I follow Steve Pavlina, one of the brightest of the self-help gurus. Here’s a great article about how to balance what you “gotta” with what you “wanna.”
How to Balance Your Life Purpose with Your Daily To-Dos by Steve Pavlina
In Stephen Covey’s classic productivity book First Things First, he includes a comprehensive review of various approaches to time management, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses. Some approaches are very high level, focusing on goals and values and life purpose, while other methods deal with optimizing daily workflow.
Covey argues, rather brilliantly, that trying to manage your life from the higher level perspective of your life purpose or from the lower level perspective of your daily to-dos are both suboptimal approaches. What’s needed is a perspective that balances your highest aspirations with your daily tasks. Covey explains that the perspective of the week is ideal for this.
My own productivity experiments lead me to agree. Thinking about my life purpose is great, but it’s hard to translate such high-minded ideals into simple daily actions — every single day. I can express my purpose directly through writing blog posts or newsletters, but trying to apply my life purpose one day at a time doesn’t work well for complex projects like writing a book or developing a new workshop.
On the other hand, if I tighten my focus and handle tasks one day at a time as they come up, I’m likely to drown in urgent but unimportant tasks. I’ll spend too much time on trivial items, extra emails, and other fluff — actions which have little to do with expressing my purpose. My days will fill up with busywork, much of which has little or no long-term impact.
But when I plan out my life one week at a time, I have the space to reconnect with my purpose, values, and highest aspirations. I’m not distracted by the clutter of one day’s activities. I can think consciously and intelligently about how to express my purpose over the course of the week, even if I have other tasks on my plate. In the span of a week, I have enough room to attend to several important items — if I schedule them intelligently in advance.
If you manage your life one day at a time, certain tasks and projects will never get done. You’ll always find reasons to procrastinate on them. The daily perspective is such a narrow focus that you’re very likely to become urgency driven, attending to whatever comes up and putting off your truly important projects. You’re unlikely to write that book, start that new website, or plan that personal retreat you’ve always wanted to take.
How to Plan Your Week
The perspective of the week is long enough that you can take time to schedule the important tasks and projects you want to work on, especially the long-term non-urgent ones, and then fill in the remaining time with your more urgent to-dos and nice-to-do items. This ensures that you spend adequate time working on those items that can really make a positive difference in your life.
Planning your week is easy if you use some kind of planning template. You can use a calendar application, a software template, or just pen and paper. The tool you use doesn’t matter much. What matters is that you’re taking the time to pre-plan the important items into your week, deciding in advance when you’ll do them.
For some downloadable weekly planner templates you can use, search onCovey weekly planner template. There are plenty to choose from.
Many templates based on Covey’s work use his Roles and Goals method. Your roles are your primary areas of responsibility, such as health, work, relationships, spirituality, personal growth, etc. You can be as general or as specific as you like. I have four different roles for my work: one for creative projects, one for general business and administration, one for leadership and teamwork projects, and one for my personal growth explorations and travel. I also have three more roles for my personal life. Use whatever roles makes sense for you. Covey suggests having no more than seven roles since otherwise it’s hard to keep them all straight.
It’s okay if your roles overlap a little. The point isn’t to make them separate and distinct. The point is to help remind you to pay attention to what’s most important to you.
On some templates you’ll find an extra role for sharpening the saw. This is to remind you to take time for renewal physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually. This is what you do to strengthen yourself. Note that sharpening the saw is an activity. It isn’t just taking a break or getting extra rest. It doesn’t mean putting the saw down. Physically this is a reminder to exercise. Mentally it may include reading and self-education. Socially it may involve relationship building. And spiritually it can refer to whatever practices renew you in that dimension, such as meditation.
For each role you have, set one or two goals for the coming week. Many Covey-based planning templates, including the one I use, provide space to list your goals for each role.
Under my general business role, one of my goals this week is to re-organize my filing cabinet. It’s been years since I’ve done so, and there are many obsolete files that can be discarded or archived elsewhere. I can also upgrade the system to better suit how I work today. The last time I overhauled it was about 10 years ago. While it still functions okay, I’m sure that investing a couple hours in a conscious refactoring would pay off in increased time savings and efficiency down the road. This is a minor project, but still an important one, and it’s also completely non-urgent. This isn’t the kind of project I’d ever get done if I managed my time strictly one day at a time, but with the perspective of the week, I can step back enough to see the wisdom in allocating time for this task.
I also have long-term goals and projects for each role. I use Trello to manage these (a free online service). When it’s time to set my weekly goals, I review my Trello boards and define weekly goals to make progress towards my long-term goals. Improving my filing system is part of a larger goal to create a more organized and efficient home office, which in turn is part of a greater purpose to become a more effective executive.
Once you have your roles and goals for the week, then schedule your items onto your calendar. You can simply assign each task to a day, or give a task a specific time slot. You may need to break down some of your goals into more specific actions you can complete during the week. Make sure that the action items you place on your calendar are true actions that you can take, not just wishy-washy ideas that you don’t know how to execute.
Lastly, fill in the extra space with your less important and more urgent tasks. I use the borders around the template page to list my other to-dos for the week, and then I fit them into the schedule AFTER I’ve scheduled the important goal-based items. Let the urgency-driven items fill in the gaps in your schedule. That includes deciding when you’ll handle email, check social media, etc. Be sure to leave some gaps in your schedule for meals and breaks too.
Now that you have your week planned out, you have a straightforward roadmap for what you’ll be doing each day. Work on your tasks one at a time in the order you listed. This aspect of time management takes practice and a desire to become more disciplined. If you need help disciplining yourself, read my free series on self-discipline.
Don’t worry about minor setbacks. Unexpected delays will happen. Some tasks will take longer than you expect. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t stick to your plan perfectly. Just do your best.
If you really blow your schedule badly and cannot stick to your original plan, then pause for a time-out, grab a fresh template, and re-plan the rest of the week from scratch. It’s perfectly okay to do this.
If you have a lot of unpredictability in your schedule, include extra flexibility in each day. Add longer gaps between tasks. Don’t pack your schedule so tightly. I often give myself extra padding for creative tasks since it’s tough to predict how long they’ll take.
When you look back on a finished week that you planned in advance and executed reasonably well, you’ll be pleased with all that you accomplished. The benefits of planning and executing your week based on important long-term goals are wonderful. As you go through day after day making real progress on meaningful projects, you’ll begin feeling more motivated and excited. You’ll also enjoy the benefits of seeing your important projects and tasks through to completion.
If you like this style of organizing and wish to learn more about it, I highly recommend Covey’s First Things First. It’s a timeless classic on time management.