Evolving a Weekly Planning Process

Image of Weekly Schedule on laptop

Weekly planning is critical if you want to make progress on longer-term goals.

On the positive side, a weekly planning session helps you clarify your top values. It gives you a chance to celebrate your successes for the week. It is the time when you set meaningful goals. And it is an opportunity to address conflicts to clarify what is really most important to you.

A weekly planning session also helps you be accountable to your own goals. It is annoying to have the same items show up on the weekly plan, undone, week after week. It puts a pebble in your shoe that alerts you to look at these tasks that you're procrastinating on, and figure out what's going on. Is it really important? If it is, what is the emotional barrier? What are your choices? You always have choices.

Because weekly planning involves both deep thinking and facing conflict, it's not easy. Some common obstacles are:

  • You don't remember to plan the week, or you don't find time to plan the week. When you do, it takes hours and hours.
  • You don't want to schedule everything into particular times during the week, either because it seems impractical, or you dislike feeling like you're in a straitjacket.
  • If you make a plan, you don't follow through all the way, so you feel it's a source of guilt and a waste of time.

It takes skill to organize your projects and maintain that organization so that you can review your top issues in a short amount of time. These are normal problems, which are not solved by one magic bullet. It takes skill to estimate how long tasks will take. It takes skill to predict how much unscheduled time you need for emergencies. It takes skill to keep unnecessary distractions from taking you off your plan. It takes skill to plan your day in a way that is likely to fuel your motivation for the next task, rather than drain it.

You can't learn all of these skills in a day or a week. But you can't develop them at all if you make no attempt at weekly planning. It takes practice and experience to learn how to best manage your own time.

That's why I recommend that you start with a very simple weekly planning process and evolve it over time into something more complex. At its simplest, a weekly plan is a list of goals for the week, which you check off when completed. Each week, you review last week's goals and set this week's. Then, as the week unfolds, you may find omissions. Add them to your list. You may find things that need to be done next week. Have a spot on your list for reminders for next week. Work out a system where you can keep the reminders in one place. But don't feel you have to get it 100% on the first try.

If you implement this very simple weekly planning approach, it then gives you a foundation on which to learn additional skills which will make your planning more effective.

If you have no weekly planning process at all, start by finding a good time to do weekly planning. This is much easier when you are looking for half an hour, not an indefinite amount of time. Half an hour is long enough to review last week's goals and list your top goals for the week. It is long enough to check your calendar to ensure you think you have time to pursue those goals this week.

This simple system will help you achieve some goals you would not have achieved otherwise. More important, it will give you some experience making predictions and seeing how they come out. Your predictions will naturally improve. It will help you keep track of your important tasks, because you will see what kinds of things you forget, if you don't have reminders in place for them. It will give a structure so that trial-and-error transforms into trial-and-success.

Over time, you will see that some problems linger. You will start to see specific challenges that you have, week after week, and these will call out to you to create new systems to address them.

Suppose you are frustrated because the day always gets away from you. You might choose to experiment with scheduling every key task into a particular time block. If you try to do this as your only method of planning the week, you will likely become discouraged. Very few people can stick to such a plan. But if you do this as an experiment, within the context of a simple weekly planning process, it takes the pressure off.

Incidentally, I recommend the Cal Newport approach in Deep Work if you do this. Make a plan on paper for the day (or the week), assigning activities to all of the time blocks, but knowing you have the freedom to change your mind. If something comes up that alters your plan, take a brief moment to alter the plan on paper. Rethink when you will do any important task, and decide what you're dropping to make the change. Don't abandon the plan, replan. This ensures you learn the most from this experiment, without any fear of failure.

Or suppose the fundamental problem is that you have little discretionary time. Then it's even more important to do conscious weekly planning. Once a week, you need to look at your schedule to see where you can carve out time for yourself. Neil Fiore calls this "unplanning" in his book The Now Habit. Perhaps you have a full time job and a family. You may be able to carve out only 5 hours a week for yourself. But if you don't take time to find those 5 hours in advance, they will disappear, filled by the requests of people around you.

Everyone has different commitments and different circumstances. There is no one-size-fits all planning process. The best thing you can do is evolve your weekly planning process based on your circumstances. Start with something simple and regular. Then add on, improve, grow. It's radically better to have a bare bones system than nothing. And it's much better to get something simple in place you can build on, than try out a complex system that you can't sustain, and later abandon because it is more work than help.

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Thinking Lab members:  Read more about this in the Evolving a Scheduling Infrastructure class on the Thinking Lab site.

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