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.
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.
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.
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.
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