As someone with a personal passion to help others execute on their professional goals, I do more than assist in the definition of their objectives and encourage them on their path. To be effective, we all need to develop the right productivity habits to stay on track and reach our goals.
I explained the framework I have developed over time in my previous article, “How to Achieve Your Most Important Career Goals in a Fraction of the Usual Time.” As part of that, I recommend a regular weekly planning routine. Well, this article gives you all the details you need to create the same method that I use myself and help others build for themselves, step-by-step.
Having a bullet-proof weekly planning method can make all the difference, and will save you several hours of procrastination and indecision through the week. If you had to focus on just one execution tactic, intentional planning for the week ahead is probably the one providing with the most significant impact.
This system keeps me productive and consistent, and has helped others achieve their professional goals with less effort and in less time than it would typically take.
Let’s dive in!
1. Plan Your Week Ahead on Sundays
On Sunday, you should spend some time with your calendar and decide when you will do in-depth work on your most important goals. Focusing on a weekly timeline provides the best results: long enough to give you perspective and sense of progress, but short enough to keep you present and in “action mode”.
By scheduling time in advance to execute on meaningful projects each week, you will also notice a positive side-effect: after fitting in everything that is required to push your goals forward in a simple weekly calendar template, you will realise that you still have plenty of time available for other things.
This simple exercise is empowering. It has allowed me to fit more than I thought possible into a single week, and still remain calm, with a sense of order; in control, and ready to comply with my own plan.
I insist on this when helping others implement an execution system, and it always brings a dramatic increase in self-belief and productivity.
In short: set aside some time on Sunday afternoon to accomplish the detailed steps that follow.
2. Understand Your Tasks And Your Workflow
Real life forces us to juggle our plans with meetings, calls, office politics, personal errands, admin work, and the like. Prioritizing includes deciding how to tackle the non-priority work.
The below matrix, a combination of the Eisenhower Matrix and the Covey Urgent vs Important Matrix, can be helpful in that context.
As you create your calendar below, you’ll think about how to schedule these four types of activities:
- Are you providing yourself with enough “Focus Work” (high effort, high impact) opportunities through the week? You need long blocks of time that allow you to deep dive into complex or high-focus tasks. This means no email, no calls, no interruptions in your office. Just deep work, as defined by author Cal Newport.
- Are you maximizing your ability to deliver “Easy Wins” (low effort, high impact) through the week by using your time smartly? For instance, drafting a business proposal or calling a prospect are critical for business (high-impact), even though they may take little time or effort in relative terms. But we sometimes keep postponing them because we fail to kick off a sense of flow. A solution may be to batch all of this work into back-to-back 3–hour slots once or twice per week. If your brain is already in flow with a particular type of task, it will become easier to jump from that task to a similar one if you keep them all together, minimizing disruption.
- Are you efficient dealing with “Gap Fillers” (low effort, low impact) through the day? You can batch email or admin stuff in breaks between meetings, or when you have 15–30' free slots in which you won’t be able to tackle more meaningful work, or as you commute. I find it useful to tag these with a ‘@15min’ label in my to-do app (Todoist), so whenever I have gaps through the day, I know what I can tackle next.
- Lastly, the “Productivity Killers” (low impact, high effort). These tasks drain your energy and result in minimal impact per minute spent. They often show up as urgent requests from others. Can you delegate to someone better suited to do those, or who may enjoy doing them more? Can you automate with apps? Or maybe outsource them? How much time are you taking away from the things that truly matter to your business by spending time on these? If you think in terms of your hourly cost, paying someone to do them may be a far cheaper solution.
We’ll get to actually putting these blocks on the calendar in step 4 below. For now, you might want to draw out a quick box chart like the one above, classify your to-do’s coming up this week, and put them in each quadrant accordingly.
3. Protect Time For Things That Will Push You Forward Towards Your Goals
To cut through the fog and stay focused on what needs to happen before the end of the week, no matter what, I have been experimenting with a “Weekly-5” and “Daily-3” approach in recent years (W5 & D3).
It is dead simple, and it helps me focus on what matters so that I can maximize my output every week. The idea is to work as much as possible in the green quadrants of the energy vs effort matrix, as described above.
Weekly “W5” to-do’s: the 5 things I need to deliver by the end of the week — no matter what.
I also call them the Big-5's.
No excuses, they need to get done before I leave for the weekend. These tasks normally belong to the “Focus Work” quadrant, and having them already booked in my calendar means I can no longer escape. They become another calendar appointment I need to respect.
Daily “D3” to-do’s: every evening, I list 3 things I need to deliver by the end of the following day.
Also known as Tiny-3's.
A D3 task may be something I need to do to progress on a W5 commitment during the week. The idea is to combine an excellent weekly view of what matters with a daily commitment to get at least 3 relevant tasks done. D3 tasks may belong to the “Easy Wins” quadrant: tasks that don’t take that much energy or time to complete, but that have a tangible impact on my progress.
- On Sunday evening, decide on your W5’s for the upcoming week, and also on your Monday’s D3's.
- Not sure how to prioritize? Too many “important” and “urgent” things to do? Try this: ask yourself “How am I aligning my time, energy and focus with the “High-Impact Activities” that will push my goals forward?” Once you reflect on this, it may become a little easier to select the key 5 things that will drive you closer to your goals this coming week.
4. Use Your Calendar as Your Main Productivity Tool
- Once you have classified your tasks and workflow and you are clear about your W5 and D3, pick up a blank calendar template for next week. It can be Outlook, iCal, or a paper journal. Any will work.
- Block a minimum 90-minute slot for each of the W5 in your calendar through the week. In this article, we focus on your professional goals, but your W5 may include High-Impact Activities related to other areas of responsibility — not only work stuff.
- Every evening, plan your following day and book a minimum 30-minute slot for each of your D3 tasks. You can do Monday’s D3’s during your Sunday review process.
- Then, block slots for any calls, meetings, and secondary commitments that also need to happen next week. Don’t forget to protect time to eat, doctor’s appointments, or to take care of errands or personal stuff.
- Notice “dead” or resting time slots between larger commitments (or even while you commute) and plan to use these to deal with “Gap Fillers”: review documents, reply to an email, draft a quick memo, catch up with a colleague, etc. You may even consider targeted procrastination during these slots by allowing your mind to disconnect with low-effort tasks that may bring collateral value over time: marketing your content or your professional work at your firm, reading valuable articles, interacting with your clients/network in LinkedIn, etc.
- Keep a flexible approach: if something comes up and you need to overwrite a previously “protected” slot, do it. It’s fine, as long as you don’t delete the block without booking an alternative slot at a different time of the week. Why? Because your commitment towards your priorities needs to be firm through the week — otherwise, you should question if they were “priorities” in the first place.
- Should you “run out of slots”, you will need to start saying “no”. It is easier to overcommit than it is to say “no” to people who ask for time in your calendar. And if you agree to everyone’s requests for time, then your time is no longer yours, but theirs. I always protect “focus blocks” in the calendar through the week in advance, even without a clear agenda for each slot. It helps minimize disruptions as people will only be able to book you when it works for you.
- If you seem to be stuck in an unproductive state, journal your way out of it. Jotting about the tasks you’re completing on a daily basis helps you identify the underlying forces that operate against your initial commitment. It can also reveal how much it takes to complete some tasks — it is common to underestimate how quickly we can get things done. If you veer off your schedule or can’t seem to stick with it, you need to get a handle on this: log how you invest your time through the day, in easy 60-minute increments. Review the log at the end of the week. You may be surprised by the results. [Editor’s note: Interstitial Journaling can be an excellent habit to support your time-blocked work in precisely this way.]
5. Reward Yourself, Gamify The Process to Solidify Habits, And Take Time Off Deliberately to Avoid Burnout
You can be pursuing the most meaningful goals and still despise some of the tasks involved in making those goals happen. That won’t change. Planning and systems are never a substitute for hard work and sacrifices, no matter how smart those systems are. Sometimes it can get stressful and even plain dull.
But we can put our psychological biases — like our preference for immediate rewards over longer-term commitments — to work for us, creating strategies that will keep motivational momentum high when you don’t want to do “what you need”, and you would rather do “what you want”.
You may be familiar with loyalty cards and “frequent flyer” schemes. Well, why not create a “frequent doer” points plan for yourself? Think of ways to reward yourself on a daily and weekly basis if you hit your Weekly-5 and Daily-3 targets.
I know someone that allows himself to watch 1 hour of guilt-free Netflix once all is done for the day; someone else I know implemented a “Friday afternoon off” rule when reaching the weekly targets by lunchtime on Friday. A while ago, a student of my career coaching program at IE Business School decided that she would put 20 euros in a piggy bank for every week she would comply with her “inbox zero” target. Last I heard, her shoe collection was growing fast!
Having a tangible reward is a powerful source of motivational momentum, and anything works when it comes to keeping us on our toes. I would encourage you to find ways to link pleasure and duty within a manageable and motivating timeframe (weekly would be my choice).
Have fun tracking your progress
Many apps track recurring activities or habits. They work because they keep ourselves accountable as we start transforming a behavior, providing us with a scorecard that demonstrates progress and builds momentum.
According to some studies observing heart patients that were asked to make drastic lifestyle changes, the participation of some patients in support groups resulted in an ca. 8-times increase in long-term adherence to healthier habits vis a vis those patients that we not held accountable by a peer group.
Some apps can do the trick, and Coach.me [Editor’s note: Coach.me is the publisher of Better Humans] is a great example. It will allow you to make your goals public to a supportive community (creating an external commitment), check in when you comply with the desired behavior (creating a reward), and interact with thousands of like-minded individuals who will support you along the way. You can even hire a coach to help you get clarity about your goals, learn proven techniques, and stay honest on your intentions with daily check-ins.
I use the app every day to tick off my productive habits: waking up early, meditating, writing on my journal, or getting to “inbox zero” by the end of the day. The fact that you have those items to cross off your list can have a powerful effect on your determination to achieve your daily goals. And as you know by now, achieving simple daily goals is a reliable way to move towards our more ambitious longer-term aspirations.
Take deliberate downtime
We are not machines, and overworking will lead to inefficiency. In professional sports, resting is not only as important as training: it is part of the training program.
This applies to any other aspect in life, for a good reason: in 2012, journalist Sara Robinson went through 150 years of research on the topic to find out that once you go over the 60-hour-per-week mark, tasks that took an hour to complete start taking double the time to do.
A good way to implement this? I made a rule of blocking time in my calendar for downtime as well, and I respect these slots as I do with any of the others.
Focus on Achieving Your Daily And Weekly Targets, And Don’t Stress About Your Bigger Goals
The best habits are those that you can keep; success is not completing one perfect round but coming back to the practice every week.
If you keep up with these small practices, you will focus less on worrying about your longer-term aspiration (which can trigger “paralysis” when tackling big goals) and more on getting your immediate tasks done. And by doing that, you can trust that your daily and weekly routines will take you to your goals over time.
Don’t spend too much time thinking about the process. The fact is, we cannot be creative or productive when we regularly question ourselves and try to define the perfect workflow.
This article is my approach, after years of self-experimenting and helping others along the way. I encourage you to try the different alternatives and fine-tune your weekly process. Reject perfection upfront, focus on what brings progress to you, and stick to a system that works!