With the holidays approaching, I've learned in casual conversations that some TSSers (definitely not all!) are enjoying a lull in their workload. There are fewer projects on the immediate horizon, fewer emails coming in, and a chance to have some breathing room. Last year, I encouraged folks in the organization to take advantage of the 'December Lull' (if you're lucky enough to have one) and perform a Desktop Detox. This time around, I'm going to suggest another tactic for getting organized in the New Year: The Weekly Review.
I first learned about the concept of a Weekly Review from David Allen's books Getting Things Done and Making it All Work. While these books are filled with useful strategies and frameworks for organizing one's life, today I'm going to single out the Weekly Review as the most effective tactic that Allen covers.
I've been doing weekly reviews regularly for about a decade and I can confidently claim that a good portion of the CONSIDERABLE fame, prestige, and wealth I've amassed can be traced back to this one tactic. And today, Ima share it with you.
So What's a Weekly Review?
So glad you asked. It's a recurring event when you glance at everything going on in your life and ask "am I happy with how this is organized?"
We all have these systems that we use to organize our commitments: email, calendars, to-do lists, project management tools, voicemail, SMART goals, you name it. The power in most of these tools is that they store or transmit information for us, so we don't have to remember it.
I don't need to remember every event happening in my life next week, I record it on my calendar. I don't need to keep my SMART goals in my head, I wrote them down in a Google Doc. I don't have to remember to pick up Juanitas at the grocery store, they're on my grocery list...and also, let's be honest, I buy them every week anyway. Back to the point: these systems are great...but only as long as we're actually using them and looking at them periodically.
Pictured: 2017 SMART Goals, 9 months after creation
It's pointless to write down your SMART goals in a document if that doc disappears into Google Drive and you never look at it again. A calendar isn't useful unless it accurately reflects the events happening in your life and you actually look at it periodically so you show up for those events. Email is only useful if we actually take appropriate actions based on the messages we send and receive.
A Weekly Review is like a pilot's pre-takeoff checklist, but for your life. Instead of checking to see if the flaps and landing gear are working properly, you're making sure that your meal hosting shifts are on your calendar for the next week. You're looking at your to-do list and reminding yourself about what tasks have the highest priority. You're reviewing your SMART goals and making sure you're making progress according to plan. Conducting a Weekly Review keeps your systems current and prevents commitments from falling through the cracks.
Scheduling Your Review (and Some Rules) I schedule my weekly review as a recurring event at around 10:30 AM on Friday morning. I chose Friday because I like the feeling of heading into the weekend having just reviewed all of my work commitments, so I don't feel stress or uncertainty about tasks I may have forgotten about. I conduct my Review in the morning because, in the event my Review uncovers an important task or project that I've forgotten about, I still have some time in the afternoon to address it. I'd suggest experimenting with different times for yourself, but I've learned that late Friday morning works best for me.
Put it on your Calendar I suggest creating a weekly, repeating calendar event for your Review. If you're not sure how long of a review to schedule, I'd suggest starting with an hour. Mark yourself as 'busy' to make it clear to co-workers that you're not available for a meetings.
Seek Solitude It's hard to really to do a solid weekly review when you're being interrupted by others or trying to multi-task and get other work done. I recommend using whatever signals you can (headphones, closed office door, big ol' stop sign on a stick) to indicate to co-workers that you're occupied and unavailable.
Pick a Soundtrack Since you're putting on your headphones and going into isolation mode, you might as well get some good music going. This is just my preference, but I usually look for something mechanical and robot-sounding, like the Daft Punk Pandora station. Pick something that you enjoy, but not so much that it'll be distracting.
Remember: You're ORGANIZING Work, not DOING Work This is a tough one for me, because I'll bump into an 'open loop' (David Allen's term for "anything pulling at your attention that doesn't belong where it is, the way it is") and it's really tempting to just stop doing the review and respond to that unanswered email or complete that undone action item. Resist this temptation, finish your review, then go back and close your open loops when you're finished.
Use a Checklist Every time that I do a weekly review, I use a checklist to make sure that I'm doing the right things in the right order. The review is much easier to do if you follow the same recipe each time. It's perfectly alright to modify your checklist by changing its order or contents, but use that checklist each and every time. As an example, I've included the checklist that I use. We'll get into what to put on your checklist next.
What Should I Be Reviewing?
What goes on your checklist? The goals of a weekly review can be summarized with three overarching objectives:
- Get Clear: Collect and process your stuff, be it physical (like a paper on your desk), electronic (like an unread email), or mental (like remembering that Basketcat's birthday is on the horizon) . David Allen defines stuff as, "Anything in your physical or psychological world that doesn't belong where it is, but for which you need to determine the desired outcome and the next action." For each item of stuff you uncover, decide: what is my desired outcome for this piece of information and what is the next action I need to take to get it there?
- Get Current: Review your existing systems to make sure nothing has fallen through the cracks.
- Get Creative: What opportunities are out there that you want to pursue? What should be on your radar, but isn't?
Now, if that's too pie-in-the-sky, productivity-guru, mumbo-jumbo for you, here are some actual actions that might fall into those categories. Everybody's responsibilities and workflows are different, so your final checklist will look different than mine.
- Get Clear- Process your email, clear off your desk, listen to all of your voicemails and decide what to do them, pick up that stack of ungraded quizzes and decide where to file them and when you'll grade them, empty your physical mailbox, process the post-its on your desk and put them on your to-do list. Empty your head of open loops ("Should I get Basketcat a birthday present?") and write them down somewhere in a trusted system.
- Get Current: Review your to-do list, your project manager app, your calendar, your helpdesk tickets, and emails you've sent that haven't gotten a response. Go through all this stuff and ask; "Is this were I want it? If not, do I need to take action to move this forward?
- Get Creative: Look over longer-term goals and objectives; are they where you'd like them to be? Can you think of any 'someday' projects that you might get to at some point, if you have the time? Are there projects on your 'someday' list that you're ready to start?
A running theme throughout David Allen's books is the importance of capturing thoughts and ideas somewhere outside of your head. "I need to remember to pick up Basketcat's present." Nope, son, what you need to do is set a reminder on your phone. "I need to remember to finish that Tech Tip Tuesday draft by Monday afternoon." Naw, B, you need to put that on your next actions list. If you want to try jogging your memory for open loops, a 'Trigger List' (like this one from Merlin Mann or this one from David Allen) can help you remember what you forgot.
In the end, you'll want to come up with a checklist of tasks that will help you start the weekend with, above all else, a sense of calm. To be clear, the goal is NOT to finish your review and think, "All of my tasks and responsibilities have been completed, I have nothing left to do!" That's not a realistic objective, as there's always more work that needs to be done.
Our actual goal is a little more nuanced, but a lot more realistic. We want to be able to say, "I have a clear picture of the tasks, events, and projects that I'm responsible for and I'm confident that I have established placeholders for how and when the important tasks will be completed."
OK, I Did a Weekly Review! What do I Win?
In my experience, a Weekly Review's positive impacts can be felt immediately, even if you're just doing one for the first time. There's a feeling like a heavy barbell lifting off your shoulders when, maybe for the first time, you have a clear picture of all the commitments in your life and how you're going to address them.
If you decide to stick with it and make the Review a habit, I think that you'll start to find that you trust your systems more. If you aren't in the habit of looking at your calendar regularly, it becomes less accurate, you use it less, and your schedule begins to become a source of stress. When you really trust these systems (calendar, to-do list, project list, shopping list, etc.), your brain will feel OK about letting go of trying to remember all these commitments. You stop stressing about forgetting your meal hosting shift when you know that it's on your calendar and you know that you'll be reviewing your calendar the week before to scan through your upcoming schedule.
The resulting clarity of mind that you can achieve through this process has massive benefits that are hard to overstate. As David Allen says, "Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them." When you have the mental space to be fully engaged with what you're doing, the quality and quantity of your work and ideas can't help but improve. You can be more present with your class of 5th graders if you're not simultaneously worrying about whether you're about to run out of laundry detergent, or if the kids need to be picked up at 5 or 5:30, or whether you need to prepare a presentation for tomorrow's committee meeting.
Of course, in reality, it's pretty hard to bat 1.000 with weekly reviews. Emergencies will come up and unforeseen events will sometimes prevent you from actually doing a review. Thas OK, and it's not the end of the world. In speaking from experience, however, I can testify that when I skip my weekly review (which happened just a couple weeks ago), the quality of my work and my ability to complete commitments both take a negative dive.
Can I do a Monthly Review Instead? What about a Daily Review?
The whole point of the Review process is to keep your systems up-to-date so that you trust them to organize your life.
There's nothing magical about the 7-day time period, I've just found it to be a good interval of time after which I need to stop and run through the checklist. You can set up whatever interval you like for a review. There are also probably commitments or recurring tasks that do need periodic review, but don't need one every week. I like to clean up my work 'junk drawer' periodically, but it would be overkill to do it every week. For that reason, I have a few extra recurring tasks that I add to my list at the end of each month, quarter, and year. Your list will probably be different, but mine might give you some ideas:
I know this was a long read, so nice job on making it all the way through. If you've reached the end and you're all like, "I wish to further my studies into the martial art of the Weekly Review,", I have some recommended articles that cover the same topic:
- Simple Dollar Blog Post
- Lifehacker Blog Post
- A 2-Minute Video of David Allen Making his Case for a Weekly Review