I plan, because life doesn’t go as planned

This has been a surprisingly productive week.

I say surprising because the week absorbed a great many Halloween activities, including two classroom volunteering stints (coordinating pumpkin carving kits and crafts — not my strong suit) plus the usual parade and trick-or-treating.

The week also absorbed an unexpected Halloween nightmare in the form of the 3-year-old’s encounter with the bat. From Sunday to Thursday this involved two ER visits, one urgent care visit, plus numerous calls coordinating park rangers, the department of public health, pediatricians and infectious disease specialists. We now know that the bat tested negative for rabies, so we are in the clear. Phew.

Anyway, every Friday I make a priority list for the following week. I choose a handful of things in three categories — career, relationships, self — that I plan to do.

In the professional category, there are always some “have to dos” but I also try to list some purely speculative want-to-dos, or steps toward long-term projects that need to be done eventually, if they don’t have to be done right now.

When life gets busy, these are very easy to push off.

If I make my list really short, though, I can hold myself accountable to these tasks, and not push them off. Even when life gets busy. Even when life doesn’t go as planned.

Which is how I wound up spending yesterday writing 2500 words in my NaNoWriMo novel, scheduling the first meeting of a new professional group, and updating my registration in the federal government’s system of award management*, which involved getting my entity administrator letter notarized.

The notarizing in particular was on my radar screen for a while because I knew it would be a pain. I finally carved out time Monday afternoon to wade through the registration renewal process, print out my forms, and go visit a notary (front-loading the week!)

Then I wound up spending all of Monday afternoon in the ER.

But I generally try to schedule fewer things toward the end of the week, so there is space to absorb spillover from Monday when life happens. So I seized some time in the afternoon on Thursday to head over to the UPS store (where there are notaries!) to get the appropriate stamps and signatures.

There were other things I could have done with that block of time. But the beauty of making a weekly priority list is that I knew I had thought through what I wanted or needed to do this week, and the registration rigamarole had made the cut. So rather than putting it off to the future, hoping for a better time, I just did it. Same thing with the novel writing, and scheduling the group’s first meeting. A really short priority list can still happen, even when stuff comes up.

In other words, I plan because life doesn’t turn out as planned. There is no contradiction here.

I also think that creating a short weekly priority list has major psychological upsides. Despite the week’s curveballs, I still feel like I am making progress on things. I can relax and enjoy the extravagant fall color that has turned my neighborhood into an autumn wonderland. That’s much better than feeling panicked or uneasy that there’s something I should be doing, but I’m not.

Do you make a weekly priority list?

*So I can do speeches and workshops for federal government agencies.

11 thoughts on “I plan, because life doesn’t go as planned

  1. I am very interested in how you keep that list front and center. Are these specific week goals written inside your regular to-do list (if you have one…) and if yes, are they mixed with everything else (by work-personal-family category…) or separated in their own space within the to-do list (maybe at the top? or at the bottom?). Or is this a special list on paper or in a separate app that you remember to check? I am asking for technical information to be able to understand how you can make sure you check the list and act on it.

    1. I second this question. I find I am still searching for a way that works to manage my to-do lists. I have had some success with coming up with yearly professional goals and then breaking them down by quarters, but the day-to-day and week-to-week to-do lists are still a challenge. One particular pain point is how to organize between professional and personal to-dos. I also work from home and am self-employed writer, so while I have client projects on my desk, I do have some leeway with how my day is configured. I found myself for a while tackling personal to-dos simply because they were easier to get through and cross of. Would love to hear if you have found a system that works for you.

      1. @Kathleen-
        Please see the response I wrote on Nadia’s comment. Honestly, on the daily to-do list it is all mixed together. So today I had “plumber” and “blog” and “write weekly newsletter” and “check in with accountability partner” and “Penguin phone call” and “run” and other things all in a row. If you work from home and work for yourself, then honestly, time is just time. You don’t have to be particularly regimented about work hours or personal tasks as long as you’re not massively over/under investing in either. (So if you’re way behind on work deadlines because you are spending a lot of time researching Thanksgiving recipes, that might be a problem.)

    2. @Nadia- good questions. I write my weekly priority list in my “planner” – which is really just a notebook that I keep on my desk (college ruled and stays open, but pretty nondescript other than that). I write the week, then make my list below that. I tend to do two columns (though not officially marked – just one list on the left, the other on the right). The left is my professional stuff for the week. I put personal and relationship goals on the right.

      This isn’t really a to-do list. My time-specific to-dos have already been put on my calendar. I make daily to-do lists during the week, pulling from the master weekly priority list, and then also adding in time specific things, plus habits (“run.”) When I’m not terribly busy, I do these one day at a time. When I’ve got a lot going on I’ll make daily to-do lists for the whole week ahead of time, and then adjust and re-work as I go (when stuff comes up, or I get a chance to do something I was going to do on Thursday on Tuesday — that sort of thing).

      I cross out things when I’ve done them. This is really satisfying to me!

    3. @Nadia – to follow up on my other response, I can be more specific. Next week my work priorities are to write another 6000 words in the novel, speak at the Indiana Conference for Women, record our podcasts, and call into my strategy group. On the relationship front, I have my 3-year-old’s first PT conference, I’m meeting my mother-in-law and sister-in-law while I’m in Indiana, and I’m also meeting a blogger/college classmate (that could be work + personal – I love when these things blend!). On the personal front, I’d like to plan something fun for me (and fun for the kids) when they have election day off. I’m also looking to the weekend and plotting out how I’ll get to do a longer run, given that my husband and the older boys will be occupied big chunks of the time (so I’ll be with the little ones).
      There are various other to-dos (like I’ll need to send in my receipts after the conference) but those don’t rise up to the priority list level. I’ll put them and various calls that are already on the calendar, on my daily to-do lists when I make them.

  2. I love your comment “In other words, I plan because life doesn’t turn out as planned. There is no contradiction here”. This is a truth that we all need to understand. I routinely plan my week and have several time blocks for project work, prep blocks, people blocks, and present blocks — me time. It is okay if unexpected things come up — it is easy to move things around. I also plan my day in the same manner.

    Best wishes,

    1. @David – thanks! Yep, having several blocks of time for something helps. If it doesn’t work out on one day, it will work out on another.

  3. My short weekly priority list is my big three that get set on Sunday for the upcoming week. Each morning I do the same for the daily three of important stuff and have an additional daily task list. Calendar appointments are separate. I’m now using the Full Focus Planner to help me with this, as I found that tasks tended to take over my life instead of working on the important personal projects that don’t have firm deadlines. Front-loading is key for me, especially on a daily basis.

    Very glad no rabies!

  4. So sorry your little one got hurt! Hope they are feeling better. I tend to make lists for the week on the weekend, but would like to get to the point where I make them on Fridays as you do. It took me a long time to learn this lesson-planning because life doesn’t go as planned, but it’s so much better.

  5. I’ve been making weekly to-do lists for about two years now, and it’s been a real game-changer. Before I would occasionally make lists for just one area of my life, but now I just combine them all into one general to-do list. I think I probably need to do more of what you do, however, and prioritize a few of them so I know where the bulk of my energy on any given week should go.

    Sorry about the bat encounter! How crazy is that?!

  6. When you sit down to write your weekly priority list, what resources are you pulling the tasks from? Do you have one big master list, a variety of project lists? Are they on paper or on-line?

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