A regular weekly review helps us stay on top of our commitments. So why don't we do it? In response to a listener question, we look at how to make the weekly review a part of managing our busy lives.
The weekly review is a tool for managing your life
If you’re new to the show, we have a private Facebook group for The Productive Woman community. You can join us by visiting the Facebook group's page and clicking on the Join button there. You'll find an active community with lots of interesting conversations going. Those conversations have inspired a number of episodes, including this one.
How do you get your weekly review done?
Recently, Shannon posted this question in the Facebook group:
“Looking for help and input, please. I have been using GTD, tweaked slightly to make it mine, but in the last six to twelve months have fallen away from it, and as a consequence, feel overwhelmed. I kept trying to get back onto it because I understand the system, but I keep procrastinating on the weekly review step because it would take all day. I have to do two of them, just because there’s so much; one for personal, and one for work. I don’t have a whole day to review, I need all my time ‘to do.’ Has anyone else had this problem, and if so, what do you do to fix it? Do you do more than one review per week, so there isn’t so much? Thanks in advance for any input.”
One of the things I love about the community is this transparency and willingness to reach out for help, and on the other side of it, there’s a whole international community of women who jump in with ideas. Shannon's question sparked a lot of conversation in the group. I thought it would be worthwhile to share some of the suggestions that other community members offered, and some of my own thoughts.
The GTD System
As Shannon referred to in her question, the concept of a weekly review was popularized by David Allen in his book, Getting Things Done.
“GTD” refers to Getting Things Done, the system that David Allen developed. In the book, David Allen calls it a “five-step method for managing your workflow . . .” As he describes them, the five steps of the GTD system are:
- Capture what has our attention;
- Clarify what each item means, and what to do about it;
- Organize the results;
- Reflect on those results; and
- Engage with, or do, the things you've identified in the process.
Oversimplified, the GTD system involves creating a process and a system for capturing and acting on all the ideas, information, papers, options, obligations, projects — all the stuff that comes into our lives. It’s using tools like a calendar and lists to manage all that stuff.
Allen refers to the primary lists as a projects list, a next actions list (what we might call our to-do list), a someday/maybe list (which is a list of things we might want to do someday, but not now), and then a waiting for list (which are those tasks or projects for which we can’t take the next step until somebody gets back to us, or something happens).
So the GTD system involves using a calendar, lists, inboxes, whether paper or electronic, and the book outlines the entire system in a very detailed, very actionable way. The Getting Things Done organization's website offers a lot of resources and training opportunities.
How the weekly review helps
A key component of the GTD system is the weekly review. It's a means of accomplishing step 4–reflecting on the mass of projects, tasks, and information you've gathered in the earlier steps. In the book, Allen says, “Everything that might require action must be reviewed on a frequent-enough basis to keep your mind from taking back the job of remembering and reminding.”
The rationale behind the GTD system is that if we’re trying to remember tasks, projects, information, and ideas, we’re using up mental energy that could better be used for creative thinking. The more effective approach is to get everything out of our heads and into a “trusted system” so our minds can go about their business of being creative and thinking deeper thoughts.
The weekly review is a step in the system of looking at the landscape of your life, so to speak, and getting a handle on what’s there, what needs to be done next, what to defer until another time.
As the GTD team describes it in some of their materials, the purpose of the weekly review is to “get clear, get current, and then, get creative.” One writer breaks down those three concepts into actions:
- Getting clear would be collecting all your loose papers and materials, getting your inbox to zero, processing all that stuff; emptying your head by doing a brain dump onto paper.
- Getting current is reviewing all your lists and your calendar, making sure everything is current and correct.
- Getting creative is reviewing your someday/maybe list and looking at maybe there are some things that it’s time to take action on, and then be creative, and think about new ideas.
Developing the habit of a regular weekly review helps you get a better handle on your life. This can mean no more missed meetings or appointments, no more showing up for an event or presentation unprepared because you forgot about it until the last minute, no more overlooked papers or tasks.
Perhaps the most important benefit of a weekly review is you get rid of that nagging feeling that looms over you that life is out of control and things are falling through the cracks.
That’s the purpose of developing this habit. It’s not just another task to do, but it’s to get your arms around what your life entails — the tasks, the papers, all of those things — so that you can relax, knowing you’ve got a good handle on what needs to be done when, and what can be left until later.
Why don't we do a weekly review?
Knowing the benefits of a regular weekly review, why don’t we do it? In many cases, it's because it seems overwhelming. We have so much stuff, so many papers, so many thoughts, so many ideas, so many projects, that it just feels overwhelming, and we think it’s going to take hours to do the review, so we don’t even start.
Kate, in the Productive Woman Facebook group, shared an article from ZenHabits, called “How to Do a Weekly Review in Under an Hour.” The writer says, “One of the reasons we put off the weekly review is because it can take so darn long.” And if we get interrupted, it takes even longer.
Another reason for skipping the weekly review is our schedule is so full, we don’t have time to give it the attention that it needs.
The problem is then we end up feeling like, what am I missing? What have I forgotten? I’ve got a stack of paper in my inbox, or I’ve got all these thoughts looming around in my head; I haven’t done anything about them. That’s what we suffer because we don’t build this weekly review into our routine.
[I think we seriously have to consider why we have so many things on our to-do lists, and why our schedule is so full. We’ve talked about some of this in the past, about why we take on so much. Maybe there’s some benefit to backing up and pruning our list and our schedule. (See episode 133, The ONE Thing.) That’s a side issue to continue to think about: are we putting so many things on our to-do list, on our project lists, because we find some value, we find our worth in being busy, in being needed, in having lots and lots of things to do?]
Another reason we put off doing a weekly review is we just aren’t sure how to do it. One solution to that is to use a checklist. See below in the Resources section links to several options for checklists we can use or adapt for the actual weekly review process. Using a checklist can be really helpful; by working our way through a good checklist we can be confident we're completing a thorough, meaningful review of the important elements of our life.
Ideas for the weekly review process
I love the process that’s used by Michael Sliwinski, the creator of Nozbe, a sometime sponsor of this podcast. Nozbe’s a great digital task manager, an excellent tool for managing your projects and tasks. Michael wrote a post on his blog in which he shares the 7-step process he uses for doing his weekly review. Number one, he starts with thankfulness. I love that. Start with being grateful that we have things to do. His second step is to clean up his inboxes. Third is to review goals. Fourth is to review calendar. Fifth is to review projects. Sixth is to go back to the goals. I think there it’s to compare the projects he's working on, and the things on his calendar, to be consistent with the goals he's set. And his seventh step is to celebrate completing the weekly review! I love how he starts with thankfulness and ends with celebration.
In addition, The Productive Woman community offered some great suggestions on how they make a weekly review part of their “life management” process.
Kate said she does two weekly reviews: one for work on Friday, and one at home on Saturday. They last no more than an hour-and-a-half. She outlined her process in her comment in the Facebook discussion:
- Turn off all external notifications so she’s not going to get interrupted.
- Take out a single sheet of blank paper, and do a brain dump with a timer for 15 minutes. “Everything on my brain gets put on that paper — half-formed projects, to-dos, everything.” (Doing a brain dump is a great way to clear your head when you’re feeling a little overwhelmed.)
- Process her inboxes–her email inbox, her desk “in” tray, and any other place where information or papers come to her; from that processing she finds other tasks, to-dos, and so on that she adds to the brain dump list. That takes about 15 minutes.
- Sort the items brain dump list into categories. She breaks down that brain dump list into three lists: a projects list, a reference list, and a waiting for list. She does that very quickly, just sorting.
Kate says, “I have no more than five active big projects identified a week, for work. I briefly scan my project list and make sure none of them are higher priority than the ones currently on my active list. If one is, I put the someday/maybe soon item on active, and move one out of active to someday/maybe soon.”
Once she has decided what those 4-5 key active projects are going to be for the coming week, she looks at each one and asks herself, “What’s the very next thing I need to do?” That next action goes on her task list.
Key to a successful review is remembering that this is not a time to actually do any of the tasks. During Kate's review, she's not filing, or organizing, or project planning, or cleaning. She's just reviewing what’s on her mind, sorting quickly what she can. Kate says, “The intent of my weekly review is just to get everything out of my head and into a trusted system,” which, for her, is OmniFocus, “then scan it quickly, to make sure I’m working on the right stuff.”
There were other examples from the community. Leah said, “I’ve had to focus on saying good enough is good enough, and trust that as long as I’m reviewing once a week, even if I miss something, I’ll catch it the next week. Knocking out those two-to-five minute actions really helps them get off your plate.” Leah uses what she called the Covey Quadrants after identifies the “next actions” for each of her projects. She sorts them into the Covey Quadrants, a tool that helps her decide how to evaluate the tasks that are demanding her attention.
The Covey Quadrants Leah refers to is a matrix that’s also known as the Eisenhower matrix, because Eisenhower was one of the first to mention it, but it was popularized by Stephen Covey, author of the enormously popular The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Using the quadrants, or the Eisenhower Matrix, you assign all your tasks to one of four quadrants. Things are either important and urgent, important but not urgent, not important but urgent, or not important and not urgent.
Importance is the value of it, urgency is the time sensitivity, and everything fits into one of those categories. A lot of us spend way too much time in the third quadrant, working on things that are not important, but they’re urgent, because somebody is coming to ask us for it, or it’s making a loud noise and it wants our attention, and we don’t stop to ask — is this really important, is this the best use of my time?
Irena seconds Kate’s approach. She said the first time she did a brain dump of all the stuff she needed and wanted to do, it filled half of a Midori booklet. She tried to organize it, but it was almost impossible because there was so much of it there, so she just scanned the list, identified what jumped out at her as things that she needed to do, and went to work on those. She doesn’t stress about sorting them all at once, because some things will never be done and she doesn’t want to waste time moving the items around.
Barb uses to-do lists on which she's set up major project areas of home, personal, work, and a someday/maybe list. She puts the actual projects she’s working on under those main headings. She says, “Anything I capture that I don’t want to do in the next week or so, or isn’t related to a project I’m actually working on currently, goes into the someday/maybe list, and I only scan that when I have nothing else to do.” In other words, she doesn’t review her someday/maybe lists every week. She scans it when she happens to be in her task manager and isn’t working on an active project. If she decides that something needs to be moved off the someday/maybe list, then she’ll move it into a current project.
Christine agreed that dreading an overwhelming list will put you right off the weekly review, which makes the list just keep getting longer, which puts you off more. Christine doesn’t strictly follow GTD. She set up tools so she can capture continuously, and she also processes continually. “At work I use a single notebook, and Microsoft's OneNote, along with a calendar.” For home life she uses an app called Remember the Milk, which is a to-do list kind of tool.
Layla encouraged us that even though it can seem overwhelming, doing the weekly review is important. “I find that doing the weekly review is just like meditation. When you think you don’t have time for it is exactly when you need it most.” She says, “First step to get back in control: mind sweep for 15 minutes.” That’s what others have referred to as a brain dump, where you just sit and write down everything that‘s on your mind. “Just set a timer for 15 minutes, and write everything you’re thinking of. The things you feel most stressed about will most likely be the first things you write down. Evaluate them, and figure out if you need to do, or delegate, then work your way back to your weekly review.”
Like several others, Layla also does two reviews a week, one for personal and one for work. “Carve out the time, even if it means you sacrifice an hour over lunch. Take your own, or order in for a couple of days. The peace of mind will be worth it.” It can feel overwhelming, but the benefits of doing it far outweigh that cost, if you want to put it that way.
Emma said, “I’ve found I’ve gotten a lot faster as I’ve made it a habit. When I first started, it took three to four hours, now it’s one to two, but I more than make up those hours by not ever thinking about what I should do the rest of the week, because I just have it in front of me to do.” That’s the benefit of doing the weekly review. You don’t have to wonder, the rest of the week, as you’re running errands or trying to fall asleep, thinking, “What have I forgotten to do?” because you took the time to scan everything, go through all your lists and your papers, and make sure that you know what you need to be spending your time on.
Joy also splits her review in two, but she doesn’t do it on work/personal lines. Instead, she divides her review time into a look back and a look ahead. On Friday she reviews what has happened during the week just ending and she clears her environment and her inboxes, “Sunday,” she says, “is my ‘what will happen' review.” She uses a checklist in Evernote to remind her of what to do.
Barb said, “I recently put all my steps for work weekly review as a recurring task in a project in Todoist, and I try to do it every Friday. It feels really artificial, but I’m hoping as I get used to it, it will start to feel more natural. I still can’t work out the right time to do it. Friday afternoons I run out of time, because I leave work at 2:30, but Friday mornings there’s still enough time for things to turn up that throw everything out of whack.” The eternal dilemma.
Some alternatives to a full-blown weekly review
By full-blown weekly review I’m referring to what they talk about in the Getting Things Done book. You literally go through everything in your email inbox, your paper inboxes, all that stuff. You look at every piece of paper and put it where it needs to be, look at all your to-do lists, check things off that you’ve done, add things that you need to do. Maybe you feel like you don’t have time to do that, because it’s too big to do it every week.
If that's the case, there are alternatives you could try.
Segment your lists
Consider segmenting your lists, and break up your review time. In other words, maybe you’re only going to segment your projects, either by work and personal, like people have talked about, but maybe break it down more, like home projects, and literally personal, like hobby projects, and have separate segments for your lists, and review one of them each day, or one each week, and alternate them. That’s not pure GTD, but if you’re looking at everything regularly, that’s really half the battle, even if it’s not every week, if you’re alternating sections of your lists.
OmniFocus, which was built on the GTD method, is my primary task manager. It lets you assign customized review frequencies, so the review process is built into it. When you create a project, you can say, this is a really active project, so I want to review this every week. I do mine on Sunday afternoons. But maybe less-active projects, things that you’ve put on hold, those are maybe going to get reviewed every other week, or once a month. I can set those reminders in OmniFocus, so that when I click on the review tab, it only brings up the things that are due for review that week.
Do the bare minimum
Choose to do a “bare minimum review” at least once a week:
- First, look at your calendar for the next two weeks, and see what’s coming up that you need to put something on your to-do list to prepare for. If you’ve got a presentation next week, or the week after, “What do I need to do, in the next couple of days to get started on that? What are the steps?” Then skim your active projects list, and make
- Then skim your active projects list, and make note of any deadlines in the next two weeks that will need action.
- Empty all the papers out of your purse, or your wallet, or your computer bag.
- Skim your email inbox to see if there’s anything there that needs an immediate response.
- If you’ve got a paper inbox where you put things, flip through that quickly to see if there’s anything in there that needs immediate attention, like a bill that’s about to come due, or permission slip that needs to be returned.
- Maybe consider, if you use a paper inbox, and you’re not ready to start emptying that regularly, every week, maybe get, say, a red file folder, and keep it in the inbox, and time-sensitive stuff gets put inside the folder, as opposed to just being tossed in the inbox. Then at least check the red folder every week, when you’re doing your weekly review, even if you don’t have time to go through everything else.
- Finally, do a brain dump. Clear your mind of all the little thoughts and tasks and reminders you're holding onto.
Those are the things that I think are really a bare minimum that you should be doing regularly.
Prune your to-do lists
Definitely give yourself permission, as part of this process, to delete things from your lists. Just because you put something on your to-do list doesn’t mean you have to do it. You can delete things. You have that power. Sometimes we put things on our to-do list because we think we should do it, or we thought we wanted to do it, and it simply keeps rolling over from one week to the next but doesn’t get done. Look at that and say, you know what, I’m going to delete that. I’m going to decide not to do it. I haven’t done anything for X weeks, or X months; I’m going to delete it. If it’s really important, it will come back to my mind later, and I’ll add it back when I have actual time to pay attention to it.
Use your someday/maybe list
I encourage you to make liberal use of the someday/maybe lists. I think there’s real value in having a separate list for active projects that you are regularly doing work on, and then a separate list for things that you might want to work on someday but you’re not doing anything about now. As Kate and others recommended, limit the number of active projects. Nobody can work on 150 projects at the same time. If you can, send me an email and let’s talk about it, because maybe you should be hosting this show! I can’t. Our minds don’t do very well when they're scattered in that many directions. As you review your lists, you might find projects that once were active but now are on hold. Move those off your active project list onto that someday/maybe list.
The Sunday basket
Consider incorporating and/or adapting some form of Lisa Woodruff’s Sunday basket idea. Lisa Woodruff is a professional organizer (and past guest on The Productive Woman podcast) and founder of the Organize 365 website and blog. She developed this idea of the Sunday basket, where all the stuff that comes in during the week — papers, for example, and things that need attention — get put into a basket that you then schedule a time to go through it and do what's necessary. Lisa calls it the Sunday basket because she does it on Sunday afternoons, but you can do it when it works for your schedule. Allocate a specific amount of time to the project, set a timer, and — I’m not sure whether Lisa would recommend this — but I would recommend that you turn it upside down and start from the bottom of the pile, because that’s the stuff that’s been in there the longest, and go through it, one item at a time.
Work very quickly. Be as focused as you can, and make decisions quickly about what is this, what do I need to do with it? If it can be done in two minutes, just do it. If it’s going to take longer than that, schedule when you’re going to do it, and then move on to the next thing. When your timer goes off, you’re done. And if you didn’t get all the way through, you put things back in the basket, schedule the next time — put it on your calendar, when’s the next time you’re going to sit down with that stuff — and pick up where you left off.
Is it okay to do a “partial” review?
Some people would say, Oh, but that defeats the purpose of a full review. Things might get overlooked or missed, because you didn’t go through everything. And they would be right. But the fact is, you’re not looking at that stuff anyway, and in my opinion, doing something is better than doing nothing. Looking at some of it is better than looking at none of it.
If you’re not doing anything, then starting somewhere is a step in the right direction. Get started, do what you can, schedule regular times to do it, and eventually you’ll get caught up, and it won’t be such a mass of stuff on your list, or papers in your inbox that need your attention. It won’t be so overwhelming, once it becomes a routine. But it’s better to start than not.
Build a routine
Another thing I would suggest is to have a regular time for this routine. Put it on your calendar as an appointment with your CEO, which is you. For your work life, a lot of people like to do this on Friday afternoons. The advantage is it clears the decks, allowing you to go home for the weekend knowing things are under control, and confident that you’re set up to start strong on Monday. I like to do it early-to-mid afternoon, maybe after lunch, when there’s kind of an energy lull anyway. I can get through this stuff, get a handle on things, and if I find in my review process that there are things that need other people’s input or attention, there’s still time to make a call, or send an email and say, “Hey, what about this thing? Let’s talk on Monday.”
Christine noted that “Recently I’ve found doing my life governance duties on Friday evening makes me feel much more relaxed. Sure, I’d like to stop work at 4 p.m. and just unwind, but unwinding is much sweeter when I’ve done all my review crap, set up the next week’s calendars, and put in my grocery orders.”
That’s an advantage of doing it Friday afternoon/evening. But if Friday afternoons don’t work for you, maybe you can do it first thing Monday morning. Just find a time that does work for you.
For personal life, a lot of people like doing Sunday afternoons. We talked about Sunday routines in Episode 141. There are some great suggestions there, also from the community. Any day or time can work, though. The point is to create a habit. Make it a routine. Put it on your calendar as an appointment with yourself.
Make it enjoyable
A couple of people in the community suggested making that weekly review time a special event. Create an environment that makes it a more enjoyable experience, and just enjoy the process and the feeling of getting a handle on your life.
Shaunah favors this approach. “This Sunday I went to a coffee shop with a notebook and my laptop” to deal with her out-of-control to-do lists. She said, “I ordered a drink and a treat, and then I sat down and brain dumped onto paper. After I did my brain dump, I reviewed my personal to-do list, and reorganized it, prioritized and de-prioritized it, and then added my paper to-do list to my electronic version, looked at the tasks for this week, and tweaked the priorities.” For her, it was her to-do list, and reviewing all of that, that was making her kind of crazed, so she made an event out of it– left the house, went to a coffee shop, ordered herself a treat, and just sat down and did it.
Christine says, “I have been also known to put on my sweatpants, pour a glass whiskey and then do my Friday review. It helps it feel more like part of my weekend, winding down, than a big chore.”
The idea is to make it a little more pleasant, have your beverage of choice, and maybe play some music you enjoy and just get it done.
Why go to the trouble?
The point of a weekly review is to give your brain evidence that the system can be trusted — that everything important has been captured, and will be attended to, if and when appropriate. That lets your brain let go of trying to remember this stuff, and move onto more important things, like creative thinking, and just plain enjoying your life. And that’s the value of it. We hit the highlights here. There so much more to it. I do recommend David Allen’s book Getting Things Done for a really good, thorough review. There are lots of resources on their website, so check it out.
What do you think?
Do you do a weekly review? And do you have any tips or tools that you find helpful in making sure that nothing slips through the cracks, whether it’s tasks and projects, or the permission slips and things that the kids bring home from school? I would love it if you would share those with us. You can share your ideas or your questions in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman community Facebook group, or email me.
Resources and Links:
- Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen
- “How to Do a Weekly Review in Under an Hour,” by Leroy Babauta
- Michael Sliwinski's post on his weekly review
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, by Stephen R. Covey
- The Eisenhower Matrix
- Remember the Milk
- The Productive Woman Episode 122 Lisa Woodruff
- The Productive Woman Episode 141 Sunday Routines
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- I want to say a special thank you to Shannon for bringing up this topic in the Facebook group, and thanks to Leak, Kate, Irina, Heather, Barb, Shaunah, Christine, Jen, Layla, Emma, Joyce, and Adele, for chiming in with suggestions and ideas.
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