My weekly planning process is constantly evolving as the demands of my world change along with my understanding of how I can be at my best. I recently came to the somewhat obvious realization that there is a certain percentage of my work/life that happens every single day, every week, and every month. These items are a combination of mundane administration, meaningful work, and aspirational intentions. When these things happen at a pre-determined regular interval I know I'm much more likely to feel better about my work and life.
I decided to use this realization to more systematically plan and manage my days/weeks/months. The first step was to simply brainstorm the items that I know need to happen regularly in order for me to feel good about what I'm doing. Thinking about what I have to do on a daily basis to keep my life running I came up with this list (all lists in this article are slightly edited to censor confidential information):
- Read Wall Street Journal
- Make bed
- Take vitamin
- Write in journal
- Read for enjoyment
Mundane? Yes. However, these are the tasks I know I need to complete every day in order to not feel like I'm slacking in some regard. Obviously that's not everything I need to accomplish in a day. It's more like the bedrock on which more meaningful/important/urgent tasks are situated.
Similarly, there are a handful of things I know I need to accomplish every normal work week in order to meet my current life and work responsibilities:
- Do some bulk cooking or make sure I still have enough leftovers for quick/easy lunch and dinners.
- Read through all the academic articles I set aside for this week's reading.
- Draft two articles for The Workologist (plus a link post on Friday)
- Complete all my teaching assistant responsibilities (go to my office hour, read for the upcoming week of classes, go to the classes, respond to student emails, submit time sheets)
- Complete 10 hours on [consulting project I'm contracted to work on 10 hours a week].
- Do my Weekly Review
- Go to my weekly hockey game.
- Finish the week's issue of The Economist.
- Record [podcast I'm currently piloting with a friend].
- Have Outlier Consulting Group meeting with Jeff.
These two lists contain, at the very last, the starting points for high functioning days and weeks. Doing some of these things is pretty automatic but some of them require more conscious thought. These tasks are very important and are a key aspect of me feeling good about how I'm doing but at the same time they don't really represent the work that other people are expecting from me. I need to do these things but the quicker and more efficiently I can do them the more time I'll have to work on other things. Putting them on easy to access checklists makes sure I'm not forgetting anything and lets me focus all my energy on getting them done efficiently without having to also remember what they all are or if I'm forgetting anything.
Finally, on a monthly basis I need to complete the following:
- Write/publish The Workologist newsletter.
- Complete 2-3 hours of focused business development activities.
- Draft and record en*theos class.
- Draft and submit [monthly freelance article].
- Conduct monthly review.
The other work that exists in my life is either a semi-weekly project/task, a discrete/one-off project, or brand new information that either becomes something I have to do on a recurring basis (daily, weekly, semi-weekly, or monthly) or a one-off task/project.
By thinking about my work with this framework of recurring/discrete projects I'm gaining much more clarity about what should be a constant in my life and what I need to be more deliberate about creating time to work on. It's helping me figure out how to use my time more efficiently and allowing me to be more conscious about what I can actually feasibly accomplish. When I sit down to plan my day/week/month I can start by looking at my checklist and figuring out when I'm going to get these tasks done. The more efficient I get at these ongoing maintenance tasks the more time I'll have to complete all those projects that aren't recurring -- which happens to be the vast majority of the work I have to do. This method is helping me make sure I'm always doing those things that have the largest impact on my sense of well-being while still getting all my work finished.
Like my Weekly Review template, I expect these lists to evolve over time as my circumstances change. Even looking at them now I'm feeling like there are some more aspirational things I can add to them. For now I'm going to keep them nice and simple and if they become extremely easy to finish I'll consider adding new components to them. The important thing is to be okay with changing them over time because otherwise they will cease being relevant and I'll stop using them.
How to Build Checklists Into Your Planning
The first step is to spend some time figuring out what you need to do on a daily basis in order to feel like you're doing a good job in your work/life. Jot it all down on an index card, laminate it with some packing tape, and now you have a daily checklist you can write on with a dry erase marker and carry with you. Do the same thing with the tasks you know you need (or want) to complete on a weekly basis. Again, laminate it and then display it where you'll see it regularly. Do it again with your monthly tasks/projects. Finally, create a list of all the projects you're currently working on that have some sort of "done" state.
The recurring daily/weekly/monthly checklists are made up of tasks that you'll never stop doing -- at least not any time soon (I may stop feeling like I need to read 4-5 academic articles every week but that won't be for years down the road). The list of discrete projects is what you'll pull from to fill in the time around your recurring daily/weekly/monthly tasks. Over time you'll check these projects off the list and add new ones. Determining what to work on at any given time or which of these discrete projects should be prioritized is outside the scope of this article, but using this technique to get a handle on everything you need to do on a daily, weekly, monthly basis will make sure you're moving forward everything you've deemed as important without letting maintenance activities fall by the wayside while you focus on "real work" and vice versa.
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