Last week, we focused on tools for cultivating self-awareness one day at a time. This week, we’re focusing on short- and mid-term planning. Specifically, we’ll be talking about how to create a weekly schedule that you can actually use.
Why bother with weekly scheduling or planning?
With mounting frequency, I find myself staring into the blue light of my computer screen well-past my bedtime with the anemic pallor and watery, lamp-like eyes of a cave-dwelling wretch. Time is precious. Time and energy have become the currency of my life. As each year becomes a smaller fraction of the years I’ve lived, each day feels more like a day wasted. I periodically decide that I have wasted my whole life and want a new one—because I have not prioritized the things I value.
This is how a quarter-life crisis typically begins.
Done right, a weekly schedule is as much a weapon in the battle against existential dread as it is an organizational tool. Time shouldn’t be commodified, but that’s exactly what a “work hour” is. It’s why American culture speaks of time as something that can be “spent.” If time is something that can be spent, then it follows we should spend it on something with value. Therefore, the first step to creating a weekly schedule is determining what your values are.
Step 1: Determine what your values are.
Why might you maintain a relationship you don’t find fulfilling? Why might you stop going to class when you’re unsure of how it relates to your goals? Why might you keep showing up to a job that you don’t like? I don’t know! These are stressful situations! But if you know what you value, it becomes easier to move toward spending your time on what you value. In the meantime, it becomes easier to tolerate stressful situations.
Start by making a list of areas of your life. For example:
- Self-care (as you defined it last week)
- Recreation and hobbies
- Romantic and/or sexual relationships
- Familial relationships
- Community life
- Activism or volunteering for a cause
- Adventure and trying new things
I based this list (and exercise) off of The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook I use. Can you think of any others?
On a scale of 0 (not important at all) to 10 (extremely important) rate how highly you value these things, regardless of how you actually spend your time or what you think you should value. Then, rate how much time you spend on each of these things. Where are the biggest gaps?
Highlight everything rated 5 or higher. Decide which areas you want to spend more time on to live a fulfilling life. Maybe you’ll pick the 3 Maybe you’ll pick the one with the biggest gap in ratings. Put a pin in that thought.
Step 2: Write down all weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly obligations.
I’m talking shifts at work, classes, when you or your ex has the kids, when your improv team practices, when your wiccan coven assembles—the whole shebang! Note where they are and who will be there. Categorize each of these according to the list of areas of your life. Consider giving each element or obligation its own color.
Step 3: Plan time to commute.
Write down everything you need to have for these things—the hat they make you wear at the deli, your backpack full of rental textbooks; that raggedy, stuffed tiger your kid will cry about if it’s missing from their overnight bag; your magic wand, plus assorted herbs and crystals—I don’t know how you live your life!
Factor in time to pack your things. My best friend pointed out that whenever I get anxious, I start searching my bag to make sure I have everything I need. I used to be late a lot more often because of this. I get sweaty just thinking about it. Don’t be like that!
Write down how long it takes to commute to each of these.
Add your packing time. Add at least 15 minutes to that to account for traffic, leaving your bag at home, and switching your shirt at the last second because you spilled coffee on yourself while walking out the door—add 15 minutes, and you’ll barely need to catastrophize anymore! Now add another 5 minutes if you have to find parking. Not enough time? Maybe you’ll have to pack everything you need for the next day just before bed. Maybe you’ll need to keep things in specific spots.
I can tell you by looking at my schedule, the main way I am wasting my life is commuting in a car. This is a huge chunk of my life I spend being sedentary, which negatively impacts my health. I resent this part of my life. I value fun and recreation. So, I tolerate this part of my life by listening to podcasts, albums, and audiobooks. But I was much happier living somewhere where I could ride my bike or read on the train. I have a friend who decided she wanted to live in a city where she could read while taking the bus to work because. Her commutes were when she felt most ground-down by life. Her solution was to have someone else drive. Figure out how to make your commutes bearable.
Step 3a: Create a physical copy of your weekly schedule as it currently exists.
You can use a piece of lined paper, a spreadsheet, or a bunch of sticky-notes on your bedroom wall. We’ll be linking to templates you can use here, too!
For myself, I created a simple template for a weekly schedule. I chose to assign one row to each day. Because I work and go to school, I devote a column to each class at school, one to work, and one to my personal life. I print about 4 months’ worth of these at a time, changing their headings as needed. I enter a due date as soon as it’s assigned. I always use pencil in case something changes. Sometimes I trick myself into believing a due date is sooner, so I won’t procrastinate.
Step 3b: Digitize your weekly schedule.
Plug everything into Google Calendar, iCal, Outlook—whatever! Set recurring events. Color code things. If you have multiple calendars, sync them or get rid of the ones you aren’t really using. Or don’t! Not everyone uses these.
Step 4: Develop intentions based on your values.
A-ha! See? It all relates. Unpin that thought.
In which areas of your life did you decide to spend more time so you can live a more fulfilling life? Choose an area or 3 of your life that you highly value. Form an intention for that area of your life. For example, if you rated friendships highly, perhaps your intention would be “spend more time with my friends.” If you rated work highly, perhaps your intention would be “get a new job.”
Step 5: Identify actions you are willing to commit to doing to move you toward fulfilling your intentions.
You can thank every social worker I’ve ever known for this one. Committed actions need to be SMART:
- Specific – Define your goals. Use active verbs. Do not use ambiguous language. Who is involved? What do you want to accomplish? Where will you do this? Why, or for what reason, will you do this? Which constraints or requirements affect your goal?
- Measurable – Decide how you will know when your goal is accomplished. Can you track your progress or measure the outcome? How will you know something has changed?
- Achievable – Is your goal something you could reasonably accomplish? Could you attain this goal with your existing resources, timeline, and budget?
- Relevant – Does your goal align with your values? Could it move you towards long-term objectives? Does it make sense within the scope of your life?
- Timely – Give yourself some time to accomplish your goal but set deadlines.
For example, a component of my life that I value is friendship. My intention for this component is to spend more time with friends. I have to work within the constraints of our differing schedules and a pandemic. I am willing to commit to three committed actions, so my life is more fulfilling:
- Call my best friend while going for a walk this week.
- Play a Jackbox game remotely with a group of friends on Discord before the end of December.
- Buy COVID-19 rapid tests before my friends and I all visit our families next week so we can see each other after traveling without feeling anxious.
I even followed through on one of these before I finished writing this article!
Step 6: Fit your committed actions into your schedule.
Your schedule is not meant to bind you to a set of obligations. It is meant to create space for what matters to you.
I’ll shamelessly plug our own organization here: If you value activism and your intention is to spend more time shaping the mental health system, schedule our monthly statewide advisory board into your calendar. If you value community life, but don’t have a community of peers in recovery, add a Cozy Corner or Alt2Su meeting to your calendar.
Our lives might seem unbearable sometimes. Mine does, and I think it’s actually kinda been getting better lately? But if we understand what you value, we have something to move towards. This knowledge can make even soul-sucking commutes more tolerable. And it can show us where, when, and how we can make changes as we pursue lives worth living.