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GTD Refresh, Part 5: Building the Weekly Review Habit

GTD Refresh, Part 5: Building the Weekly Review Habit

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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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