You can make progress towards your most important goals by adopting this systematic approach.
My vocation is helping others achieve their professional goals and I firmly believe that developing the right productivity habits is essential to long-term success. To this end, I feel that a regular weekly planning routine is one of the best ways to consistently meet goals. In this article, I’ll give you the exact same tools and step-by-step advice that I personally use to build success for myself and my clients.
I believe that intentionally planning the week ahead is probably the largest single factor that affects your ability to achieve your goals. Bullet-proof planning can help avoid productivity-sapping bouts of procrastination and indecision.
Here, as promised, is my entire system for staying consistent and productive and achieving professional goals in less time and with significantly less effort than would otherwise be required.
Let’s get started!
#1. Deliberately plan your downtime to avoid burnout
None of us are superhuman and overworking is usually counterproductive. Sure, we’ve all heard of Elon Musks’ infamous 100-hour working weeks, but research shows that statistically very few people are capable of functioning at a high level with very little sleep. We are not machines, and most of us lose efficiency, focus, and creativity when we burn the midnight oil. In fact, recent research from journalist Sara Robinson showed that once most people hit the 60-hour-per-week limit, work starts taking twice as long to complete.
A good way to avoid this? Block off time in your calendar for downtime and respect these slots as much as you do any other.
I know you want to be as productive as possible and scheduling downtime can seem pointless. When I work with clients, I find that a change in mindset is usually what’s required. Look at professional athletes, I tell them. Rest is part of their training program because it’s just as important as the actual training.
If you don’t give your muscles time to recuperate, further training just breaks them down and your efforts become counterproductive. Your brain is just the same. Respect it and give it the time it needs to unwind.
#2. Give yourself tangible rewards to maintain motivation
No plan or system will ever be a substitute for hard work and sacrifices. But we can use our innate psychological biases – such as our preference for immediate rewards – to work for us in order to maintain motivation. Giving yourself tangible rewards when you do something you need to do is the best way to avoid simply doing what you want.
My weekly planning routine involves setting yourself five ‘Weekly’ and three ‘Daily’ targets and I’ll explain more about those soon. But I’ve coached enough busy professionals to know that these targets are meaningless unless people give them meaning.
I want you to create a rewards plan for yourself. Which rewards would motivate you to hit your short-term and long-term targets?
I can’t answer that question for you and, unless you answer it for yourself, you’ll likely remain stuck in a rut.
For example, a student of my career coaching program set herself an ‘inbox zero’ weekly target and decided to reward herself with a new item of makeup every time she hit it. Last I heard, her makeup collection was growing fast!
Another C-Suite executive I coached implemented a ‘Friday afternoon off’ rule if he hit his weekly targets by Friday lunchtime.
Having a meaningful, tangible reward can be a powerful source of motivational momentum and is a great way to link duty with pleasure.
#3. Gamify the process of tracking your progress
According to a recent study, heart patients in support groups made eight times more progress towards developing healthier habits than patients who were not held accountable by a peer group. Of the many available apps that track our habits or activities, they all work for the same reason: they help keep us accountable while introducing a game-like element.
Creating a digital scorecard of progress helps us build momentum and introducing gaming elements to the process – known as gamification – helps keep our interest levels up. I find that gamifying the process of tracking progress is one of the best ways of achieving professional goals.
Personally, I’ve had great success using Coach.me as it helps me create external commitments that keep me in check. As my goals are made public, I’m held accountable for meeting them. Thousands of like-minded individuals have helped support me along my journey with kind words and moral support.
Other clients I’ve recommended to Coach.me have found benefits in hiring a coach to help them meet their goals. Coaches on the platform can help you learn techniques and stay honest with daily check-ins.
I use the app every day to tick off my daily goals and find that it’s a great way to move towards larger, longer-term goals. When I wake up each day, I always have certain items waiting to be crossed off, such as tackling emails, calling clients or writing business proposals. The satisfaction of checking off each task has a powerful effect on my determination levels.
#4. Learn to understand your tasks and workflow
By now, you’ll know that my weekly planning routine involves the following aspects:
- Setting manageable daily and weekly tasks
- Gamifying your progress
- Choosing specific rewards for each goal you meet
- And blocking off downtime in your schedule.
Now it’s time for me to show you how to put all of these elements into action and it begins by learning to understand your tasks and workflow.
We all have a constant flow of distractions coming into our lives on a daily basis. There are always emails that need to be answered, appointments that need to be booked and other personal tasks that need to be done.
To cut through this fog, my weekly planning routine calls for a ‘W5s’ and ‘D3s’ approach. Let me explain.
- W5: The ‘Weekly-5s’ are the five things I need to accomplish during the week – no excuses.
- D3: The ‘Daily-3s’ are the three smaller things that I need to accomplish during the day.
As you’ll see in the next section, I use a matrix to organize my task and I’ll show you exactly how the W5s and the D3s fit into that in the next section. But first…
Over to you!
Decide on your W5’s for the upcoming week, and also your D3’s for Monday. Jot or type these down until you have a list you are happy with.
- For the W5’s, choose five things that you absolutely must do, no matter what.
- For the D3’s, focus on the smaller steps to get you there.
Unsure how to prioritize? Are there too many important and urgent things to do?
Try to think which activities will have the most impact on your work. Which ones will help push your progress forward and drive you closer to your goals? When you’re done, let’s move onto the next section.
#5. Schedule your activities according to their impact and effort
As you can see in the following matrix, all of your tasks can be grouped as either low effort or high effort and as either low impact or high impact. The following table is based on the Eisenhower Matrix and you’ll notice that:
- Your D3’s should be in the ‘low effort – high impact’ quadrant.
- Your W5’s should be in the ‘high effort – high impact’ quadrant.
Easy wins: High impact – Low effort
Tasks that might fall into this category include calling a prospect or drafting a proposal for your business. They take relatively little time and effort but can have a huge impact. However, these tasks are easy to put off until you feel you have a sense of flow.
Try blocking off several back-to-back 2-hour slots a couple of times per week and use those times to accomplish these tasks.
Focus work: High impact – High effort
By ‘Focus work’ I’m talking about ‘deep work’, as defined by Cal Newport. You typically need long blocks of time to really engage with this type of task. But most people never give themselves this time and instead, try to cram this work into other slots.
I recommend blocking off several 3-hour blocks each week to accomplish activities in this category.
Gap Fillers: Low impact – Low effort
Tasks in this quadrant are best dealt with during 15-30 minute free slots where you don’t really have the time to settle into more meaningful work. Things such as dealing with emails or admin tasks can be tackled during your commute, for example.
Personally, I use a to-do app called Todoist to help me schedule these types of tasks. I work on them during breaks between meetings or while I’m commuting to and from work.
Killer tasks: Low impact – High effort
I call these ‘killer tasks’ because they drain your energy yet have a very minimal impact on your goals. My solution is to try to delegate, outsource or automate them away. This gives you more time to focus on things that truly matter.
If you think about your hourly wage, it may be cheaper to pay someone else to do these tasks than to do them yourself.
Over to you!
Draw out a chart similar to the one above and try to place your W5’s and D3’s in the quadrants. It will take a while at first, but after a couple of weeks, you’ll become far faster.
#6. Your calendar should be your No. 1 productivity tool
Whether you use Google, Outlook, iCal or a paper journal, I believe that a calendar should be your top productivity tool.
Here’s how to organize your week.
- For each of your W5 tasks, block off one 90-minute slot during the week.
- Give each D3 task a 30-minute block of time.
- Block off slots for any meetings, calls or personal commitments that you have such as doctor’s appointments or taking care of errands.
You’ll notice that you have some free, or ‘dead’, slots. Fill these up with tasks you identified as ‘Gap Fillers’. You may even choose some targeted procrastination tasks during these periods such as reading articles or networking with your clients online.
What if something comes up?
We all get unexpected work or new deadlines to deal with. This is unavoidable. It’s fine to overwrite a slot, provided that you book an alternative slot. This helps to keep your priorities the same and ensure you are meeting your W5’s and D3’s.
If you start to run out of free slots, it’s fine to say “No”. You need to respect your time as no-one else will! Personally, I always protect my ‘Focus blocks’ during the week, even if I don’t have a clear agenda for them. This ensures that people only book me when it works for me.
Journal your way out of unproductiveness
Lastly, as you work your way through the week, I’d recommend keeping a note of how long each task takes you. This can reveal where you are meeting your targets and which tasks take longer than your thought. When you review your times at the end of the week, you may be surprised by what the results reveal!
#7. Review and plan every Sunday
The final part of my plan is to set aside some time each Sunday to review the previous week and plan for the coming week. This helps to keep you aware of any changes and gets you ready to face new opportunities.
I always look forward to my Sunday planning sessions as they help me appreciate how much free time I have. Once I’ve assigned my W5’s and D3’s plus all my other tasks, I see all of the times when I’m not particularly busy and can address other things.
The simple act of planning helps me remain calm, gives me a sense of order and gets me focused for the coming week.
The cornerstone of my productivity plan is to focus on progress, not perfection. It’s far more important to return to the practice every week than it is to complete one perfect round. Focus on the smaller daily tasks and your larger goals will come together over time.
This article is my approach to maintaining productivity, developed over years of experimentation and coaching others to success. Don’t fall into the trap of feeling paralyzed by the big goals in your life. Focus on what brings progress to you, and adopt a system that works!