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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 August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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