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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.

    More by this author

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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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