20080801-thinking

No matter how organized you are, how together your system is, how careful you are about processing your inbox, making a task list, and working your calendar, if you don’t stop every now and again to look at the “big picture”, you’re going to get overwhelmed. You end up simply responding to what’s thrown at you, instead of proactively creating the conditions of your life.

Almost every productivity expert recommends some kind of review, whether it’s a formal process you crank through (like David Allen recommends) or simply a few minutes of “me time” to think about where you’re at. Although there’s nothing magical about the week as a unit of time, doing such a review weekly seems to work best – it’s a block of time that’s very deeply ingrained in us as a scheduling unit.

Although there are lots of variations on the “review” theme. the basic idea is the same no matter what system you’re looking at. A weekly review boils down to three questions:

  1. What do I have to do in the upcoming week?
  2. What am I doing wrong that needs to be fixed?
  3. What new things should I do to take my life in the direction I want it to go?

Preparing for your review

While some people manage to do ok by doing their review whenever they find time, for most people, having a dedicated time for a review each week will be far more fruitful. It should be a habit, a regular appointment you keep with yourself.

  • Schedule your weekly review in your calendar. Allow yourself at least an hour, preferably two.
  • Finish all your work before the review starts.
  • Get comfortable. You might want to go somewhere you don’t associate with work.
  • Take 5-10 minutes of quiet time. Meditate, doodle, or just stare at the head – whatever it takes to put a “buffer” between you and your everyday stuff.
  • Have something to write in/on.
  • Make sure you won’t be disturbed. This is your time!

The GTD Weekly Review

I’ve already written a pretty thorough overview of the weekly review as defined by David Allen, so I’ll start by repeating what I said there. According to Allen, a weekly review should consist of the following steps:

  1. Collect all your loose papers and put them into your inbox for processing.
  2. Process your notes to glean any action items, appointments, new projects, etc.
  3. Review your previous calendar data to remind you of any ideas, tasks, etc. that you might not have captured at the time.
  4. Review your upcoming calendar to see if there are any new actions you need to add to your lists.
  5. Empty your head. Write down anything that’s currently on your mind or capturing your attention.
  6. Review your project lists to determine each project’s status and if there are any actions you need to take to move each of them forward.
  7. Review your next action lists. Bring them up to date by marking off any actions you’ve already completed. Use completed actions as triggers to remind you of any further steps you need to take not that an action is done.
  8. Review waiting for lists. Add appropriate follow-ups to your action lists. Check off anything that you’ve already received.
  9. Review any relevant checklists.
  10. Review your someday/maybe list and decide if there is anything you’re ready to move onto your active projects list.
  11. Review your project support files to make sure you haven’t missed any new actions you need to take.
  12. Be creative and courageous. This is the hardest and most poorly described part of the process in Allen’s books, which is too bad, since this is where the magic happens. Having cleared your mind of everything you need to do at the moment, take time to dream up new ideas — risky ones, creative ones, etc. Essentially a free-form brainstorming session around the topic of “what could I be doing?”

These steps follow a three-stage format:

  1. Get clear: Tie up any loose ends from the week before so you can turn an eye to the future.
  2. Get current: Plan out the steps you need to take over the next week to advance whatever projects you’re currently working on.
  3. Get creative: Think about and start planning things you could be doing to move your life in a new direction, or to advance you past your current level.

Another take on the weekly review

I prefer to think of my weekly review as a set of questions to answer, rather than a set of steps to churn through. While I still try to do a review weekly (every two weeks seems to be more practical for me, though), I also do a few “mini-reviews” as time permits in between full reviews.

A mini-review consists of just a few questions:

  1. What do I have to work on the next few days?
  2. What deadlines do I have coming up?
  3. Are there any new projects I have time to start working on?

I do this with my Moleskine in front of me, listing tasks as I think through each of those questions. (Later, I’ll transfer them into my task management system – a mini-review is, to me, a kind of “capture” rather than “processing”.)

The point of the mini-review is just to make sure I stay on track and don’t let anything important fall through the cracks. When I sit down to do a full review, I’m more concerned with the way my life is going overall. The full review consists of these questions:

  1. What do I have to work on the next few days?
  2. What deadlines do I have coming up?
  3. Are there any new projects I have time to start working on?
  4. What went wrong over the past week? What lessons can I learn from that?
  5. What went right over the past week? How can I make sure more of that happens?
  6. How well am I keeping up with all my duties and obligations?
  7. What is coming up that I need to be prepared for?
  8. What kind of help do I need?
  9. Is everything I’m doing contributing to my advancement towards my goals? What can I do about the stuff that isn’t?
  10. Am I happy with where I’m at? What would I like to change?
  11. What are my goals for the next week? Month? 90 days?

I like the question/answer format better than Allen’s step-by-step because a) I do most of the practical stuff on a daily basis anyway, and b) I like that the focus of (most of) these questions is me, rather than my stuff.

That’s the point of the review, after all – not to keep up with the stuff you should be doing but to check in with your self. And that’s important – we tend to resist looking too closely at our selves, whether because it feels selfish or narcissistic, or because we’re afraid of what we’ll find if we look too closely.

If that sounds too “mushy” for you, then you probably need it more than most. Because as I keep saying, the point of all this productivity stuff isn’t to get more done. It’s to lead a better life.

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