by Niall Doherty

Back in February of this year, I started sitting down for a few minutes every Sunday and planning out the week ahead. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well this has worked for me. This one simple habit of weekly planning helps me be at my best.

If you find yourself just going through the motions every week and not really moving any closer to your goals, read on for my tips on how to use weekly planning effectively, then give it a try yourself.

Tip 1: Write it all down

Yup, I’ll start with the obvious. You need to have easy access to your weekly plan so you can check it regularly. Since I’m usually online multiple times a day, I use a spreadsheet on Google Docs, but you can use something like Excel if you prefer, or create a template that you can print out, fill in by hand and carry around with you.

I’ve created a demo plan on Google Docs so you can see what my spreadsheet typically looks like. Click here or on the screenshot below to get to it. (If you have a Google account, you should be able to save a copy to your own Google Docs. If not, you can just download it and open in Excel or something similar. Check the file menu for options.)

weekly-planning-demo

That’s actually an exact copy of the weekly plan I was working from when I started writing this post last Friday morning.

Tip 2: Know your priorities

I wrote a post earlier this week entitled Prioritize your life, in which I described the method I use to set priorities so I can make best use of my time. Knowing your priorities is a must if you want to plan your week effectively. I have my current priorities listed bottom left of my spreadsheet, and from those I’ll derive priorities for the week (top left).

When you know your priorities, you can ensure that you’re investing your time wisely, working on things that are important to you and not merely going through the motions.

Tip 3: Be flexible

You should be the master of your schedule, not a slave to it. You list out the tasks and use the plan to keep yourself accountable, but should you feel inspired to blow off what you had planned for a Thursday evening and go spend some quality time with friends instead, then do it. Do it, and don’t feel guilty about it. A deviation here and there isn’t going to kill you. Just make sure that over the course of the week, you’re devoting a significant amount of time to your priorities.

I try to account for such urges when I create my plan. I list tasks in a rough chronological order, but I allow myself to do them in whatever order I wish. Sometimes I’ll do a task a day early or two days late, just because I felt more comfortable doing it then. For example, in the sample plan above, I ended up hanging on a friend’s porch and drinking a few beers on Saturday evening instead of going to Borders, and I went for a bike ride in the morning instead of running in the park.

I also try to leave chunks of time free for me to just go with the flow. Often I’ll have a task in there that simply says “Do something fun.” I believe it’s important to allow yourself such spontaneity and flexibility. When I was in Italy for two weeks in June, I didn’t have any plan and I had a blast.

Again, be the master of your schedule, not a slave to it. The plan should serve you, not the other way around.

Tip 4: Experiment

This is more of an art than a science. You don’t need to list everything. I prepare almost all my own meals, but you don’t see “cook dinner” or “eat breakfast” in my plan. I just don’t feel the need to list those things, unless I want to make enough time to try a new recipe for dinner or I want to go have breakfast across town with a friend.

As such, I encourage you to play around with your own plan, come up with tasks that make sense to you. You might be more comfortable and find you’re more effective when you give yourself just three primary tasks per day. Great! If that works for you, run with it.

Tip 5: Set the bar high

I used to have “Work at Loyola” in my plan, but I changed it a few weeks ago to “Work hard at Loyola.” It was easy to just go to work. I could do that even if I was feeling lazy or hungover. I’d sit there and push a few buttons, make myself look busy and get nothing significant done. But hey, I was at my desk, so I could turn that box green at the end of the day and feel like I’d accomplished something.

But when I have to “Work hard at Loyola,” that green box isn’t so easy to earn. I have to ask myself every evening, “did I really give them my best today?” If I can answer with an honest Yes, then I go ahead and turn that box green.

So challenge yourself when you make your plan. Don’t just list out a bunch of meaningless tasks and go through the motions to turn them green. Make yourself work for them. If at the end of the week you look back and you have no white boxes left behind, you’re not setting the bar high enough.

Tip 6: Don’t edit on the fly

Once the week starts, don’t allow yourself to change the plan. You can deviate from it, but don’t change what you wrote on the spreadsheet. Two reasons for this:

  1. If you let yourself edit tasks whenever, you’ll be tempted to list what you really did instead of what you were supposed to do and thus satisfy your ego with more green boxes.
  2. If you’re adding and subtracting tasks on the fly, there’s a good chance you’re focusing on the urgent rather than the important. Sometimes urgent stuff is important, but not always. Most of the time, it just distracts you from the important stuff.

That’s it.

Give weekly planning a try and see how it works for you. Start small with just two or three important tasks per day and build from there. Before you know it, you’ll be reaching unprecedented levels of effectiveness.

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