Friday, September 9, 2011

Seven Steps to Plan Your Week

My weeks always go better when I take the time to make a weekly plan. The process usually takes between 30 to 60 minutes, so can seem a bit cumbersome. However, I have a few years of evidence to show that the week always goes better when I make a thorough weekly plan.

A weekly planning meeting is one of the most essential tools for being productive while maintaining your sanity.

By planning your week, you can ensure that you complete your most important tasks while also leaving time for other priorities in your life such as children, relationships, hobbies, and well-being. The weekly planning meeting is a tool I learned personally from Kerry Ann Rockquemore and have passed along to others. It is also detailed in David Allen's excellent book, Getting Things Done and Julie Morgenstern's book, Time Management from the Inside Out. In short, the weekly planning meeting is a well-known and validated time management strategy. Here is how I do it.

Make a weekly planning meeting part of your life.

A weekly planning meeting allows you to pause at the end of each week and take stock of what you did and did not accomplish. It permits you to make decisions at the beginning of the week. It allows you to get all of the tasks that you know you need to do out of your head and onto paper, thereby clearing up mental space for creative tasks.

How to conduct a weekly planning meeting.

Step One: List all of the tasks you need to accomplish over the next week.

Like many academics, I often have several ongoing projects. This means that I need to pull out my list of annual or semester goals each time I do my weekly plan to make sure that I have not forgot any upcoming deadlines and am focusing my energies on the most important task.

It is often helpful to get out your calendar and look back and forward to make sure you don’t forget anything important. It is also useful to have your Semester Plan handy to ensure that you are making progress on on-going projects.

Step Two: Transform your tasks into action items

Once you have written out your tasks, you want to make sure that each of your tasks is written as an action item.  If, for example, one of your tasks is: “Make revisions on Revise and Resubmit,” it might be helpful to list the tasks involved in that project. If you don’t know what the tasks are, then your first task will be to “Make revision plan and task list for Revise and Resubmit.” If you are pretty sure you will need to do some more reading, your next task could be: “Download five relevant articles on existentialism for Revise and Resubmit.” The key is that you need tasks that are actionable, that tell you exactly what to do, and that you can be sure whether or not you have accomplished.

Step Three: Block out your commitments.

Get out your electronic or paper calendar and block out all of your meetings and commitments. If you have a faculty meeting, for example, block that out. If you teach, block time out for your classes. If you have a doctor’s appointment, block that time out as well.

Step Four: Map your tasks (from Step Two) onto your calendar.

If you think it will take you two hours to come up with a revision plan for your article revision, then block out two hours of time for that. If you need an hour to prepare for class, block out that hour. Put all of your tasks into specific time frames into your weekly calendar. Have tasks left over that don’t fit? See Step Five.

Step Five: Cut those tasks that do not fit into your calendar.

This is always hard, but it is much better to make these decisions before the week starts than to realize at the end of the week that your most important tasks never got done. As David Allen explains in Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, it is helpful to think of these extra tasks as having three possible outcomes: Defer, delegate, or delete. Each task that does not fit onto your weekly calendar must either be put off (deferred), given to someone else (delegated) or not done at all (deleted).

When I make my weekly plan, I often keep a running list of tasks that will go into the next week - those are the deferred tasks. If I can figure out who to delegate to, I can change an action item from "Finish bibliography" to "Ask Research Assistant to finish bibliography." To delete items, I just highlight and delete them and keep on moving.

Step Six: Implement.

When you wake up on Monday morning (or whenever your week begins), you do not have to figure out what to do next. You just pick up your calendar, and it will tell you what to do. This is fantastic, as you can jump right into action when you begin your week instead of having to remember what you need to do.

Step Seven: Review.

The inherent value in a weekly plan is that it allows you to see what is and what is not getting done. In your next planning meeting, it is important to review the prior week and to think about what did and did not get done. This will help you to figure out how long tasks actually take, and to pick up patterns. (I definitely am guilty of letting certain tasks slide week after week. Noticing which tasks are not getting done each week allows me to develop new strategies to ensure that I make progress on all important fronts.)

Some people prefer to do their weekly review and planning meeting at the end of the work week. Assessing what did and did not get accomplished allows them to relax over the weekend, knowing that they have a clear plan for getting things done the following week. Others prefer to do this at the beginning of the work week or on Sunday evening, when their mind is clear. It is up to you to figure out what works best for your work rhythm. The important thing is that you develop and implement a plan.