While playing the piano, meeting friends for a soccer game, and chopping wood could be spontaneous activities, for the busiest people, you have to make an appointment to go off the grid as surely as to go on it. If you have a three-year-old, for instance, and you wish to chop wood, you need to make sure someone else is dealing with the child so he doesn’t decide to "help" you. That requires thinking through your plan for the day and communicating it with your partner or someone else who might watch the child, or even just sticking him in front of the TV so he doesn’t stick himself anywhere near the axe. Playing the piano for hours means making a commitment not to call an equally busy client or look over endless project plans at that time. Eating dinner somewhere lovely often requires a reservation. Any parent knows it’s near impossible to get a Saturday night sitter on Saturday. Going to worship services often requires getting up and getting dressed at a certain time. Failing to think through what you wish to do on the weekend may make you succumb to the "I’m tired" excuse that keeps you locked in the house and not doing anything meaningful within it—even though we draw energy from meaningful things.
And so we come to the insight on weekends that I find people resist: a good weekend needs a plan. Not a minute-by-minute plan, not a spreadsheet full of details, but just a few fun anchor events sketched in ahead of time. Indeed, some research is finding that skipping the planning stage means cutting yourself off from the major mechanism via which weekends can deliver joy.
On some level, people instinctively know this. In one study that Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert writes about, people were told they’d won a free dinner at a fancy French restaurant. When asked when they’d like to schedule the dinner, most people didn’t want to head over right then. They wanted to wait, on average, over a week—to savor the anticipation of their fine fare and to optimize their pleasure. The experiencing self seldom encounters pure bliss, but the anticipating self never has to go to the bathroom in the middle of a favorite band’s concert and is never cold from too much air conditioning in that theater showing the sequel to a favorite flick. Planning a few anchor events for a weekend guarantees you pleasure because—even if all goes wrong in the moment—you still will have derived some pleasure from the anticipation.
I love spontaneity and embrace it when it happens, but I cannot bank my pleasure solely on it. Hitting the weekend without a plan means you may not get to do what you want. You’ll use up energy in negotiations with other family members. You’ll start late and the museum will close when you’ve only been there an hour. Your favorite restaurant will be booked up—and even if, miraculously, you score a table, think of how much more you would have enjoyed the last few days knowing that you’d be eating those seared scallops on Saturday night! When you plan enjoyable things ahead of time, you magnify the pleasure.
You still have one more thing to do to secure your weekend’s awesome status: carve out at least a few minutes to plan the week ahead. Schedule not just what you have to do, but what you want to do.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the late Steven Covey called this "putting first things first." He suggests an exercise that involves thinking of the roles that matter to you. I’m a writer, a wife, a mother, a runner, a friend, and a volunteer as the president of the board of directors of the Young New Yorkers’ Chorus. If your list of roles starts getting unwieldy, you could compress them into the major categories: career, relationships, and self (which includes exercise, hobbies, and anything that moves your soul). Then think of your top two or three priorities in each area that you’d like to accomplish over the next 168 hours. Block these priorities into your calendar first. Once you do this, you’ll likely notice something. First, blocking six to nine priorities into a 168-hour week still leaves a lot of blank space. But second, if you accomplished all those things, you would have an absolutely amazing week.
Dominique Schurman, the CEO of Papyrus, designates Sunday afternoons as "my planning time, to regroup and get myself organized for the upcoming week." Once the week starts, "things just start coming at me," so she needs to keep her top priorities in mind and map out her battle plan of when those things will get accomplished. "Otherwise, the time just gets eaten up by other people’s requirements encroaching on my time."
What should your priorities be? Anything you like, of course, but I find it helps to have weekly goals that make progress toward annual goals—those things you’d mention in an end-of-year performance review or in that wretched genre of literature known as the family holiday letter. Try writing both of these in January for the coming December. What would you like to say you’ve done by the end of the year in the major categories of life? Then break down these goals into smaller steps, and try to incorporate at least one of these steps into your weekly plan.
The reason to do this on Sunday is that if you wake up on Monday morning without a plan, you can easily lose the day as you figure it out. You burn up willpower deciding, rather than diving in before your focus is lost. I find that making a priority list for the coming week helps me end the weekend and start the new week with a sense of purpose. I’m not just flailing, or if I am, the flailing at least has some forward motion.
Excerpted from WHAT THE MOST SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE DO ON THE WEEKEND: A SHORT GUIDE TO MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR DAYS OFF. Published by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright Laura Vanderkam, 2012.
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[Image: Flickr user Fey Ilyas]