t want to. It is faster to have ideas than to investigate & write them up. But it’s also part of things that some ideas have higher quality. So you want to keep having more ideas than you can publish, as this increases the quality of the ideas you publish (assuming your filter works).
    Another strategy to increase output: students & collaborators. 🙂

  19. Good post. I personally found a similar approach very useful when I was in High School more than a decade ago. We were required to provide weekly timetables down to hourly subject plans, and had regular practice tests every month. After a quarter of the year in, no matter what timetable I made, I never followed it and my scores were good, but not great. So I tried a different strategy. I took the same weekly timetable template and left it blank. And each day at the end of the day, I would fill it with what I actually did on that day. It helped me be accountable to myself and track how many hours I actually spent seriously studying, and what the eventual outcomes were (improvement in my test scores and what drove them). It also helped me get a sense of accomplishment each day and I felt proud that I was doing it for myself, not just to tick off some required checkbox for the sake of “process”.

  20. To make a software development analogy, the normal plan sounds like waterfall project management, while the anti-plan sounds like an iterative software development model like Scrum, Agile, etc. I’m starting to wonder if the principles behind iterated software development, with continuous refinement and testing can be applied to other disciplines and life in general.


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