A Planning Habit
On Monday mornings I plan the upcoming work week. I capture this plan in an e-mail and send it to myself so that I will be sure to see it and have access to it daily. (See the snapshot above of some recent plans in my inbox.)
This planning can take a long time; almost always longer than an hour. But the return on investment is phenomenal. To visualize your whole week at once allows you to spread out, batch, and prioritize work in a manner that significantly increases what you accomplish and goes a long way toward eliminating work pile-ups and late nights (the latter being crucial if you practice fixed-schedule productivity).
There is no best format for creating a weekly plan. In fact, I’ve found it’s crucial to embrace flexibility. The style or format of your plan should match the challenges of the specific week ahead. (Indeed, attempting to force some format to your plan can reduce the probability you maintain the habit.)
To illustrate this point, I will show you two recent weekly plans I used (with the content scrubbed where needed for privacy reasons).
Weekly Plan #1
After weekly planning do a focused task block to get out ahead of the small things on my lists for the week. Be sure in this block to finish <specific 20-minute task that is time sensititve>
Prepare a lecture for <my fall class>
End the work day with a 1 – 2 hour writing block.
Today is a research day: head in the office right away to dig into <research project>.
End day with 1.5 hours in <a favorite secluded spot on campus>, where the first hour is writing and the last thirty minutes is a batched attack on tasks.
I have a training seminar to attend in the morning and a meeting with my student in the later afternoon. Between these two events focus on prepping another lecture.
Depending on the length of my afternoon meeting, I may be able fit in a task block before coming home.
First thing in the morning do budget and take care of <related annoying financial task>. The goal is to finish before <doctor’s appointment near where I live>
After the doctor’s appointment find a quiet place to work deeply on <research project>.
End day somewhat early for <yard work project>
Write. Deep work on research until mental burn out. Shutdown for weekend. Finish <yard work project>
The above weekly plan represents the most common format I use: sketching my goals for each day of the week. Notice, I’m not simply listing things I want to get done each day, but instead am trying to match work to the time that actually seems available on those days. A big part of the weekly planning process is working backwards from your calendar to fill in the open time effectively. Fortunately, because this plan is for a summer week, I had lots of open time to work with.
Now consider another plan that I used a few weeks after the above example…
Weekly Plan #2
Carve out three hours of deep work every day for the below research tasks. This is the core of each day’s schedule.
This week is do or die for getting to a final result for <a research project with an upcoming deadline.>
During downtime on this project (while waiting for responses from co-authors), see if I can push through <the final details of a different proof I’m working on.>
Dedicate one day’s deep work for finishing <a journal paper review>
Each day, outside of the deep work hours assigned above, make progress on the below non-deep tasks.
Once my new textbook arrives, I need to decide on my syllabus for <class I’m teaching this fall> and post online.
The following small tasks are time sensitive this week: (1) pick up new parking pass; (2) send back visa letter for <a researcher I know>; (3) respond to <a colleague’s> recent questions.
Use the morning block <[note: I sometimes work for an hour at home in the morning to allow traffic to die down]> and commute to plan and gather the sources I need to start writing next week.
Over weekend, write a blog post where I <reminder of post topic>
This plan adopts a different format. Because this was a summer week with no major appointments, meetings, or other scheduled obligations to break up my days (so rare, yet so wonderful), I could base my schedule around some simple heuristics: three hours a day on deep work for research, and a list of small things to schedule each day into the time that remains.
I would never get away with this approach during the height of the school year, but for a lazy week in July, it worked perfectly.
The bigger message here, however, is that I always decide in advance what I am going to do with my week. These decisions look different at different times of year, but what matters is that when it comes to my schedule, I’m in charge.
72 thoughts on “Deep Habits: Plan Your Week in Advance”
Thanks. I’ve had trouble finding the right level of detail to use in weekly and daily planning, but this looks like what I need.
Thanks for this article, Cal. I am starting medical school this week and this article is just what I needed. As opposed to undergrad where time was more abundant, med school is going to require some very strict planning!
Thanks for letting us know how long planning takes as well. I tend to drop the planning phase because I fear that it takes too long, but knowing that you’ve tested it and have seen results is reassuring. I’ll have to give it a spin.
Planning your future weeks is something I learned from this blog; and I think it worked quite well in several ways. But I use my planning tool not just as a reminder for the tasks and to organize my time but to assess my performance and gain motivation to do better. So its like a picture of my ‘struggle’ for that week. Sometimes I go back and say ‘I really didn’t do well that week. I should make sure it won’t repeat.’
And here is what I am considering these days. In ever two weeks, I plan to go back to my schedule (or actually emails) from the year before (2013 or even 2012.) I look at what I did an how I did. And fully valuate my past experince. In fact, the value I have seen so far is that, this inspired me many good ideas. It refseshed my memory for thing I couldn’t do and motivation to reattemp them, do better or just don’t repeat. But this is apparently a more past oriented approach.
I am looking ahead to a busy senior year (undergrad). I am definitely going to give this a try.
While I generally appreciate a planned strategy of work to tackle all the various activities involved in fulfilling work/personal obligations, I think you far understate the role of uncertainty and the need for spo taneous cooperation with others, symptomized most apparently in an earlier post about a professor you singled out for his ‘admirable’ dereliction of duties to his work community (merely because they didn’t result in immediate ‘identifiable’ outcomes to his person/career/pocketbook) but also here, where discount the impossible-to-predict stuff that we might expend countless minutes on trying to fit into hour schedule somewhere. Moreover, I think some of these recommendations are only really applicable where one has significant autonomy over one’s work and in specific kinds of research/work environments. As well, I strongly encourage you to take more seriously the implications of readers applying these observations too seriously, to the point of an obsessive (and unhealthy) relationship with one’s schedule that seems to exaggerate the importance of minute-counting over getting-lost-in-activities, which if we’re talking about artists is often the only really sensible course of action. Frankly, even, I’m doubtful that the two are reconcilable if we’re to be so immersed in scheduling itself, which so often precludes us from focusing on the activity at hand. Some planning, I agree, is warranted however, and I think you’ve done a great job highlighting this.
I don’t think scheduling is incompatible with spontaneity and creativity. There are two things that help me with this issue:
(1) If I get on a roll with a deep thought, or wander into a productive conversation, I identify this as a good reason to bust the current schedule. When I next come up for breath, I can then fix the schedule. Usually this requires that I fix both my daily and the weekly schedule to compensate. I never mind doing this as spontaneous breakthroughs are part of my makes this job fun. On other hand, there are certain things that I do not usually allow me to bust my schedule, namely, low-value behaviors or other sources of procrastination.
(2) Schedule time regularly for deep work of the type that might generate creativity or spontaneous breakthroughs. I’ll often, for example, dedicate who days with nothing to do but think about a research direction or problem. This upcoming week, for example, where I have another professor from the area visiting. The whole plan for the day is just think, discuss, and see where things take us.
What I found is that if I *don’t* schedule at all, then I have much less spontaneous breakthroughs than if I am regularly scheduling time to work deeply and enable such breakthroughs. In addition, I also tend to fall behind on things, which leaves me stressed.
It can seem paradoxical at first, but if you want to improve the depth and creativity of what you produce, you need to increase the (tentative) structure you place on your time.
i am definitely the type “a” always want to be organized etc person. As a Jewish Clergy person (I am a cantor) my days and hours vary widely, and I definitely work in a number of different area- teaching, studying (my own), working on music, planning programs etc. Both of your examples detail a week from your summertime schedule. I would love to see an example of what a sketch/plan for a super busy week looks like for you!
Generally, I think these recommendations are too particular, not inclusive enough of the spontaneous and unpredictable and uncertain and encourage unhealthy, obsessive planning habits that prioritize ‘productive’ manipulation over healthful and meaningful absorption.
I am trying to figure out how this applies to me. I simply have a queue of work that I go through in priority order each day. Sometimes I have a deadline but not often so I track it in my head. I have appointments occasionally which go on my calendar and any time not spent in an appoinment goes towards my work queue. Is there a way I can benefit from more planning? Because I have trouble seeing it.
Cal, in this post in general, and specifically when you note that I would never get away with this approach during the height of the school year, but for a lazy week in July, it worked perfectly, are you echoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s thinking that I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable? At any rate, I appreciated your post immensely!
As a software developer, I frequently need to grok large amounts of material; since neither inhaling pages of text nor merely eyeballing FAQs online works too well for mastering complex material, I’ve resorted to other strategies, especially those that I’ve gleaned from the pages of your book How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country’s Top Students which, as I noted in a post on my own blog earlier this year, is ostensibly aimed at college students, a lot of it is every bit as relevant to those of us in the workplace; it has amazingly helpful and original strategies for mastering hard, technical material. And that’s all stuff which is highly relevant to what we do daily as computer programmers.
Thanks a ton for sharing your work-week Planning Habit!
I believe that our lives are immersed in a sea of accidental complexity; the Planning Habit, I believe, is an important step toward taming the currents swirling around in that sea of accidental complexity so we can rise above the currents, actually focus on the essential complexity, and thereby make headway and progress toward our goals. I’m referring here to the ongoing tension that I believe exists between these two types of complexities (accidental and essential) and which, coincidentally enough, I recently explored on my blog that you are welcome to look up via my (linked) name above.
In the context of this I was wondering how many hours per week you usually work. Also is it normal for you not to work in weekends?
I’m a maths PhD student, currently working >60 hour weeks but not really making a lot of progress so I’m quite interested in how much other researchers work.
Cal, I would like to see his question addresses as well. I have similar problem.
For some reason your RSS feed for posts is not discovered by Firefox. The only way I found it was by manually trying the likely URL calnewport.com/blog/feed. You might want to fix this somehow to make it easy for people to subscribe.
Great one Cal, and I have to agree with you. A few months ago I started scheduling everything into my week as I was struggling with my many commitments. I have found that my stress levels have plummeted as I have scheduled everything, which includes time to exercise, meditate, eat well and leisure time. I am coming to believe that scheduling proper leisure time is one of the keys to increasing creativity as I have my best ideas when I am walking in the mountains or playing with my daughter! For years I would notice that after a weekend away or some time in nature I would have good ideas, but never took the time to prioritize these activities into my week.
If we could all work this way I think we would be far more productive and suffering from less stress-related health problems!
Great post. Similar to a scheme from Bryan Harris I’ve been using recently with great success: https://blog.videofruit.com/zero-based-calendar-stop-wasting-time-get-done/
This may be a silly question, but why do you have a morning, afternoon and evening edition? Is this the actual time you actually get your weekly plan done, or do you mix it up on purpose? Thanks for the good ideas.
Off-topic, but it’s driving me crazy. Can someone tell me what the “three things I like” are on the right sidebar, and if he has posts elaborating on any of them? (The planning notebook, the definitive academic study of deliberative practice, and the crazy, brilliant and influential book.)
When you say “writing” in the first template, does it refer to writing papers, or to your non academic books?
Great article! That’s exactly what I do also- plan out the whole week with time blocks and at the end of the day adjust the next day if needed.
Quick question: what I find difficult is finding something that I can do in the evenings to relax and unwind. What do you do in the evenings that you enjoy doing to unwind and reset for the next day? In the spirit of study hacks- the more specific the better.
Cal, lick it:
““I would get fired pretty fast from most jobs,” he said, adding that he sleeps well past noon and is “not good at managing time.””
Is this in addition to writing out a daily schedule on the black and red paper?
Also, I see from the inbox that you sometimes have multiple plans for one week, do you update it as you go?
Cal, Have you ever not followed your schedule for the day? Do you find your mind during Deep Work to drift away ?
Thanks for this , an intersting and informative read.
I have 2 questions, one for Cal and on for Alsion..they both link (I think)
I am working full time and wanting to study fulltime (I have other addtional out side activites to maintain as well) I have spoken to peole and many advise against this. They have said ultimately either the work or the grades wil suffer when the going gets tough.
Cal, do you have any experience dealing with stundets who worjd full time and studied fulltime ? Any tips , advice etc in this area ? Do you believe it is doable ?
Alsion, I’d be interested to hear more about what your days use to lok like, what they look like now and how you approached this.
Cal, I think you’ll find this pledge from Mike Rowe (host of Dirty Jobs) aligning with your own mantra: https://thecrux.com/must-see-former-dirty-jobs-host-mike-rowe-has-a-simple-plan-that-could-save-america/. : )
Thank you for this fantastic post. If you wouldn’t mind, could you share one of your weekly plans during the *semester,* especially one where you have significant teaching load? I’m interested in seeing what it’d look like when there are substantial blocks of time occupied by classes, which will be very helpful to me as a student. Thanks again!
Seconded! I’d imagine a week during the school year looks fairly different for you than the two weeks you posted above.
Since research is inherently uncertain, it’s harder to come up with a fixed-time schedule like the above ones than to, say, finish a class project. Many times one may not know how much time is needed to finish a research task. Can you share some hint on planning on uncertain tasks?
This weekly plan approach seems different from the daily scheduling you described in your Straight-A book. As a current undergrad, how would the two systems fit together?
I love it. Narrative planning is much more consistent with our natural way of using language. Traditional task mgmt trends toward using titles for things to do, which can constrain the task, the same horrid way we allow a person’s name to contain a ten-second first impression or a single bad experience.
There’s one thing about this method that I have to customize: I do some code maintenance for a medical software company, usually on ER, ICU, and radiology applications. Priorities change constantly as bugs are discovered, and in at least one case, both of the original code authors have died.
This means I have to plan my week in more abstract terms, as if I had an extensible schedule that can be reordered quickly. I’ve tried your method and it works, I just have to the schedule as if things can slide over each other to a later time or day.
Here’s an example:
Arrive an hour early to be available when tries yesterday’s patch for . Block out at least two hours to deal with questions and adjustments.
Continue work on refactoring when it looks like there’s a two-hour window. I want to try and work in at least six such sessions this week.
Lunch at my desk, reviewing “Clean Coder” again for some more insights on in .
Meet with on upcoming , with the understanding that I’m on call for this morning’s install.
Unless there are major problems with this morning’s install, cut out early to take care of that was postponed from the weekend due to the .
As it turned out, the install had some impossible-to-anticipate side effects, and it was late Friday afternoon before the final, QA version was shipped. Everything else planned for the week got done, including two extra hours on my deep focus refactoring project, and I kept my week down to 45 hours, but I had to slide parts of the task chain over other parts to make it work.
Have you given any thought to productivity like this in situations like mine that involve more triage, like ER medicine, first responders, or other critical care situations?
Very cool process! I do my review on Fridays and I have a repeating task that comes up in my task app (https://gtdnext.com). I then have a check list (also in GTDNext) that I can check off each of my review items.
Have you ever tried using a tool like GTDNext to do your weekly planning? I’m wondering why gmail works better for you than a purpose built tool.
keep up the great blog posts!
Cal, I’m curious to know if — after writing your weekly plan — you then place all of the activities on your calendar. For instance, in Weekly Plan #1 you show “Prepare a lecture for ” on Monday. Would you place this activity on your calendar? If so, would you define specific start/end times for it, or simply show it as an all-day event?
I think writing out a narrative for the week is a very interesting technique. I started doing it after reading this post and it actually makes a lot of sense. It reminds me much of a trick used in sports where you would imagine the outcome of a situation beforehand. For example, when I was playing ice-hockey, one situation I would think about a lot was coming up and scoring the perfect goal or making a perfect tackle of the attacker. So by making a narrative rather than lists, you are imagining more concrete way to the outcomes rather than just listing them.
I know you probably won’t answer but I gotta try… this really bothers me.
I’ve been reading your stuff since about 2010. Back in your student advice days, you recommended a system of just noting stuff during the day, then transferring them to your calender, and if you don’t get around to doing something put it on a date in the future when you think you can realistically accomplish it.
I’m a grad student now and I find that simple to do lists don’t work for me anymore. I use (and love) timeblocking and planning my weeks, it works perfectly. However, for more long-term planning I’m stumped and tending towards using a more GTD like system… how do you do it?
I work on several projects at once and like to note down potential future research directions on a project. This leads to my google tasks lists getting long and confusing and it takes me a while to sort out the a) important and b) urgent stuff for my weekly plan….
Do you think switching to a “Do Today” “Do this week” “Later” etc system, e.g. on Trello,
would be better or just to much organizational clutter?
Sorry to bother you.
Hello Cal –
Future blog post idea for you: I would be very interested to see an example of how you map from the “Weekly Plan” examples here, to the “Daily Time Block Plan” you’ve outlined elsewhere.
A comparison showing: This was what I wrote for a “weekly plan” for Tuesday, and this is what my Tuesday time block looked like would be highly instructional.
Thank you for sharing your wisdom with all of us.
The above question has kind of already been answered by Cal, if you carefully consider it. The weekly plan provides more of a clear, “themed” framework for the upcoming week. The specific actions (and times) that occur on any day within this week are but sub0actions that, together, lead to and agree with the overall theme of the week.
Seriously. Define how you want your week to be and that will dictate the daily actions you take in order to manifest this as a reality. Remember: Simplicity Manifesto.
To paraphrase good ol’ Albie: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but never simpler.”
Hi, great post, I’m currently in my last semester of college ever and truly wish I had found this sooner. As the real world is around the corner the daunting task of finding meaning in my work and being able to handle everything I would like to accomplish seems all but impossible. I just recently began a blog where I step out of my comfort zone and interview someone who is within my sphere of influence, hopefully they will be able to give me some insight into what is to be expected at the next level.
I found a lot of great weekly schedule ideas in recent The Podast episode. You can find it here: https://thepodcast.fm/episodes/36
Nice to read.
Thanks for sharing!
Planning the week ahead is definitely a great way to have a proactive life. However, the key things is how we can validate that plan is good or not?
I also do think that there is no permanent plan for all weeks. We should somehow adjust the plan according to reality.
I think you do not have any blog post on long-term planning and on how you do it. I have searched everywhere but you have only a 4 mins video; however, I feel like that’s is not in depth. Could you please write a blog post about it?
Thank you for your time!