Thirty eight hours in a working week. Thirty eight hour-shaped boxes to fill. Tens, if not hundreds of not-hour-shaped actions and projects to fit into those thirty eight boxes.
This was my typical week, and it wasn’t working. It was Monday 5th January and I’d just completed my review of December 2014.
The plans I made didn’t work. The schedules I set up didn’t fit me well. The to-dos stayed on my list too long. And setting up meetings was a nightmare of multiple thoughts: if we meet at this time, I’ll have a short morning but a long afternoon, but then what can I do in that short morning? Or is meeting in the mid-afternoon better? But then I’ll have two stumpy bits of afternoon to fill… maybe another day would be better… and so on and so forth.
In short, it was too bloomin’ complicated.
I was ready. Ready to sort out my weekly planning, having arrived at a point of having so many projects, with so many actions in each of them, and fitting them into my working week.
I was aiming for something simple, flexible, and workable. A Sue-friendly system: one that worked with me and for me.
Simplifying the time blocks
Over the years, I’ve noticed that I can work well for 90 minutes: I’m concentrated and in the flow. To be honest, I can sometimes go up to 3 hours if I’m really in the Zone, but then other parts of me suffer: I get hungry and dehydrated, my legs and back go stiff from sitting for so long, and I can often become somewhat ungrounded from being so long in my head. So the 90-minute blocks seem like a good building blocks for a workable structure.
My daily working routine ideally begins at 9am and ends around 5-6pm, with breaks and lunch. Call me conventional, if you like. It works for me. Ultimately, I’m aiming for working less and having more time available for other things that I enjoy. While I’m setting up my business I’m content with a standard working week and having evenings and weekends free.
To keep it simple, I aim for a 9am start every day. Starting with a block of 90 minutes takes me through to 10.30am. Then a break: 30 minutes. Heck, if I’ve worked solidly and focused for 90 minutes, a 30 minute break is in order to refresh, reset and reground.
Block 2 starts at 11am through to 12.30.
Lunch: 90 minutes. Time to prepare, eat and clear away lunch (when I’m working from home) and to have a rest or get outside for a while.
The afternoon session begins with block 3 at 2pm, followed by a 30 minute break at 3.30.
The final session, block 4, runs from 4pm – 5.30.
Now that I had a structure to simplify my time, I was ready to structure my tasks.
Simplifying the work blocks
On the actions and projects side of the equation, I pulled in another structure: company departments.
As an entrepreneur, I currently wear all the hats in my business. CEO, Finance, Sales & Marketing, Client Sessions, Technical, Project departments (currently: writing & publishing a book, developing an online programme, and Multiple Intelligences work), Admin. One of the things that had been driving me nuts was that I’d be working on a Sales thing, and Admin, Technical or Finance tasks would cross my mind. Or I’d be working from a to-do list that was so jumbled up and full of smallish subtasks from all the departments that I couldn’t get clarity on what was most important.
So I decided to group my tasks, actions and projects by department. Immediately, I had a much smaller number of things to fit into my week. In planning each week, the separate departments can be scheduled as separate work blocks. Just as in a bigger business, each department (or project team) in my business has an action plan, regular tasks, and things to deliver. In each time block, I can put on the hat for just one department and keep my focus tight.
In grouping my activities into work blocks by department, I could see straight away which work blocks needed to go into every week. CEO – reviewing progress, planning ahead, and strategy. Marketing & Sales. Projects. Client Sessions… In fact, all the departments need time each week, for the moment at least.
By this stage, I had my time simplified, and my activities. Time to bring it all together.
Bringing time blocks and work blocks together
Now that I was ready to shape up my whole week, I sketched out a simple table: M-Tu-W-Th-F across the top, 1-2-3-4 down the side. Twenty time blocks, down from thirty eight.
The first thing to go in was time for me: swimming on Tuesday mornings. I love these sessions, so they went in first!
Next, I added my already-established commitments: regular Client Sessions, and an afternoon a week on the Multiple Intelligences project at my colleague’s offices.
The first regular business block I allocated was block 1, Monday morning: CEO time. This is a reviewing and planning session. I’ve been in the habit of a Monday morning review for a few months, and it really works well.
The next one is blog writing (Marketing). I write a blog post every week, to keep putting useful information out there for you to enjoy.
That leaves me the rest of the week to play with: 12 time blocks, less than a third of the thirty eight I used to have to think about!
The other departments and projects go in next: some with 1 time block, some with 2 or 3 depending on what’s needed that week.
As I thought through my week, I realised that there were also various small jobs that built up. These are jobs that don’t fill a whole 90 minutes, but more usually take up to about 1-15 minutes each. So I scheduled a half-hour session of wrapping things up and completing these small jobs after block 4. Add on five minutes to tidy my desk and put everything away, and I’m done by 6pm.
Putting it into action
Now that I’ve reached week 4 of using my new planning system, I’ve had time to test it out, tweak it, refine it – and enjoy it!
Yes, I have to say, the biggest thing about this system is that I enjoy it. Planning my week is now so simple. Bish bash bosh, fill in the blocks and I’m done. I know what I’m doing most days, and I’m free to change things around if I need to. I can also relax, confident that all the important things have time allocated to them during the week, and confident that each department is moving forward each week.
Scheduling meetings is easy too: I put them at the start of a time block, and use the break times before and after to travel and back there if needed. That way, a one-hour meeting takes up one 90-minute block: 60 minutes of meeting with up to 30 minutes for writing notes, reflections and actions.
Each week during CEO time, I sketch out my week in a simple table. Regular blocks get scheduled, diary commitments get put in, then my projects for the week. Add in the sessions for each department and the week is largely planned. It takes about 5 minutes: simple!
Small Jobs get collected in a tick list underneath the weekly block plan. These either get done in the wrap-up session, or in a spare moment when another project doesn’t take its full 90 minutes. In the middle of week 3, I noticed that a certain amount of brain fug had crept back in: a familiar sign of too many small jobs pending. So I look at my block plan and scheduled in a Small Jobs session that morning. Working through my Small Jobs, I could focus easily since I was happy knowing that the bigger projects had their time coming up later that day, or later in the week. Small Jobs completed, the brain fug was gone completely when I picked up my work in the departmental blocks later on.
As I work through the week, I colour in the completed blocks in green. This gives me immediate visual feedback that I’m doing well, I’m on track, and things are getting done. An immediate confidence booster.
Looking back through January, I see lots of green blocks and I feel happy. This is so different. Before using this system, I’d sometimes look back through my planner and see lots of things yet to do, disorganised, neglected. Things that needed a schedule but didn’t always make it onto one. This new system works.
An unexpected bonus is that through organising my business into departments, the path became clear to put together plans for each department. I now have a business plan (CEO), a product plan, a marketing plan, and so on for each department. All the tasks that used to cross my mind while I was in the middle of something else are now tidied up into the action plans for each department. As a results, my mind is clearer and calmer: when tasks for a different departments cross my mind while I’m in a block, I quickly note it down for when I’m next working in the relevant department. As each department has a separate and more detailed plan, I don’t need to list the activities in my weekly planner. When I start work in a department, I open up the relevant plan and work directly from that. I love the clarity that comes from working in this way.
Having planned breaks – and being able to relax during them because I have less on my mind – is also having a great effect. I get tired less, I move more, I eat and drink more regularly and properly. In short, it’s a healthier way to work. The boundaries that my system provide really do serve me: both professionally and personally.
Keeping the number of time blocks and departments manageable also works well when things don’t go to plan. In week 2 I had a stonker of a migraine. As I can’t think straight, read, or look at a screen during a migraine, nothing much gets done. So while it was in full flow, I just looked after myself until it passed. When I started to come out of the migraine, I sat down with a cup of tea and my planner to reschedule the rest of the week. Even in this post-migraine state of reduced thinking capacity, working through my simple system was still a breeze. The essentials got scheduled – and done – and I had peace of mind that things were taken care of. What’s more, this builds up my confidence that I’d taken care of the important things, something that was missing before this system came into place.
My weekly planning is now a dream: both to plan and to implement.
Thirty eight hours and tens (hundreds!) of tasks have become twelve time blocks and a handful of departments and projects. Planning my week takes me 5 minutes on a Monday morning. I get immediate visual feedback of my progress through the week. Everything is taken care of: peace of mind! I relax, focus, and get it done.
How do you structure your week?