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Back to Basics: Your Weekly Review

Back to Basics: Your Weekly Review

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    No matter how organized you are, how together your system is, how careful you are about processing your inbox, making a task list, and working your calendar, if you don’t stop every now and again to look at the “big picture”, you’re going to get overwhelmed. You end up simply responding to what’s thrown at you, instead of proactively creating the conditions of your life.

    Almost every productivity expert recommends some kind of review, whether it’s a formal process you crank through (like David Allen recommends) or simply a few minutes of “me time” to think about where you’re at. Although there’s nothing magical about the week as a unit of time, doing such a review weekly seems to work best – it’s a block of time that’s very deeply ingrained in us as a scheduling unit.

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    Although there are lots of variations on the “review” theme. the basic idea is the same no matter what system you’re looking at. A weekly review boils down to three questions:

    1. What do I have to do in the upcoming week?
    2. What am I doing wrong that needs to be fixed?
    3. What new things should I do to take my life in the direction I want it to go?

    Preparing for your review

    While some people manage to do ok by doing their review whenever they find time, for most people, having a dedicated time for a review each week will be far more fruitful. It should be a habit, a regular appointment you keep with yourself.

    • Schedule your weekly review in your calendar. Allow yourself at least an hour, preferably two.
    • Finish all your work before the review starts.
    • Get comfortable. You might want to go somewhere you don’t associate with work.
    • Take 5-10 minutes of quiet time. Meditate, doodle, or just stare at the head – whatever it takes to put a “buffer” between you and your everyday stuff.
    • Have something to write in/on.
    • Make sure you won’t be disturbed. This is your time!

    The GTD Weekly Review

    I’ve already written a pretty thorough overview of the weekly review as defined by David Allen, so I’ll start by repeating what I said there. According to Allen, a weekly review should consist of the following steps:

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    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?”

    These steps follow a three-stage format:

    1. Get clear: Tie up any loose ends from the week before so you can turn an eye to the future.
    2. Get current: Plan out the steps you need to take over the next week to advance whatever projects you’re currently working on.
    3. Get creative: Think about and start planning things you could be doing to move your life in a new direction, or to advance you past your current level.

    Another take on the weekly review

    I prefer to think of my weekly review as a set of questions to answer, rather than a set of steps to churn through. While I still try to do a review weekly (every two weeks seems to be more practical for me, though), I also do a few “mini-reviews” as time permits in between full reviews.

    A mini-review consists of just a few questions:

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    1. What do I have to work on the next few days?
    2. What deadlines do I have coming up?
    3. Are there any new projects I have time to start working on?

    I do this with my Moleskine in front of me, listing tasks as I think through each of those questions. (Later, I’ll transfer them into my task management system – a mini-review is, to me, a kind of “capture” rather than “processing”.)

    The point of the mini-review is just to make sure I stay on track and don’t let anything important fall through the cracks. When I sit down to do a full review, I’m more concerned with the way my life is going overall. The full review consists of these questions:

    1. What do I have to work on the next few days?
    2. What deadlines do I have coming up?
    3. Are there any new projects I have time to start working on?
    4. What went wrong over the past week? What lessons can I learn from that?
    5. What went right over the past week? How can I make sure more of that happens?
    6. How well am I keeping up with all my duties and obligations?
    7. What is coming up that I need to be prepared for?
    8. What kind of help do I need?
    9. Is everything I’m doing contributing to my advancement towards my goals? What can I do about the stuff that isn’t?
    10. Am I happy with where I’m at? What would I like to change?
    11. What are my goals for the next week? Month? 90 days?

    I like the question/answer format better than Allen’s step-by-step because a) I do most of the practical stuff on a daily basis anyway, and b) I like that the focus of (most of) these questions is me, rather than my stuff.

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    That’s the point of the review, after all – not to keep up with the stuff you should be doing but to check in with your self. And that’s important – we tend to resist looking too closely at our selves, whether because it feels selfish or narcissistic, or because we’re afraid of what we’ll find if we look too closely.

    If that sounds too “mushy” for you, then you probably need it more than most. Because as I keep saying, the point of all this productivity stuff isn’t to get more done. It’s to lead a better life.

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    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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