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How Mike Does Multi-Scale Planning in Obsidian

I’ve been a fan of Cal Newport’s for a long time. He’s been extolling the virtues of time blocking as a method for daily planning for over 15 years, and was the primary influence for creating my own daily time-blocked plans.

So when I heard him bring up the topic of Multi-Scale planning on a recent Deep Life podcast episode, I was intrigued by the mechanics of how Cal did Multi-Scale planning himself. As I dove deeper into the concept, I discovered that (with a few tweaks to what I was already doing) I could create a system for Multi-Scale planning in Obsidian pretty easily using a combination of templates and plugins.

What is Multi-Scale Planning?

Multi-Scale planning is a way to make sure that your vision and your values get translated into your everyday actions by considering quarterly, weekly, and daily plans. The major benefit of Multi-Scale planning is that it helps you stay grounded and focused on what’s important so you don’t get distracted by things that don’t move the needle.

This is not just breaking down big projects. Multi-Scale planning actually begins by considering what Cal calls your Roles and Values. In my version of this, I start with my LifeTheme (which is a personal mission statement that encapsulates what my life is about) and my personal core values, which are both individual notes in my Obsidian vault that I review every 90 days when I do my Personal Retreat.

But the important thing here is that you know what’s important to you before you sit down to do any sort of planning. Once you get clear on that, you can use planning at different time scales. Cal recommends quarterly, weekly, and daily planning, which I personally think is a pretty good cadence.

The quarterly plan is long enough to make some significant progress, but short enough that you have built in periods where you can reset and make adjustments. By shortening the planning period from annual goals to quarterly, you have four opportunities to fix broken systems and make course corrections if needed.

The next element of Multi-Scale planning is the weekly plan. This is where you look at your calendar for the week ahead so you’re aware of what meetings and appointments you have coming up, then identify the important tasks that need to get done before the end of the week.

The advantage of considering what needs to get done at the week level instead of just on the day it’s due is that you have a little more margin to work with. If all you’re doing is building your list the day of, you have no flexibility in completing tasks early or pushing things back a day if you just aren’t feeling it. But when you consider things at the week level, you can see how you’re making progress and adjust your plans on the fly if need be without significantly disrupting project deadlines. With a weekly plan, your daily plans can be a little more fluid, which help you maintain a better and more consistent work rhythm over time.

The final piece of this is the daily plan. This is where time blocking comes in for me as I pick 3-5 things to work on and then time block my entire day around the meetings on my calendar and my morning and evening routines. It’s important for this part that I 1) give every hour a job which makes it easier to focus by determining my intentions ahead of time, and 2) not try to do too much. That’s why I limit myself to 3-5 things, and by regularly consulting the weekly plan, I’m able to see the regular progress I’m making and resist the temptation to do too much in a single day.

How to Do Multi-Scale Planning in Obsidian

Now, when it comes to actually doing Multi-Scale planning, you don’t need fancy tools in order to make it work. On his podcast, Cal talks often about how you can do this with notebooks and plain text files. But I personally think Obsidian is the perfect tool for this โ€” you just need a couple of plugins and templates to make it work.

First, you’ll need to install the Periodic Notes plugin. This allows you to create notes from templates for weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annual notes. As I mentioned earlier when talking about Multi-Scale planning, I actually don’t use the annual notes and I don’t use the monthly notes either. But I do like being able to use separate templates files for weekly notes and for quarterly notes. Just like the Daily Notes core plugin template I demoed in this article, Periodic Notes offers options for note name format, the template file to use when creating the note, and folder location for storing the created notes.

Here are the settings I like to use for weekly notes:

  • For Format, I use YYYY - [Week] W which translates into something like 2024 - Week 25 when created.
  • I use a template file called Weekly Planning Template from my Templates folder.
  • I create new weekly notes in a folder called Planning.

Here are the settings I use for my quarterly notes:

  • For Format, I use YYYY [Q]Q which translates into something like 2024 Q2 when created.
  • I use a template file called Personal Retreat Template from my Templates folder.
  • I create new quarterly notes in a folder called Personal Retreats.

You’ll also want to have the Calendar plugin installed. This allows you to quickly jump to both your Daily Notes and your weekly notes. You’ll just need to make sure that you have the Show Week Number option toggled on, then you can click on the week number to create a weekly note for that week using the settings of the Periodic Notes plugin.

Pulling It All Together

As I mentioned before, the real heavy lifting is done during my Personal Retreat process. When I do my Personal Retreats, I like to get away for an entire day just to think. Lately, I’ve been going to a Getaway House, which are these tiny cabins parked on campsites that are pretty affordable and the perfect place to think about the next 90 days.

(If you want to see what it looks like, I actually did a whole video on my Getaway House experience you can check out here.)

The TL;DR from my Personal Retreat process is that I:

  • Review my LifeTheme and my personal core values.
  • Identify my current happiness with the different areas of my life.
  • Spend some time thinking through what I should start, stop, and keep doing.
  • Set my intentions for the next 90 days.

The goals I set during the Personal Retreat process are the things that I want to keep in the back of my mind when doing weekly planning as I want to make sure that I’m making consistent progress towards them.

For my weekly plan, I use a template that has a couple of sections. First, I have a date token at the top that adds the year and the week number. The code for this is date:YYYY - [Week] w all inside of double curly brackets. Next, I have an Obsidian Tasks query that shows me everything that I have due in the next week. Here’s what that query looks like:

```tasks
due after {{date-1d:YYYY-MM-DD}}
due before {{date+7d:YYYY-MM-DD}}
tags does not include #biblereading
short mode
```

The next thing I do is manually create a short list of about 5 things that I really want to get done this week. I have a section in my template for this called Top Priorities, and I add these things here even if the task already exists in the query up above. This is where I basically build my list for the week. Then below that, I have another section called Painting Success where I write a single sentence about what success looks like this week. This is a simpler version of that list, though it frequently doesn’t include everything on my list of priorities. This is basically a way to drill down to the essence of what a successful week is, and helps me understand the true hierarchy of the priority tasks up above.

So that’s the weekly plan, and I’ll use that when I’m making my daily plans where I time-block my entire day and pick 3 to 5 things I’m going to try and accomplish. Once you’re done with this, the next step is to create your daily plans using time blocking. I’m currently an Ugmonk Heirloom journal with special paper I’ve bought and punched myself, and I use a fountain pen to write out my plan for the day because I really like the feel. It hasn’t changed much since I first wrote about this here. I time-block every hour of my day, from the time I get up to the time I go to bed. This helps me make sure that every hour has a job so that I’m not trying to bite off more than I can chew.

For what it’s worth, Cal Newport also advocates for doing this part analog. Full analog planning like the Bullet Journal Method has never really stuck for me because I like using the computer as the brain, but there’s something to be said about creating your task list separately. In fact, I usually take the list I identify in my notebook with the time blocked plan and transfer those 3 to 5 things to a separate notecard that I prop up on my desk in an Ugmonk Analog holder so it’s visible as I go throughout my workday. I like having the list visible and separate, and it keeps me from going back to the task manager throughout the day, which helps me focus on the few tasks I’ve identified as important. Once I’m done, I throw the note card away, check off the tasks in Obsidian Tasks, mark off the things on my priority list, and make a new daily time-blocked plan for the next day.

Conclusion

So, that’s how I implement Multi-Scale Planning in Obsidian. I’ve been doing it this way for the last couple of months, and it’s really working well for me. I find the balance of quarterly, weekly, and daily planning to be the perfect cadence for me to make sure that my daily plans stay in line with my quarterly intentions. And the Personal Retreat process helps me make sure that I’m picking projects that are in alignment with my long-term vision and values.

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