Ever feel like you’re just running around, juggling work and family commitments, answering endless emails, and reacting to whatever life throws at you? Always working right up to the deadline and never feeling completely on top of your projects? Mapping out your ideal week can help you balance your priorities, personal and professional, and allow you to take back control of your life!

Why bother with an ideal week?

When I first left my full-time job, I initially rebelled against the 9-to-5 structure and longed for complete autonomy and flexibility. The downsides of this soon became apparent, though, as my clients could book calls at any time of the day via my online scheduler; weeks would pass without making any progress on important, but non-urgent projects; and my home office meant that there was no clear line between work and play.

As a freelancer, you decide what to do with the 24 hours in every day, with no annoying boss calling you into a pointless meeting or shifting your work plan priorities for some arbitrary reason. But with great freedom comes great responsibility, and the complete lack of structure and accountability can make things pretty messy.

Creating your ideal week, and setting up your calendar to match it, will allow you to be more proactive and intentional about your work–instead of just reacting to what’s happening around you.

How to set up your ideal week

1. Get clear on your priorities

Rocks balanced on top of each other
The first step towards achieving balance is to define what is important for you, i.e., what it is that you’re trying to balance in your life.? Via Deniz Altindas.

Your ideal week is the week that you would have if you could control 100% of what you do with your time. No blaming others and no excuses: what would your schedule look like in an ideal world?

Busy as we are, we rarely take the time to think about the bigger picture, to consider our personal and professional priorities and how we’re allocating our valuable time. Taking a step back to reflect on what we’re doing and why is key to using our time effectively and achieving balance in our lives.

I’ve found that there are five main categories that cover the top priorities for most of us. Here they are, with examples of activities that fall into each:

  • Career (e.g. client work, business development, company accounts)
  • Relationships (e.g. meeting friends, date night with your husband, calling your parents)
  • Personal growth and learning (e.g. online courses, language lessons, listening to podcasts)
  • Health and wellbeing (e.g. going to the gym, meditation, regular meals)
  • Miscellaneous fun (e.g. hobbies, relaxation, and being spontaneous!)

As you can see, the typical work tasks that dominate our calendars fall into just one of the five priority areas. Many of us freelancers have chosen this work form precisely because we want more time for friends and family, for travel, and for whatever else that’s meaningful in our lives, but we often get caught up in the importance of our work and neglect those other areas.

Successfully balancing your work and personal priorities means that you have one calendar with everything in it. Using the categories above (and adding your own if you feel that something is missing), write a list of each activity that you want to include in your ideal week. In particular, pay attention to things that you’d like to spend more time on. Make sure that you also include ‘non-activities’ like down time or relaxation–it may seem ridiculous to create time slots for ‘being spontaneous’, but in our busy lives that’s honestly the only way that a lot of us will ever make the time!

2. Mapping out your own ideal week

Calendar example in Excel
This is what my ideal week looks like at the moment. I’ve gone back to a more-or-less typical working week, taking the evenings and weekends off, and having this clear boundary makes both work and play more productive!

Now that you have a list of your priorities,  place each of these into a time slot on the calendar. The basic ideal week template is just a table with seven columns along the top labelled Monday to Sunday, and then the hours of the day listed as rows down the left.

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Experiment with different configurations using paper with pencil or Post-its or Excel. Use color coding to help you maintain that all-important balance across your priorities (note that balance doesn’t mean spending the same amount of time on every activity, but the right amount of time). You can also add themes at the top, to put the emphasis on your top priority for that day–I had one client who set up ‘Get-s**t-done Fridays’!

To create an effective ideal week, make sure you follow these three key principles:

Start with the big rocks

Hand holding a piece of rock.
Placing your most important priorities, your big rocks, first will ensure that they don’t get pushed out by ‘busy work’. Via Brina Blum.

The idea of the ‘big rocks’ metaphor is that the only way you can fit everything that’s important into your life is by starting with your big rocks, your top priorities. It’s only after the big rocks have been addressed that you should add in the smaller stones, the little tasks that can otherwise take up all your time. Start by planning the activities that are absolutely critical to moving your business forward, to your relationships, or to ensuring that you stay healthy and happy. You decide what those rocks are, based on your personal value system and your specific goals.

Eat the frog

Close-up of a frog.
If you’ve eaten a live frog in the morning, you know that the worst is over and the day can only get better after that! Via Wayne Robinson.

The natural tendency for a lot of us will be to follow the path of least resistance. This means you’ll start with the easiest tasks, the fun ones, and important jobs will get postponed, either until they become urgent and you’re forced to take them on, or indefinitely, making you miss out on potentially valuable opportunities. “Eating the frog” means planning to do the most important work, especially the work that you really don’t enjoy, before you get distracted by everything else. Schedule your personal frogs early in the day to make sure you don’t procrastinate.

Follow your body clock

Alarm clock.
There’s no point in trying to work late into the night when you know that you’re most productive first thing in the morning. Via Brandi Redd.

If you know you’re one of those chirpy people who jumps out of bed when the alarm rings (grr!), then make sure you plan to get a lot done in the morning. If you’re a night owl and super productive late into the evening, then you can plan to do a lot more work once the sun goes down. As a freelancer, you can end up chained to your computer from dawn to dusk, but it’s no good forcing yourself to work when your brain’s not working. Follow the natural rhythm of your body clock!

3. Putting your ideal week into practice

Screenshot my ideal week in iCal
This is what my ideal week looks like once I’ve transferred it to iCal. My actual calendar will look quite different once I put in real-life appointments, meetings and client work–but this gives me a framework for making the right priority calls.

Whether you’ve created your ideal week in Excel or on good old-fashioned paper, to make it actionable you’ll want to transfer your key themes or building blocks into your actual calendar. For example, I’ve now blocked every weekday morning 7.30am-1pm for my top priority activities, which include meditation and exercise first thing in the morning, followed by writing as I’m most creative and focused before lunch. I’ve also kept Saturday completely free, except for date night!

To help you stick to your plan and avoid unreasonable last-minute requests and distractions, make sure that you set clear boundaries and communicate them ahead of time. For instance, tell people the hours that you work and be clear that you won’t respond after 6pm or on weekends; say how you prefer to be contacted—via email, by phone or on Whatsapp—and if you work from home, tell your family that a closed door means that they should only disturb you in an emergency.

I would also recommend reviewing your to-do list each week (some like to do this on a Sunday night, or perhaps Monday morning) and transform it into calendar appointments on the appropriate day. Stuff in your calendar actually gets done, so make appointments with yourself—and keep them!

Now, you’re never going to experience an ideal week exactly as you’ve outlined it—life happens, after all! Treat it more as a guideline, a framework that is flexible and not set in stone. If you need to make an exception now and then that’s fine, and if you find that something consistently isn’t working for you then change things up! The key is to do this intentionally and proactively and not just in reaction to what’s being thrown at you.

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This article was written by Anna Lundberg. Anna is a business consultant and personal coach (CPC and ACC) who writes, coaches and leads workshops to help ambitious individuals, employees and entrepreneurs achieve their full potential in their professional and personal lives. Follow her on Twitter @annaselundberg