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The “3S” Approach: The Lost Art of the GTD Weekly Review

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Happy first birthday Refocuser!  Check out the “best of” page for some fun posts after reading this.

Click for photo So much has been written about the Weekly Review as a part of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system that it feels sort of ridiculous to even entertain writing about it.  I pride myself in making this blog different – not just another GTD/life hacks wannabe poser blog thing – but at the same time, a lot of the best practices in productivity fit under the GTD umbrella.  So there will be times I feel compelled to write about GTD in all its glory.  This is one of those times.

If you’re new to GTD, this post really isn’t the best place to start as it’s only covering a small piece of what GTD is all about.  You should dive in and read the official book.  If you’re the type of person who can’t stay on top of the most important things in your life, you won’t be sorry.

First a few words about GTD.  GTD isn’t a panacea by any means.  It’s just a framework for “thinking about thinking”.  It’s updated software for your brain that will help you make sense of all the inputs and outputs in your life.  It’s also a set of habits that for some people can be hard to get into, because they require a change in behavior.  But hey, it’s ultimately just “advanced common sense” as David Allen puts it, so there’s really no excuse for not giving it a shot if you feel you need it.

The funny thing about GTD is that people tend to get so fixated on the “how” and not on the “why” of the system.  Whether you use post-it notes, Microsoft Outlook, a Moleskine notebook, or your pet hamster to track your work isn’t the important thing – the system is adaptable and should be used in the way that works best for you.  In other words, the implementation details aren’t what matter, but the way the system is used at the macro level does.

In a lot of ways this reminds me of Bruce Lee’s unique approach to fighting, Jeet Kune Do.  Stay with me for a second; other than just being three-letter acronyms, JKD is actually quite similar to GTD.  One of Lee’s most famous quotes about JKD is:

I don’t believe in different ways of fighting now, I mean, unless human beings have 3 arms and 3 legs – then we will have a different way of fighting. But basically we all have two arms and two legs so that is why I believe there should be only one way of fighting and that is no way.

In other words, there’s a reason why the best fighters in the world learn to throw a jab and execute a choke the same way.  While there are subtle differences in their own personal styles, and certain techniques that work best for some people, they’re still fighting using the same basic systems.  Chokes may be executed a little differently from person to person, but there’s a “right” way to choke that everyone starts with. 

GTD is the same way.  There are differences in people’s approach to GTD, but the foundational physics of the system are the same.  Show me a super-productive person and I can point out how that person is implementing GTD – even if they don’t know it.  It may not look exactly like the next person’s GTD (just like fighting) but the core pieces are almost always there.  And if they aren’t, well, there are likely improvements to be made!

One of the most important pieces of GTD is the weekly review.  The weekly review is the “backbone” of the system and is an absolute requirement for doing GTD.  If you aren’t doing something that resembles the weekly review, you aren’t really doing GTD!

What is the Weekly Review

Once a week, for as long as it takes, you need to take a step back and get the bird’s eye view of your tasks, projects, goals, and vision.  This simple step – which can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours or more – helps you achieve (or maintain) that Zen-like state that comes from being in control of your world.  You’re further reducing friction in your life by clearing your inboxes, making sure your projects all have next actions identified, and clearing all mental and physical clutter out of your life.

Here are some ways to think about the weekly review:

  • It should take as long as it takes
    • …But to make sure you do it, you need to make time for it.
  • The best time is “when you’re most likely to do it”
    • …But Friday afternoon, Sunday, or Monday morning can work well for Mon-Fri workers.
  • Do everything you need to do to feel like you have a grip on your life
    • …But sometimes leaning on a little bit of structure can help.
  • It doesn’t have to be weekly
    • …But let’s start there since it works well enough.

In general, the weekly review is something you won’t be immediately penalized for skipping.  You could go weeks on-end without really “laddering up” and looking at your life.  But just like any other maintenance task (flossing, exercising, showering, oil changing) you’ll pay the price in the long run for your avoidance.  Things will start to slowly unravel at the seams and you’ll find that you’re not able to keep all your plates spinning all the time.  Your system will simply atrophy, and it won’t be obvious that it’s not working until you start recognizing those nagging feelings inside you screaming, “something’s being missed!”

Waking up in a cold sweat is also a clear sign that you need a weekly review.

The good news is that there’s usually a simple fix to this problem: just do the equivalent of the weekly review immediately to get yourself back on track.

What Do I Do?  (The “3S” Approach)

The weekly review is easy to avoid if it’s amorphous.  I’ve spent the better part of my work life not doing the weekly review and still thinking I had everything under control.  As soon as I discovered what I was missing however, I reached a pretty fantastic state of bliss when it comes to my workflow.  The weekly review can really bring confidence and clarity to a chaotic world.

Until I settled on the “3S” approach for myself however, I still couldn’t always get into the rhythm of the weekly review.  I didn’t know what it was I was supposed to do during the time I set aside – and I wasn’t good about keeping that commitment with myself.  So without further adieu, here are the 3 S’s.

  1. Schedule it.  If you live by your calendar during the week like I do, you do things if you both a) have the time to do it and b) you’re reminded to do it.  Adding it to your calendar and protecting that time addresses both.  I do my weekly review every Friday afternoon but if I have something else going on during that time, I’ll catch up over the weekend.  Friday works well for me because I enter the weekend with a totally clear head, and that’s an invaluable thing.

    The important thing is that it gets done.  Which means you need to treat this appointment just like you would any immovable appointment on your calendar.  It’s not something you can sacrifice indefinitely.

    image 

  2. Structure it.  If you don’t know what to do, what happens when that reminder bell goes off to do your weekly review?  The weekly review needs some structure to make sure you’re not flailing or running in place.  Once you get into the habit, you may be able to back off on the structure, but that’s a slippery slope.  After years of doing this, I still find myself referring back to this list of “make sure I do this”. 

    Here’s a basic 5-step plan you can use:

    1. Collect all loose papers and notes from the week.  Process them for next actions or file.
    2. Get all inboxes to zero.
    3. Review all previous and upcoming calendar appointments.  Process them for next actions.
    4. Review & update all project lists, goals, vision, and personal habits/task lists.  Make sure everything is where it needs to be.
    5. Empty your head completely by walking through the incompletion triggers list (external link – great resource!)
  3. Stop it.  Sometimes the hardest part about the weekly review is finishing.  There are always things you identify for follow-up that you feel you should be doing ASAP.  It’s quite easy to let your mind wander down various paths (“maybe I’ll just get this report done now” ) instead of staying focused on the weekly review for the time you’ve allotted. 

    And then of course letting it all go the second you’re finished in order to focus on what’s important: living, being, and doing, not planning to live, be, and do.  That’s why I do it on Friday – I could keep my laptop closed for the weekend and not feel the teeniest bit of guilt for doing so (though I usually don’t – because I love my job!)  But make sure your weekly review doesn’t degrade into an hourly hell of overthinking all week long.

The weekly review is a lot like exercise: you don’t always immediately miss it or recognize the value it adds to your life when you slack a bit.  But as soon as you get back on the wagon, you find yourself wondering how you ever got by without it.  It’s a critical piece of GTD and highly recommended for folks wanting to get a stronger grip on their life.  Even if you’re already a black belt in this stuff, a good weekly review can still help take you to that next level.

Let me know how it goes!

Written by Mike Torres

March 7th, 2010 at 3:55 pm

  • CaneInTheCloud

    I really want to do this. But does it really just take you an hour a week? If so, bravo! You say take as long as it takes. But I fear that if I took all day Friday it wouldn't be enough.

    • I can get it done in as little as 20 minutes depending on the week. This is primarily because I clear my inbox and task list daily before I leave the office most days – and try to follow-up on open issues from meetings as well.

      Meaning: I'm able to spend just a little time reviewing weekly, because I spend time throughout the week “bouncing at zero”. It's just a hygiene thing. Not being on top of things every day is similar to not showering or brushing my teeth. I would never consider coming to work without showering unless it's an emergency. Similarly, I make sure i have time each day to process to zero before I go home. I don't know how I could be effective otherwise.

      If your weekly review is the only time you're able to hit that state, then it could take weeks 🙂 It takes some practice. The first time you do this (per the GTD philosophy) you can book an entire weekend to do it. But it's just maintaining after that.

      • CaneInTheCloud

        THanks!

  • CaneInTheCloud

    I really want to do this. But does it really just take you an hour a week? If so, bravo! You say take as long as it takes. But I fear that if I took all day Friday it wouldn't be enough.

  • I can get it done in as little as 20 minutes depending on the week. This is primarily because I clear my inbox and task list daily before I leave the office most days – and try to follow-up on open issues from meetings as well.

    Meaning: I'm able to spend just a little time reviewing weekly, because I spend time throughout the week “bouncing at zero”. It's just a hygiene thing. Not being on top of things every day is similar to not showering or brushing my teeth. I would never consider coming to work without showering unless it's an emergency. Similarly, I make sure i have time each day to process to zero before I go home. I don't know how I could be effective otherwise.

    If your weekly review is the only time you're able to hit that state, then it could take weeks 🙂 It takes some practice. The first time you do this (per the GTD philosophy) you can book an entire weekend to do it. But it's just maintaining after that.

  • CaneInTheCloud

    THanks!

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