The Weekly Review

Schedule a non-negotiable time each week for a “Weekly Review.”  The Weekly Review is the single most important thing to do in order to keep up a successful GTD practice.  I cannot emphasize how important the Weekly Review is to ongoing success in reducing stress.

Life moves fast – we often have so much to do that’s it’s difficult to take a step back and examine whether or not we’re getting the results we want.  That’s why it’s extremely important to schedule some time each week to do a “Weekly Review.”   I schedule my Weekly Reviews first thing Monday mornings so I will have a good roadmap for the week.  The actual time or day of the week does not matter – some people like to do their Weekly Reviews on Friday’s to wrap up the week.  The critical thing is that you schedule it and ensure that it happens. This is the most critical part of keeping GTD on track.

Here are a few things you should include in your weekly review:

Review your Goals & Objectives – Are you moving in the right direction? Are you making progress? Are any changes necessary?  This is where you take a quick review of the big picture.  What personal and professional goals do you have?

Review your Areas of Focus – Are you devoting sufficient time and energy to the true priorities in your life?  Areas of Focus are the areas of responsibility in your life that are never “done.”  If you can complete it and check it off as complete then it is not an Area of Focus, it is most likely a Project.  Areas of Focus might be ongoing responsibilities at your work like Employee Development, Budget, Vision & Strategy, etc.  Other Areas of Focus might be health and fitness, finances, family, home improvement, etc.

Review your calendar – start with a month view and look at the upcoming things on your calendar.  Then switch to week view and look at the next few weeks to see what is coming up.  This gives you context for what is ahead.

Review your active projects – Break down each project into the actions necessary to be “done” with the project.  Then take the “next action” you need to take to drive towards completion of the overall project and make it its own task and assign it to the “next action category.”  When describing the next action in the task subject field use specific action verbs to describe the action that needs to be “done.”  Include as much information as possible to help you complete the next action.  Instead of “donate old furniture” use “call Goodwill to schedule pickup – 310-234-8730”, Instead of “learn Spanish” use “add Spanish learning podcast in iTunes”, Instead of “Finalize Budget” use “email Rob to get Storage Forecast for the rest of the year.”

Review your Someday/Maybe Items– Review your someday/maybe list to see if anything has risen to the level where you want to make it an active project

Don’t skip this review – it’s extremely important if you want to decrease your stress levels.

Skipping the “Weekly Review” is the most common way people fall off the GTD bandwagon.

I dedicate 1 hour per week to the Weekly Review.  Here is how I break it down:

Review Projects (35 min) – This is the most important part of the weekly review

  • Do I have the bandwidth and resources to do this project?
  • Breakdown each project into discrete tasks
  • What do I want to accomplish this to move this project closer to completion?
  • When do I need to accomplish it by?
  • Move each projects next action to the next actions list
  • Add new projects describing “What does done look like?” – include the desired outcome as the first word in projects: finalize, implement, research, publish, distribute, maximize, learn, set up, organize, create, design, install, repair, submit, handle, resolve
  • Okay to have projects that say things like “Draft three ideas…” or “Think about…”

Review Areas of Focus (5 min) – A quick review of areas of focus to keep them fresh in my mind and see if it triggers any Projects

Review Goals & Objectives (5 min)
–  A quick review of goals and objective of focus to keep them fresh in my mind and see if it triggers any Projects

Review Calendar (10 min) – Start with three months out, then next month, then current month, then this week

  • Look at the big picture by month view then focus on the week view because the week is the unit of measure to connect daily tasks to their strategic priorities
  • Family first – schedule time with the family – only one night out per week, schedule breakfast one day per week, what are we doing on Saturday?
  • Schedule time to process email/inbox three times a day
  • Schedule “Walk the Halls” time once a week
  • Do I REALLY need to be in the meetings

Review Someday/Maybe items (5 min)

  • Add individual items to the master list
  • Determine if any items need to become active projects
  • Delete Items that are no longer of interest

Deal with something only once

As a follow up to my last post about processing email, I want to emphasize the importance of dealing with something only once.

Years ago I met a young agent who prided herself with only touching a piece of paper only once. She made a real impact on me because she had a completely clean desk and always seemed to be “on top of her game.” She constantly outperformed her fellow agents. This was in the early days of email and I vividly remember when she had an epiphany about applying her “only touch it once” philosophy to email.  She continues to be an inspiration to me.

Do most of us do this? No. We might read a bunch of emails, and say, “I’ll reply to those later or I’ll decide later” and just leave them in the inbox. This is true of other inputs in our life.  We might see a bill, invoice, expense report or other piece of mail, and put it aside for later.  This philosophy of only dealing with something once applies to other activities like paperwork, phone calls or requests from others.

Try dealing with it immediately. If you open an email, make a decision on it immediately. If the email requires you to take some kind of action the do it right then or apply the two minute rule and put it in your trusted system to deal with later.  Just don’t leave it in your inbox.

Deal with something once. Do it now. Then it’s off your mind and it’s not taking any of your “psychic RAM” and it allows you to fully focus on the next matter.  When we put off small decisions and tasks for later, and they pile up, weighing on us at the back of our minds, pulling on us until we collapse under the weight of “later.”

Processing your email inbox

In todays always on, always available, connected life processing your email inbox is most likely the most important input queue you have.

In 2006, Merlin Mann coined the term “Inbox Zero” where he applied David Allen’s GTD concepts to email.  He gave a speech at Google on Inbox Zero that is famous and it radically changed my approach to dealing with email.  I highly recommend you watch it.

Several of the GTD-based best practices for email are counter intuitive and will go against what you currently do or believe is the “right” way to do email.

Schedule time to process your email. Do not do email randomly throughout the day. It is imperative that you do not do email randomly throughout the day. Instead, you should schedule 15-30 minutes several times a day to process your email inbox.  As I stated in my previous post Processing to Zero, there is ample research to prove this is the optimal approach to dealing with email.

Turn off “Toast”.  If you use Outlook or any email system that has “toast” that notifies you of new email turn it off.  Turn off all audio alerts to new email.  You must resist the temptation to “just take a quick peek” at your inbox.  This is a productivity killer!

Do not use folders to file email.  Once again research shows the time it takes for you to think about where you should file the email outweighs the value of the folder structure in recalling the email when you need it.  This has not always been true but with the advent of powerful search built into all email clients it is more efficient to search for email when you need it.  You should only set up one “Archive” folder other than the folders that your email client requires.

Process your inbox to zero.  When you are processing your email inbox use the following 4 simple rules until you have completely cleaned out your inbox:

  1. Delete the email. If it is spam, FYI, or other non-actionable email delete it!
  2. If the action necessary to close the loop or complete the email is less than two minutes – just do it!
  3. If it is actionable and will take more than 2 minutes, forward the email to your Evernote email address to process later.  If you use Outlook on the PC, you can click on the Evernote icon in the Outlook “Home Ribbon” and it will give you the option to assign it to the appropriate Notebook. (Home, Next Action, Project, Someday/Maybe, Waiting For)
  4. Delete the original email or move it to Archive if you think you may want the original email to refer to or to forward/reply in the future.

Do this for every message in your inbox until it is empty. You will have a profound sense of accomplishment and a psychological relief knowing that all of your open loops are in your trusted system. Train yourself to never leave a read email in your inbox. Make a decision about every message you read the first time you read it – no excuses. Be ruthless about this new practice – never touch an email in your inbox more than once.

Processing to Zero

One of the most important concepts of GTD is processing and when you are processing it is critical you process to zero. What do I mean by processing to zero? It simply means you completely clean out the input queue. There are huge psychological benefits to getting to zero that are not realized if you leave even a few things in your input queue.

What are input queues? The most obvious examples are your email inbox and an inbox that sits on your desk. They are collection areas for inputs that you do not control. People email you and you have little control over how much email you get, how often people email you or what they email you about. I will have a future post dedicated to email and how to most effectively deal with this modern day time sync but for now it is just one of many input queues that you need to process to zero.

Some examples of other input queues are RSS feeds, Twitter Feeds, SMS texts, phone calls or possibly some kind of online system like Helpdesk Tickets or ERP approvals that you are responsible for dealing with or approving. It really does not matter what kind of input queue it is if you are responsible for it then you need to process it to zero.

There is a good body of science that shows multitasking is very inefficient. The reason for this is depending on what type of job you are doing once you context switch from one context to another it can take anywhere from a few minutes up to 15 minutes for the brain to fully context switch back to the original activity. This is one of the worst effects of the always on, always connected world we live in.

The worst offender of this time suck is the pop-up “toast” or audible chime alerting you to a new email. We can’t help ourselves and we feel compelled to check the email just to see if it is important – after all it will only take a second.

Immediately turn off “email toast” to stop sucking away your productivity!

The best practice for dealing with input queues is to schedule uninterrupted time several times a day to process your queues. I schedule four half hour blocks of time on my calendar to process the three main queues in my life – inbox on my desk, my email inbox and the phone calls I need to make. I put “process email/inbox/calls” on my calendar early in the morning, in the late morning before lunch, immediately after lunch, and then again in the late afternoon before I leave for the day.

I use RSS feeds in order to keep up on all the things I need to know and I use the combination of Google Reader and Feedler Pro on my iPad at the gym to process my RSS feeds to zero. When doing cardio, I listen to up tempo music on my iPhone to motivate me to keep my heart rate up in the fat burning zone and process all my feeds to zero. It is a wonderful way to keep up with all the changes in the world and workout at the same time.

This will be difficult thing for you to do if you are not accustomed to processing your input queues in uninterrupted batches of time. I have heard all the objections to this approach but trust me there is real science to this as the optimal way to be productive and you will have higher quality outputs in less time. Pretty hard to argue with if you’re really objective.