The Weekly Review – How to maintain “Mind Like Water”

At this time of the year many people want to get back on the GTD bandwagon because they are in a reflective mode of self improvement.  They know it works and know the stress reduction it can provide.  They know when practiced diligently it can provide what David Allen calls “Mind Like Water.”  When you are in this state you can feel great about where you are, what you are doing and what you are not doing.  For anyone who has experienced this feeling it is amazing and they want to get back there.

So many people ask me how they can “really do GTD right this time?”  Like a diet or a new year’s resolution, they really want to be successful, but deep down fear they will fail over the long term.  The want a magic bullet or trick that will help them to succeed with GTD over the long term.

Fortunately, there is one way to succeed with GTD over the long term and that is to do a weekly review every week.  This is the single most important thing to success or failure over the long term.  If you really want to succeed you need to commit to spending one hour a week doing a weekly review – without fail, no exceptions.

Think about the payback – one hour a week to improved productivity and reduced stress.  A bargain in my book.  Here is how I break down the hour:

1 – Review Projects (40 min)

If you do nothing else in the hour you need to review your projects.  Start at the top of your list and move down one by one and do the following:

Is the project written in a way that it can be checked off as “done” when the description is true?  If not, describe the project to denote “what does done look like?” and be sure to include the desired outcome as the first word in the Evernote title description of the project.  Use words like draft, finalize, implement, research, publish, distribute, maximize, learn, set up, organize, create, design, install, repair, submit, handle, resolve, think about.  Not all projects need to define a completed task.  It is okay to have projects that say things like “Draft three ideas…” or “Think about…”

Once you are comfortable with the description of the project, you need to break down the project into the tasks needed to complete the project.  I use the notes section of the Evernote note to do this.  I am not a stickler for breaking down every project into it’s related tasks.  I usually ask  “Do I have the bandwidth and resources to do this project?”  If not, I tend to go on to the next one.

For the ones I do have the bandwidth and resources to pursue I ask “What do I want to accomplish this to move this project closer to completion?” and “When do I need to accomplish it by?” I add any items that come to  mind in a more or less free form manor with each task or idea on a separate line.  Do not worry about formatting as that will only slow you down during this critical process.

Finally, and this is critical, move the next action to move the project closer to completion to the next actions list.

2 – Review Your Calendar (5 min)

It is important to understand what you have ahead of you to set the context for how much available time you will have to work on projects and next actions in the future.  Start with looking at your calendar in month view and look at the big picture.  All Day events like birthdays, vacations, trips and holidays will pop out at you.  This gives you  a sense of is this a “normal month” or not and alert you to any big items on the horizon.  Review the next three months.

After you have looked at the big picture by month, you need to focus on the week view to get a sense of is this a “normal week” or not.  As Peter Drucker stated the week is the unit of measure to connect daily tasks to their strategic priorities.  Review the next two to three weeks to get a sense of what is immediately ahead of you.

3 – Review Waiting For items (5 min)

Do a quick scan of your  Waiting For items to see if you can move any into Projects or Next Actions because you are no longer blocked or waiting for someone or something.

4 – Review Areas of Focus (5 min)

Do a quick review of areas of focus to keep them fresh in my mind.  Often this review will spur new projects that you will add to your projects list.

5 – Review Someday/Maybe items (5 min)

Do a quick scan of your someday/maybe items to determine if any items need to become active projects and if they do then change the Evernote notebook to the projects notebook.  If you determine that you really are never going to do and item because it is no longer of interest then delete it.

Doing a Year-End Review – How to be successful with New Year’s Resolutions

Happy New Year!

This is the time of year we all do self reflection and resolve to improve ourselves in the new year.  As most everyone knows making resolutions like “I’m going to lose weight” rarely are successful.  The main reason for this is these goals are not put in a context that will allow for long-term success.  Once the initial weight loss wear off and we are stuck in the daily grind of our lives we revert to our old habits.

If you really want to resolve to accomplish something and truly make a commitment with yourself, then you need to create a environment for long-term success.  This means adopting GTD and incorporating your desired outcome into your trusted system.

I recommend you do a “Year-End Review” to reflect on last year and project into next year.  Then if something comes out of that self reflection that you really are willing to commit to, then you need to incorporate it into your system and work your system every week via the weekly review.  By using this approach (as opposed to a new year’s resolution) you will have a much better chance of long-term success.

The year-end review is similar to a weekly review but at a much higher level.  Here are the questions I ask myself:

Looking back on 2011:

  • What were your wins for the year?
  • What were the risks you took?
  • What is your unfinished business from this year that will carry forward to 2012?
  • What are you most happy about completing?
  • Who were the people that had the greatest impact on your life this year?
  • What was your biggest surprise?
  • What did you give back to your community?

Looking forward to 2012:

  • What would you like to be your biggest win to be this year?
  • What are you planning to do to improve yourself?
  • What would you be most happy about completing in the coming year?
  • What would you most like to change about yourself?
  • What are you looking forward to learning?
  • What do you think your biggest risk will be?
  • What about your work, are you most committed to changing and improving?

Processing RSS Feeds

I have always been a reader.  I subscribe to numerous magazines and newspapers.  I love to read a good book.  But, it has become increasingly difficult to stay on top of all the relevant breaking news.  Surfing the web to try to keep up is not a viable option as it just takes too much time and it is very easy to get trapped in a rabbit hole of non-productiviity.  I have found using RSS feeds is the best way to keep on top of all the news and developments in order to be successful in today’s business and technical world.

By using RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds I can subscribe to a wide variety of sources and quickly scan what is going on in the world.  I consider this a critical part of my overall continual learning experience.  I treat my incoming RSS Feeds just like my email inbox and try to process all my feeds to zero every day. I have tried many RSS readers and have settled on the combination of Google Reader and Feedler Pro on my iPhone and iPad.  I do not use any of the “pretty” feed aggregators that try to make a custom magazine because it is just too inefficient for the volume of feeds I process every day.

With Feedler Pro I can quickly scan the headlines to determine which ones I want to click on to get more information.  Once I click on a particular item I get a short synopsis of the article or post and then if I want to actually read it I click on the link and it takes me to the web site where I can read the original article.  If I want to keep the article to read later or for some kind of follow up, I just select the “Send to Evernote” option to process later.  If the article is something I want to share with others I use the “Send to Twitter” option to tweet it.  I usually process my feeds first thing in the morning when I am at the gym on the Precor elliptical trainer.

I currently subscribe to 80 feeds which result in over 1,000 posts per day and I am able to process them in approximately 30 minutes.  This allows me to keep up on all the news and events from sources I consider relevant to my career and life.  I treat my feeds very darwinian in that if a particular feed is not providing revenant information I delete it.  This results in a very fluid OPML file (OPML files are the list of RSS feeds a reader program uses) that is constantly changing.  Frequently I subscribe to a feed to try it out only to decide it does not make the cut and is delete in a week or so.  I also remove feeds that have dedicated iOS apps like CNet News, Boy Genius Report, Engadget, etc. because I prefer to view that content in the native app due to its optimized formatting.

I pride myself on knowing information before others and daily processing of RSS feeds is the key to this.  It gives me a competitive advantage in work and life.  I am extremely impressed when someone on my staff tells me something relevant that I do not already know about.  If it happens once in a while then it is just luck or timing but if they consistently know relevant information before me it shows me they have an effective system for processing information.


Accountability is important to me.  It is important to be accountable to myself and GTD is how I hold myself accountable to the commitments I have in all aspects of my life.  Because my trusted system is a closed loop system I know that once I capture something I will not lose track of it.  I may decide to move it to a Someday/Maybe list and not act on it right now but I know I will not lose track of my commitments.

The sense of accountability and responsibility is relevant in all aspects of life.  It is critical with my wife, with my kids, in my social life and in my professional life.  When managing others I believe I have the responsibility to hold people accountable to the commitments they make.  If an employee is responsible for completing a task and they have made an agreement to complete the task, it is their responsibility to complete the task or re-negotiate it.  High performing employees are proactive in this regard.  If they are having trouble completing a task they proactively inform me of the issues they are having so I can help resolve the issue, re-prioritize their work or re-negotiate the commitment.

Lower performing employees are not proactive in surfacing the issues or problems that they encounter in keeping their commitment.  Typically, they wait until they have missed their commitment or until it is too late to meet the commitment before informing me.  This is extremely frustrating – especially if it was something that had they ten proactive they could have met the commitment.  It also leads to excuses and in extreme examples leads to “throwing a colleague under the bus” in an attempt to explain how or why they were unable to meet their commitments.  These individuals would greatly benefit form practicing GTD so they would always have an accurate and up-to-date inventory of all of their commitments.  If you believe you may be one of these individuals I highly recommend you listen to Manager Tools “Owning the Inputs” podcast.

One of the greatest things we can do as human beings is to accept the simple fact that we need to be accountable to ourselves.  Once we accept this, we realize that we can not fool ourselves.  Once we are truly accountable to ourselves, we can be truly accountable to others.  This acceptance allows us to grow immensely and accept reality.

Your most valuable asset – Time

As a CIO  I have access to many resources and one of the main jobs I have is to allocate those resources in an optimal way.  There is one resource that is finite and there os no real way to manage it – Time.  There is only 24 hours in a day and all managers must strive to use each of those hours optimally.  My calendar is the trusted system I use to optimize the use of those hours.  As Peter Drucker said “Your calendar should represent your priorities.”

When I review my calendar in my Weekly Review I first take the “big picture” approach and scan the next couple of months in month view.  This gives me the high-level view of what is ahead in the next few months.  Typically events that are marked as “All Day” events pop out – things like anniversaries, birthdays, vacations, travel, conferences, and holidays.  This sets a context to what time is available to accomplish the stuff you need to do.

Then, I switch to the weekly view to take in the next several weeks in more detail.  As Peter Drucker said the week is the unit of time that connects us to our upcoming work.  At this view, I can see exactly what commitments I already have and how much discretionary time I have available.  This level of review also gives me a sense of if the upcoming week is a “normal” week with “normal” meetings and rhythms or not.

Once I have completed this review I sit down with my assistant and we review the calendar together.  We look at the non-negotionable mandatory items starting with my Weekly Review which is critical for me to be in control and totally effective.  Ideally, it would be the first thing I do Monday morning but if that can’t happen for whatever reason, that is okay but it should happen ASAP.  So, if she has to reschedule it because I have been overtaken by events (OBE) then that is fine but she must make it a priority for me to get this done as early in the week as possible.

The next mandatory item is my Daily Review and Sync.  This is the next most critical part of keeping in control.  Each day I need to scan my Next Actions to see what I want or need to accomplish that day.  For those items that I want to accomplish before I go home, I tag them as “Today.”  The Daily Review and Sync consists of scheduling 30 minutes where the first 15 minutes is reserved for reviewing my next actions and the second 15 minutes is reserved for my assistant and I to sync about upcoming calendar items and any associated time necessary for projects next actions.

The next mandatory calendar item is to scheduling Inbox Processing.  Processing my physical Inbox and my email Inbox is critical to my GTD system.  My assistant needs to ensure that I have three 30 minute blocks of time dedicated to processing both my physical inbox on my desk for things like POs, Invoices, Expense Reports, etc. and my email inbox. The timing of these half hour processing blocks is not critical other than they should be spaced out throughout the day so I can respond to important things in a timely manner.  Therefore, they are “moveable” calendar items but they must be rescheduled as my goal is to have both inboxes processed to zero before I leave every day.  When scheduling these processing times it is critical to be aware of the context of the day – do I have a dinner or some evening event that will cause me to leave work at a certain time?  If so, she must work backwards and make sure I have enough time to process to zero before I leave work.

The final mandatory scheduling item is 1:1’s with my direct reports. Weekly 1:1s with my direct reports is critical to keeping in touch with the people who are responsible for executing on my vision for IT.  Therefore, they need to happen every week.  It is important for for my assistant to be proactive with their assistants to reschedule their 1:1 if either they or I am going to be unable to make their 1:1 for whatever reason.

Now that I have all my mandatory items scheduled, I move on to my priorities.  My calendar should reflect my priorities.  We all have bosses or other VIPS who always get priority in meetings and calls.  Beyond those requests, and assuming I have completed my Weekly Review, I will have Next Actions for all my projects and my assistant will need to schedule time to work on these. At CAA we have a corporate culture that requires we return colleagues calls first so all internal calls must be returned first and I have to make time to do that ASAP.

Another priority is moving my projects forward.  I especially want to focus on “big projects” like IT Staff Meeting presentations, Company Staff Meeting presentations, Budget, Vision, etc. where there is a hard deadline.  Together with my asistant, we need to identify the deadline and understand all the work necessary to meet the deadline and schedule appropriately.  Working backwards, with appropriate slack for when OBE happens, we need to set aside appropriate time for me to do the work.

When people ask for my time they need to go thru my assistant and she has the authority to schedule these requests without asking me if they are consistent with my priorities .   If it is not clearly consistent with my priorities then she must gather the information necessary for both of us to determine if the request rises to the level of being added to my calendar.  The default answer will be no to requests and the requester will have to give my assistant the information about the request like the agenda or why they need me and not someone else like their direct supervisor.

Calendar management is critical for executives to be successful in today’s always on world.

Stop Multitasking!

In today’s fast paced world where we have so many input streams coming at us that we tend to try to multitask to get more done. This is not actually accurate because it is based on the assumption that human beings are capable of doing two cognitive tasks at the same time. We’re not. Instead, we learn to move rapidly between tasks – context switching. When we’re doing one, we’re actually not even aware of the other.

If you’re in a meeting, for example, and you take a quick peek at your smartphone to check your email, for a brief moment you’re missing what’s happening in the meeting as long as you’re checking your email. But actually more important, you’re incurring something called “switching time.” That’s the time it takes to shift from one cognitive activity to another.

On average, according to University of Michigan researcher David Meyer’s research, switching time increases the amount of time it takes to finish the primary task you were working on by an average of 25 percent. In short, juggling activities is incredibly inefficient.

Difficult as it is to focus in the face of the endless distractions we all now face, it’s far and away the most effective way to get work done. That is why it is so important to schedule time to do your email and do it in a focused block of time instead of checking email throughout the day.

The worst thing you can do as a boss is to insist that your people constantly check their email.

You are effectively incurring a 25% productivity tax on your employees by encouraging this behavior.

The Daily Review

Daily ReviewEvery morning I have 30 minutes scheduled for a Daily Review and Sync where I spend the first 15 minutes reviewing my calendar and Next Actions lists and the second 15 minutes syncing with my assistant. This aligns us on the priorities for the day and gives her my “marching orders” for the day.

During the first 15 minutes I Review my calendar to see what the day has in store for me and how much free time I have to get work done. Once I have that context I review my Next Actions list to see what things I want to try to accomplish during the rest of the day. For items I want to accomplish today I assign a tag of “today” to them in Evernote.

My assistant has access to my Next Actions folder in Evernote and she prints them out and comes into my office to review the items I have tagged. We discuss them so she has the appropriate context for what needs to happen and then she schedules time in my calendar to get them done. As any CIO knows you really only have so much control over your day as you have to react to the reality of the day.

My boss may call, a major system may go down, someone may call with news that requires action, I may have to deal with an HR issue, whatever… I call this being “overtaken by events.” When these things come up and I can not do the work I intended to do, I am able to recover. Because I have done a Daily Review and synced with my assistant she has the context and priorities to reschedule the day.

I am often overtaken by events but when I am, my assistant has the ability to course correct and make sure I am able to keep on track. I may end up staying at work longer than I want to but when I do leave I have the satisfaction of knowing I accomplished what I set out to accomplish at the beginning of the day.

Work – Life Balance

Many people profess to be seek a “balance” between work and life.   What they really mean is they want to strike a balance between work and family.  Well I have bad news…  There is no such thing as a Work – Life balance.  That’s right – there’s no “balance.” If you’re trying to achieve balance, you’re going to fail. Balance isn’t the answer. The best you can hope for is “dynamic tension” between the two.  But, there is a way to be at peace about the work and family struggle.

In today’s alway on, always connected world it there is no longer a “work time” and a “personal time.”  Just acknowledge it and get over it.  In the era before Blackberrys, iPhones, instant messaging, social networks, and blogs, we all had relatively predictable days. Now we all have unpredictable random work streams that come at us constantly 7×24.  We all feel the need to always be on in order to keep up.  The reality is everyone else is NOT doing it better than you, and you’re NOT the only one feeling stressed and worried about everything, and feeling like you’re almost failing at both.
Here is what to do:
At the beginning of each day look at your calendar to see what hard commitments you have and how much discretionary time you have.  Then look at your Next Actions list and decide what you realistically want to accomplish today before you go home.
I stress the realistic part of this.  Assign a “Today” tag to the next actions you want to accomplish today.  Then filter your next actions on TODAY so you only see those items you decided you want to accomplish today.  Then once you can check off or delete all those things that you set out to accomplish in the morning, GO HOME. Feel good about accomplishing what you set out to accomplish and go home to be with your loved ones.

Once your home be fully engaged with your family.  No multitasking. Sure, maybe a little email after the kids go to bed, but that’s all.

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.