GTD for Academics: Reflect
Taking time to think about what we do, before we do it.
Today we're continuing our overview of Getting Things Done (GTD) for Academics. In the previous posts, we've...
Seen that Capturing thoughts as they occur and getting them out of our heads frees up time and energy to think;
But we have to Clarify those captured items to understand our relationship with them;
And having gotten clarity on what captured stuff means to us, we then Organize our stuff so that its location (physical or digital) matches what we intend to do with it.
If you are managing to make small steps in this overall direction, you should stop and be proud of yourself for a minute. This level of intentional thought toward your work and life is a powerful signal that you are serious about reclaiming purpose and control and leaving burnout behind. If you're struggling, then just know that this probably means you are doing it right, because it's not easy. Don't give up! Just aim for small wins and incremental improvements every day.
Once we capture, then clarify, then organize, you might expect the next step is to start Doing. We're close, but there's one more stage in GTD practice. In Clarifying and Organizing, we decide which items we captured need action and then put them in the right place. Now, we need to make sure we are doing the right things at the right times. GTD calls this process Reflection.
I'm actually not a fan of this term used for this part of GTD because it sounds like inaction. What Reflection really means is taking time before action, to decide what do act on and when. In some treatments of GTD, it's called Planning.
Planning, like organizing, is often considered highly uncool in academia. It sounds antithetical to the creative muse, the unscripted discussion that leads to an insight, and the free exploration of ideas. It also sounds like work, and so people may say that they don't have time to plan. And why plan things anyway, when things never seem to go according to plan?
Former US President and Army general Dwight D. Eisenhower made lots of plans, and only a fraction of those turned out as planned. And yet he saw the importance of the planning process:
Very little goes according to plan; but without reflecting on what you are going to do before you do it, you cannot expect positive results from your actions. Anything good that happens will mostly be because of luck. And that's the opposite of the mindful control that we are aiming for here at Intentional Academia.
I see two kinds of "reflection" in the GTD ecosystem. One is a high-altitude reflection where we pull back and look at the big picture. The Weekly Review and the Quarterly/Trimesterly Review, which we'll learn about later, is this level of reflection. Here, we check our values; make sure our commitments are in line with our values; map out upcoming days and weeks to give appropriate attention to those commitments; and maintain our Projects and Next Actions lists to align with all of these.
But there's also a street-level reflection that you do on a daily basis, and that's the Reflection we are discussing now.
How to reflect
This level of reflection happens on a weekly timetable, with occasional daily check-ins, and it’s centerpiece is the Weekly Review.
The purpose of the Weekly Review is to get the entire system -- Projects, Next Actions, Someday/Maybe, and Waiting For lists along with commitments to others and the system itself -- up to date and working properly. The Weekly Review isn't actually a time to check off items from those lists. Instead it's a weekly scheduled checkup to get things "clean, clear, current, and complete" as David Allen puts it.
There's no one way to do a Weekly Review, but the official suggestion from the GTD mothership goes like this:
Get clear: Do a round of capture on all loose physical and digital items; then process all inboxes to zero; then capture again by writing down any new projects, action items, waiting for's, someday/maybe's, and so on.
Get current: Go through the Next Actions and other action lists and mark off completed items, delete items no longer relevant, and add items that are new. Then review past dates on the calendar for remaining action items; then look at upcoming dates on the calendar and do the same. Then review the Waiting For list to see if there's any follow-ups needed on delegated tasks, and check off items that you're no longer waiting for. Then review projects to evaluate their status, update reference materials, add action items, and so on. Then look through any other lists you have to surface things you need to do.
Get creative: Review the Someday/Maybe list and promote any items to Next Actions if you're ready to commit to them; and delete things you're not interested in any more. Then, finally, they suggest ending the review time by writing down creative, risky ideas that you might asipire to.
The Weekly Review is a sine qua non of GTD practice; if you're not doing a weekly review, you're not realizing the full benefits of the rest of the GTD framework. That’s because it’s one thing to capture stuff and make lists of things to do, and quite another to keep those lists maintained. We all know what happens to lists that aren’t reviewed.
It’s also very helpful to reflect more than just weekly. Many GTDers do a daily review as well, and it’s always good to reflect in the moment if work or life seem to be spinning out of control. If you are feeling overwhelmed, a good response is simply to take 10 minutes, shut yourself off from the rest of the world, and reflect on your actions lists and what needs to be done, without trying to do those things simultaneously. Simply writing down a 2-3 bullet point list of things to complete, on a whiteboard or sticky note, can relieve the cognitive pressure and recalibrate you for the rest of the day.
Finally, even if you don’t do a daily review (and you don’t have to, certainly not every day) it’s a good idea to review your calendar on a daily basis. The calendar holds the "hard landscape" of your work and life, with things in it that (by definition, as we saw last time) simply must be done by a certain date. And around those hard entries, you can box off times for the other important but non-date-sensitive items that also need to be done.
How I reflect
I've gotten into the habit of setting aside 2 hours every Sunday morning for my Weekly Review. At that time and on that day of the week, it’s quiet and I have nothing else happening, so I can focus. My routine for the Weekly Review goes like this:
The first step has nothing to do with GTD: I clear off my physical workspace in my home office and wipe everything down with Clorox wipes, then shut down all my electronics and wipe those down as well. Then I reboot everything and put it back in place. I call it the "weekly wipedown". I got into the habit during the pandemic for health reasons, but now it's just a nice way to tidy my desk (and clean up all the cat hair that collects on it), do any software updates that showed up during the week, and signal to my brain that it's time to review. Time required: 10 minutes.
Then I collect all loose items and either put them back where they belong, or if I don't know where they belong they go in my physical in-tray. Time required: 5 minutes.
Using the flowchart from the Clarify process, I then go through every inbox I have and process each one until it's empty. There are eight of these "inboxes": The physical in-tray, three email accounts, Google Keep, Google Drive, OneDrive, and Obsidian (my note-taking software). Time required: 30 minutes.
I then skim through this document to see if any new project or action gets triggered. If so, add it to one of the inboxes (for me it's ToDoist) for later processing. Time required: 10 minutes.
That gets me through the Get clear part of the review. Now it's time to Get current:
Go through the Next Actions list and mark off completed items, delete irrelevant ones, and adjust the priority levels. Time required: 5 minutes.
On my Outlook calendar, review the last three weeks for any triggers and followups; look at the upcoming week for reminders and tasks; and look three weeks ahead for the same. Time required: 5 minutes.
In my Projects list: Review the purpose, success criteria, and deadlines for each; update the task lists for each; and make sure each project has one "next action" defined. Time required: 5-10 minutes.
I have two separate "projects" for class preparation and grading to do. These aren't really "projects" but more like prominent areas of responsibility. For class prep, I make sure I’ve scheduled all prep tasks to be done at appropriate times, preferably two weeks out from their due dates. For grading, I make sure all items to grade are entered, and break each grading "task" down into bite-sized subtasks that can be done in one sitting, and attach due dates for getting these done. Time required: 10 minutes.
Look through my Waiting/For list to see if there are any followups needed or if I can cross any of the items off. If a followup is needed, put it on the Next Actions list. Time required: 5 minutes.
Look through my goals from my Quarterly Review and Monthly Review and take time to reflect on how I am doing: progress that's made, blockers I am encountering, and so on. Then review where I want to be on those goals by the end of the current month. Then, add incremental goals for the week that will get me further along toward completing monthly and quarterly goals. Again, there’s a separate post coming about these high-level reviews; here’s an old one on the same topic. Time required: 20 minutes.
Make a second pass through my ToDoist inbox to process any new captured items that came up in this part of the process. Time required: 5 minutes.
Finally, Get creative:
Go through the editorial calendar I have set up for all my writing projects (this blog, the rtalbert.org website, the Grading For Growth blog, and assorted op-eds and podcasts and the like) and update the entries. Time required: 10 minutes.
Go through the Someday/Maybe list and update it. Promote new items to Next Actions or Projects if I want to get started on them, delete items I don't care so much about any more, etc. Time required: 5 minutes.
Brainstorm at least one risky or creative idea for building my capacity to live out the values in my fundamental documents. What will help me be more generous, for example, or more curious? Even if it's weird and out of my comfort zone? Time required: 5 minutes but possibly more if I hit on a good idea.
Once I'm done, I then take one final look at my calendar and time-box my week, scheduling "appointments" with myself to work on high-priority tasks and projects. For example I usually set aside all of Tuesday and Thursday morning and early afternoon to do course prep and grading; this appears as an appointment on my Outlook calendar, and if I choose, I can set it to "busy" so people can't schedule meetings with me at those times.
Like I said, the Weekly Review takes about 2 hours. It is easily the most value-packed two hours I spend all week, and the clarity a Weekly Review affords me probably saves me at least two hours during the week, since I don't have to sit there in the moment wondering what I am supposed to be doing.
To make the Weekly Reviews a little easier, I also do an end-of-day "shutdown review" where I zero out (mostly) my inboxes, check the calendar for the next day, and take time to journal about what I experienced and learned during the day. This takes about 20-30 minutes. I don't always do it (e.g. when I have meetings that go until 5:30pm) but I find it helpful when I do.
I have lost track of of the number of times when I meticulously planned out a week or a day, only to have something blow up in my face around 8:05am that eviscerates those plans. Or maybe something that absolutely had to get done, took longer than expected and ate up the time boxes for other things. It happens -- and seems to happen in academia more often than elsewhere.
When an unexpected, plan-busting event happens, it's not necessarily a big deal. All that's needed is some in-the-moment reflection to renegotiate your plans. This is OK and it's not even that hard, if you have an overarching sense of what needs to get done and when over the short term -- and if you have a clear head about your commitments and values.
But without that clarity and organization, not only is renegotiating difficult if not impossible, the size of the events that can demolish your plans gets smaller and smaller. Without some kind of reflection, anything unexpected will grind your whole world to a halt.
Now you do it
Take a second and think about tomorrow (not in the abstract, but literally the day after today).
Look at your calendar. What's on your hard landscape that absolutely must happen or get done?
Look at your Next Actions list. Pick 2-3 items from that list that have the greatest importance to you. This doesn't mean the "most urgent", which means it has the greatest importance to someone else.
Take those 2-3 things and schedule time with them on your calendar, like making an appointment with a person or scheduling a class or meeting.
Then tomorrow, abide by your schedule -- no exceptions. If someone wants to meet with you during a time you set aside for planning class, tell them to pick another time.
Finally, schedule a 2-hour block for a Weekly Review this week.
Next week, we’ll look at the final stage of GTD where we actually Engage with the tasks that we need to get done.
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If this seems like a preposterously short amount of time to get eight separate inboxes to zero: Keep in mind that it's easier to keep an inbox at or near zero than it is to get it to zero in the first place. Once you have gotten a GTD system running the way you want and built the habits of maintaining it, getting to inbox zero is a matter of minutes. But getting to that point is a different story.
More on grading with GTD in a future post, but here is an old one on this topic.
Time boxing is probably the #1 tactic for getting the most out of the limited time you have during the week to actually execute the tasks you’ve set up for yourself. Read the article at the link; here’s an older one from me. More coming on this topic as well.