planning

The Recipe for the Perfect Weekly Plan

For whatever reason a week seems to be the perfect amount of time when thinking about planning your upcoming work. Planning once a week gives you enough time to actually get work done but going much longer than a week makes it hard to forecast what exactly you need to do and your plans are likely to devolve to the point of being useless. I've written about how to do Weekly Reviews before, but this time around I wanted to focus specifically on how to figure out what you're going to work on over the next seven days.

Making a Weekly Plan helps you achieve a sense of completion and progress in the work you're doing. Without it you don't really have much criteria as to whether or not you had a successful week. By having a plan you can measure what you actually accomplished against what you planned to finish and you can either pat yourself on the back for fulfilling the plan or figure out why it didn't work out quite the way you hoped. It also adds useful structure to your days so you can focus on actually finishing the work instead of figuring it out each and every day (or multiple times every day). Finally, it helps you break away from the tyranny of the "latest and loudest." Without a plan it's easy to get sucked into your email inbox or just generally working in a reactive instead of proactive state which is a recipe for not getting your most meaningful work done.

For all these reasons you need a Weekly Plan. The plan simply consists of:

  • A complete picture of where you need to be at specific times this week
  • A complete picture of what you intend to work on each day this week
  • A complete picture of what you're choosing NOT to do this week

By this point hopefully you're on board with the idea that systematically creating a Weekly Plan is a good idea. Let's get into the nitty gritty of how to make one and like any good recipe you can take it and make it your own once you understand the basics.

Required Materials

  • A full list of your Hard Landscape (appointments, meetings, places to be at specific times, etc.) for the week
  • A complete Project List (things to do that will take more than one Next Action to complete)
  • A complete Next Action List (the next step you need to take on all of your projects)
  • A clear list of upcoming deadlines
  • A clear sense of your medium & long term goals.

Instructions

Put all the Hard Landscape activities on your calendar and make sure the start and end times are accurate (if you have to guess, err on the side of blocking out too much time on your calendar for an activity). Remember, these are not aspirational in any way. These are phone calls that have to be made at a certain time, meetings that need to be attended, appointments, and other time and location specific activities.

Now that you know what has to happen this week you can spend some time figuring out how you're going to use the rest of the time available to you. This is where you look at your complete Project List and set some intentions about what you're going to work on each day.

Relevant Criteria For Deciding What Makes the Cut

Once you have your Hard Landscape figured out how do you decide what to include in the Weekly Plan? Try using some of the following criteria and limitations when thinking about what you want to try to get done.

Upcoming Deadlines

If there's an imminent deadline then obviously you need to work on a project to finish it on time. It helps to look a couple weeks in advance to make sure nothing sneaks up on you. I like to keep a list of upcoming due dates on my whiteboard up to a couple months out so I make sure that doesn't happen. Remember, sometimes Hard Landscape activities have actions that need to be taken before they happen (e.g. prep for a meeting, print out a ticket, review some information, etc.). Other examples from my own life include; weekly articles for my website, monthly newsletters, submission deadlines on papers, weekly consulting gig requirements and prepping for meetings I lead. All of these have deadlines attached to them so if one of them is coming up (or is a recurring deadline like writing a weekly article for my site) I need to make sure there's room in my Weekly Plan to get that done.

Importance to Goals

It's important not to let the "latest and loudest" guide your decisions about what you're going to accomplish in any given week. Once you've figured out the work you need to get finished to meet any upcoming deadlines you need to look at the most meaningful work relevant to your medium and long term goals. Some of your meaningful work has deadlines and is therefore considered in the previous step, but some of it likely has only self-imposed deadlines, if any at all. That type of work is easy to let slide if you don't deliberately set some time aside throughout the week to work on it. In my life, this work often includes working on a book proposal, doing business development activities, working on courses, and doing my PhD work.

Other Considerations

Deadlines and Importance to Goals are the primary criteria you should consider when deciding what to work on, but there are other things such as, how much time is your Hard Landscape going to take up this week?, how much energy are you likely to have this week?, what is weighing on your mind the most this week? All of these questions have an impact on what you'll schedule for yourself in terms of work.

If your Hard Landscape is going to take up a huge percentage of your week then being super ambitious with scheduling other work is probably a bad idea. If last week was insane then you should try to schedule yourself some easier tasks. If there's a particular project or Area of Responsibility that's weighing on you for some reason then I'll try to schedule some time during the week to make some meaningful progress on that.

For example, in some ways I feel like I've been letting my PhD advisor down over the past few weeks so I scheduled lots of time to work on my lab duties and other PhD work this week because I knew making progress there would do the most for alleviating my own anxiety.

Finally, even though I mentioned taking into consideration how much time your Hard Landscape is going to take up it's important to keep in mind not over scheduling yourself in general. You need to leave space for the unexpected and for taking care of administrative details. On a normal Hard Landscape day for me (1-3 appointments/meetings taking up about 2-3 hours) I will schedule 2-3 things to work on for the rest of the day. A handy rule of thumb is that if you can't fit the entirety of your daily plan on a single index card you've probably over scheduled yourself.

With these raw ingredients and the simple criteria I listed above you can make sit down and make a logical and realistic plan for your upcoming week.

Photo by Graham Ballantyne

Write an Article About Checklists; Check

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
  • Meditate
  • Exercise
  • 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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Photo by Palo

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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Photo by Nomadic Lass

How to Leverage Success Intelligently

It feels awesome to accomplish something audacious. After weeks, months, or even years of hard work and it all finally comes together into a successful product or event you are probably riding a seriously intense wave of adrenaline and excitement. Assuming it went well, you'll probably feel like you're on top of the world, the bee's knees, or the cat's pajamas. I applaud you, I congratulate you, and I want to shake your hand.

What I don't want you to do, however, is start making plans for your next project.

Maybe it feels like a waste to not utilize this surge of motivation and excitement. What better time to plan than when you're already feeling great about yourself and your abilities? And to that I answer, "Almost any other time."

Making decisions about your future when you're on an emotional high is a good way to set yourself up for unattainable expectations and burnout. It also sets you up to neglect other areas of your life that probably need attention after the period of intense focus and dedication your current accomplishment required. Instead of launching right into the planning process of something new, I encourage you to do one, or more, of the following:

  1. Reflect: Before blindly blundering into a new project give yourself some time to reflect. Let a little bit of time lapse so you can look back at the entire process with a somewhat more objective view. What went well? What challenges were faced and how were they handled? What would you do differently next time? Give yourself time to sit and observe these reflections so you can incorporate them into future projects and endeavors. Everything you do, successful or otherwise, provides data that can be used to improve the way you go about future work.
  2. Refocus: In the weeks and days leading up to a major accomplishment you often have to narrow your focus. When the first TEDx conference I organized was getting very close to happening I had to put a lot of other normal concerns on the back burner in order to give it my full attention. I delayed hanging out with friends that I'd normally see more often. I called my family less. I put forth the minimum amount of effort to get by in my classes. The end result was that the conference was a great success and everything went well but I had to make some sacrifices in the process. It was important for me to relax afterward and identify the conscious and subconscious decisions I had made in the weeks leading up to it regarding my other commitments. I had to reach out to friends, to family, and re-dedicate myself to my academic work. In a word, I had to refocus and regain some balance to my life.
  3. Recharge: Accomplishing major projects and milestones can be exhausting. While that exhaustion is often masked by the adrenaline and euphoria of accomplishment, eventually you'll come down from that high and the true state of your mental and physical health will hit you. That's why it's important to embrace rejuvenation immediately after a major success instead of immediately launching into a new endeavor.

This basic concept should be applied to both ends of the emotional spectrum. Just as it's a bad idea to make major decisions when you're emotionally high, making decisions when you're feeling abnormally low is also a recipe for disaster. That's not to say there's anything wrong with feeling particularly positive or particularly negative -- it's a fact of being human that you will vascillate between emotional states over time. However, because these are transient states they don't necessarily provide the surest foundation for important decisions. Making a decision when you're emotionally high is likely to result in unrealistic expectations while making a major decision when you're emotionally low is likely to result in overly pessimistic and negative expectations.

Embrace your success but don't let it set you up for failure. Embrace your sadness but don't let it hold you back. Find your center and use it to make realistic, optimistic, and attainable goals for your future.

Photo by jimmiehomeschoolmom

The Slippery Nature of Planning

For the second year in a row, I am going into the fall without a full-time teaching job. It wasn't supposed to work this way. I was supposed to graduate from college, find a job in an excellent school district and be teaching exactly what I want to teach. I wasn't supposed to spend a summer fruitlessly applying for countless jobs and only getting two interviews. I wasn't supposed to sub for an entire year. I wasn't supposed to spend another entire summer looking for and applying for jobs to only get one interview. These were not my plans.

For a long time I was the type of person that liked to plan and have everything adhere to that plan. I liked having that feeling of control. The experiences of the past two years are teaching me something knew: when your carefully laid plans start to slip away, let go and make new ones.

For a long time, I tried to grab ahold of my waylaid plans the more they slipped away. I got frustrated and depressed. Instead, I realize that now is the time and opportunity for growth.

Plans are obviously artifacts of the past. By definition, they are an attempt at regulating and predicting the future. When they start to slip away, realize that you now have new experiences, new knowledge, and new insight that you didn't have when you originally made those plans. This is an opportunity to rejoice at the chance to use all of your new information to improve your plans. Adhering to an old plan that no longer fits the situation is the height of folly. And yet, that's exactly what many of us do. Circumstances change and it makes sense for us to adapt as well.

Using the example I talked about earlier with my job search experiences I can illustrate what I'm talking about. When I first made those plans to graduate from college and get a teaching job, I had no idea that I had an interest or any skill in blogging. My inability to find a teaching job has opened a new door into a world I knew almost nothing about a year ago. Instead of using my frustration as an excuse to give up I refocused my energy on a new activity. And even though blogging and teaching are two very different activities, my efforts here at The Simpler Life draw on a lot of the skills I developed as I studied to become a teacher in college.

So, in a nutshell, what should you do if you feel your carefully laid plans slipping away?

  1. Let go: You won't get in trouble if you abandon your plan. Sometimes the best option is to just cast it aside and get busy forging a new path.
  2. Use the core of your original plan: Take the main skills or idea of your old plan and create a new one with them. For example, when I couldn't find a full-time teaching job, I didn't completely abandon the plan and become an actor or a crab fisherman. Instead, my new plan is to substitute teach for awhile while I refocus my teaching talents toward my writing. I'm still using many of the skills that I needed for my original plan. I'm just applying them in a different way.
  3. See it as an opportunity for growth: It can be easy to feel like a failure when plans don't turn out the way you think they will (or should). Instead of feeling that way, try to look at it as an opportunity to do something new. If my original plans had worked out how I wanted, I never would have started this blog and I would have missed out on all the excellent experiences I've had because of it. What have you always wanted to do but haven't?

It all boils down to how you react to a change of plans. What will your attitude be like? What good does sulking and getting depressed do? Change, adapt, and move forward!