A current highlight of my life is that I’m in the middle of completing one of my bucket list items: I’m participating in a research study. I was open to taking part in just about any kind of research, but I hit the personal jackpot when I received notice from one of my favorite authors, podcasters, and speakers about a time-use and management study that she’s conducting as research for her new book project.
As a big fan of to-do lists and productivity strategies, I was thrilled to join a program that not only gives me the opportunity to participate in someone’s research, but also aims to boost my efficiency. Win-win.
But even as I’m participating in the study of my dreams, a time-use realization is dawning on me: There is more to life than productivity. How efficiently I complete the tasks on my to-do list matters little if I don’t have sources of meaning and purpose in my life.
This may seem rather obvious, but as someone who gets caught up in how much I accomplish in a day, I’ve found that it’s actually easy for me to lose sight of this wisdom. I get so focused on finishing work that I forget what I’m working towards or why I’m working in the first place.
That’s why I recently decided that I needed a new approach to planning my weeks. Instead of just focusing on what must be accomplished in the next seven days, I am also devoting energy to cultivating a sense of presence — that is, being mentally and emotionally present wherever I am, not just physically there — and prioritizing space for delight in my life. In other words, I am planning my weeks in a way that maximizes not only productivity, but also presence and pleasure.
Here’s how I’m doing this:
I make a plan
At the start of each week, I stick three Post-it notes on the weekly spread of my planner and label them “To-do,” “For fun,” and “Connect.” On my to-do Post-it, I list work, school and home tasks. For instance, this past week, my to-do items included: plan next month’s youth faith formation sessions, make a vet appointment, and email potential field education placement sites. This list is my productivity Post-it, and it more or less contains the things that I need to do in order to continue to function as an adult (i.e. not lose my job, home, or the good graces of my family). While I enjoy my work, I wouldn’t describe this as a fun list so much as a “gotta-do” list.
On my connect list, I include the names of people I need to reach out to for both formal (write in-laws a thank you note for the birthday gift; send college bestie a get well card) and casual (haven’t talked to this friend in a while and want to stay connected) reasons.
Then, I stay focused during work hours and use breaks consciously
Armed with my three Post-its, I’m ready to tackle the week. Here’s how that looks for me: Each workday, I decide which tasks to prioritize from my to-do list, and I’ll work on an item diligently for, typically, 45-90 minutes. I work well in these bursts; less than 45 minutes is not enough for me to get in the zone, but with more than 90 minutes, my mind tends to wander.
When it comes time for a break, I turn to my connect list and write a quick note, make a phone call, or send an email. Moments of connection give me a boost of joy and energy, both from the social interaction itself and from the satisfaction of crossing an item off my list. With this boost, I’m rejuvenated and ready to return to focusing on my to-do list.
I am intentional during downtime hours
When my work is complete, I turn to the best list: “For Fun.” Why, you might ask, do I need to be reminded to drink a cocktail? What kind of person needs to schedule leisure reading? Well, this person. I know myself, and I know that after a long day of work, there’s a great temptation to flop into bed and mindlessly watch Netflix for two hours. But if I have an intentionally curated list of enjoyable activities at my fingertips, I’m less likely to spend time on less satisfying forms of fun.
Finally, I actively pursue a sense of presence
Have you ever found yourself at work, thinking about all the fun you want to have post-commute, but then once you are at home, you whittle away the hours thinking about all the work you have to do the next day? That used to be me, all the time. It’s an awful way to live, in my opinion, where your body and your mind and your heart are never in the same place at once.
Fortunately, my Post-it planning has helped me to get away from it. Promoting focus during work hours increases my productivity, which in turn enables me to relax more at home. And when I am able to relax fully and in satisfying ways, I’m more energized to work diligently the next day.
Time-management is a valuable skill, and I doubt that I’ll ever stop being drawn to books with titles like “Getting Things Done,” “Deep Work” and “The Checklist Manifesto.” But priority management — or paying attention to why we are working and what we’re working towards — is equally important. Organizing my weeks in a way that maximizes productivity, presence and pleasure is helping me do both.