Planning

How to Plan a Productive Week and Schedule

November 29, 2020

I’m Kelly Nolan.
I'm an attorney who'd been decently organized through law school but got quickly overwhelmed as a actual attorney. After nothing else worked for me, I created this system – and kept on practicing law. Years later, I found out others were interested in learning it, so that's what I do now! Let's get this realistic system in your hands so you can start living a life that feels more calm, doable, and that lights you up.
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During my early years of practicing law, I was feeling overwhelmed by work and, candidly, adult life in general. Someone shared that planning out a productive week helped them to feel more prepared and in control. 

And it made sense to me. If I could just organize my week and create a plan to get everything done, I knew I could avoid most last-minute scrambles, have less anxiety around how I’d get everything done on time, and feel more calm and in control.

The problem was that when I sat down to try this supposedly-amazing planning, I didn’t know what to do. I just sat there feeling awkward and defeated by the fact that I felt lost.

Fast forward a decade: after years of trying time management methods that weren’t realistic and didn’t fit my life (a lot of them seemed created by men with a lot more support at home), I created a whole time management method designed by and for the professional working woman. 

And a foundational feature of this method: a weekly planning session with a detailed, personalizable, step-by-step agenda to help plan your week ahead of time – without the awkward confusion about what to do. Only peace of mind and clarity about how you’ll get it all done.

In this article, I’ll quickly go over why planning out your week is so important for creating peace of mind, some main principles to guide you when it comes to how to plan your week, and the tools I recommend for planning your week effectively. I can’t wait to get you feeling confident to organize your week!

Why You Should Plan Your Week

When you feel like you’re spread too thin and tight on time, it’s really hard to motivate to spend an hour or two planning for a productive week when all you want to be doing is the doing of the productive stuff. I still struggle with this sometimes. 

But here’s the simple truth: the weeks I plan run smoother, are more productive weeks, contain less last-minute scrambles, and just generally feel calmer. Whenever I have a week when I don’t plan (e.g., a fun pre-covid trip got in the way), the next week feels scattered with a touch of dashing-from-fire-to-fire. Not my most enjoyable weeks.

So, to motivate us to carve out and protect the time to plan out our weeks, here are some of my favorite reasons for putting in the time to organize our weekly schedules:

  • A weekly planning session gives us an opportunity to look back to make sure nothing fell through the cracks, which gives us incredible peace of mind going forward;
  • A weekly planning session serves as protected time to take a step back to look at our workload and life from a higher-level perspective, check in on each of our projects, and evaluate what we should be spending time on while looking at the bigger picture; 
  • Creating a plan for the week (and beyond) helps us see that we can get it all done over time without having to work this weekend, which allows us to actually enjoy our time with family, friends, and alone;
  • Planning sessions help us spot conflicts ahead of time so we can work to avoid them entirely and while still looking professional (e.g., running late or asking to reschedule a meeting the day of vs. asking to move a meeting by 30 minutes five days earlier);
  • A weekly planning sessions help us look ahead and see where we need more childcare or petcare help, giving us more time to figure out a solution; 
  • Personal planning sessions help us better communicate with our partners (and therefore have better relationships) in terms of dividing up the house/childcare workload in a way that works for the specific week coming up ahead (which helps with setting expectations and avoiding the build-up of resentment);
  • Creating a plan for the week helps you protect time for things that bring you joy so you’re not just left with the dregs of your schedule once everything else has taken what they needed;
  • Because you have a plan laid out, you’re more likely to get the things you need to get done done because you’re not constantly wasting time asking yourself what to do next – you have a plan you just need to execute and can make the most of the little pockets of time that come your way; and
  • Because you have a plan you laid out, you’re better able to evaluate emails coming in screaming “fire!” in the light of your overall workload, helping you be more intentional and effective and less reactive to things other people say are important.

These benefits combine to give me this weird high after each of my planning sessions. I mean, how often do we know nothing’s fallen through the crack and we have a game plan to get everything done? It feels great and helps me truly enjoy each part of my life more.

Okay, so, now that we’re motivated to plan, how to plan your week to be more productive and reap all of those benefits? Let’s dig in.

How to Plan a Productive Week

Below are five principles to help you make the most of your weekly planning session.

Planning Principle No. 1: Stop planning on Sundays – Plan Your Productive Week on Fridays

I often get asked how to prepare for the week on Sunday. Sunday seems to be the traditional time people plan. However, I don’t think you should wait until Sunday to plan. 

I highly encourage your plan your productive week on Friday afternoons for two reasons.

First, you’re likely pretty tired by Friday afternoon and done bringing your intellectual and creative A-game. Spending two hours planning isn’t robbing you of your best work given your best work wasn’t happening during that time anyway. It’s much easier to give up less productive time to planning than your best energy time, so it’s a great use of time.

Second, you remember all of those benefits up there? The peace of mind, confidence and clarity you experience after a great planning session is amazing. I want you to feel all of those things going into your weekend so you can truly enjoy your downtime and time with friends and family. I don’t want the unknowns of your workload stressing you out all weekend, only to realize you’re all good Sunday night… just hours before you go back to work. Let’s enjoy that clarity and calm all weekend.

For that reason, if you can’t make Friday afternoons work, try Thursday afternoons or Friday mornings. These will give you that benefit of going into your weekend feeling on top of it all. If those don’t work, try Saturday mornings so you have the rest of the weekend to enjoy that confidence and clarity.

Planning Principle No. 2: Never Plan from Scratch – Start with a Baseline Week

Planning each week should never start with a blank slate. It requires too much from your brain, feels a little overwhelming, and isn’t realistic in the first place.

Even for those of us whose weeks look totally different from one another (e.g., my week depends on my husband’s work schedule, and he’s an ER doctor, so each week looks totally different), the base building blocks are the same – they just may move around.

For example, each week, I sleep, eat meals, take showers, work out, read, work, take care of my toddler daughter, and handle nap times and bedtimes (and much, much more). 

I’m a huge fan of making these activities visual in your calendar and repeating them daily, weekly, or whenever makes sense. There are many reasons why, but the main ones are: 

  1. These activities rarely make it onto a to-do list and are managed only by our brains, making them essentially an Invisible To-Do List that weighs our brains down,
  2. We typically overlook or underestimate how long these activities take, causing us to create unrealistic game plans that leave us feeling defeated even when we got a ton done that day; and
  3. Critical in terms of planning out our week, once these activities are made visual, we have a baseline week that repeats for every week going forward in our digital calendars. Let’s keep talking about this point.

Once you have the baseline blocks of time in your calendar each week, as you turn to planning out each week, you just drag and drop these little blocks of time around so they make sense for that specific week. It’s incredibly easy.

For example, if I work out three times a week, it’s easy for me to drag those three little pre-existing blocks around to find the right homes for them as my week shakes out. I don’t need to remember to schedule three workout times in the first place. Does that make sense?

Now multiply that clarity and ease across all of your Invisible To-Do List activities, and you start to get a sense of the game-changing magic of this approach.

If this sounds interesting to you but a little confusing or overwhelming, know that I help professional working women set up and use my full time management method, The Bright Method, including making their Invisible To-Do List visible in a non-overwhelming way that lightens our mental load. If you’d like to learn more about my time management program and its results, you can check it out here.

Planning Principle No. 3: Stop Planning Just a Week at a Time – Push Tasks Out Beyond the Week Mark

I encourage my clients to plan the next two weeks each week. That said, I don’t want them stopping there.

Let’s back up for a second. If you gathered all of your to-do’s in one spot, there’s obviously more there than can get done in two weeks, right? (Especially when you consider the Invisible To-Do List activities you just made visible.)

Looking at all of those tasks, you can even pick out which ones you won’t be able to touch or don’t need to touch for three weeks… even three months… in light of everything else you need to do, right?

So, why do we plan our weeks with long to-do lists that inherently put pressure on ourselves to get all of that work done in the next week? It’s not surprising that we feel defeated when we fail at the end of the week.

Instead, let’s get realistic about that and push those things out. If you know you’re not getting to something for, e.g., four weeks, schedule it for four weeks from now and get it off your plate from now until then. If you know you’re not going to do it for weeks, why would you have it stare at you for weeks on end, stressing you out? (And note: because you’ll have planning sessions between now and then, it’s okay if you don’t put the task in the perfect spot right now. You’ll find the right home for it as you get closer in your planning sessions. Magic, right?)

Planning Principle No. 4: To Plan a Productive Week, You Must Tie Your Plan to Time

At the end of this planning session, I do NOT want you to have a crazy long to-do list that overwhelms you more than it helps.

I want you take those tasks and tie them to time. When will you do the thing? How long will it take? Does it work with everything else you have your plate in both your personal and work life? 

This tying-tasks-to-time concept is at the core of my eight-week time management program (including how to do it in a non-overwhelming way). For now, just understand that to-do lists actually CAUSE your overwhelm and you need to tie tasks to time to get the clarity and peace of mind you’ve been craving.

Planning Principle No. 5: Planning Without A Plan in Ineffective – Use an Agenda

When it comes to how to schedule your week effectively, it’s critical to use an agenda to guide your planning session. 

An agenda will make sure you address everything you want to touch base on and also help you know when you’re done. Otherwise, you’ll end up spinning your wheels and wondering about how to plan your week at the expense of actually planning it.

As I mentioned, to avoid the “how do you plan your week” wheel-spinning, I give my clients a detailed, personalizable, step-by-step agenda for how to efficiently and effectively plan their weeks so they can strut into their weekends feeling on top of it all. 

Below, I’m sharing three of the agenda line items (of many) to get your wheels turning if you’d like to build your own:

  • Meeting notes: Get all tasks/deadlines out of this week’s meeting notes (work and personal) and schedule the tasks/deadlines in my calendar. File or toss the notes.
  • Go over all meetings for next two weeks and schedule:

    • Prep and research time;
    • Follow up time (e.g., send follow up emails, handle action items); and
    • [and any other step you have to do]
  • Look at your next month of deadlines [or longer, if required]. Ask: Have I broken down tasks/deadlines into bite-size steps to set myself up for meeting my deadlines (with wiggle room)? If not, do it now. 

    • Note: My six-step process for breaking down deadlines and projects is a whole week of my time management program and is often cited as a favorite part of the program by my clients.

These give you a taste of the level of detail to include in your planning session agenda and get your wheels turning on how you can prepare for a productive week. Feel free to customize them to you! 

And a final tip: I encourage you to have action items that address both your professional and personal life during the planning session. While we often treat them as separate when planning, they both draw on our single bank of time and therefore need to be accounted for together.

Tools to Help Plan Your Productive Week

When it comes to planning your week, simple’s the name of the game. Here are three tools that help you plan your week.

First, I’m a huge fan of a digital calendar for many reasons. It’s the best way to plan your week (and beyond), to organize your week just by adjusting your baseline week by dragging and dropping, build out that game plan of how you’ll get it all done over time, and ditch that stress-inducing to-do list once and for all. Tying your plans to time in a digital calendar is how you effectively plan your week and maximize the chances those plans will come to life.

My favorite: Google Calendar, but Outlook and Apple Calendars are great, too.

Second, as mentioned above, you need an agenda. I’m a huge fan of scheduling the planning session on a weekly basis and including the agenda in the notes section of the calendar entry. Years later, I still use my agenda each week as I work through my planning session.

Third, schedule-send your emails! While I love a Friday planning sessions for the reasons I shared above, they often involve sending a bunch of short emails. But, on Friday afternoon, no one will give any email you send its due, and you’ll just end up following up again next week. To avoid that issue, “schedule send” or “delay send” your email so you can get it off your plate – and onto theirs when they’ll actually read it. 

Bonus: check out my blog post on how to use time-blocking in combination with the planning session – trust me, it’s magical.

Where to go from here?

If you’re a professional working woman who wants to skip straight to the part where you have an up-and-running-and-rocking time management method that’s helping you get more done with more peace of mind, including running an effective planning session each week, you should join my time management program.

In it, I show you step-by-step how to organize your week in a way that fits your career, personal preferences and lifestyle that gives you that clarity and peace of mind that lets you enjoy your downtime and time with family and friends. 

You can learn all about my eight-week time management program for professional working women here. Life truly doesn’t need to feel so overwhelming or chaotic. I’d love to help you find more peace of mind and enjoy each part of your day.

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