The Weekly Review
The essential component to an intentional approach to work, and how to do it
Being more intentional about your work and your life as a higher education professional all comes down to simple actions, performed consistently, within a coherent overall framework. Over the last month, we've been focusing on the "coherent framework" part, by looking at Getting Things Done (GTD) as a system for freeing your brain to get control over your “stuff” and do the right work at the right moment. We've learned that we first have to capture what gets our attention and get it out of our heads; then clarify what each captured item means to us; then organize these items and put them in a place that fits with their meaning; then reflect on what needs to be done; then engage with the tasks that fit our context, energy, and time.
But we haven’t yet gone into depth on the one essential item to the practice of GTD, really to the practice of any coherent framework for engaging with our work, that makes the entire system hold together. It's called the Weekly Review.
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What is the Weekly Review?
The Weekly Review is a once-a-week date between you and your system: the calendar, all the various lists you keep and notes you take, your projects, and the like. In a Weekly Review, you will take an hour or two to engage deeply, not with your work itself, but with the system that guides your work. During this time, you will clean up the system, update all of its parts, clarify your work, map out the upcoming week, and think big about where you would like to go next.
Let me repeat one part of that: We don't actually get (much) work done during a Weekly Review. We are not checking off tasks during this time grading exams, writing papers, doing committee work, or any such thing. The sole purpose of the Weekly Review is to recalibrate your system and all the information in it, and get it on the right track for the next seven days. Believe me, if you are consistently practicing all five stages of GTD over a seven-day period, you and your system will need recalibration.
The Weekly Review is the center of the intentional approach to life and work that we champion here at this blog. It's not understating things, and it’s not gatekeeping, to say that if you're not doing a Weekly Review, every week, then you're not really doing GTD. And even if you don't care if you're doing "real GTD", practicing any routine without periodically pulling back and making adjustments will almost certainly lead you off course.
And once you get into the habit of a Weekly Review, you will find yourself in a place of much greater command of the items in your Next Actions list; much better able to articulate what you are doing and why you are doing it; and much better able to see the direction you should take in the near term with your work. I find the Weekly Review brings a powerful sense of peace and clarity, as I get up-close and personal with each area of my work and my personal life and get it all in alignment.
The structure of a Weekly Review
The Weekly Review typically takes 1-2 hours. I like to set aside early Sunday mornings for my Weekly Review, as it's quiet and nothing else is going on. Some like to do the Weekly Review at the end of the work week, in that 3:00-5:00pm Friday time slot that is pretty much worthless for getting real work done anyway. Whatever you choose, block off the time and go off-grid: No phone calls, no email or Slack, no interruptions. This is focused time where you need to work without disruption or distraction.
There are three main parts to a Weekly Review.
Getting clear. Begin by getting your physical workspace, electronic workspace, and head to a state of tidiness and clarity.
Tidy up your physical workspace. Collect any loose physical item that is in the "wrong" place in your workspace and putting it in the the "right" place. Tidy up your desk. If there's a physical item out of place but you're not sure where it goes, put it in a physical inbox.
Then do more or less the same "tidying" to your electronic workspace, by going through a round of Capturing and Clarifying, and process all your inboxes to zero.
Then do a brain dump, writing down any uncaptured ideas, projects, tasks, and so on and then run those through the Clarify process.
The idea is to clear up any open loops whether physical, electronic, or something inside your head and end with a clean workspace, empty inboxes, and a clear head.
Getting current. Now we go through the major components of our system to get them updated.
Look at the Next Actions list. If there's a task you completed earlier but didn't mark it done, mark it as done. If there's a task that's now obsolete or irrelevant, delete it. If there's a task that you still want to do, but not any time soon, relocate it to the Someday/Maybe list.
Look at the Calendar. I like to do this in three stages. First, look at events from the past three weeks and see if there are any triggers to follow up on something; if it does, then add any tasks that get triggered, to an inbox. Then, look at events from the upcoming week and again, if these trigger any thoughts, capture them. Then finally, look at events coming up in the next three weeks and do the same.
Look at the Waiting For list, which is where we put delegated tasks or any other thing we are waiting for. Mark off any items that no longer need to be tracked. If any item on the list needs a followup, add this as a task to your inbox.
Look at your Projects. Spend time visiting each one. Make sure all of the data, goals, statuses, and support materials are up to date. If you need to contact someone involved with the project about something, add this as a task. Look through the action items for each project and make sure those are up to date. And finally, and very importantly, make sure each project has a next action -- mark the next physical thing that you can do to move the project toward completion.
More on projects: If you have any new ones, now is a good time to set those up in your system. Set up a folder in your email client and your file storage for emails and support materials related to the project. Take time to write out the goals, timeline, stakeholders, etc. related to the project. Then brainstorm action items for the project and designate one of those as the next action.
If you use any other lists in your system, spend time with those and make sure they are up to date and all the items on the list are relevant.
Finally, you probably added stuff to your inboxes. Take another loop through the Clarify process to re-empty those inboxes and get things into the right places.
Getting creative. The first two parts are important, but doing only those parts leads to a machine-like existence. Here, to end the review, we take advantage of our refreshed relationship with our stuff to engage in a little fun, risky speculation.
Look at the Someday/Maybe list. If there's something on there you no longer really feel like doing, delete it. If there's something that you're ready to start actually doing, then promote it to the Next Actions list or the Project list.
David Allen suggests that you end the weekly review by writing out any "new, wonderful, hare-brained, creative, thought-provoking, risk-taking ideas". This is optional but often fun, and I encourage it simply on that ground. I think higher education is sorely lacking in fun, speculation, and dreaming and this is a safe way to reintroduce some of that. And, you might stumble across a great idea when you give yourself permission. Nobody is watching you do this, and nobody can tell you what not to think about. So go for it.
My own spin on Weekly Reviews
It's appropriate that I do Weekly Reviews on Sunday mornings, because it's almost like a religious observance for me. In 15 years of doing GTD I have missed a Weekly Review no more than a dozen times, and when I did miss one, I spent the following week feeling like I hadn't showered. Sure, it takes 2 hours, but without spending those 2 hours I probably spend 3-4 hours during the week simply trying to figure out what my work is.
I use this template as a script for my Weekly Reviews. Mostly this follows the plan outlined above, with some home-grown exceptions:
I start my Weekly Review with the "weekly wipedown": I clear off my desk and shut down all electronics. Then I take a Clorox wipe to the desk and workspace; alcohol wipes to my keyboards, phone case, and earbuds; and screen cleaning cloths to all screens. It's a habit I got into at the start of the pandemic, and I kept it. Because who doesn't like clean screens and a clean desk?
I use this trigger list from the David Allen Company to help me do the mind sweep/brain dump part of the Get Clear portion of the review. It's a little old fashioned and not all of it applies to me, but it's good for getting into the far crevices of life.
Before moving on to Getting Current, I use a collection of what I call fundamental documents to help me get clear on my values and who I want to be as a person. One of these, "The Persona", is a running note of the kind of person I want to become; another, "The Ten Commitments", outlines ten basic values and one overarching value that guide my actions and my work. There are a few others there that articulate aspects of gratitude, humility, and other foundational values exceptionally well, and I want to re-read those on a weekly basis.
I set aside special time in Getting current to get my grading and course preps sorted out for the next week, so I'm sure I haven't forgotten anything. For grading tasks, I line up all the items that need grading for the week and try to space them out so that I am working just hard enough to complete about 1/5 of my grading for the week each day. For course prep tasks, I look at all the uncompleted items that have to be done for the next two weeks; then I arrange those into 2-day sprints as you might find in Agile development.
Part of "getting current" for me means making sure I stay connected to my larger goals at the weekly, monthly, and quarterly level. For example this quarter (January-March 2023) I want to learn to play 12 new songs on my bass guitar. That's a three-month goal; so my goal for each month is to learn 4 of those songs. And therefore I should be learning one song per week on average if I want to meet that goal. Did I, this past week? If I did, I mark my progress; otherwise I take some time to think about what was blocking me and how I might move past that this week. More on monthly and quarterly reviews in an upcoming post.
As a writer, part of the Get Creative aspect of the Weekly Review is for making sure my editorial calendar is up to date. This is a kanban board that contains all the articles and ids for this blog, Grading For Growth, and rtalbert.org along with any other writing project I'm doing, arranged into lanes according to each article's status. I make sure I know what I am supposed to be posting this week, when it's being posted, and whether it's at an appropriate stage of doneness. I also take any ideas for posts that I've dumped there, and promote them if I think it's time for them to see the light of day.
Then finally, my last act in the Weekly Review is to time-box my week by going to the calendar and scheduling blocks of time for focused work. I'll have more to say about this practice in an upcoming post.
Now you do it
If you aren't doing a Weekly Review already, this week is a great time to start. It doesn't have to be extensive; the basic outline above is enough. This week:
Set aside 90 minutes on one day, on a day and at a time of the day where you can have stillness and quiet, free from interruption and distractions. I highly recommend 8:00am on Sunday morning.
With coffee or tea in hand, go through the process of a Weekly Review outlined above. Don't overthink it and don't dwell on small details. And above all, don't do any actual work during this time. Ironically this is not about "getting things done", but about maintaining the system by which you will get things done later.
But do keep a side journal to record your thoughts and experiences as you try this out.
Then come back here and share in the comments.
Despite the objectively true fact that no real work can be done after 3pm on a Friday, this is when our Faculty Senate (of which I am a member) meets. So I’ll be sticking with Sunday mornings. And draw your own conclusions about Faculty Senate.
Most of which came in February-March 2019, while I was in the hospital for heart surgery and at home recovering — and on major-league pain meds that made GTD sort of a moot point.
A friend who knows my Catholic faith recently pointed out that these trigger lists bear a strong resemblance to the Examination of Conscience that we use before going in for Confession. Again - draw your own conclusions.
Those familiar with my former GTD for Academics series may remember this as the Trimesterly Review. In 2023 I am experimenting with upping the frequency on these to quarterly, for various reasons that I will explain in that upcoming post.