Take control and gain insights into your habits
I’ve recently started planning out my week ahead on a Sunday afternoon, and I’ve seen significant improvements in my productivity as a result. I feel in control, and can see progress on my journey towards greater independence as a creative professional.
My ideas and projects were all over the place. I’d have various notes and tasks and areas of work, lists of things I needed to do as well as ideas for new stuff. While these could be fairly organised in isolation, my approach to tackling them was anything but. On a day-to-day basis, I’d generally wander into the office and pick the thing that appealed to me most. I’d then work on it until I really had to move on to something else. Dear reader, I lacked discipline.
Like a lot of creative people, I’m relatively disorganised. I can often feel pulled between projects, and as if they’re all slightly out of control: there’s just so much I want to do! Before adopting this new system, if I had a project of my own on the go, say a script or story, I might spend a few hours on that in the morning, then, later in the day, I’d get on to client work. My days did have some structure, but this was mainly born of habit rather than conscious planning and decision-making.
Overall, everything felt scattered and disorganised and ad hoc – just a bit of a mess, frankly. I was spinning lots of plates at any one time, and they were always on the brink of falling. But I tell you what, ladies and gentlemen: planning ahead and getting things laid out in front of me has been a game-changer.
It’s like looking down upon my creative landscape from a hot air balloon
Planning my week on a Sunday evening gives me time to think about the things I want and need to do at a time when I’m not actually going to do any of them. This gives me distance and means there’s no pressure, which in turn enables me to look at things objectively.
As I write, a couple of days each week are dedicated to my work as a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at University of Worcester, so those days are taken care of. I spread my other tasks through the rest of the week, and avoid spending too long on each one on any given day. It’s important to me that I feel I’m making progress in several areas. Next week I have some client work to complete and deliver, and a couple of projects of my own to move forward. I’m engaged with both of the latter, but one of them is a looser, longer-term thing, while the other is a spec piece with a self-imposed deadline.
The spec piece involves reading and learning, which are things I’m also trying to schedule into my weeks – although as a freelancer, I’m not very good at sticking to that. Instead, I tend to be pulled towards anything that pays, however little – a short-sighted approach that fails to take into account that reading and learning can pay off in the longer term. It’s an outlook I’m trying to change, and it’s the weekly plan that has given me this insight into my own shortcomings.
I’ve also learned that I have a tendency to push myself too hard, to try and do everything. I see that I try to complete creative projects both quickly and well – not happy bedfellows; to put bread on the table and give my family the things I want to provide for them (this may be a masculinity thing, but that’s probably a whole ‘nother post); to just take on too bloody much. Laying out what I want and need to do – not the same thing by a long chalk – gives me a very clear overview. It’s like looking down upon my creative landscape from a hot air balloon, my various areas of interest spread out like fields beneath me.
You know what? I got stuff done.
I’ve settled on TaskPaper for my weekly plan and project management. It’s easy to use, versatile, and plain text. When preparing the coming week, I open the TaskPaper file from the previous week, and look back on the tasks I’ve completed, and the notes and observations I’ve made. Seeing the progress is very rewarding. You know what? I got stuff done. Like putting a done tick beside an entry in a notebook or clicking a checkbox in a todo app, this gives a real sense of achievement.
I then set out the coming week by creating another document. I have the two open side-by-side, copy across anything I haven’t completed, and add in anything new. As a result of this practice I’ve noticed that most of the things I don’t complete are personal, and that some of the things I enjoy and which are most important to me, such as feeding my Zettelkasten, are consistently deprioritised. Something else I need to work on there. But then we humans do prefer an “immediate-return environment”, in which we get instant, clear results. Maybe I’m just too human…
I assign my tasks to a specific day, then adjust as necessary as the week progresses, I get a clearer picture, and as things change or new work comes in. For example, I set out the current week last Sunday, but on Monday the writer of a book I’m editing sent some new material, so that has to be scheduled into this week too. For this reason, it’s important to build some wiggle room into each week: if everything’s screwed down too tightly, there’s no flexibility.
these days I have fewer plates, and I’m spinning them more efficiently
As a result of planning my week, and doing to visually, I’ve got more control of my spinning plates. I’ll refer to my plan several times a day, checking things off and making adjustments, giving the poles a little wiggle to keep my plates moving. And because it’s more easy to see where I’m overloading myself, I can even choose to remove some; these days I have fewer plates, and I’m spinning them more efficiently.
This practise also refocuses the lens on ongoing projects, and highlights weaknesses or areas where habits are undermining progress. Having noticed that I tend to overload my days, and in turn my weeks, I’m now making a conscious effort to give myself some breathing space, and integrate those habits that will in the long-term make a positive contribution to my output. Who knows, maybe next I’ll try time blocking!
Do you use a weekly plan or other scheduling strategy? Share your secrets, tips and tricks in the comments!
Thanks for visiting; tell me about yourself. I’m a writer, Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow and Advisory Fellow, workshop lead and creative coach. Subscribe to updates, unique content and sneak peeks.