Scheduling projects and tasks in writing is a critical step in getting things done and accomplishing goals. To this end, I have two single-page templates that allow me to record my goals on an annual, quarterly, monthly, weekly and daily basis.
I’ll explain how I use these templates which are linked below if you want to download and try them out. But first I want to talk about the importance of physically writing on paper.
I find the act of writing to be critical for my personal planning. First, the process of writing something down requires me to be extra-deliberate about what I’m recording. I simply cannot write everything down by hand. The handwriting process forces selectivity because it is more cumbersome than typing. Second, writing is thinking. The act of writing focuses me in a way that I cannot by juggling thoughts in my head alone. For instance, writing helps me sequence the actions needed to make a given deadline (it also helps me understand what does not need attention). Lastly, I treat the act of writing my goals and tasks as a kind of contract. It’s a signifier of personal commitment. Note that I am not a slave to my written plans. I can and do change my plan if needed, but these written goals, if followed, serve as a powerful anchor for making optimal decisions.
A good part of my task management—note taking, ideation and writing drafts—takes place in the digital realm. For this, I use the Mac and iOS versions of Things and Ulysses. Recording thoughts and ideas digitally is important, so I’m not trying to downplay that part of the process. However, the final phase where I promote tasks to my “I’m definitely doing this thing” status occurs on paper. Shawn Blanc of the Sweet Setup also uses a combination digital and analog planning system and calls this a “hybrid productivity method”. I find the combination effective.
The basic gist of my process is simple: For any given time period I aim to list no more than THREE actions. One and only one of those items is my top priority. The authors of “Organize Tomorrow Today” call this your “must” (e.g. the thing you must do). The authors of “Make Time” call this your “highlight”. Gary Keller calls this "the one thing."
I will have, at the very least, the following for each section in my planning templates:
- One annual “highlight” goal
- One quarterly “highlight” goal
- One monthly “highlight” goal
- One weekly “highlight” goal
- One daily “highlight” goal
The one thing might be accompanied by two other actions or goals for that period. But each section has no more than 3 numbered items.
“But wait”, you say, “life is more complicated than 3 things! I have way more than that on my to-do list!” Don't fret, I account for all these items as well. I record these non-critical, less important items at the bottom of each template section and leave the tasks unnumbered (the "miscellaneous" box on my weekly template is also a good place for these items). If I get through my top 3 items, I permit myself to tackle the lower priority tasks.
The key thing about designating a highlight and the 3 things is to ensure that those things receive the time and focus they need to get done AND that I can enjoy the satisfaction afterwards in having completed my goals. These tasks usually receive the prime-time hours of my day (between 8-11am).
As for timing, I like to set aside Friday afternoons for weekly and longer-term planning. You don’t have to plan a whole year in one sitting and you don’t have to plan the whole week in one sitting either. However, by setting aside some time every week I can make sure that I know what my immediate goals will be for the coming week and I can check my weekly plan against my longer term goals (as recorded on my annual planning template).
I like planning on Friday because it allows me to think about the coming workweek over the weekend. It also allows me to combine meal planning and other household tasks into the weekly plan. I do all my grocery shopping and a lot of my food prep on the weekend. I also like planning my blog post topics on Friday. This gives me time spin my wheels over the weekend. Ideas are always better when they have time to percolate in your head.
For my daily plan, I’ll spend no more than 10-15 minutes in the afternoon the day before. I’ll review my 3 things for the next day and write them down (sometimes I already have them written down from my Friday planning session). When I wake up the next morning, I’ll look over the list, make sure the plan still makes sense and charge right into my tasks.
Lastly, I want to reiterate that no plan is ever set-in-stone. Planning is an evolving and iterative process. While my short-term plans tend to change more frequently than my long-term plans I do revisit my annual/quarterly/monthly goals periodically to make necessary adjustments.
For more info about my daily planning process, see my article “Daily Planning: The Simple but Essential Habit”.
Here are links to my two planning templates: