Weekly planning: How it works and how to master it for improved productivity

The clock strikes midnight. You hit send on one final e-mail for the day. Bleary-eyed you set your alarm for 5:00 a.m., already anxious about tomorrow’s deadline.

There must be a better way to plan the work day. Most office-working Americans describe the workday as relentless e-mail triage, bloated meetings, fielding frequent interruptions and a whole heaping pile of multi-tasking. We race to finish a to-do list by the end of the day – only to deflate like a balloon at the sight of tomorrow’s mounting list of tasks. (Jason Fried describes the typical American employee workday in his book, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.)

Everyone has the same 168-hours in the week. How you spend them makes all the difference.

Thanks to the Planning Fallacy, we have a cognitive bias to underestimate the amount of time a project will take, particularly if it’s a new challenge or a task we haven’t done before. (Daniel Kahneman discusses the planning fallacy in Thinking, Fast and Slow.) Most people over estimate what they can achieve in one day.

When you plan one day at a time, your mounting pile of to-dos keeps glaring over at you from the corner. This post is about more than productivity tips for work and for your personal life – it’s a high-performing planning strategy.

How can your streamline your time and plan your days more efficiently? Plan out your whole week in advance.

20-minutes to plan the week ahead focuses hours on execution.

Planning one week at a time gives you the time horizon to schedule multiple projects and reserve time for surprises. That may be one reason that people who plan ahead are characterized with lower levels of the stress. (Read a summary of Robert Epstein’s study on planning ahead and stress reduction in this Time article.)

In short, planning the week ahead…

  • Maximizes unscheduled hours
  • Gives you flexibility to adapt to unplanned projects
  • Reduces decision fatigue
  • Lowers stress levels

Thinking in weekly units is easy. Most of us already have weekly rhythms, like family time on the weekends, a day for worship, or a weekly workout. Weekly planning requires fewer decisions thank daily planning. (Read more about decision fatigue in this New York Times article.)

Scheduling the week in advance also gives you a clear line of sight into your time-management expectations. If you’re over-run with back-to-back meetings, a weekly plan equips you with the foresight to ask your manager, “What meetings would you like me to cancel in order to accommodate this additional request?” (Learn about how high stress impairs our planning functions in this Stanford article.)

Stop the Sunday Scaries with one simplified weekly planning session.

Maybe this goes without saying, but the best way to start a weekly planning process is to schedule it ahead in advance. Schedule a 20-30 minute block on Friday morning, Sunday afternoon or any other time when you like to review your week’s progress.

Leverage your weekly planning time to learn from what went well the previous week.

Reflect on learning’s from the past week. What went well? What would you like to have improved? Look back at your planner or journal to jog your memory and solidify the wonderful things that happened to you throughout the week. What priority projects will make next week a success?

Determine your priorities and schedule them straight into your calendar.

Scheduling your projects one week at a time gives you a clear line of sight into what you can achieve. Even if your schedule changes, you now have a clear map for the week ahead.

Ever picked-up the phone on Friday afternoon at 4:45pm with a last-minute request from your boss? The secret sauce to fitting-in last minute requests is to leave space in your calendar. Proactively schedule time for interruptions, and you’ll be better prepared to greet them with grace and ease. (Nassim Nicholas Taleb illustrates the predictability of surprise events in The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.)

If you want to do something, get it into your calendar.

Remember little miss goldilocks: schedule too much and you’ll face overwhelm, schedule too little and you’ll lack focus. The key to this exercise is to leave plenty of white space.

Life happens. You might seize the sunshine and go for a walk. You may be woken-up by a child vomiting at 3 a.m. You never know what life has in store.