Secrets to a Stress-Free Week
Accomplish something other than writing a few dozen emails.
Every Friday morning, I treat myself to a cup of coffee, grab my planner, open up my calendar and consider the week ahead.
For years, this act was a ceremony of scrambling to figure out how I would get things done. I lacked priorities. Little of what I accomplished surpassed the expected; the goals I felt passionate about were placed on the back burner. As a people-pleasing perfectionist, I said yes to every opportunity that came along.
When I first moved to Maine, I was overwhelmed by new, unforeseen responsibilities. Maintaining a positive relationship with my partner, being a good dog-mom, and learning to start a brand new business from scratch left me struggling to figure out how to get things done. Multiple planners failed to help me plan, productivity books seemed useless, and progress was slow. I found myself running into the same problems I had previously encountered as a traditional employee: giant, unproductive blocks of time, no real breaks, all compounded by additional running-your-own business tasks.
I needed to figure out a way to put my work needs, creative growth, and business wants into a tighter timeline while leaving enough space in my schedule for life to happen.
Here are some things I discovered about myself and my schedule so I could be more productive.
1. Assess: Notice patterns and desires
A Friday deadline keeps my weekends free. As an Obliger, the temptation to keep working all the time is real. Also, having two days off in a row makes a big difference to my quality of life.
Exercise is essential to my creativity.
Prioritizing my health was a lifestyle change I wanted to commit to as part of my self-employment. Exercise keeps my stress levels down and helps me sleep better at night.
Choosing to add a yoga class into my schedule also makes sure that I interact with other humans. I’ve also penciled in a morning French class for beginners, which I will attend. (The struggle is real.)
Work on “for-fun” projects during the day.
Personal creative projects have been opportunities for me to learn new skills, test out ideas, and explore new territory. In past seasons, work projects overflowed into all hours of the day. I stayed up way too late, which completely threw off the following day. I also had the bad habit of using my vacation time to try and complete side projects.
The idea to schedule a personal project into my week was a game-changing lightning bolt from reading Brian Moran’s The Twelve Week Year. Moran refers to time as blocks. Working on personal projects is a ‘breakout block,’ a 3-hour, unscheduled, weekly time. Everyone can have this time, and you need it. Working with time as blocks has helped me to prioritize and protect me from myself. You can do everything, but not all at once. Amazing. And, vacations are no longer for project work.
My brain works best in the morning.
My best ideas usually happen on my morning runs, but acting on them is best after coffee. My mornings need creative blocks of time. After lunch is a good time for me to get into production tasks and client work.
In identifying those blocks of time, I also considered how I wanted to feel when completing the tasks. My creative time needs to feel spacious and quiet, so I’m working on being offline for my creative blocks. I also feel distracted when I have client appointments and calls throughout the day or when my work spans time-zones, so afternoons make sense when it comes to availability.
Fridays are for administrative work.
I like starting my week knowing what I’m focusing on. On Monday, I start the day off with a bang and focus on projects. By Friday, I like to feel like I’ve tidied things up - I plan client work, schedule pre-project client meetings, work on my business and send work out.
2. Take action: Make a skeleton schedule
How other people spend their days has always been fascinating to me. What I’ve learned from reading books like Daily Rituals: How Artists Work and articles examining Benjamin Franklin’s day is that there isn’t a perfect plan. Productive people just happen to have a routine they follow. (I like to substitute the word ‘routine’ here for ‘creative process,’ but either works.)
To resolve my lack of a schedule, I set out to create a calendar I could use as a template to define my week. A routine aligned to the times that worked best for creative activities, business activities, networking, etc.
Outline the week.
Write out your typical week and then write out your ideal week. What commitments are going on the calendar? Notice where the pain points are. Think about what you need to focus on, what environment suits your work style, when you need to be alone, and how you’ll make time for your priorities.
Start marking the time on the calendar.
Simply thinking about when my work day should begin seemed the right place start. I knew I wanted Fridays for administrative tasks and Monday for client work, so I dedicated those days for those purposes. I use iCal, but you could use Google Calendar or even a paper planner. Also, I found the Elle and Company Weekly Planner very helpful, but I need a digital tool that syncs across my devices and offers alerts and reminders.
Incorporate your needs.
In defining my skeleton schedule, I kept things flexible. I get restless when the days feel the same. Creating a long lunch leaves room for the occasional lecture or a long walk on a sunny day. To prevent me from going down the social media rabbit hole, I’ve made some work blocks offline. Before I start my day and after lunch, I check in with social media and my email. Client time in the afternoon is also when I schedule my client calls.
Color coding the calendar means that each block of time is dedicated to that type of work. Dedicated calendars make it easy to see when I’m available for client work or to attend a workshop at my local SCORE. For my packaged client work, I dedicate myself to working with one client at a time. I know when I have a free slot available to take on a project. Since I know exactly how long each step in my process takes, my model allows me to communicate in advance to clients when I’ll be sending them deliverables.
3. Keep priorities front and center.
The template doesn’t work if I’m at a conference and sometimes the weather makes a scheduled dog walk impossible. However, it does make my time more flexible. When I have an odd day, I keep my priorities on a sheet of paper, tacked to the bulletin board in front of my desk. I check in with my work load and go from there.
Now that I have a handle on my week, I’m more productive, less overwhelmed, and accomplishing my goals at a pace that feels right for me. Planning my week and future events is faster and easier because my calendar reflects my priorities. I still fit things into my schedule, but the focused time slots keep me productive without going overboard. If you’re looking for a secret-weapon to add more time and space to your day consider creating a template calendar to work from.
Struggling to do #allthethings? Have a hot tip to share? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.