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Audiobook Review: David Allen’s “GTD > Weekly Review”

Audiobook Review: David Allen’s “GTD ><noscript><img src=
GTD Weekly Review

One of the most difficult demands that David Allen’s Getting Things Done makes on followers of his system is to set aside a couple of hours a week for a weekly review. It’s hard enough to find the single block of uninterrupted time, but harder still to know what to do with it. Allen only devotes five pages to the weekly review in Getting Things Done, and maybe a few more scattered throughout Ready for Anything — hardly enough to really flesh out what is an absolutely central and crucial part of the overall system.

Because of this, the weekly review is the part of GTD that people are most likely to skip — or, if they actually do it, the part they’re likely to get the least out of. Which is a shame, because done well, the weekly review is where the real “action” in GTD happens, when long-term planning and creative dreaming are brought front and center.

Allen’s new audiobook set, GTD > Weekly Review addresses this gap, devoting about 2 1/2 hours over 3 CDs to a discussion of what a weekly review is and can be. I asked the people at the David Allen Company if they would send me a copy to review for you, and they graciously agreed.

What’s a Weekly Review?

Before getting to the specifics of the Weekly Review audiobook, let’s revisit what a weekly review is supposed to be. According to Getting Things Done, the purpose of a weekly review is to “[build] in some capturing, reevaluation, and reprocessing time to keep you in balance”. By taking a step back from your day-to-day task management, a weekly review allows you to “focus on your important projects”.

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Allen outlines several steps of a weekly review:

  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?”

GTD > Weekly Review gathers these steps together into three stages: Get Clear (collect any loose ends and empty your head), Get Current (review your lists and calendar data), and Get Creative (activate your someday/maybe projects and dream up new harebrained schemes).

Tips and Tricks for Better Weekly Reviews

The core of GTD > Weekly Review is a three-way conversation between David Allen, and two of DavidCo’s professional organizers, Marian Bateman and Meg Edwards, who draw on their own experiences working with clients in the field to illustrate and expand the general concepts laid out by Allen. This takes up the first two discs; the third disc walks you through the weekly review from beginning to end, a kind of “virtual” coaching session. The set also comes with a CD-case-sized weekly review “cheat sheet” that outlines the steps of a weekly review.

Here is a sampling of some of the advice they offer.

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Get clear

The weekly review is an opportunity to clear your head and really explore where you’re at and where you’re headed. Pay special attention to when you schedule it, because it needs to be a time that works best for you — when you’re not only uninterrupted but most likely to be “at peace”, without any huge problems hanging over your head demanding immediate attention. A weekly review can still be useful even if you’re hurried and there are urgent matters pressing, but if your weekly review is always under those conditions, you probably need to schedule it to a more appropriate time.

Be sure you do schedule it, though. For too many of us, the weekly review is a “when I get around to it” kind of commitment, which more or less undoes what a weekly review can offer. Make a hard commitment to yourself, in your calendar, to do a weekly review every week.

One important point Allen and the others bring up is that a weekly review is not “catch-up” time — it’s not a couple of extra slack hours for doing everything you’ve gotten behind in over the course of the week. This especially applies to email. While Allen does recommend keeping your email inbox empty, if you aren’t doing this on a weekly basis, your weekly review is not the time to start! If you have a large email backlog, schedule time to clear it up over the course of the upcoming week.

Get current

Review your calendar

How much of your calendar should you review. Allen’s answer is simple: as far back as you need to, and as far forward as you need to. For Allen, this means many months forward, because he travels frequently and wants to make sure his upgrade requests are sent in a timely fashion. For others, this might only be a week or two in advance. Put a little thought into determining your own “event horizon”, the distance in the future when events start to require immediate actions.

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Keeping your projects on track

David Allen calls projects “outcomes”, to distinguish them from actions — you don’t do projects, you do actions that take you towards a desired outcome. Your project list, then, is a place to think, not do. What is the very next action you need to do to move towards each outcome on your list?

Allen reminds us that life has projects, too — projects aren’t limited to our work and career. Remodeling your house, cleaning your garage, moving — these are all obvious projects that our non-work life might involve, but there are also things like making time for a family outing or spending more time with your kids. It might seem cold to add these to your project lists next to “Create proposal for city education grant” or whatever, but if they’re not on your lists, they’re burning up thought cycles that you could be using to figure out how to spend more time with your kids instead of just worrying that you should.

Checklists and reference lists

This is probably the least utilized part of the weekly review (itself a poorly utilized part of GTD). Allen says that you should consider creating a checklist for any routine task that you find yourself doing more than once or twice. Checklists help us to a) not rely on memory to make sure everything’s done, and b) not have to think up next actions for tasks we’ve already figured out the next actions for.

Reference lists are exactly what the name says: lists of reference information you need to refer to often. An example might be books you want to read, logins and passwords, places you want to visit, recipes you want to get, and so on. As you go through your weekly review, make sure you add any relevant information to your reference lists.

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Bonus tip: Check out Checkser and Gibb, two online apps for creating and storing checklists.

Get creative

As I said before, this is where the weekly review shines. Now that you’ve gotten all the mundane stuff off of your mind, you can relax and let your mind fly. Take out your someday/maybe list and see what crazy ideas you had a month ago that might be worth doing. Be liberal with your someday/maybe list — put ideas there to “incubate” and see if they don’t grow into things you really want to do.

This is the time for what Seth Godin calls “edgework” — see what radical new ways you can push whatever it is you’re doing now. What new risks could you take? What could you be if you could be what you dream? What new things would you like to learn — or teach? What crazy idea do you have that nobody would ever take seriously? Remember, you don’t have to do everything you come up with in your weekly review; the idea is to give yourself the freedom to think about things without committing yourself to action.

Final Assessment of GTD > Weekly Review

GTD > Weekly Review does a great job of explaining the role of the weekly review and its relationship to productivity. If you’ve ever heard David Allen speak conversationally, you know that he can be a very inspiring and accessible speaker, and Meg Edwards and Marian Bateman are just as engaging. Their personal experience goes a great way towards deepening the idea of a weekly review, transforming it from an idea in a book into a practical and tested reality. The third disc in the set, while not as interesting to listen to, adds real value as something you can play while you get yourself into the habit of doing the weekly review — play a little, pause it, do some review, play a little more, pause, do more review, et

My only qualm is the price: $99 US for a 3-disc set. Whether the content of GTD > Weekly Review is worth the price will depend a great deal on who you are; if you’re in David Allen Co.’s target audience of corporate executives, mid-level management, and successful entrepreneurs, then this is definitely a set worth having. Compared to the cost of one of David Allen’s seminars, or even a seminar from a DavidCo coach, $99 is a steal but there are plenty of people who could use this kind of push in the right direction for whom both the seminar and the GTD > Weekly Review set are both too far out of reach.

If you can get around the price, this is a really valuable extension of the GTD system. I can virtually guarantee that you’ll listen to this more than once — just like Allen’s books, it’s the kind of material that you’ll refer back to again and again.

More by this author

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion

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Last Updated on September 18, 2019

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

What to Write Down

Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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Dates of Events

Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

Names of People

Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

Theories or Frameworks

Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

Definitions

Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

Arguments and Debates

Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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Images

Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

Other Stuff

Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

Your Own Questions

Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

1. Outlining

Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

2. Mind-Mapping

For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

Here’s the idea:

In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

3. The Cornell System

The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

The Bottom Line

I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

More About Note-Taking

Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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