Building the Weekly Review Habit

At the very beginning of David Allen’s recorded lecture, Getting Things Done Fast, he tells his audience that the most important but single most difficult part of becoming more productive is making time every week for a weekly review. Most important because this couple of hours of “time out” once a week is where virtually all the GTD magic happens – it’s where we make sure everything’s out of our heads and in our trusted system, so we can use our brains for doing Good Stuff instead of nagging us about the Good Stuff we should be doing. Most difficult because… well, I have my theories.

First of all, weekly reviews are hard because it is simply difficult, in a practical sense, to take an hour or two off and focus on the bigger picture. This difficulty is compounded by psychological factors – for one thing, most of us feel our moment-to-moment involvement in our work is essential, and if we’re not actually working on work – even busy work – we fear things will fall apart. For another thing, spending a couple hours thinking about our work doesn’t feel like work – it can take some time to get into our heads that this “meta-work” is an important part of our work as a whole.

There are emotional reasons as well. For one thing, I think most of us are just afraid, on some level, of spending that much time with ourselves. What kind of stuff are we going to find out? Self-reflection can be scary! Also, most of us have been raised to see such self-reflection as kind of selfish – who are we to deserve that kind of scrutiny? That leads us not to trust ourselves, which leads to a lack of honesty that undermines the weekly review habit – you can’t build a trusted system without trusting yourself!

For me, there has always been some combination of these factors. My schedule is kind of chaotic – not just because of disorganization but because as an academic part of my job is to respond to whatever my 150 students in any given semester throw at me, and to do so fairly quickly. In my other life as a writer, while I can block out time to work, I am somewhat at the whim of editors, clients, and of course my audiences – who knows what emergency next week will bring?

All that chaos has made it difficult for me to engage myself in a weekly review consistently – every effort has lasted a few weeks then fallen to the wayside as the rest of my life piled up (a sign, perhaps, that I wasn’t doing it very well anyway). On top of that, too much of what I do in weekly reviews gets waylaid later on as I put my plans into practice, which has made it harder and harder to trust myself, which again is bad for my trusted system.

A return to trust

I know all this, so when I started the process of recommitting myself to building a system as close as possible to GTD, I knew I’d have to deal with it.

Fortunately, I have a few things working in my favor, and I think I’ve done a couple things right in laying the groundwork this time around.

While I haven’t always been very good about the weekly review, I have generally been good about keeping my lists up-to-date, and about doing “mini-reviews” – scrolling through my list of projects every few days to see if there’s anything I could be adding as next actions. This is one of the core practices that makes up the weekly review, so I’ve got that part down, and can build on it.

What makes me more hopeful this time around is that I’ve added a list of Areas of Focus to my setup, the idea being that not only do I generate tasks from my list of projects, but I generate projects and tasks from my Areas of Focus list. This should help me keep on track, since a) it’s something I don’t do in my “mini-reviews”, and b) it leads into the “looking forward” part of the weekly review, which is the part that I think scares me (and others) off.

That leaves, of course, the practical concern of scheduling the time in. Fridays are a natural for me, since I rarely work on Fridays – but although I’ve been doing Friday weekly reviews for the last couple weeks, I’m thinking Mondays might be better, since they put me “closer to the action” – I have a better idea of what’s going on around me at the beginning of the week than I do guessing what might be going on at the end of the previous week.

Getting weekly reviews done

As I said at the beginning of this post, weekly reviews are important – rather than being a drain on your available work time, done right the weekly review should add not only to your work time but your confidence and calmness about doing that work. For a sense of what a weekly review should look like, have a look at my Back to Basics post from last year.

More than anything else, though, a weekly review is a point of connection between you and your work. We live in a go-go-go society where work – any work – is expected of each of us, all the time. Americans, especially, work harder than just about anyone – not necessarily more efficiently or on more important things, but longer hours and with fewer breaks. It’s all too easy in all this rush of work for work’s sake to lose track of why we’re doing it and of what it has to do with us as people.

A weekly review is about task management and scheduling, but it’s also about reconnecting with our work in a personal way, evaluating our work in terms of higher-purpose goals and life objectives, aligning the work we do today with the dreams we have of tomorrow. We aren’t afforded many moments like that in life, so it’s important that we create them for ourselves.

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