Heading Out on Your Own – Day 5: Create a Weekly Attack Plan

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 5, 2012 · 42 comments

in Heading Out On Your Own

Growing up, each day is pretty well-scheduled out for you. School from morning til afternoon. After school sports or a job. Homework. Time for bed. Once you leave home for the first time, all that structure is gone; it is up to you to shape each day and get things done. It’s an open plain of freedom, and the way is so broad many young men get completely lost.

It happened to me. One of the things I struggled with the most my first few months away from home was managing my time. I pretty much was flying by the seat of my pants every day. Things in my life started falling between the cracks very quickly, and I soon found myself struggling beneath an overwhelming pile of to-do’s and obligations.

Things turned around for me as soon as I instituted a new habit: weekly planning. Stephen Covey’s (R.I.P.) First Things First was the catalyst for the change. When I got to law school, my weekly planning sessions became even more crucial. The rigors of my legal studies on top of my work on the law review and the Art of Manliness required that I had my days planned to the minute so that I could get everything done.

The power of weekly planning lies in the perspective and control it provides for your life; instead of drifting along, you give yourself a birds-eye view of the maze below, and harness your newfound freedom in order to do, be, and get wherever you want to go.  It allows you to manage the day-to-day and often trivial tasks along with your long-term plans and goals. Think of your weekly calendar as an Attack Plan for Life: it’s where you hash out the tactics and logistics to make your long-term vision a reality.

Below I share how I go about my Weekly Attack Plan sessions. It’s sort of a mishmash of time and task management ideas from Stephen Covey and David Allen. I don’t claim that it’s the best way to plan your week, but it’s worked for me. Maybe it will work for you, too, or at least inspire you to come up with you own system.

Establish Your Attack Plan Day & Set Aside an Hour to Plan

Pick a day that you’ll use to establish your Weekly Attack Plan. The weekend is a good time to do it because it allows you to both review the previous week’s successes and failures and look ahead to the next week. I do mine on Sunday. I know some folks who do theirs on Friday. Pick whichever day works best for you.

Set aside about an hour on your chosen day for planning. The first few times you execute a Weekly Attack Plan session it may take you longer, but that’s okay. After awhile, you’ll establish a rhythm that will allow you to breeze through it in about 45 minutes.

Go somewhere where you can be alone and away from distractions. I like to do my weekly planning sessions on Sunday nights in our home office. When I was in college, I’d go to a quiet corner of the Student Union.

Pick Your Calendaring Tool

Everyone has their own preference for what to use for calendaring. Some people prefer digital calendaring tools like iCalendar, Outlook, or Google Calendar; others prefer using good old-fashioned pencil and paper to plan.

Each format has pros and cons. Digital calendars make planning re-occurring events a breeze. They also can send friendly reminders to you via email or simply as a pop-up on smartphone screens a few minutes before your event. It’s kind of like having a personal assistant. Many digital calendars also allow you to share calendars with others, which can come in handy when trying to sync multiple schedules.

The downside of digital calendars, in my experience, is that they’re kind of a pain when it comes to adding new events, especially on your smartphone’s tiny keypad. You have to type in the event, select the time, and decide if you want a reminder. Granted, once an event is created, moving things around is a snap — just point and click. Voice recognition software like Apple’s Siri is beginning to eliminate this problem, but sometimes Siri goofs up my schedule.  Digital calendars also share a downside common to all digital tools: if your device runs out of power, you can’t access your calendar.

With paper and pencil calendars, you don’t have to worry about running out of power. When you want to add a new event, you can scribble it down in seconds. There’s also something about the tactile nature of planning with pencil and paper that really gets your strategic juices going. And because we’re on our phones and computers so much these days, it’s nice to give your brain a break with something different. But there are a few downsides to paper and pencil calendars. If you lose your calendar, you’re sunk. Unlike digital calendars that exist eternally in the “Cloud,”  when you lose a pencil and paper calendar, you’ll have to recreate it from memory. You don’t get any email reminders about upcoming events with an analog calendar. And if you have re-occurring events, you’ll have to write them out every. single. week. on a new weekly calendar.

I used to be a pencil and paper planner guy, but switched to digital calendaring tools this year. I like having everything synced up across all my devices. Experiment with the different calendaring tools out there and pick the one that’s comfortable for you. If you’re looking for a good pencil and paper weekly calendar, you can download the one I created for myself when I was in law school.

Perform a Mind Dump to Free-up Mental RAM

During the week, our minds build up a giant list of stuff that needs to be done: call mom back, do the laundry, respond to your backlog of emails, study, etc.  The problem with these loose ends camping on our craniums is that they’re subtly eating up our willpower, causing us to feel stressed out and mentally fatigued.

These unfinished mental tasks are like programs you have running on your computer, but aren’t actually using. We’ve all had those moments working on our computer when its fan is running full blast, and everything seems to be taking an eternity to load. You check the Activity Monitor only to see that a bunch of unused apps are hogging a crapload of memory, causing your World of Warcraft raid to screech to a halt. Just as unused computer programs use up precious RAM and slow down your computer, so too do unfinished tasks use up willpower and slow down your brain.

Free-up some mental RAM and get your brain running on all six cylinders again by performing a mind dump. A mind dump is exactly what it sounds like: you get everything out of your head and onto paper (or computer screen). You can actually feel your brain let out a sigh of relief as you write down the stuff it’s been spending precious willpower trying to remember.

Use whatever tool you’re comfortable with for a mind dump. It doesn’t matter. I know several people who use a notebook and pen and others that use digital tools like OmniFocus, Things, Nozbe, or Evernote to capture their mind dump (I use Things). The important thing is simply that you have someplace to store your mind dump.

Once you settle on a capture tool, simply start writing or typing all the tasks, ideas, and commitments that have been weighing you down during the previous week. If you need some nudging on the types of open loops you might having running in your mental background, check out this “trigger” list from David Allen’s Getting Things Done. It’s like a laxative for your brain. Just go down the list and capture any unfinished tasks that come to you as you read through it.

We’ll schedule items from our mind dump later.

Review Your Life Plan & Goals

Now that we’ve detoxed our brains and freed up some mental RAM, it’s time to review our life plan and long-term goals.  This step will help you keep “first things first” in mind as you plan your week out and ensure you’re staying on track with your long-term goals. Sure, you may  have been successful in completing your short-term goals, but if those short-term goals get you off track with your future aims, what good are they? If needed, reevaluate your short-term to-do list in light of your long-term goals.  You might need to amend your life plan and goals as well, as new experiences and insights change your vision of where you want to be down the road.

Don’t have a life plan or goals? Well, now’s the time to create them. To learn how, check out our comprehensive guide on creating a life plan.

Review the Previous Week

Reflect on your previous week and how you performed in your various roles as a man. How did it go? Did you achieve the goals you set for yourself? What were your successes and failures? How could have you done things differently? Any tasks or items you need to follow-up on? I recommend writing down any thoughts that come to you during your reflection on the previous week in a journal. First, the act of writing helps make your thoughts more concrete and well thought-out. Second, by writing down your observations about the previous week, you create a record that you can look back on to see if you’re improving.

Set Weekly Goals

After I’ve reviewed my previous week, I start setting goals for the coming one. I use Stephen Covey’s role-based goal-setting method, but if you have a method that works better for you, use it.

Here’s how the role-based goal-setting method works. When I created my life plan, I defined and prioritized the different roles I fill as a man: husband, father, brother/son, friend, writer, and business owner. Your roles might be student, friend, roommate, boyfriend, etc. Every week I create a goal that I want to accomplish within each role. So for example, a goal for my role as a husband could be to write Kate a love note or take her on a date; a goal for my role as a writer could be to check out and read a book about improving my writing.

I also follow Covey’s advice on creating weekly “Sharpening the Saw” goals. As you saw away at your goals, the blade is going to become dull — you have to take the time to sharpen it up. Thus Sharpening the Saw goals are all about keeping yourself sharp in all aspects of your life: physically, mentally, socially/emotionally, and spiritually. I try to create a weekly goal for improvement in all of those four areas. A weekly physical goal could be to bench press x-amount of weight; a mental goal could be to read a book or listen to a lecture on your commute to work; a social goal could be to write your college bud a letter; and a spiritual goal could be to meditate every day for 15 minutes.

Lay a Foundation for Success With Re-occurring Time Blocks

After I’ve set my goals for the coming week, I move on to putting them in my calendar. I first block out time on my weekly schedule for my Sharpening the Saw goals. These are small and simple things that keep me feeling sharp no matter what sort of chaos happens during the week. So I have time blocked off for exercising, reading, and prayer and meditation. An important part of keeping your saw sharp is weekly and daily planning, so I block time off for it, too.  I treat these events like a doctor’s appointment — I don’t schedule anything else during these times and don’t deviate from them unless it’s an emergency. I’ve blocked times off every day in the week for these activities and have my iCal programmed so that they repeat every week.

Block Out Time for Your “Big Rocks”

In his book, First Things First, Stephen Covey introduced a really clever object lesson on how to get more done in life, while ensuring you actually accomplish your most important and meaningful tasks. From First Things First:

I attended a seminar once where the instructor was lecturing on time. At one point, he said, “Okay, it’s time for a quiz.” He reached under the table and pulled out a wide-mouth gallon jar. He set it on the table next to a platter with some fist-sized rocks on it. “How many of these rocks do you think we can get in the jar?” he asked.

After we made our guess, he said, “Okay. Let’s find out.” He set one rock in the jar…then another…then another. I don’t remember how many he got in, but he got the jar full. Then he asked, “Is the jar full?”

Everybody looked at the rocks and said, “Yes.”

Then he said, “Ahhh.” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar and the gravel went in all the little spaces left by the big rocks. Then he grinned and said once more, “Is the jar full?”

By this time we were on to him. “Probably not,” we said.

“Good!” he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went in all the little spaces left by the rocks and the gravel. Once more he looked at us and said, “Is the jar full?”

“No!” we all roared.

He said, “Good!” and he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in. He got something like a quart of water in that jar. Then he said, “Well, what’s the point?”

Somebody said, “Well, there are gaps and if you really work at it, you can always fit more into your life.”

“No,” he said, “that’s not the point. The point is this: if you hadn’t put these big rocks in first, would you ever have gotten any of them in?

Most young men fill their schedules with the gravel, sand, and water of life first. Sure, they look and feel busy, but all they ever work on are the small tasks that are likely inconsequential in the long run. You’ll find these sorts of gents wistfully lamenting that they never have time for the things that are truly important in life: the Big Rocks.

What the object lesson above teaches us is that if we want to accomplish our most important goals and tasks, we need to put them in our schedule first. Those smaller tasks can get done during the gaps between your Big Rocks.

What’s a Big Rock? It’s going to be different for every man. Look at your mind dump list and pick three or four items that you consider to be your MITs: most important tasks.

If you’re a student, one of your MITs is definitely your education. To ensure that you actually make school a priority, block off time during the week for the following activities:

1. Block off your class and lab times. The most important appointments of your week. Schedule everything else around your class times.

2. Block off reading time for each of your classes. If you have a Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule, you’ll probably want to block off an hour or two on Sunday/Tuesday/Thursday for reading.

3. Block off time for note review/outlining/homework for each class. You’ll want to set aside time so you can synthesize class notes, do some outlining, and complete any homework assignments you might have. I typically blocked off an hour right after each class for this. If a class was lecture heavy, like ancient Greek philosophy, I’d use that hour right after class to review my notes and update my class outline. If the class was heavy on problem sets, like calculus or symbolic logic, I used the hour to do that day’s assignment and any additional practice problems.

The amount of time you need for note review/outlining/homework will vary. I recommend setting aside at least one hour for each hour spent in class.  If you need more time, schedule it.

No matter what your personal Big Rocks are, block off a set amount of time on your calendar to work on them and don’t let anything bump them from your schedule. Remember: Big Rocks first!

Block Out Time for Other Tasks

You’ll feel like a boss after you plan your week.

Take a look at your list of items you captured during your Mind Dump and block out time to accomplish those tasks. So if you need to get the oil on your car changed or make a gift for your girlfriend’s birthday, block off a time on your schedule to complete those tasks.

How do you know which tasks on your Mind Dump list to tackle first? You can use a system where your go through and rate them by importance with “A, B, C” or something like that, and then schedule the A’s to be completed first. But I have personally found that what is most important jumps right out at me as I look over the list.

My goal by the end of my planning sessions is to have every one of my waking hours of every day of the week blocked out with something. Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not constantly doing something every minute of the day — I schedule time for doing absolutely nothing too — but I like to have at least an outline of how I’m going to spend my time during the week. I consider my completely filled-in weekly calendar just a rough draft of my week and expect to edit and adjust during my daily planning sessions. Which leads me to…

Review and Adjust Your Weekly Attack Plan Daily

Even the best laid plans need adjusting. That’s why daily planning is so important. Every evening, I’ll review my calendar and make adjustments as needed. While I try to avoid rescheduling my Sharpen the Saw and Big Rock events, I move around the other tasks I scheduled during my Weekly Attack Plan session with gusto. Do likewise.

Do It Again Next Week (And the Week After That, And the Week After….)

If you want to see success come from your Weekly Attack Plan sessions, you have to do them consistently. I’ll admit that I’ve had my moments where I’ve fallen off the wagon on it. Kate can usually tell when I haven’t been planning my week out, because I get unproductive and grouchy — totally off my game. I just don’t function well without the structure of a weekly plan.

I promise as you consistently plan out your week, you’ll find yourself with more motivation, direction, and peace in your life.

Do you have a weekly planning routine? What works for you? Share your tips and experiences in the comments!

{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Daniel August 6, 2012 at 12:47 am

Thank you for these posts Brett.

2 LG August 6, 2012 at 12:52 am

This is a fantastically-written article and I’m positive it will be a major help to lots of guys. I just have to say, though, that I wish that once in awhile, we could see a life-planning-type article written by a person who isn’t naturally linear or schedule-oriented.

A good friend of mine has his entire day broken down into fifteen-minute increments. He schedules work, school, leisure, study, family time, meetings, friend hangouts, every last thing, and it’s perfect for him. To him, his mega-precise iCal schedule means freedom — it means he doesn’t have to expend energy thinking about what’s next. But to me? Just thinking about it kind of makes me break out in hives. And not because I’m disorganized, but because I don’t think like that.

Not being linear or schedule-oriented, I have to think about my day and my life in terms of a flow or a rhythm. Morning, afternoon, and evening are absolutely all I can break a waking day down into. If I put my life’s stuff into a spreadsheet, it all rapidly starts to feel like an oppressive, panic-inducing burden rather than a mixture of privileges and obligations to be rolled with. My way works for me. I’m far more organized, tidy, and disciplined since I realized that trying to force myself to use the most commonly-touted methods was futile. They just don’t work with my temperament. It’s taken me more than ten years to get this about myself, and I’m much happier now that I have.

The point, I guess, is that you have to be willing to work at discovering how you work best and are your most efficient, without getting too bogged down in how well you’re aligning yourself with whatever method or book out there.

3 Andrew K August 6, 2012 at 1:32 am

I think Stephen Covey’s greatest contribution is the “Big Rocks”, “Finding Your Voice” and “Third Alternative” thinking has become very popular watchwords since 1993.

I sort of split the difference between the two extremes by just putting on the Big Rocks and setting them aside, and then leaving the rest of the week blank.

I also find that in college, I have a monthly or even semester view set up because you’ll want to list out things like when deadlines are met and then break them down so that it’s easier to figure out where they should go in the week’s planning. This isn’t making life goals, it’s just somethings need to be planned out in advance, whether you like it or not.

4 Salient August 6, 2012 at 1:39 am

As an incoming freshman about to start college in less than 3 weeks, I really appreciate this article (and the others in the series).

My main problem in high school was terrible time management but I think if I begin to form these habits now I should be ready. At least right now I have the excitement of leaving home to motivate me.

5 Silviu Tulbya August 6, 2012 at 1:45 am

On the topic of calendars, I have to agree that they both have their advantages, however the paper one can also be translated to electronic format, just by taking a picture of it with my iPhone.

6 uli August 6, 2012 at 3:58 am

Thank you for this series! I have been reading every post so far, although this one is by far my favorite!

7 Csaba August 6, 2012 at 5:34 am

Wow, this is exactly what I needed. I’ve been always bad at time management (constant feeling of ‘being late’ and ‘ah, I forgot something’), so this article is of a much help for me. I’ve been working on it for a few weeks to better organize my time and I have already developed some own methods to plan my short and long term goals.

8 Vincent August 6, 2012 at 6:22 am

Finally a post where I can post a useful comment.

First, I want to thank the people who keep this site up, especially Brett and Kate. I’ve been reading a lot of the articles in the past months and have learned a lot of useful things. One of the most useful and interesting websites I have ever found.

Now on topic: When I started as a undergraduate (Bachelor title) in Business Administration last year, the first semester didn’t went very well (6.33 average, out of 10). Then I learned about planning and actually started doing it. I ended my first year with a 7.70 out of 10 and in the freshman ranking I am in the top 5% of the year. I only studied 16 hours a week, including lectures. So I decided I will get a double degree and get a title in Economics too.

This is how I make my weekly plans as a scholar:
I start with writing down a weekly plan for all my classes for the next 8 weeks (one semester), so I know exactly what I need to do.
Then I make a weekly schedule with all my lectures for the next 8 weeks.
Then, at the sunday before the week starts, I take a piece of paper and write down all the things I want to do that week, not only for school but all things I need to do (cardio, go to the gym, read the paper daily, clean up,making diner, read a book or watch a movie etcetera). I write down each task with a box to fill in if i completed it.
Because I write them down on paper, changing a completely weekly planning every time doesn’t work, I make a plan for the next day every evening.

Even with a lot of ‘big rocks’, I still have quite a lot of free time each week, where I can go out drinking, play videogames and do other occuring things which I haven’t planned or that don’t have a big priority.

I recommend it to everyone who heads out on his or her own.

Again, thanks a lot Brett and Kate, for giving your free time to help a lot of people around the world.

Greetings from the Netherlands.

9 Dim August 6, 2012 at 7:42 am

Great article!

10 Tony August 6, 2012 at 9:13 am

I would like to share my method for ensuring that I finish what I need to learn for the week as I am a Uni student. This method I’ve found to work well for me.

I have a whiteboard hung on my wall in my room. I call this whiteboard my magic whiteboard because everything on it eventually get’s done :)

I write all the tasks I have to do by Friday, allowing time for my girlfriend and friends on the weekend.

By doing this, I am constantly reminded what I have to do for the week and like the article says, clears my mental RAM :)

11 JT August 6, 2012 at 9:18 am

You know what? I’m a girl and I’m reading this and I must say this is incredibly helpful!!! :) Thanks so much! We all need these articles once in a while to remind ourselves of our priorities. Very well written!

12 Bill August 6, 2012 at 10:22 am

If you like the idea of or use electronic calendars, consider investing in a Bluetooth keyboard. It makes data entry much faster. I also find that I can read my calendar since my handwriting is getting poorer with age.

13 J. Delancy August 6, 2012 at 10:53 am

The ability to Get It Done is what defines a man with a plan. “Drift” is exactly what happens without a plan and it is to be avoided like the devil.

Another good post!

14 RAK August 6, 2012 at 11:47 am

Great article. I used to use a system of index cards and it was great for a low-tech solution. Today I use a product called Fantastical (flexbits.com). It does exactly what I need these days: organize, remind and otherwise stay out of the way. Disclosure: just a user; in now way associated with the developer.

15 Todd - Fearless Men August 6, 2012 at 12:11 pm

The “Perform A Mind Dump” section is the biggest principle I took away from David Allen’s “Getting Things Done.” The book was great, but is now a little dated in terms of how practical it is. But the principles are still there.

I haven’t read “First Things First,” but of course 7 Habits. His writing really convinced me that we can’t really manage time, but we can only manage ourselves regarding time.

Great post Brett!

16 JB August 6, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Here’s the catch: Let’s say you schedule study (or writing) time. How do you make sure you actually DO it? Sure, I can schedule the time, but when I sit down to do what I’ve scheduled, I often find myself easily distracted or unable to concentrate. Sometimes I’m distracted out of boredom; sometimes out of fear; and sometimes out of rebelliousness that nobody can MAKE me do anything. Any advice?

17 William August 6, 2012 at 12:45 pm

Sure men should be scheduled, rational, and capable of planning and competing their tasks. But we must remember that there is a necessary counterpart. Spontaneity. We must not to forget to have that in our lives, less we forget how to truly savor life.

18 Bill August 6, 2012 at 1:03 pm

Sorry – meant of using electronic calendars.

19 Joe August 6, 2012 at 1:34 pm

This was a great article. I love this website and I think these articles will help me a lot even though I am only in eighth grade. My mom and dad are both full time so I am in charge of my brother and the house. Just as a quick input Google Calendars in some aspects is better than iCal not because of more features but because of its ubiquity. You can use Google calendars on both an iPhone or Android or on a Computer or tablet.

20 Jason August 6, 2012 at 4:49 pm


I find myself getting distracted easily as well, especially when I study on a computer. The best thing I have found to help me study is to remove the distractions. I close out any other browser windows. I turn off the rock music and turn on the instrumental. I tell those around me that I am studying. Then I begin. Just begin. 9/10 times this works for me because once I get on a roll I don’t stop.

21 Calen August 6, 2012 at 7:18 pm

This past weekend, I decided I was going to start scheduling out my time for the following day every night. This morning, I woke and decided I should start making a weekly plan. Then I read this, and it just reaffirmed my desire to get my time organized!

22 Doug August 6, 2012 at 7:19 pm

I use a blank, ruled notebook as a planner, one page for each day. The benefit it has over digital tools is this: without all of the ready-to-use features that come with digital calendars, you’re forced to make your own decisions on what you need to do to plan ahead, and what you don’t. The way I see it, it doesn’t matter what system a man uses so long as he’s where he needs to be, when he needs to be there, doing what he’s supposed to be doing. You might find that you don’t need recurring event reminders, SMS text-message alarms, color-coded to-do lists, and the like, to be prepared for your day. Digital tools offer powerful, easy-to-use features, but not all of them are necessary, and if they’re not necessary, they’re in the way.

23 Brent August 6, 2012 at 7:38 pm

First off, the increasing amount international readers on the AOM is a testament of its merit. It’s exciting to see that.

My experience with the weekly plan is as follows. I do weekly and monthly plans digitally on google calendar and daily plans on a large moleskine notebook. Goo Cal allows for easy entry of appointments, events, and tasks that are not happening in the immediate future to be “dumped” off my brain and reserved for attention when the time comes. The “brick and mortar” style of a pencil and pad allow for fine adjustments to that the morning prior. There are always contingencies, as we all know.
From there the weekly or even daily (if significant) review can be done as mentioned to reflect on it. In the military we call it an AAR, or after action report. What should maintain and what should go? Lastly, the book serves as a tangible reminder to stay on those rails towards your ultimate goals. People (ladies mostly, guys just say I’m regimented) are curious about the notebook too. Bonus: conversation starter.

24 Sam August 6, 2012 at 8:46 pm

This article was great! I did practically the same thing last year. It worked really well for me

25 Doug Aldrich August 6, 2012 at 9:48 pm

Some of the methods you talked about in here I have actually discovered on my own in the past, and they seemed to work quite well. Now if I could only get in the habit of doing it every week! It’s very frustrating doing it and being successful, only to forget about doing it for about a month straight.

26 Jonathan August 7, 2012 at 12:43 am

Thank you Brett and Kate! My first time posting, been reading since I found your site a couple months ago, and I just want to make a quick note here, your site to me is almost as addictive as wikipedia/tvtropes (and *almost as addictive* is a good thing for productivity!).

Anyway, on point to this article: I actually started hashing out a similar method a month before I found AoM, probably version 5 or 7 since I started looking for ways to manage my time (my Achilles’ heel: follow-through). The system I’m playing with considers both electronic and hard copy implementations since I wanted to also incorporate easy search, copying, and reporting/reorganizing in the future. It also incorporates “commentary” with concurrent journaling for tangents, reflection, logging, brainstorming. I still need to check out GTD and Covey’s guides for pointers but this version feels the most appropriate out of the methods I’ve explored in the past. The method has room for quick intake of ideas/reflections as well as logging/reporting too, and I’m hashing out how it fits with a wider seasonal/yearly/longer plan, but I’ll just focus on the weekly time management aspect here.

The method I’m playing with might also resonate better with someone like LG above who seems to want flexibility explicitly built into the plan (like I do).

I schedule in 3-4 hour session blocks, which I just refer to as “blocks” now. I look at a project and chunk it down until I have an idea of how many blocks I need (15 minutes or less per project). Page-length essays are fairly well-known since I know how long I take to write a paragraph, how many to a page, etc., as long as I’ve done separate prep active reading (also fairly easy to figure out just from tracking how long it takes to active read each of 2 or 3 chapters, and self-test, etc.). When I remember I also pick a milestone/progress expectation at the end of each block based on my chunking, it also gives me something concrete to reflect on in quick log entries in addition to session reflection.

Blocks work for me because I realized about a year ago that I have a maximal 3-4 hour attention span per task where I just shut out everything else completely (as long as I’m warmed up to the task); I also noticed that I ended up spending upwards of 8-12 hours total in some sessions, with diminishing returns after the first 4 hours even on tasks that I feel really hooked on (math/physics problem sets, really interesting reading). I’ve really hated scheduling in even 60-minute increments for my own personal tasks because I end up with so many opportunities to let things slide, and I have only now begun to realize that sometimes I just need to get back onto what is planned and go back over what was missed later. Having blocks of 3-4 hours reduces daily planning to about 3-4 blocks, blocks that don’t even need to be set to specific times much, a lot simpler to look at as long as I accept the time “slop” and keep doing smaller tasks in between.

Blocks also give me enough time to warm up for each task and optionally cool down/reflect, without having to remember to plan time for these support bits; a block flows naturally as long as I gather up my task materials and remember to warm up with a little physical activity and some journal reflection on mental barriers if needed (“What’s keeping me from getting started?”, “Action before motivation!”, etc.). My biggest issue really is just transitioning from one task to another, and I really don’t want to have to consider warm-ups and cool-downs as tasks in their own right.

I only write smaller tasks into the week plan (<2 hours to complete) if they're of special interest or importance, or have a deadline/appointment, otherwise I leave them in the active to-do pile (I have an inactive to-do/idea pile where almost all brainstorm nuggets end up first). I work through the active to-do pile by focusing on what I put into the week plan, then doing a random pick for any other to-do tasks whenever I find I have free time. If I felt like it, I could even do 1-2 blocks dedicated to knocking out to-do tasks. The active to-do pile also gets evaluated weekly, but I don't sweat these much because the really important things tend to have obvious external deadlines or are big enough in scope to be full multi-block projects in their own right. Active to-do pile really is just for one-off things doable in <1 hr.

The most important thing for me is to limit the number of separate entries in the main week plan, so I can look the week over without getting lost in or overwhelmed by dozens of 30-60 minute tasks. I don't even assign times to these blocks in my main week plan, but if I felt I needed to, I can break out a proper secondary-role agenda and assign times to blocks and smaller tasks there.

As for implementation, I've settled on Google Calendar at a full laptop/desktop session, and I just print out weekly. I don't even assign blocks to specific times unless I'm feeling especially cramped for time or I've been too relaxed of late; I just note the task and an estimate of 2-4 hours for how long I need for the session. If things need to be adjusted I just do the changes by hand, and noting any significant changes is largely unnecessary since I also keep a "quick log" Google calendar separate from my "penciled in/planned" calendar.

The hardest thing really is to keep up with the system, but as long as I keep the number of discrete entries to a manageable overview and don't sweat specific time allotments, I can keep appreciating its flexibility. If I do slide or miss some items, I just re-evaluate the < 20 blocks for the week to see what end goals for the week I can postpone, forgo, or what overall project can accept some drop in quality. This would be the biggest weakness, the room for slop, but for me it beats kicking myself for missing hourly appointments that I'd find myself drowning in anyway.

I am definitely adopting Saw Sharpening explicitly into my plans though, but at least for the first season doing them they'll probably feel more like an ongoing project alongside the other projects. Then again Saw Sharpening probably works best in 1-hour sessions so I'll probably have to incorporate them differently into my system. I am also definitely reworking my view to grok these Saw Sharpenings as sacred and inviolate.

27 Moeregaard August 7, 2012 at 10:17 am

I learned early in life that getting a good night’s sleep was essential to making the most of the following day. Being a morning person, I’m always in the sack before 10:00 PM and up at 4:30–5:00 AM, and no sleeping in on weekends. I hit my household chores before breakfast, so I don’t have this stuff waiting for me after work, and it leaves my weekends open for other important things–things that usually involve making sawdust in my garage.

28 Lionel August 7, 2012 at 10:02 pm

This is just the post that I needed. I wish I had this before I started college but at least I can figure out how to manage my time. Thanks for this.

29 Tom August 8, 2012 at 1:57 am

Great post! Goal-setting has been written about endlessly, but for good reason. While the object of goal-setting is ostensibly to reduce mental clutter, the process itself is confusing.

For instance, the main purpose is to focus on one particular goal. Is this goal rigid or flexible? If you adhere to it too rigidly, you will be immediately put off by the monumentality of the goal. Likewise if you’re too flexible with it, you will simply forget it.

Then there’s the frequency of your goals… if you set your goals at some faraway future, you will probably not accomplish your goal on time. If you set them in the short-term, you will likely find yourself straying from your destination. Really good goal-setting requires a lot of forethought!

Personally, I try not too stress too much about it. I keep a BlackBerry calendar on agenda mode, so I know what I am doing day-to-day from 9am-5pm.

I would like to work on setting weekly goals, as well as monthly and yearly goals. Ideally, if I know what I want in the big picture, the goals trickle down from there. If I know basically where I want to be at the end of the year, I will plan accordingly for the month, etc. The problem is systematically enumerating these yearly, monthly, and weekly goals; I simply lose dedication beyond the weekly level. To combat this, I am going to start listing my weekly project goals and monthly objectives as Tasks; I should be able to remember yearly goals, from the aforementioned.

30 JeffC August 8, 2012 at 11:47 pm

@ JB (post #16)— How do you force yourself to complete your great plan? I find that the key is tapping into the affective domain. By not completing your schedule, you’re getting some kind of positive payoff — emotionally, psychologically — that is greater than the payoff or satisfaction you would get from completing the tasks. It’s likely subconscious, but that’s what’s driving your behavior.

So what to do?

Get a small notebook. Sit down every night before bed to write a short journal entry: what you did, how well you stuck to your plan, what distracted you, and esp. how you feel about the things you actually accomplished (that’s really the thing that needs to be reinforced). Get in touch with those positive feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment. You’ll be ending the day focused on the satisfaction of accomplishment and will want to get more of that satisfaction by completing more of tomorrow’s list.

Yeah, but that’s just another habit to try to develop! How can I…

Keep the notebook and pen on your pillow. You’ll have to pick it up each night.

31 Cole August 9, 2012 at 11:54 am

I have been in college for 3 years, and now I am going into my senior year. In school I have done well, but I still have a nasty habit of trying to keep all the different things I have going on organized in my head. It was not hard for me to recognize that this weekly planning could relieve so much stress and reduce confusion and help me from allowing key events from falling through the cracks. Good Post sir

32 Gruesome August 9, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Focus not on time management, but ENERGY management. Every accomplishment is constrained not by your deadlines, but on your reserve of willpower. Therefore, plan everything around these concept triplets: MORNING-AFTERNOON-EVENING/WORK-PLAY-REST/PROJECTS-ERRANDS-ROUTINES.

33 Seth Martin August 13, 2012 at 11:39 am

I would love a post from you on exactly how you went about succeeding so highly in your college years.

I keep seeing hints and small tidbits on what you did to perform so well.

A compiled article like that would be greatly appreciated!

Other than that, great writing.

34 bob October 15, 2012 at 7:22 pm

i own a business. i have to do most of these things to function. great article

35 Tyler G. December 12, 2012 at 3:08 pm

I’ve tried on numerous occasions to keep an updated calendar, but I usually forget to keep updating it as I go along. I’ll put my classes in, then the appointments & meetings I know are coming up, and then I close the calendar app on my phone and never look at it again. Maybe I should schedule a time within my schedule to plan everything (which then creates an infinite feedback loop and kills me :P).

Another problem I have is keeping deadlines I set for myself. I keep remembering that I have to do something by Friday, but it never ends up getting done. Does anyone have any advice for keeping to these self-set deadlines?

36 Manjesh December 26, 2012 at 10:41 pm

I have weekly goals set for myself. I put a date and time in front of it only if it is time bound. A typical weekly plan will be like:
Don’t eat out more than thrice
Complete reading XX novel
Learn 5 new things photography
Get motorcycle serviced

If you review over the weekend on how much it is completed, it sort of indicates how committed am I to myself. I feel it is important to remain human not a computer which does tasks on time. But it is even more important to achieve goals not simply perform tasks.

37 Dylan January 1, 2013 at 4:41 am

thanks i appreciate this

38 David S September 21, 2013 at 9:29 pm

I think I have a good idea of how important it is to plan weekly. I have noticed my need to plan. When I don’t have any idea of what I plan to do, I usually waste a ton of time not doing anything. I am homeschooled, and since my mom thinks that I have everything under control, I have to schedule my work to make any progress. And when I don’t plan my workouts, I usually get lazy and don’t work out. Thanks for the article.

39 Dave September 29, 2013 at 6:11 am

A very well written article. While I have a calendar to organize my events, I never added reoccuring daily or weekly events. They are in my mind, so I saw no need to write them down so far. What brought me to try this weekly planning is that first I started something similar some weeks ago with a weekly to do list. 5 items with cat. 0, I should do them immediatly. then 5 items with cat. 1, to be done this same week and then 5 items with cat. 2, to be done in the next two weeks. All the other stuff which can wait more then 2 weeks is cat. X, just as a reminder I want to do this at one point. Secondly I never added things like reviewing or similar to my calendar. Now with starting in college, I thought it might be good to give it a try, because college is harder and more challenging than high school. To try this out I wanted to use your weekly plan you used in law-school to get an idea about the whole system. To bad the link seems to be broken and I can’t accsses the document. It’d be nice if it gets fixed. Thanks again for this great, motivational article.

40 JJ October 23, 2013 at 1:14 am

GTD Anyone?? :P

41 Reginald Belken December 8, 2013 at 1:39 am

Outstandingly illuminating thanks, It is my belief your current subscribers may just want a excellent deal more blog posts similar to this keep up the excellent subject material.

42 Anton April 9, 2014 at 1:54 am

This is such a crucial aspect of a successful person’s life. I was a lot like you when I got to college — completely overwhelmed with keeping track of things, bits-of-paper and sticky notes littering my desk and filling my pockets. I thankfully got on Google Calendar pretty early on and now I can’t imagine life without some sort of calendar to manage big things like classes and appointments.
But I still wasn’t being very productive; I was just getting by, keeping track of classes and tests and big events. I needed a system for getting my personal goals done more efficiently. So recently I decided to write out a daily plan. I made some excel sheets and printed them out. But I decided soon after that I needed something more than just a daily plan — I needed a way to translate my long-term goals into monthly, weekly, daily tasks. So I expanded my system. It currently consists of, at the largest end, a five-year plan, with goals for each of the five years. Under that, a yearly plan, with the goals from the previous plan broken down into more specific milestones for each quarter. And then the same for the quarter plan to a monthly plan, a monthly plan to a weekly plan, and a weekly to a daily plan. Whenever it’s time to make a new plan — say a new weekly plan — I refer to the previous weekly plan as well as the relevant part of the monthly plan.
I also added supplementary sheets for all the little habits I want to form, be it taking cold showers daily, eating almonds daily, or exercising daily. I then work entries from this list into routines. For example, my morning routine might have a trigger of the alarm going off, and the routine might include things like taking a cold shower, the goal being to make habits out of these behaviors so that I get them done efficiently, and so that I don’t have to plan out my days down to such minute details. I also made trackers to record movies and books I read, and vocabulary words I encounter in said media and throughout life that I want to make a part of my lexicon. Finally, I have all of these sheets hole punched and put into a record binder.
Overall the system is new and getting used to it will take some time, as well as ironing out the kinks that come with any new thing. However, I feel like this is a vast improvement over the way I used to do things. My long term goals are no longer “some day”, they are “in three years” or “in two months”. My life has a clear direction that I sat down and mapped out; I know where I want to be as a person in five years, and I have a plan to work towards that on a day to day basis.

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