Get more done, spend more time on what really matters and be happier. It sounds too good to be true, but it isn’t.
Planning the week ahead could be the one, single biggest thing you can do to get more done — and be happier. It’s usually the difference between a bad, or an awesome week.
There are a few things to get right:
- What process should you follow?
- How do you prioritise everything you want to do?
- When and where should you do it?
- How long should you spend doing it?
- How do you end up with a plan that sets you up for success?
Jeeeeeez. Who would have thought planning a week could be so complicated? It isn’t really. Once you get the basics right, it’s pretty straight forward. The good news is, I’m going to give you a simple, but effective process for planning the week ahead — along with examples for each stage.
OK. Let’s get started.
The guide is broken into three areas:
- The Environment — where, when and how long to spend planning.
- The Process — from initial brainstorm, through to a clear plan for the week ahead.
- Final tips — tips on how to stay focused and nail the week
Sitting down and planning the week ahead is one of my favorite parts of the week. Mostly, because I know the time spent is a incredible return on investment. But, also because I look forward to being in a comfortable space and free of distractions for a couple of hours.
The first thing to think about is when to do it. Where possible, I would suggest doing it on Sunday. That’s because for most people, Sunday marks the end of a week, with the next week just around the corner. Of course, pick whatever day works best for you — but it should be towards the end of a weekly period, and just before the next one starts.
Planning a full week can take a long time — usually a couple of hours. I know…. I know…. That sounds like a lot of time. But, consider this quote from Abraham Lincoln:
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
Time spent up front — thinking and planning what you will do, will significantly improve your results. You’ll spend time in the right areas, do the right things, and finish the week much better because of it.
I recommend blocking out two hours, and definitely at least one hour. I promise you that spending even an hour now, will save you many hours in the week. You won’t regret it.
As for where, that’s pretty much down to what works best for you. It should be somewhere you feel comfortable. Think about seating, room temperature and background noise. It also has to be somewhere you can focus and avoid distractions. You need to get in the zone. You’ll be doing a good deal of thinking and making decisions.
I prefer to do mine on a Sunday evening, after my daughter goes to bed. She goes to bed about 7.00PM, so I tend to sit down at around 7.30PM.
I sit at the table in my kitchen area. It’s a big, open plan space and the temperature is always pretty good. The chair and table is comfortable, but not too comfortable. The kettle is nearby, which is handy given I go through 2-3 cups of tea!
Before I start, I let Ella (my partner) know I’m about to spend a couple of hours planning my week. By now, she knows only to interrupt me if it’s a life and death situation, or if something is on fire. She normally goes into another room and shuts the door.
I know I have a couple of hours of uninterrupted time ahead of me — in a space that’s comfortable and conducive to thinking and planning.
Now, that’s just me. You might prefer to leave the house and find a quiet cafe. Maybe you have a home office. Or maybe there’s a regular time where you have the house to yourself. Whatever floats your boat.
Just ensure you block out enough time and have a comfortable, distraction free space you look forward to being in.
Not a bad place to do some weekly planning (it’s not mine, though I wish it were!)
The process for building a weekly plan is broken into three steps.
Step 1 – Brainstorm
The first step is to brainstorm and get everything out of your head. You’re going to have lots of thoughts swirling around. You need to get them out, before you can start to prioritise and organise them.
It’s important to have a little bit of structure when brainstorming. Without it, you just end up with a messy, overwhelming list. I make the following three headings in my notepad — Big, Small and People.
- Big is for important areas of focus, that usually have a number of action items. For example — ‘Being active’. Action items for ‘Being active’ might include playing a sport, going to the gym, going for a run or bike etc. Note it all down. You’re looking for about 5-7 big areas of focus, with some actions next to each — no more.
- Small is for smaller areas of focus, or specific tasks. For example, taking your watch to get repaired, researching something, buying some running shoes etc.
- People is for anything related to relationships — family, friends etc. For example, calling your brother, having lunch with a friend, sending an email to a colleague you haven’t connected with for a while.
When you’re brainstorming these, it’s useful to think about the main categories or areas of focus in your life too. These are typically:
- Personal Development
- Hobbies / Fun
What would you like to do and achieve in these areas for the week ahead?
For example, I often start off by thinking about the health category. That’s because it’s one of the highest priority areas for me to always work on.
One thing to note. You don’t have to work on all areas equally — or even all areas. Priorities in life change. It’s perfectly OK to put most of your energy into a couple of areas — with little or no energy into the others. The key thing is that it should be a conscious choice. When you do this, it’s useful to at least consider how you might hold a baseline in the other areas.
Below is an example of a weekly planning brainstorm:
Step 2 – Prioritise
Let’s quickly recap. You’ve found a comfortable space and have spent an hour or two brainstorming what you want to do. You should now have a list of things, broken into three areas – big areas of focus, smaller tasks and people.
The next step is to prioritise the list and shape it into something that will realistically fit into a week.
Start with picking 2 or 3 focuses from your ‘Big’ list that will be your top focuses for the week. This might be the most important, but hardest part of weekly planning for some people. Everything seems important and it can be tough to choose between everything you want to do.
It can be useful to think about it like this. If you focused only on those 2 or 3 top focuses, and did nothing else, you should feel satisfied with the week. Remember, no more than 3. Be decisive.
Health is a top focus for me every week. It’s non-negotiable. The other 1 or 2 change about depending on what’s going on in my life. Sometimes I might feel like I need to double down on a personal project. Other times, I decide to spend more time with the family and helping around the house.
You should now have your ‘Big’ focuses broken into two lists – top focuses (2 or 3) and a list of other focuses.
Now move onto your small items list. Order them in priority – from highest to lowest. Don’t spend ages trying to get it perfect. The main point is to get a sense of the general priority of them.
After that, take another quick look at your ‘People’ list and make sure it still feels right. Remove or add anything if you need to.
You should now have a prioritised plan:
- Top focuses (2 or 3)
- Other focuses (3 to 5)
- Smaller items (prioritised)
- People list
The final thing to do is shape it into something which is realistic to get done within a week.
It can be tempting to try and consider how long everything will take and work it out mathematically. I’ve found this rarely works very well. Most people are pretty bad at estimating how long something will take to do — and every week is different.
For now, we’re not trying to exactly make it fit or schedule anything (we’ll do that in the next step). We’re just trying to avoid having a completely unrealistic amount of things to do.
Take a step back (taking a short break can help) and then go through the list to get a feel for how doable it is. If it feels too much, remove some of the lower priority items until it feels roughly doable.
It’s not unusual for me to cut as much as a third out of the list at this stage. Let’s face it, if you’re reading this, you’re probably a fairly ambitious person. It’s easy to get lost in the excitement of what you want to do, and end up with an unrealistic number of things.
The good news is, the more you do this, the better you get. Soon you will find you are reaching roughly doable first time round.
Below is an example of what my list looks like after it’s been prioritised and shaped into a realistic list for the week. You can see I put (TOP) next to 3 of my big areas of focus, prioritised the smaller items and crossed off a low priority one because I felt there were too many).
Step 3 – Organise into an actual plan
Now we’re going to take the prioritised list of focuses, smaller tasks and people stuff — and turn it into an actual plan for the week.
I usually open up a google word document at this stage, with the following headings:
Starting with Monday, write a short, high level narrative for each day. It should describe roughly how the day will go. Where you will spend your time, what you will do. Use your prioritised list as a reference.
You’re looking for a couple of very short paragraphs — maybe the odd bullet point for each day. Again, don’t get too lost in the detail. Now isn’t the time to map out your day minute by minute, or even hour by hour. Things change too much to plan that level of detail, that far in advance. Give yourself a bit of breathing space. You can plan in more detail as part of your daily planning (that really is the time to map out every minute – see final tips for more on this).
What’s important right now, is to decide broadly where you will spend your time. And then to schedule things which have to be done on certain days.
For example, let’s take a look at a sample Monday for me:
Wake up early, around 5.00AM. Spend the first hour of the day exercising (GMB Elements or a run). Then do some writing and plan the day ahead. Spend some time with the family, before showering and heading to work.
The main goal of the working day is to get myself and the leadership team straight for the week. Spend the morning running a weekly staff meeting and the rest of the day doing 121’s and checking in with people.
Leave work at a good time (no later than 5.30PM). Read Fearne a story and put her to bed. Spend the rest of the evening doing some mobility work (GMB training session, or some foam rolling / ankle exercises).
Be in bed and asleep before 10.00PM.
See what I mean about not getting too lost in the detail? I’m not trying to map out every minute, or plan out every small task. I’m just trying to get a sense of high level goals and where I want to spend my time. I’m also giving myself some breathing room to choose between one thing or another.
I tend to be even more flexible when it comes to the weekend — hence why I group it as the weekend and not Saturday and Sunday seperately.
Do this for the rest of the day’s, continuing to refer back to your prioritised list. As you work through the days, it’s fine to go back and amend a previous day based on how it’s all shaping up as a week.
The final thing to do is step back (again, taking a break here is useful) and judge the plan on these things:
- If the week went like this, would it be a great week?
- Does it hang together as a week? By that, I mean are you focusing on the right things at the right time throughout the week?
- Does it feel realistic? Again, it’s easy to get lost in being ambitious and then ending up with too much to do. Better to have fewer, higher priority items and consistently nail them. If you notice it feeling unrealistic, adjust and scale it back.
One thing to keep an eye out for is obsessing about being productive. You need to have some parts of your week where you relax and recharge. It feels counter-intuitive, but it will help you make better decisions and do better work.
Carve out some space for ‘free time’ or fun, non work activities. I often block out entire evenings or half days (usual on the weekend) as blank space.
Here is an example of one of my final weekly plans — Weekly Plan Example (PDF) (bear in mind I have subtracted my work day morning and afternoons from it, which would usually be there).
And there you have it. A simple, but effective process for planning the week ahead. By deciding up front what you are going to do with your week, you will get more done, spend more time on what really matters — and be happier for it. Give it a go, I promise you won’t look back.
Here are a few tips to help with your planning, and also as you move through the week.
What he said.
A plan always looks great on paper. It’s best to think of it as something to hold onto, rather than something that must be flawlessly executed. That’s why we didn’t plan each day to the minute and we gave ourselves a little breathing space. It’s also why big areas of focus are often more helpful than specific actions.
Let’s say you have ‘Be Active’ as one of your big areas of focus. You planned to hit the gym on Wednesday morning, but then your child gets sick. You end up getting a terrible night’s sleep. Now you’re too tired to hit the gym — and in any case, you have to look after them in the morning now.
OK, this isn’t ideal, but it’s manageable. If you remain flexible, you can still make some progress on the ‘Be Active’ area of focus. Maybe you hit the gym in the evening instead. But, maybe because you’re tired, it’s best to take a long walk at lunch instead. Hit the gym tomorrow instead.
The key thing to realise is it’s virtually impossible to plan out 7 days and then do them exactly as planned. In fact, sometimes it’s better to seize a different and unexpected opportunity instead.
So, start to get comfortable with the weekly plan being a framework and something to hold onto.
Which leads us onto……
If you get off track — don’t beat yourself up
What happens if you find yourself at the end of Monday without much to show for it? Perhaps the day went terrible — you got hardly anything done and bad habits screwed things up.
Beating yourself up is not the answer. Be kind to yourself. You can’t change the past. It’s far better to regroup, and focus on what you can do today or tomorrow. So, when you find yourself getting off track, take a step back and pause. Let go of the frustration and negative self talk. And then plan the following day, get a good night’s sleep and start fresh tomorrow.
Think about habits and routines for regularly repeated activities
There will be some things you want to do consistently — perhaps every day. For these, think about creating a routine that will help you develop a habit.
Let’s take meditation as an example. For those that meditate, it’s usually a daily practice. Creating a routine will help you be consistent with the practice. When you plan your week, build the routine into your days.
For example, you might wake in the morning, drink a glass of water and then sit down to meditate. After a few weeks of this, it will become second nature. You wake, drink a glass of water and meditate. And then you get on with the rest of your day.
It’s why morning routines are so powerful. They give you a quiet space to do a few things that are important to do every day — meditate, exercise or write etc.
Don’t sweat about the format of the plan
I prefer to do the brainstorm in my notepad. There’s something I like about brainstorming in a notepad. But, when it comes to mapping out the days, I prefer to use a google doc. It makes it easier to cut and paste and rearrange things.
If you prefer to sit down and use a notepad and pencil, that’s just fine. Using a computer or a tablet is fine also. If you prefer to bullet point out what you will do each day, rather than a few paragraphs, that works too.
Doing it is far more important than the tools you use, or the format.
Plan your days
Your weekly plan is a blueprint for the week. Spend some time reviewing it each day, and then plan your day off the back of it.
You can follow a similar approach to planning the week. Break your action items into big, small and people. The main difference is you can now plan in much more detail. Allow yourself to be more specific and schedule tasks into parts of the day or specific times.
I’ll be covering the daily planning process in more detail in a future post.
I hope the steps and examples above explain everything clearly. But, if something isn’t clear or if you have a question, I’d be happy to help. Send me an email or reach out on twitter below.
P.S Weekly planning is just one part (a very important part!) of an overall system I use to stay focused, plan and get things done. It replaces traditional goal setting. I’m working on the best way to bring it together into something that can be taught to others. I’ll probably start with 121 coaching and perhaps some very small workshops. If you’re interested in that, get in touch.