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.

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.

What’s the Next Action?

After the Weekly Review, one of the most important concepts in GTD is the Next Action required to move the project forward.One of the reasons that previous generations of time management and personal productivity systems have failed is because they do not embrace the concept of the next action. Even simple to-do lists suffer from this problem.  For example, if you have an abstract item on your to-do list like “paint the house”, you will never do it because every time you look at it, you will subconsciously realize there are many steps necessary to complete the task.  It is just too hard to mentally figure out what you need to do to actually check off “paint the house” from your to-do list.  You really need to figure out what needs to be done and what order to do it to actually complete “paint the house.”  That is because “paint the house” is a project.Projects have many steps, and can be overwhelming in their complexity. The key to handling these projects is not to focus on everything hat has to be done – that’s a great way to freak yourself out.  Instead, just focus on the very next physical action you need to do to move the project forward. It may be looking up a piece of information, making a phone call, researching something on the web, scheduling an appointment or accomplishing a small task. Whatever it is, it’ll move you closer to completing the project, so don’t worry about everything else – focus only on what you can do right now.

By thinking about it now and writing it down as the next action you can take to bring this project to completion, you set yourself up for action.  You can do that next action automatically the next time you see it on your Next Action list instead of glazing over some nebulous far-in-the-future to-do.  With a to-do list you have to make a decision about what action to do for each item each time you look at it. With a Next Action list, you have that decision made and you just have to choose to do the action now or not.  But by focusing on only the next action rather than all the actions, it’s not nearly as intimidating.

How does GTD differ from “To-Do Lists?”

To-do2The biggest difference between GTD and keeping a “To-Do List” is defining what being “done” looks like. Most of the tasks people keep on their to-do lists are “amorphous blobs of undoability” – commitments without any clear vision of what being “done” looks like. That’s a huge problem – your brain is naturally designed to help you figure out how to do things, but only if you know what the end point looks like.  Everything you’re working on should have a very clear stopping point – a point where you know you’re done and where you can check it off or delete it.  If you don’t know what that point looks like, you’ll find it very difficult to make any progress at all.  It is critical that you clarify what being done looks like.

Most people that have tried to-do lists combine several different types of items on those lists.  They include things that are specific – get hamburger from Ralphs, clean garage, email Fred about proposal, with things that are not specific – lose weight, Grandma’s situation, staff meeting presentation, get healthy, improve work/life balance, etc.  When tasks are grouped this way it is impossible to complete some of these things and therefore they are never crossed off or deleted.  This causes procrastination and ultimately a loss of interest in the to-do list.

GTD forces you to break down your “to-do list” into the appropriate next actions to complete the tasks and check them off or delete them.  It also defines the context of how, when, and where you will perform the next action.  For example, tasks on your “Home” list are next actions that physically must happen at home or calls are tasks that need to be performed when you have a few minutes available and access to your phone.

While there is no difference between “work stuff” and “home stuff” in GTD, some next actions can only be accomplished at your home.  These are things that physically must happen at home.  Some examples: Replace lights in backyard, install baby proof fixtures in living room, Dispose of hazardous waste in the garage at Sun Valley disposal center Saturdays 10-3, Paint kitchen with Dunn Edwards eggshell white paint.

Another example of GTD’s context is your calls list.  Do you have a few minutes and access to a phone or your cell phone?  If so, just check your calls list and you can start processing your calls and delete them once you successfully connect with the person you need to talk with.  This “pre-thinking” about  the  context of when and where you need to do your stuff allows you to easily complete your tasks when your in that context.

Processing your “Stuff”

Now that you have completed your initial capture you should have lots of unprocessed items in your “- Unprocessed” notebook and now it is time to figure out what to do with all your stuff.  When processing start at the top and decide what to do with each unprocessed item until you have completely processed your stuff to zero.  In GTD this is called processing and your goal is to always process your unprocessed queues to zero.  This could be your inbox on your desk, your email inbox, your unprocessed items in Evernote, your RSS feeds or any other queue of unprocessed incoming inputs.

The first thing you need to do is to decide if it is actionable or not.  If it is not actionable you do one of three things: delete it, file it as reference in your Reference notebook or “tickle” it for possible later action in your Someday/Maybe notebook.  “Reference” and “Someday/Maybe” notebooks are for stuff that has no immediate next action.  Sometimes you will process items that do not have any immediate next actions but you want to keep them around for future reference.  Reference files are great for storing information you don’t have to act on right now but are not ready to delete or archive.  They can be physical folders for paper or digital items that you want to refer to on an ongoing basis.

Someday/Maybe lists are great for deferring ideas that you’d like to work on someday, but you’re not committing to right now.  I have ideas about fun new things do to every day – way more than I have time or energy for.  Sometimes you think of tasks you’re just not ready to do yet.  Maybe learning a new language – while an eventual goal – just doesn’t fit into your life right now.  There are many things that fit into this “I intend to do this someday” category.  Some examples: Go to Griffith Observatory, Build CIO Dashboard, Learn Spanish, Build a deck in back yard.

If it is actionable, decide if you can complete the task in less than two minutes then you just do it. This is called the “2 Minute Rule” because there is no need to categorize or further thinking about the item if you can accomplish the task in less than two minutes, just do it!  Writing down every little thing you have to do takes more time than it’s worth – if you need to send a 30-second reminder e-mail to someone, there’s no sense in taking 20 seconds to write it down and put in one of your notebooks when you could just get it done.  Your goal is to get things done, not to flawlessly capture each and every little thing in your perfectly designed system.

Apply the 2-minute rule to all aspects of your life

If it is actionable and it will take more than two minutes to complete then it is most likely a Project.  As IT professionals, we generally struggle with the GTD concept of a project.  We are conditioned to think of projects in the classic PERT or GANT CHART sense of big projects.  In GTD, “Projects” are desired outcomes that require more than one action to complete or said another way, projects are “stuff” that require more than one action to complete.

Almost everything you need to do is a Project.  Projects are nothing more than a series of actions necessary to be “done.”  The best way to avoid completing items on your to-do list is to make them vague.  Put a task like “Clean out office” on your to-do list and that is the last thing you’re going to actually begin working on.  In fact, “Clean out office” isn’t a task at all – it’s a Project.  Projects are not tasks; they are a collection of tasks – an important distinction.

So go thru all of the stuff you captured in your initial capture and do it if it takes less than two minutes to complete or make the items you captured projects.  When you describe the project it is important to define what done looks like.   When describing your projects include the desired outcome as the first word in projects.   Use the following words:  finalize, implement, research, publish, distribute, maximize, learn, set up, organize, create, design, install, repair, submit, handle, and resolve.  Do this for everything on your initial capture list in your – Unprocessed notebook.