You have a busy life and a to-do list a mile long. Unfortunately, simply adding a new task to your to-do list doesn't actually mean it'll get done. Wouldn't it be nice if you could get out in front of your to-dos and even have a little time to think about how you can work smarter instead of slaving away every day? You can, and it's easy to do. You just need to incorporate a weekly review into your schedule.
What Is a Weekly Review?
Simply put, the weekly review is a set-aside period every week, usually an hour or two, where you dedicate yourself to getting organised for the week ahead and ensure that nothing is slipping through the cracks. We'll get to how later, but the important thing to remember is that the review is time reserved for you to be an executive of your personal and professional life, organise your tasks, make lists of people you need to follow up with, and arrange your priorities so you're always working on the things that are actually important. Photo by David Chico Pham.
This also means that you shouldn't spend your review time actually working. This is your time to step back, connect with your work and act like an executive — the CEO of a company of one. During your review, it's important that you — like any good manager — set the priorities and not micro-manage.
David Allen, the creator of the popular Getting Things Done productivity technique and proponent of the weekly review, has said that if you're not doing a weekly review, you're not really following GTD. Of course, you don't need to follow GTD to take advantage of the weekly review; all you need is a desire to get a better handle on your work and life.
The weekly review is supposed to help you do three things: get clear, get current and get creative.
- Get Clear. Take some time to clean up your workspace and empty your inbox. Then, review your projects. Which are most important? Which ones have milestones coming up in the following week? Organise them by priority and urgency so when you start next week, you'll know what to start without having to think about it.
- Get Current. Look at your calendar. Perhaps next week you have a big meeting with your boss about a big software upgrade, but you forgot to call the vendor to get the details. Put that call on the calendar for next week, and give yourself enough time to research before your meeting with your boss. Finally, check your mail for anyone you may be waiting on input from. Make notes or appointments to check in with them next week.
- Get Creative. Look at those projects you've always wanted to get to, like redesigning your personal website, and think about what small parts of those projects you might be able to slip into your schedule. Think about how you can be more efficient — maybe you're a sysadmin and there's a new tool that will cut down on the time you spend each week pushing patches to your servers. Take some time to get out in front of your life, instead of sitting in the passenger seat.
First Things First: Put It On The Calendar
Pick a day that works for you and put your weekly review on the calendar for the end of the day. If you wait until you have your whole weekly review planned out and ready to go, you'll never do it. Ideally, you'll want to make it the last thing you do that day, and schedule it for a good hour or two. Photo by Joe Lanman.
I scheduled my weekly reviews for Friday at 5pm, and stretched them out until 7pm, when I normally left the office. It sounds like a long time, but you'll only need that time when you get started and have a lot to go over. With time and practice, you may even get your weekly review down to 30 minutes. It's not impossible, and if you finish early, you can go home early, right? Either way, get it on the calendar, and the rest will follow.
Build Your Checklist
A weekly review checklist is an essential tool to making sure you touch on all three of the pillars mentioned above. Here's what a basic review checklist looks like, courtesy of GTD Times:
- Collect loose papers and materials
- Get Inbox to zero
- Empty your head
- Review Action Lists
- Review past calendar data
- Review upcoming calendar
- Review Waiting For list
- Review Project (and larger outcome) lists
- Review any relevant checklists
- Review Someday/Maybe
- Be creative and courageous
If you need more detail, David Allen offers a template checklist (free, but requires registration) on his site to get you started, and this one (scroll down to weekly review) is another good example. On the GTD forums, some users have shared their own checklists for inspiration. Whether you use a template or build yours from scratch (and it doesn't have to be long — just those things you want to make sure you do every week), make sure you populate it with things you want to review and not do. Remember, you're not supposed to spend time working during your weekly review — just reviewing.
My checklist is highly customised to my activities, and even if you start with a template, yours should be as well. If you don't work with paper, for example, there's no reason for you to spend time every week cleaning up your desk. Also, don't forget to include your personal activities in your weekly review — are you renovating your house? Planning to redecorate your apartment? Get those items on your checklist as well so you don't forget to check in on their progress as well.
Try a Trigger List
If you're having a hard time building a checklist, you may consider using a "trigger list" to jog your memory each week. The trigger list is just a long list of items you should scan during your weekly review to make sure you didn't forget anything. It's designed to trigger your memory and help you remember something you may have forgotten. Productivity guru Merlin Mann published this trigger list at 43Folders a long time ago for professional projects.
To build your own trigger list, just copy and paste the templates, remove anything that doesn't make sense, and start brainstorming projects and areas of your life that might need a little follow-up. Then just add them to the trigger list. As with your checklist, don't forget to add your personal life as well — your PTA commitments, community group, family events, even work-life balance and social events. The last thing you want is for your personal and social commitments to pile up while you spend time organising your professional life. To build on the "CEO of one" analogy, think of yourself as the CEO of your whole life — not just the CEO of your job. They may be different divisions of the same company, but if one fails, they all fail.
Walk Through Your Review
When your weekly review is scheduled to begin, get in the mood. Get up, take a quick walk around your desk or office. Grab a cup of coffee or refill your water bottle. Make sure you're jazzed for it — you're about to close the books on your week — it should be a happy occasion! When you get back to your desk, put on your headphones, steer clear of any distractions, fire up your favourite song or a playlist (in fact, at the GTD forums, a number of users have "weekly review theme songs") and get started. Photo by Dan Foy.
Stick to your checklist. If you've built it with the three pillars in mind — clear, current and creative — you should have a simple set of to-dos in front of you. Tidy up your inbox. If you're not sure how, consider emptying your inbox with the trusted trio. Add any actionable appointments or responsibilities to your calendar. Fire up your to-do app and clear out anything you've already done, and add new to-dos that come to mind. Finally, round out your review with the creativity items on your checklist — whether it's research, talking to other people you want to learn from, or just sitting with a cup of tea thinking about how you can work smarter and not harder.
Make Sure You're Reviewing and Not Doing
One common trap that people fall into when trying a weekly review is that they spend too much time actually doing things instead of reviewing them. If you hear someone say the weekly review only works for a small number of tasks, or that their weekly review takes hours upon hours, the problem may be that instead of scheduling a time to call that software vendor back, you're actually taking time out of your review to call them. Don't fall into that trap — it's tempting to do it now and get it off your plate, but a rule of thumb is that if the to-do takes more than two minutes to accomplish, stop and schedule it or put it in your to-do manager.
What a Real Weekly Review Looks Like in Action
I use a checklist and a trigger list every week for my review, and it's scheduled every Friday afternoon. Working with a team that spans time zones can make it a challenge, but the important thing is that you try to schedule it for a time when you won't have any distractions or interruptions. My weekly review is usually about an hour, and here's how it plays out:
- 0-15 minutes: Clean up email/paper notes. Interview notes, new contacts and emails I want to follow up on all get filed. If there's a message I can fire a response to in a minute or two, I'll respond, but nothing that requires research.
- 15-45 minutes: Review ideas, projects, calendar appointments. This is where I spend the bulk of my time. I look through my idea bank (stored in Wunderlist, which I mentioned last week), trash anything stale, add new ideas and assign dates where I can. I head over to my to-do app (ReQall, another tool I love), clear out old and completed tasks, and add new or follow-up items based on my calendar, assignments and trigger list.
- 45-60 minutes: Brainstorming. This is where I head back to my idea bank and start brainstorming topics I want to write or learn more about, items in the news that are worth investigating, and personal projects that need my attention.
Reap the Benefits
My weekly review is scheduled for an hour — it used to be two when I was a project manager — and it usually takes me about 45 minutes, give or take a cup of tea. It took some time to get used to, but I learned that when you take time to step back and reconnect with the things you have to do and why you have to do them, you begin to understand what's really important, what you really have time for, what you need help with and how much bandwidth you actually have. You'll finally be able to respond to your boss when they ask you "So what's on your plate" without fudging the answer, and you'll know for fact whether you have time to help your neighbour with their landscaping project next weekend. Photo by wetwebwork.
Most people consider the weekly review a difficult thing to start, but it doesn't have to be. Hopefully, with these tools, it's a bit easier to get into the habit. Once you're in it, you'll find the benefits will pop up all over your life. You'll be more organised, you'll never wonder if there's something you forgot to do or something you should be working on, and you'll never be afraid you forgot about something important. You'll be in control, and with that control comes the flexibility to accept changes as they happen.
Do you have a weekly review on the books? How long is it? Do you follow a checklist or do something different? Share your techniques in the comments below.