Two Tweaks That Massively Improved My Weekly Planning

Georgetown professor and author Cal Newport recently gave an interesting look at his weekly planning habit. He shared two different formats that he uses depending on what the upcoming week is like. One is a narrative view on a day-by-day basis and the other is done by breaking his work into broad categories and slotting each into his day based on how much time he wants to spend on it (his article makes a lot more sense than that so I understand if you want to take a few minutes to read it in his own words before continuing here -- I can wait).

This got me thinking about my own weekly planning habit and how it has evolved over time. I've been doing my Weekly Review on Sunday afternoon for the better part of three years but only in the past 6 months or so have I truly gotten good at planning my upcoming week. In the past, weekly planning was nothing more than making sure all my projects had at least one clear next action. I would then make decisions about what I wanted to work on each day either that morning or in the moment of deciding what to work on next.

This left me with one prominent feeling that seemed to live with me the majority of the time: overwhelm. I was scrolling through my entire Project (roughly 30 items) and Next Action (roughly 75 items) lists multiple times every day. Blergh. It was a constant reminder of how much I had to do (and how much I wasn't doing).

Lately, I've elevated my planning game to the point where I feel like I'm being much more productive on a weekly basis and I'm not getting overwhelmed by everything I'm not doing. Now, when I sit down during my Weekly Review on Sunday afternoon I do two things that help set me up for much greater success.

Hard Landscape Drives Everything Else

First, I figure out my hard landscape (appointments, meetings, etc.) and get a sense of how much of my week it's going to take up. In the past, I never explicitly figured that out on Sunday and the reality of the situation is that some weeks are heavily scheduled and others are almost completely wide open. Despite this variation in my weekly schedule I had a relatively static idea of what my productivity "should" be over the course of a week. This meant weeks that were highly scheduled in terms of my hard landscape felt super unproductive because I had an unrealistic expectation of what I could do. Once I get a sense of my hard landscape for the week I can set some reasonable weekly goals in terms of my more flexible work.

Make Stuff Disappear

The second thing I did was be much more liberal with scheduling projects I knew I wasn't going to work on over the next five days to reappear in my task management software the following Sunday (i.e. my next Weekly Review). If I have a project that isn't due for a couple weeks and I know I won't have time to work on it soon I have no compunction with making it disappear for the time being (with the expectation it will show back up in my system when designated). Things is pretty awesome in this regard as it lets you give Projects and Next Actions a "scheduled" date which hides it until the designated date. This helps lighten the cognitive load every time I look at my Project and Next Action list and leaves me feeling much less overwhelmed. It also forces me to be realistic about what I can actually accomplish in a given week -- which is definitely a good thing when my eyes start getting too big for my belly (or whatever the productivity version of that metaphor is).

Looking at Cal's weekly planning habit makes me want to try a more narrative way of planning out my week, too. I like how he basically writes a little story about what each day should look like without completely over scheduling himself or getting buried in the details.

What can you take from me and Cal in your own weekly planning? What do you do differently? I'd love to hear about what works (or doesn't work) for you.

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