Editor’s note: Leading up to next week’s release of Early to Rise Editor Craig Ballantyne’s new book, The Perfect Day Formula, we’ll be sharing with you insights from some of ETR’s most influential and successful achievers in the coming days. All of these essays echo the wisdom of the advice and guidance Craig shares in this powerful new book.
Today’s message from Cal Newport explains how planning your week can change your life. Next week, you’ll be able to get a copy of The Perfect Day Formula where you can find out exactly how to structure your mornings and change your life to put yourself on the path to more Perfect Days in 2016.
I wrote a post on my blog about my habit of planning out my whole week in advance. I provided some example plans from my own life, but many were interested in how this technique applies to other types of work.
Fortunately, I recently received the following note from a lawyer whom I’ll call John:
I tried writing out my week last week for the first time using [a method from your blog post]. When I reviewed my week on Friday afternoon, I was surprised at how much more I accomplished compared to my usual method of scheduling time to complete tasks in Outlook. Thanks for sharing this method.
Naturally, I asked John if he’d allow me to share his plan with you. He agreed. Here it is (properly anonymized, of course):
Work on [contract draft under urgent deadline] for 120 minutes before doing anything. Ship by 11 a.m. Then, do weekly planning and finish before lunch.
After lunch, talk to [founder of startup I advise], meditate, then draft [company name] distribution agreements for a 120 minute block. Ship both by 4 p.m.
Take a short break, then edit [writing project] posts for tomorrow and Wednesday by 6pm. Finish with 30 minutes of small tasks and follow ups.
Leave by 6:30 p.m.
In the morning, work on [big-picture strategic project] for morning block. By 11:30 a.m., take a short break to make a few calls (landscaper, etc).
After lunch, meditate, talk to [potential collaborator], then work on open agreements for a 120 minute block. Ship both by 3:30 p.m.
Take a short break, then spend 90 minutes clearing any sales-side projects. When clear, work on follow ups and batched tasks, and confirm meetings for tomorrow.
Leave by 6:30 p.m.
Take the 8am train into the city. On the train, work on batched tasks and copy review. Meet with [mentor] at 9:30 a.m., then head to Dumbo for lunch. Be sure to have small tasks to complete on the subway.
After lunch, meeting with [business colleague] downtown. In between meetings and heading back to Penn to come home, work on sales agency issues for marketing team.
Meet with [global head of the business I work with] at 9am. After meeting, do immediate follow up items, then write [writing project] before lunch.
After lunch, meditate, then work on [one big picture project] for 120 minutes. Complete by 4 p.m.
Take a quick break, then do calls for [sales issue]. Finish by 6:30 p.m.
Clear low hanging fruit [Note: this is how I refer to the short marketing review and non-urgent “quick questions” in-house lawyers get constantly — I try to batch these to Friday mornings]. Inbox should be empty by the end of this block.
Write [writing project] for Monday. Send to [writing partner] before lunch.
Have lunch, meditate, then take 120 minutes on the most important thing left to do this week. Clear emails.
Leave by 5 p.m.
Dissecting John’s Plan
In analyzing why the weekly plan method worked well for his busy schedule, John mentioned the following:
By writing out the narrative of the week as a whole, I can consider everything that I want to accomplish, how much time I actually have and where I will be at various points in the week… Most importantly, I have to think about what I can realistically get done in every chunk of time through the week — it becomes clear immediately whether my expectations are realistic and forces me to say no to things that I might otherwise think I can squeeze in somewhere.
This is a beautiful summary of what makes weekly planning so effective. Contrary to what philosophies like Getting Things Done preach, knowledge work does not reduce to the mindless cranking of widgets (a state in which it’s enough to simply keep asking, “what task comes next?”).
By instead crafting a narrative for the full week you’re much more likely to keep your attention focused on what matters and get the right work done with time to spare.
John is a productive big city lawyer who manages to tackle a major writing project on the side (cryptically referenced in the above plan) while still ending work by 6:30 p.m. or earlier. If weekly planning enables this for John, imagine what it might enable for you.