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Deep Habits: How a Big City Lawyer Uses Weekly Planning to Accomplish More in 45 Hours Than Most Could Accomplish in 100

August 19th, 2014 · 39 comments

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A Weekly Plan Case Study

Last week I wrote a post about my habit of planning out my whole week in advance. I provided some example plans from my own life, but many of you 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):

Monday

Work on [contract draft under urgent deadline] for 120 minutes before doing anything. Ship by 11am. 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 4pm.

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.

Tuesday

In the morning, work on [big-picture strategic project] for morning block. By 11:30am, 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 3:30pm.

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.

Wednesday

Take the 8am train into the city. On the train, work on batched tasks and copy review. Meet with [mentor] at 9:30, 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.

Thursday

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 4pm.

Take a quick break, then do calls for [sales issue]. Finish by 6:30.

Friday

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 5pm.

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 pm or earlier. If weekly planning enables this for John, imagine what it might enable for you.

39 thoughts on “Deep Habits: How a Big City Lawyer Uses Weekly Planning to Accomplish More in 45 Hours Than Most Could Accomplish in 100

  1. John O'Donnel says:

    Bullshit.

    1. Jack Hamm says:

      Very well-reasoned response. I see you’ve captured all the subtleties of time management. You must be a Ph.D. at some Ivy League school. Bravo, John, bravo.

      1. John O'Donnel says:

        Ph.D to plan my week? Funny and still bullshit, nonetheless. Time management is a recursive loop of nonsense. What you call subtleties I call freshness. Besides, time management practices doesn’t allow spontaneity neither promotes creative environments. Habits become an assembly line and people go crazy behaving like robots. It doesn’t surprises me that people who actually do useful work and later are recognized as genius don’t talk about time management.

        Reading through the feedback here, I remembered of this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPrRxhYJMkQ

        Modern day charlatanism really evolved.

      2. John O'Donnel says:

        Ph.D to plan my week? Funny and still bullshit, nonetheless. Time management is a recursive loop of nonsense. What you call subtleties I call freshness. Besides, time management practices doesn’t allow spontaneity neither promotes creative environments. Habits become an assembly line and people go crazy behaving like robots. It doesn’t surprises me that people who actually do useful work and later are recognized as genius don’t talk about time management. Somehow, I do understand the frustration of people. They want to do something worthy recognition based on its merits. However, they are more concerned with the illusive idea of controlling time, whatever it means, instead to focus in improve their skills and do the fucking main tasks.

        Reading through the feedback here, I remembered of this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPrRxhYJMkQ

        Modern day charlatanism really evolved.

        1. Todd Hendrix says:

          Actually, a perusal of the biographies of many of the greatest people of history – statesmen, artists, businessmen, generals, and others – shows that many if not most of them were very rigorous in the structuring of their time and effort on a daily or weekly basis. Having fixed even rigid schedules and an incredibly low tolerance for interruptions, deviations or unscheduled occurrences created an environment that gave them the physical and mental environments that allowed them to unleash their creativity or other mental attributes to the fullest.

        2. David Fields says:

          Actually, creativity is not something that is stifled by routines or habit. It can be stifled by not being able to ask questions and learn, but not by habit. I’m sure the geniuses of the world used time management in their everyday lives and still had time for spontaneity. Recent evidence suggests that creativity is not something that people are born with, but rather it is something that can be learned, trained and that grows with your intelligence. Hence, your initial response, “bullshit.” All of the intelligence you have amassed throughout your life afforded you all the creativity required to manifest that response. Thank you for proving my point in your first comment. Good day.

  2. Stacey says:

    Any suggestions on how to do this type of weekly planning if you work in a role where your work is largely unpredictable or items that are on your to-do list are often shifted back to 2-3 weeks from now because more urgent things take precedence?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Something left out of the above example is that “John” adjusted the schedule once or twice per day. In other words, the key to a weekly plan is not figuring out in advance exactly how your week will unfold (and never deviating), but instead keeping a big picture view of your week, even if shifting, so that you’re not just lurching from one thing to the next.

      1. Michael says:

        Yes, the concept of accounting for rapidly shifting priorities and calendar items is important to consider, and that importance varies between different roles.
        I am a Sales Engineer which means the primary value (in the short term) I provide to the company is assisting existing customers and prospective customers understand our software package. In the longer term, learning about tangential technologies, new features, etc. provides value in the sense that it means I can provide even more value to customers in the future and can spread knowledge internally.
        This creates a dichotomy of deep work and reactive customer-focused work which can naturally take over my calendar. And it isn’t the case that I can make a decent guess at that reactive work at the beginning of the week the way you (Cal) can predict the student-facing work you do. On Monday, my Thursday calendar may be wide open, but by Wednesday afternoon it may be full. I can even wake up Thursday morning and bucket for a few hours of deep work and then a customer may reach out with an urgent matter that needs to be solved during those hours. Sometimes I can push the reactive work to a different day or bucket which I’ve specified as ‘customer-facing time’, but there is value in being responsive to customers and sometimes things actually are urgent.
        I’ve been using your ideas of buckets for a few months and it works well. The key is that I just have to know these are guidelines, not strict and that I can periodically take stock and readjust.
        This week I started to implement the idea of weekly planning, but it must be significantly less planned. Instead, I give myself daily themes. EG: I notice Tuesday has a lot of meetings with customers. I’ll devote Tuesday to customer-facing work, handling customer Emails in between meetings and making sure I am done with all of that work by the time I go home so that Wednesday is wide open for ‘deep work’. If I get a few customer Emails during the day on Wednesday I can judge their urgency and push them to tomorrow if possible.
        This is the first week I’ve done this, so time will tell how well it works out for me, but I definitely like the idea of weekly planning. The key for me is understanding that people have varying amounts of reactive work and shifting priorities.

        1. I am a HUGE advocate of weekly planning both for myself and those I coach.

          Here are a few nuances that I found really help make this seem relevant instead of frustrating–when plans change.

          1. Weekly planning is meant to help you narrow your focus and make strategic decisions instead of being completely reactive. If you need to adapt your plan-which you probably will-your weekly plan makes you aware of the trade-offs you’re making. This gives you greater confidence about your decisions and also can help you know when it’s not OK to change plans because you must stay focused on a higher priority, must-do activity.

          2. Daily planning becomes much easier and more efficient once you’ve done your weekly plan because instead of having to consider all the possible projects you could do, you can focus on recalibrating your weekly plan based on the current reality. This is where you consider new appointments, move items to later times, etc.

          3. I’m an advocate of a concept that I call “front-loading” in your weekly planning. What this means is that you taper your expectations as the week progresses. For example, you may plan close to a full day of projects for Monday, less for Tuesday, less for Wednesday and so on. That way you naturally leave margin for overflow from one day to the next. For many people, it makes sense to not plan any specific activities for Friday so that this day can catch all of the overflow and wrap up instead of you having to work over the weekend.

          To your brilliance!
          Elizabeth Grace Saunders

          1. Daniel Dickson says:

            Thank you for that note about front loading – I think that will be great for my work – I’m a CPA and little client projects pop up all the time. So your suggestion about front-loading might be a great way of addressing that.

        2. Cindy Lauman says:

          This has been a key for me as well. Once I became a parent and began to work from home more often, predictability went out the window. I’ve had to accept my weekly plan is more of a “wish list” of what I hope to accomplish if all goes smoothly. As I am also preparing to teach college courses in the Fall, I remember reading Cal’s summer weekly/daily plan (I think it was in a post a few weeks ago) with complete envy. It sounded so peaceful and clutter-free! But my life as a working mom is often chaotic and always changing. I try to be as realistic as possible when planning while recognizing on a daily basis I need to keep my plan flexible.

          1. Mike says:

            @Cindy, what are you taking away from the post? I too carry most of the parenting responsibilities and have taught college classes. My thoughts on it were to weight the days so that some days included deep work for up to 2 hours, some only 30 minutes. That way the deep work stuff was still a daily activity.
            Any thoughts?

  3. JD Moyer says:

    Great to have another example. You’ve convinced me to give this system a go. Love your blog — keep up the great work!

  4. Oliver says:

    I don’t really see how that contradicts GTD? I read “batch tasks” a few times in this plan … an area where GTD and having lists of batch-able things really shine.

    I use both philosophies and they work well together. I see GTD as a thing to help me spend more time on my deep thinking blocks and the work that matters.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      This is an important point. Many people, myself and you included, use the capture and review element of GTD to manage tasks. But the original David Allen book proposes this as the foundation of an entire system for your workflow. In the full GTD philosophy, everything boils down to action items. In the moment, you simply say, “what context am I in?” and then “what action item from the list associated with this context makes sense?” The philosophy says that if you were careful in reviewing your life at all the right levels this will lead you to accomplishing what needs to get done. Where I push back is that I disagree with the idea that it all reduces to action items in the end. A lot of important work is too ambiguous to be reduced to action items. More importantly, to make execution decisions moment by moment misses out on the all the advantages of longer term planning that are gained by methods like weekly plans.

      1. Oliver says:

        Thanks for clarifying and I agree with most of what you’re saying. It’s easy to take the whole thing way too literally. Though, the next action lists aren’t the only tool in GTD. I agree that they’re not the best place for deep work. But you also have the calendar, which can look very similar to the weekly plans you propose. In the end, all you’re doing is scheduling appointments with yourself for deep work.

  5. Beth says:

    Great article! I am going to try it out.

  6. I’m going to try this, too. Sounds really interesting.

  7. Denise says:

    This was an excellent case study. While this may not work for everyone, I do think everyone can pull something from it to increase their productivity.

  8. JoAnne says:

    This case study illustrates the concept well. However, again I feel you are not getting the point of GTD. I don’t know where knowledge work as “mindless cranking of widgets” comes from. As an experienced GTD practitioner, I find it is very complementary to Study Hacks techniques and habits. For instance, you and the lawyer can’t do your weekly plans unless you know what all your commitments are (because you have been capturing everything), you know what’s coming up, and you are reviewing it on a regular basis (which is what you are doing during your weekly planning). In fact, your weekly plan looks pretty much like the weekly review, which is so important to GTD, except you have gone further and determined ahead of time how you will use the hours in your week.

    I like the idea of the structure. When we are faced with so many important things we could possibly be doing at any moment, which is stressful in itself, I think it would be liberating to just look at the piece of paper to see what your past self planned for you to be working on right now.

  9. Sherif says:

    I think the type of “deep thinking” that Cal is criticizing with GTD is really emphasized in this article by Paul Graham: http://www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html .

    While Graham is talking about it from the context of Programmers, this really applies to many people in fields like research, mathematics, engineering, etc… where (generally speaking) the less interruptions that occur in a chunk of time during which you’re doing your work, the better your output will be.

    1. A.I. says:

      Sherif,

      thank you for this link, it explains the problem really well. It seems that some people on that manager’s schedule mindset just don’t seem to understand the significance of long, uninterrupted timeblocks to do something hard.

  10. Vic says:

    Hi, a great post and a fascinating ensuing debate! A point that’s been missed i think is what the lawyer does well is his focus on 120 minute slots (of pure focus I’d guess).

    Through this focus, more is accomplished and no doubt a feel-good factor at the end of each slot (for getting something meaningful done) that has a knock-on effect for the rest of the day. Just my 2-penneth worth. Keep up the good work

  11. Marcelo says:

    I just found out your blog and came across this post. Very interesting!
    I already do something like that, but on a daily basis, and it already shows me some nice results. I think I’ll try your weekly version, it seems even more promising!

  12. Cindy Lauman says:

    I am usually in complete agreement with the majority of your posts, but you must have realized that taking a swing at GTD would cause followers to sputter and leap to the system’s defense. : ) Like Joanne above, I do not feel you’ve grasped the point of GTD- and unfortunately it takes actually using the systematic approach (not a system) for some time before you can fully appreciate how “widget cranking” is only a part of the approach. The “tasks” are not referring to the actual “thinking” required for knowledge work, they are more like having a bookmark set where you can can then move forward with your work. They clear the way so you can get the mechanics out of the way and move on into uninterrupted focus time. An example- I am an adjunct instructor for two colleges (no office on either campus) and must do most of my research and lesson planning at home. I also have a young child and when she is home I do not have a prayer of uninterrupted focus time. I must plan this out so she is cared for so I can either leave for a coffee shop or work in my home office. My “widget” is to call/confirm the child care and then- during the time I’ve blocked out- I can focus on the knowledge work. GTD is the framework that prevents 900 “mom I need, mom I want, mom the cat just threw up on my doll” etc. etc.. It is NOT meant to be a full listing of tasks within the “doing” stage. It removes the “widgets” (not my daughter! Mom time is a majority of my week of course) that need cranked in your day from intruding into your thoughts or focus. You plan the luxury and context/environment for successful uninterrupted thinking and doing time.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I understand this how people talk about GTD now. But I don’t think this the way the original system, as captured in the canonical book, treats it. I re-read the book recently (when writing my more detailed critique on GTD) and to me it seemed clear that Allen really was proposing that *everything* came down to next actions that you crank through.

      In the original book, for example, he does not allow for the notion of an action item that is a bookmark for a larger, more ambiguous mental activity. He is instead quite clear that an action item is clearly defined physical action that can be accomplished in a small number of minutes.

      Also in the original book, he is quite clear that projects are a stake in the ground that when reviewed generate next tasks. He doesn’t differentiate between projects well-suited to be decomposed to next actions, and projects which GTD simply clears time for.

      And so on…

      Then again, from what I understand, once we get to Ready for Anything, Allen begins to talk about GTD more like people do today (clear your mind so you can other stuff). So I don’t doubt that this is the current interpretation for many.

      1. Cindy Lauman says:

        Totally agree. This is one reason why I tried unsuccessfully to implement GTD for several years and nearly gave up. It was only when I began listening to the many podcasts and webinars (produced by the David Allen company) that I finally began to figure out what perspective I was missing. The 2nd and 3rd books were a difficult read and did not help me (put me to sleep actually.) Thank goodness he has a great team of GTD staff members, who together, do a much better job at teaching the nuances that David Allen’s 1st book fails to deliver. I think with the success of his book, he was forced over the years to teach those areas needing more clarification. Many of the webinars (not all) are free on the website or as podcasts. I believe this issue is why he will soon be releasing a completely updated version of the first book. GTD has definitely evolved over the years and (as it sounds like you have done) any comprehensive review should take into account this expanded interpretation.

        1. Study Hacks says:

          I look forward to this expanded and revised edition of the book…

  13. John Wilson says:

    Hey Cal,

    Connecting to your undergraduate years in university, on average how many classes did you take per semester, (if you could give credit hours that would be great as well)?

    I want to know because I don’t want to over schedule myself because right now I plan to take four classes in my school. One of which is discrete mathematics, which you covered in a past blog post.

    However, when I look at the other two classes teacher’s syllabus online: my CS teacher for object oriented programming suspects at least 15 hours of study outside class per week, my English 101 teacher suspects about 10-15 hours of study outside class per week. This then leaves me with Physics II and Discrete math. So suppose discrete takes 10 hours of study time and Physics II takes 10 hours. So at maximum, that’s 50 hours of outside study for four classes which doesn’t include lecture! Which I think is insane!

    Should I just omit one of the classes ,and do part-time instead, or should I just stick with it. Even after under-scheduling, my schedule still seems like it’s stressful with only four classes. (By the way- I’m a freshman)

    1. Sophie says:

      John, try not to stress too much about your professors’ “recommended” study time – I regularly took six classes per semester (25 credit hours AND I worked for money 25h/week to pay for those classes) which I’ll admit was a lot of work, but I maintained an A- average nevertheless. Four courses is a standard load and you should be able to manage this without burning out – go to class, pay attention, and take advantage of tutorials and office hours and you’ll be fine.

      Part of being at university is learning to prioritise what’s important to you: some classes will take you many hours of focused study to master (3rd year organic chemistry, I’m looking at you!!), others will be a breeze (thank you, quantum chemistry 404!). You’ll spend the rest of your life juggling competing priorities (yours, your boss’s, your clients’s, your partner’s, your kids’. . .), so think of this as a chance to practice ways to do it all and thrive. Follow Cal’s excellent advice on study planning and preparing for exams and I doubt you’ll need all the study time your professors think you will.

      And finally, at the risk of sounding unkind, I should point out that once you graduate, you may very well find yourself working more than 50h/week anyway – I spent the first six years of my post-graduation career working 60-75 hours per week (and many of my peers worked longer without Cal’s strategic advice) until I became senior enough to have cheerful little minions (ah, my brave and talented minions, how I love you!) to share the load.

      1. John Wilson says:

        Thank you for your wonderful advice, and for sharing your college experience . I think-like you said- I will stick with stick with these four classes this semester. And like you said, I should treat my college semester as a way to practice my skill on prioritizing.

        Do you mind sharing links to one of Cal’s posts (or to a link besides Cal’s posts) that helped you both organize your schedule and get things done in a efficient manner?

        1. Sophie says:

          Hey John,

          The specific posts you’ll find helpful will be related to where your study skills are right now – and it’s hard for me to know what those look like from our brief acquaintance in the comments section! You could spend a few hours digging through Cal’s blog archive if you want (focus on the categories section to start with, as you’ll find most of the material on studying there), but in all honesty, I recommend you spend a few bucks on his book (how to become a straight-A student – Amazon links at the top of this page).

          I know you’re about to drop more money on textbooks than you’ve ever spent at a bookstore in your life, but trust me, having your own copy of Cal’s reassuring methods to hand will really help during your first few study panics (plus having the book means you don’t have to be online to get a dose of calm advice, which minimises the chances of digital distraction just when you really need to study!). His chapters are short and snappy (perfect for digesting on a coffee break or bus ride) and packed with good advice – just remember that not everything will work for you. . .as with any studying, review the reading, focus on what grabs you, and make the material your own.

          I’d offer you my copy, but the last time I saw it, my kid sister’s ex-boyfriend was lending it to a first year in his residence hall. . .though if you find a dogeared copy under a sofa at UBC’s Haida House, feel free!

  14. SN says:

    Cal, can you please tell me if I’m doing this right? I’m a computer programmer, and I don’t write down any weekly plans because my work schedule is so simple:

    Show up to work at 8-9 am
    Process emails to assess any sudden changes in priorities
    Look at my list of priorities (usually in the form of tickets in a ticket-tracking system)
    Choose the highest priority ticket and begin working on it
    When I finish that ticket, move on to the next highest priority ticket
    Leave around 5-6pm

    If I were to write out a weekly plan, every single day would look exactly the same, so I don’t really see the benefit. I don’t know what I will be working on at a given time–it all depends on when I finish the ticket. When it’s done it’s done.

  15. Akram Ahmad says:

    Great post, thanks! I totally agree with your observation that “…knowledge work does not reduce to the mindless cranking of widgets (a state in which itโ€™s enough to simply keep asking, โ€œwhat task comes next?โ€)”. Nicely articulated.

    I also resonated with Elizabeth’s comment about incorporating “the concept of front-loading in your weekly planning”.

    In the same spirit–especially since reading is such a large part of the knowledge enterprise–I can recommend an essay entitled Reading for the Rushed by Michael Fogus, a noted software developer and author. He begins his essay Reading for the Rushed with the words “People sometimes ask me how Iโ€™m able to read 70+ books every year despite my extra-curricular, professional, and authoring activities…” Check it out if this intrigues you ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thanks again, Cal, for this immensely helpful post!

  16. Yilin says:

    I like your case studies, which help illustrate the different techniques you talk about, so I hope you use more of them in the future ๐Ÿ™‚ I have a question though–how does weekly planning method differ from time blocking? Why not just block out time in your calendar versus writing out this plan? It seems a bit redundant…

  17. Luke Boobyer says:

    Nice idea if your job allows for this sort of rigidity. I might loosely try this out next week but my day consists of a lot of new tasks arising and urgent client demands that need attending to so it will be difficult to plan too much using this method.

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