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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 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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