How to Start Each Week with Clarity and Focus on What Matters Most (10 Steps)

Overview:

The following article contains a step-by-step process you can use to complete a weekly review and each week.

This enables you to start each week with a clear focus and ensure your daily activities are aligned with your long term priorities.

There are 10 exercises in total.

On the weeks when you don’t have time to complete all 10, the most important are: 

1.) Exercise 4 – Set 3 Priorities

2.) Exercise 5 – Identify “Deep-Work” Time Blocks

3.) Exercise 8 – Complete the Weekly Planner

Exercise 1 – Complete a 15 minute “Braindump”


Purpose: 

Get all of the “stuff” that’s weighing on your mind out of your head and down on paper. 

Why is this important? 

We’re all often unconsciously carrying around a lot of amorphous “stuff” in our minds that weighs us down, blocks creativity, and prevents us from making progress on important outcomes. Therefore, we need a regular system for getting all of these open loops out of our mind and onto paper, so we can (a.) see what’s bugging us, and (b.) convert each item into a tangible outcome and next action step. This then frees us up cognitively, allowing new ideas and insights to flow in. 

Guidelines:

Set a timer for 15 minutes

Now, brainstorm on the question: “What’s weighing on my mind right now?”

Write down unfiltered everything that comes up. 

Notes: Don’t make any decisions about what you’re going to do about any of the items at this stage. The aim is just to get everything out of your head and onto paper. 

This includes things in your personal life and professional life, as well large-scale projects and small to-dos. 

For example, your list could include: 

Car needs cleaned

Dentist appointment for kids

Book proposal

Podcast Interview with Liz

Improving the website

John birthday

Community building project

Exercise 2 – Transform “stuff” into concrete outcomes


Purpose: 

Convert each item on your list into a concrete outcome and next action step. 

Why is this important?

According to the GTD methodology, for our brains to “let go” of something, they need to know that it has been converted into a desired outcome and next action step, and that the next action step has been organised into a system that you can easily review and access in the future (sort of like an external brain.) This then frees up mental energy for creative projects and allows new ideas and insights to flood in.

Guidelines: 

Be specific with your desired outcomes. Answer: “What will this look like when it’s complete?”

When defining your next action steps, make sure it’s the very first concrete physical next action that you can take to move the project forward. For example, “wash car” is bad, but “Drive to store and purchase car cleaning fluid” is good. Do you see the difference? Another example: “Improve website” is bad, but “Open natural planning method document and complete project plan on new website” is good. 

Below you can see three examples of what this might look like in practice:

Exercise 3 – Bring the Big Picture to Mind


Purpose: 

Ensure that your most important priorities are top of mind when planning your week. 

Why is this important?

“It is hard to overestimate the unimportance of almost everything.” — John Maxwell

As Maxwell’s quote suggests, most of our weekly activities constitute busy work that won’t move us towards our long term goals. 

In reality, a very small number of inputs are going to lead to the long term outcomes we want. 

Therefore, it’s vital to (a.) become conscious of what they are, and (b.) bring them to mind when planning your week, so that you can be confident you are moving towards what matters most.

Guidelines: 

If you have a long term vision, values, or 1 year/90 day goals written down somewhere, now is the time to review them so your most important priorities are top of mind.

Exercise 4 – Set 3 Priorities


Purpose: 

Set 3 clear priorities, that if achieved, would represent meaningful progress towards your 90 day outcome. 

Why is this important?

“If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.” — Jim Collins.

We often get lost in “busy-work” that doesn’t contribute towards long term outcomes. As a result, we find ourselves overworked but focusing on trivial tasks that aren’t going to get us to where we want to go. 

Therefore, it’s important to place a constraint on ourselves that helps to identify priority tasks for the week ahead, so we can avoid the busy-trap.

Prompt Question:

If you could only achieve 3 things this week to move you towards your 90 day outcome, what would they be?

After identifying your 3 priorities, rank them in order of importance:

Exercise 5 – Identify “Deep-Work” Time-Blocks 


“The key is not to prioritise what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” – Stephen R. Covey

Purpose: 

Block out uninterrupted focus time which you dedicate to making progress on your 3 priorities for the week ahead. 

Why is this important?

We live in a world of constant distractions — both internal and external. As a result, it can be difficult to make progress on long term objectives. One way to counteract this is a productivity strategy known as “time-blocking”. In a nutshell, this involves blocking out specific periods of uninterrupted focus time on your calendar in which you only focus on your 3 highest priorities for the week ahead. 

By doing this ahead of time, you’re setting yourself up for a highly effective and meaningful work week.

If you want to do further reading on the value of time-blocking, this short essay by Paul Graham is a valuable resource. 

Guidelines: 

Review your calendar for the week ahead

Identify potential “Deep Work” time-blocks where you’ll have uninterrupted space(A time-block can range from 1 – 4 hours, depending on your existing schedule and responsibilities.)

Once identified, block this time out on your calendar and keep it open. 

Notes: If someone wants to schedule something with you, it’ll be tempting to say that you’re free during these time-periods. But, in reality, you’re not. This time should be treated as sacred as it will be dedicated towards your most important long-term goals. 

If you use a digital calendar, it can help to create appointments for yourself for these time periods. Then, if somebody asks you if you are free during one of these times, you can simply say: “I have an appointment then. Can we try another time?”

The mindset is more about carving out time rather than “having” time. It’s likely that you are already busy with other responsibilities and probably don’t have loads of open space in your week. Therefore, it’s helpful to keep in mind that you are carving out time for this work, because it matters. For instance, it might involve getting up one hour earlier so you can complete a deep work session before dropping the kids off at school, or swapping out an hour of TV in the evening. 

Prompt Questions:

When this week can you “carve out” uninterrupted, focused time blocks to work on your most important priorities? 

What will you say if someone invites you to do something (e.g. a call or meeting) that clashes with one of your time-blocks? 

Exercise 6 – Choose admin time-periods


Purpose: 

Identify the time-periods that you will focus on admin and maintenance tasks. 

Why is this important? 

In an ideal world, we would be able to focus fully on our most important outcomes every day of the week. But in reality, we have other commitments that also need to be tended to. So an important part of a weekly planning session is to identify the time periods when you will focus on completing the admin and maintenance tasks that need to get done. This will prevent overwhelm and ensure that you don’t fall behind on these activities.

Guidelines:

Identify the specific time periods you will complete admin/maintenance tasks

By their nature, it’s likely these will require less concentration, so you won’t need as much focused time to complete these. For instance, you might want to do your deep work in the mornings when you have the most energy and then focus on admin in the afternoon. 

Notes: if there’s an admin task you dread doing but that needs to get done, try and pair it with something that brings you joy. 

For example, in his book: Effortless, Greg McKeown shares a strategy his wife Anna and he used to complete their dreaded annual tax return. To make it more appealing, they paired doing taxes with eating their favourite snack (dark chocolate covered almonds) and listening to their favourite music, which made it less of a drag.

Prompt Questions:

When, specifically, this week, will you focus on your admin tasks? 

Are there any in particular tasks that you’re dreading, or that you anticipate you’ll procrastinate on?

If you answered “yes” to the second question, is there anything you can pair these activities with, to make them more enjoyable?

Exercise 7 – Pitfalls and Counter-Strategies


“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” — Mike Tyson

Purpose: 

Anticipate potential obstacles and pitfalls ahead of time to prevent them from derailing your progress. 

Why is this important?

As the quote suggests, our plans often don’t survive first contact with reality. 

Human life is messy and there are a lot of things that can come up during a day that prevent us from making progress towards long term goals. 

These include both internal tendencies (i.e. self sabotage) and external obstacles. 

Therefore, it’s vital to anticipate what these might be ahead of time and create “if-then” counter strategies for when things get off track. 

Guidelines:

Think of these as two separate processes:

(1.) Identifying pitfalls

(2.) Developing counter-strategies

In other words, don’t come up with your counter-strategies at the same time that you are identifying pitfalls. First identify all of the potential pitfalls and then (and only then) move on to developing counter strategies for each. 

Please see the table below for 3 examples of how this might look like in practice

Prompt Questions:

What internal obstacles (habits, tendencies, etc) are likely to prevent you from making progress on your 3 priorities this week?

What external obstacles are likely to get in the way?

What can you do—ahead of time—to prevent them from derailing your progress?

Exercise 8 – Complete the Weekly Planner


Purpose: 

Add your deep work and admin sessions to the weekly planner so you have a “birdseye” view on the week ahead. 

Why is this important?

This exercise serves a vital function in planning an effective week. Firstly, it gives you a visual representation of your deep work sessions, keeping them top of mind as you map out the week ahead. Secondly, by adding time-specific tasks and appointments, you also have a sense for what’s coming in the days that follow, meaning you’re less likely to be caught unprepared for important commitments. Finally, it gives you a global picture of how your weekly actions are (or are not) moving you towards your long term goals. 

Guidelines: 

For each day, add your number #1 priority to the top row

Add any calendar appointments to the “Schedule” row, e.g., dentist appointment @ 4pm on Thursday

Add any time-specific tasks to the second row.For example, if you have a podcast interview on Wednesday, a time-specific task for Tuesday might be: “Prepare for Wednesday’s interview”. 

If you are trying to develop any new habits, add them to the final row.

Exercise 9 –  Create Your Admin Task List


Purpose: 

Ensure urgent activities that fall outside of your 3 priorities also get completed.

Why is this important?

We all have urgent things that need to get done that don’t necessarily contribute towards long term goals, e.g., paying bills, completing work tasks, household chores, etc. It’s likely that you will have identified many of these during exercise 2. 

 

Although they may not be classed as “high priority”, they still need to get done, so it can help to have a system for keeping on top of these items too. 

Guidelines:

Revisit the lists you created in steps 2 and 3 of this process

List all of the desired outcomes and next actions in the table below

Rank them in order of urgency/importance to complete

Complete these tasks (in they order they are ranked above) during the scheduled admin time periods you chose in exercise 6 of the in-session worksheet.

Exercise 10 – Declutter


Purpose: 

Start each week fresh by clearing physical and digital working environments. 

Why is this important?

Research shows that we can gain numerous psychological benefits from decluttering, including reduced stress, improved mood, feelings of calm, and a greater sense of control over our environment.

This principle applies both to our physical environment and our digital one. 

Therefore, the final step in this process is to “declutter”, so that you can start the following week fresh with a clean slate.

Guidelines:

Everyone’s working setup is different, so you will want to develop your own checklist for this. However, to give you an idea of what your checklist might look like, a basic version is provided below:

Checklist:

  • Clear physical working space
  • Clear notes on Phone
  • Clear desktop
  • Organise email inbox
  • Reply to unanswered texts, whatsapp messages, and social media messages/comments

And that’s it…

These are the 10 steps I use to start each week with a clean slate, with a clear focus on what matters most in the week ahead.

What about you? Do you do a weekly review?

And if so, is there anything you do that hasn’t been included above?

Leave a comment and let me know!

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Niall McKeever

Niall McKeever

Writer and Founder of The Weekend University. Passionate about making great ideas more accessible.

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