One of the big complaints that people trying to get themselves more organized and productive have is that no matter how on-the-ball they get, their family still throws them curve balls. While it's clearly insane to expect a 6-year-old to start worrying about todo lists and ubiquitous capture, I think at least part of the problem lies with our attitudes and expectations about our home life. Home is supposed to be a respite, a sanctuary from the pressures of work and public life, and I think that makes us a little hesitant to apply some of the principles at home that we know work for us in our professional lives.
One thing we can easily apply to our home life is the weekly review. The idea was planted in my head by a comment Jonathan Fields made when I interviewed him on Lifehack Live. I had asked him how he takes care of his relationship with his wife, who he works with both as a business partner and as an employee of a major client. Jonathan suggested something like a weekly review, a regular meeting with his wife to go over their plans and processes and see what needed work. A comment made by David Allen in some material I received from DavidCo (which I'll be reviewing in greater depth here soon) gave the idea greater weight — Allen recommends taking an hour or two to do a weekly review with your spouse, though he doesn't elaborate very much.
What would such a review look like? We have lots of great advice, from Allen and others, on how to do a personal weekly review — collect “open loops”, process your inbox, review your lists, review your calendar, and so on. It makes sense in a workplace setting where you have clear “buckets” to collect things in and clear objectives that have to be met. In a family setting, where things can be a lot fuzzier around the edges, what would be a workable weekly review?
Here's what I came up with. It's a good idea to set up a family binder or notebook to keep track of this stuff while you do the review — or else, just make sure that whatever system you each use already is at hand and ready to be added to. Schedule an hour or two when you're both at home (maybe on a weekend morning?) to:
- Gather loose ends: With your spouse or partner, collect bills, statements, slips from school, letters, etc. and dump them into some kind of inbox, even if it's temporary. It's not a bad idea to set up a basket or tray where all this stuff goes. But as long as there are children, pets, and gremlins haunting your house, be prepared to do some gathering.
- Process your inbox: Go through everything together and decide what action needs to be done. Write it down — I suggest you set up a family calendar with space for notes (to put a todo list on) and add tasks either into the calendar (on the day you plan to do them) or in the notes area (for non-date-specific tasks).
- Empty your head: Talk to each other about things that have gone wrong over the past week, things that you're struggling with, things you'd like to do, and so on. Share. Here are some triggers:
- What went wrong over the past week?
- What did you particularly enjoy that you'd like to do more of? (meals, activities, TV shows, trips out, etc.)
- How are you each handling your respective household duties?
- What is coming up that you need to be prepared for?
- What kind of help do you need from your partner?
- What issues in the house have been occupying your thoughts lately? (problems with kids, repairs needed, messiness)
- What's going on at work, or coming up at work, that could affect your family life?
This is where the two-person review is dramatically different from a solo review. You might want to have both of you prepare for this beforehand. You also both need to commit to toal honesty and to constructive response. This isn't a time to criticize each other; it's a time to be open about what's bothering you, with an eye towards fixing it.
- Review projects and actions: Write down any projects that you need or want to do: upcoming vacations, household repairs or remodeling, car repairs, school performances or meetings, doctor's appointments, etc. Figure out a plan of action for each, and decide who is going to take care of each action.
- Review checklists: It's a good idea to make up checklists for anything you do with any frequency. The most obvious is a shopping list — I have a single list, organized by store aisle, with the items we buy most frequently (and spaces for additions). We decide what we're going to make in the upcoming week (I should have a checklist for that, too!) and go through the shopping list, cross out anything we don't need, and add anything unusual. Other checklists could include:
- Travel and packing (if you travel frequently for work)
- Monthly and quarterly household maintenance (change AC/heater filters, check outside lights, reset thermostats, test smoke detectors, etc.)
- Birthdays and holidays
- Health (doctor's and dentist's appointments, pets shots, prescription refills, etc.)
- Chores (both adults' and kids')
Check your lists to make sure everything that needs to be taken care of gets taken care of,
- Dream time: Discuss long-term future plans. Maybe you want to take a vacation — where should you go? Maybe you want to redo the backyard? Or maybe you'd like to change jobs, or careers? This is for someday/maybe-type stuff — think of things that you're not ready to commit to but that would be nice. This lets you start incubating the idea and making plans, together. Give yourself free rein, here — this is where you're bringing your and your partner's wishes into harmony.
- Last look-over: Review your waiting-for list (if you have one) and any other material to make sure there are no other actions you need to capture.
- Be creative and courageous: This is straight out of GTD — what “new, wonderful, hare-brained, creative, thought-provoking, risk-taking ideas” can you come up with?
I find in my own relationship that the hardest part is not working out the compromises that keep things running but keeping both of us on more or less the same page. Most people today have very different lives from their partners as far as their primary occupation is concerned; unless we work hard to keep each other in the loop, it's easy to grow out of touch, to make wrong assumptions, to let little resentments grow into major problems.
A weekly review gives you a safe space to air all those little maladjustments before they turn into big problems. They also help you and your partner to better anticipate what's coming up, so that neither of your plans are thrown out of whack when the other does something new. And because you're working together, you'll be better able to face the truly unexpected — the trip to the emergency room when a child is hurt, the sudden business trip, a death in the family, etc. — comes along.
Most importantly, though, you'll be acting as partners, sharing the important work of maintaining and expanding a relationship. You'll be expressing and reaffirming your commitment to making your relationship stronger — and doing the work that allows that to happen. And what could be better than that?