Research hacks #20: Why it pays to plan your ideal week, and an Excel workbook to help you

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

In my last post I pointed out how time logging can help you build an accurate picture of how much time you are really spending on different tasks. That is only half the battle of taming your timetable however. The other half is working out how you want and ought to be spending your time, and that is where an ideal week planner comes in.

Before you laugh out loud at the very idea of an “ideal week”, remember Dwight D. Eisenhower’s wise words: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Sticking rigidly to pre-conceived weekly plans no matter what is the royal road to anti-social selfishness and perpetual frustration, to be sure. But there is also an equal and opposite danger: If you don’t have an idea of how you want to be spending your time, someone else (or more likely multiple other people, each with their own agenda) will spend it for you.

Another reason to have an ideal week plan is that, as I argued in a previous post, if things don’t get planned they tend not to get done.

To help my own planning I’ve developed an “ideal week” Excel workbook. I use it to sketch out how I want to be spending my time, bearing in mind that no real-life week will resemble the plan in anything like a photo-realist way.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

Here’s how to use the workbook:

When you open it you are presented with an empty grid showing every hour of the week, and an empty table with eight categories and corresponding colours (sleep, work, family, exercise, travel, grooming, eating, and workflow). The week is broken down into half hour chunks.

You then take each of the categories, renaming them if you wish, and block out all the hours in your ideal week in the corresponding colours. You should end up with a grid looking something like this dummy version:

As you add colour to the grid the pie chart to the right populates itself with the percentage of total time spent on each activity, and the number of hours sleep appears at the foot of each day’s column.

You also get the totals for each of your categories in the table.

In my experience, planning an ideal week in this way has a number of benefits:

  • It forces you to be holistic. Rather than just saying something like “I want to work on my PhD thesis 5 hours a day”, it sets your choices in the context of your whole week and all your various commitments, and it shows you the knock-one effects of expanding one category for the other areas of your life. This is why it is important to include sleeping hours in the calculation.
  • It forces you to be realistic, and to assess how much time the real you can spend doing this or that, as opposed to the imaginary you without other commitments.
  • It gives you something to aim for, and a way of evaluating whether a given commitment or aspect of your life is getting out of hand.

You can download my ideal weekly planner for free here. You will need to add it to your “cart” and then “checkout”, but despite that nomenclature it’s completely free. The whole cart thing is a quirk of the plugin I’m using to make the file downloadable from my site. It will ask you for your address but you don’t need to enter it. All it needs is a name and an email address so that it can send you the download link.


Do you know how you want to spend your time? Who decides how you spend your time?

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