Getting Things Done

Reflecting: Keeping It All Fresh and Functional

Your brain must engage on some consistent basis with all your commitments and activities. You must be assured that you’re doing what you need to be doing, and that it’s OK to be-not-doing what you’re not doing.

Reviewing your system on a regular basis, reflecting on the contents, and keeping it current and functional are prerequisites for that kind of clarity and stability.

If you have a list of calls you must make, for example, the minute that list is not totally current with all the calls you need to make, your brain will not trust the system, and it won’t get relief from its lower-level mental tasks. It will have to take back the job of remembering, processing, and reminding, which, as you should know by now, it doesn’t do very effectively. 

In order to support appropriate action choices, it must be kept up-to-date. And it should trigger consistent and appropriate evaluation of your life and work at several horizons.

There are two major issues that need to be handled at this point:

  • What do you look at in all this, and when?
  • What do you need to do, and how often, to ensure that all of it works as a consistent system, freeing you to think and manage at a higher level?

What to Look At, When:  Your personal system and behaviors need to be established in such a way that you can see all the action options you need to see, when you need to see them.

A few seconds a day is usually all you need for review, as long as you’re looking at a sufficient amount of the right things at the right time.

People often ask me, “How much time do you spend looking at your system?”

My answer is simply, “As much time as I need to feel comfortable about what I’m doing.” In actuality it’s an accumulation of two seconds here, three seconds there. What most people don’t realize is that my lists are in one sense my office.

Look at Your Calendar First . . .

. . . Then Your Action Lists

After you review all your day- and time-specific commitments and handle whatever you need to about them, your next most frequent area for review will be the lists of all the actions you could possibly do in your current context. If you’re in your office, for instance, you’ll look at your lists of calls, computer actions, and in-office things to do.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you will be doing anything on those lists; you’ll just evaluate them against the flow of other work coming at you to ensure that you make the best choices about what to deal with. You need to feel confident that you’re not missing anything critical.

Updating Your System 

The real trick to ensuring the trustworthiness of the whole organization system lies in regularly refreshing your thinking and your system from a more elevated perspective. That’s impossible to do, however, if your lists fall too far behind your reality. You won’t be able to fool yourself about this: if your system is out of date, your brain will be forced to fully engage again at the lower level of remembering.

The many years I’ve spent researching and implementing this methodology with countless people have proved to me that the magic key to the sustainability of the process is the Weekly Review.

The Power of the Weekly Review 

If you’re like me and most other people, no matter how good your intentions may be, you’re going to have the world come at you faster than you can keep up. You will invariably take in more opportunities than your system can process on a daily basis. This will also sharpen your intuitive focus on your important projects as you deal with the flood of new input and potential distractions coming at you the rest of the week.

What Is the Weekly Review?

Very simply, the Weekly Review is whatever you need to do to get your head empty again and get oriented for the next couple of weeks. It’s going through the steps of workflow management—capturing, clarifying, organizing, and reviewing all your outstanding commitments, intentions, and inclinations—until you can honestly say, “I absolutely know right now everything I’m not doing but could be doing if I decided to.”

Get Clear

This is the initial stage of gathering up all the loose ends that have been generated in the course of your busy week. Notes taken in meetings, receipts and business cards you’ve collected, notices from your kids’ schools, and all the miscellaneous inputs that, in spite of yourself, have accumulated in all the weird little pockets and places in your purse, briefcase, smartphone texts, jacket, and on your dressing-room counter, in addition to what’s shown up in your standard input channels like your e-mail in-tray and social media.

Get “In” to Empty 

Empty Your Head- Put into writing or text (in appropriate categories) any new projects, action items, waiting-fors, someday/maybes, and so forth that you haven’t yet captured and clarified.

Get Current

You need to “pull up the rear guard” now and eliminate outdated reminders in your system and get your active lists up-to-date and complete. Here are the steps:

Review “Next Actions” Lists = Mark off completed actions. Review for reminders of further action steps to record.

Review Previous Calendar Data Review =  Go over the past two to three weeks of calendar entries in detail for remaining or emergent action items, reference information, and so on, and transfer that data into the active system. Grab every “Oh! That reminds me . . . !” with its associated actions. Review Upcoming Calendar Look at further calendar entries (long- and short-term). Capture actions about projects and preparations required for upcoming events.

Review “Waiting For” List 

Record any next actions. Check off any already received.

Review “Projects” (and “Larger Outcome”) Lists –  Evaluate the status of projects, goals, and outcomes, one by one, ensuring that at least one current kick-start action for each is in your system. Browse through any active and relevant project plans, support materials, and any other work-in-progress material to trigger new actions, completions, waiting-fors, etc.

Review Any Relevant Checklists  –  Is there anything else that you haven’t done, that you need or want to do, given your various engagements, interests, and responsibilities?

Get Creative

To a great extent, that’s actually not something you need to exert a lot of energy to achieve, if you have gotten this far in implementing this methodology. We are naturally creative beings, invested in our existence to live, grow, express, and expand.

Review “Someday/Maybe” List – Check for any projects that may have become more interesting or valuable to activate, and transfer them to Projects.

Be Creative and Courageous 

The Right Time and Place for the Review

Do whatever you need to, once a week, to trick yourself into backing away from the daily grind for a couple of hours—not to zone out, but to rise up at least to the horizon of all your projects and their statuses, and to catch up with everything else that relates to what’s pulling on your attention.

I recommend that you block out two hours early in the afternoon of your last workday for the review. Three factors make this an ideal time:

  • The events of the week are likely to be still fresh enough for you to be able to do a complete postmortem (“Oh, yeah, I need to make sure I get back to her about . . .”).
  • When you (invariably) uncover actions that require reaching people at work, you’ll still have time to do that before they leave for the weekend.
  • It’s great to clear your mental decks so you can go into the weekend ready for refreshment and recreation, with nothing else pulling on you unnecessarily.

Whatever your lifestyle, you need a weekly regrouping ritual. You likely have something like this (or close to it) already. If so, leverage the habit by adding into it a higher-altitude review process.

Executive Operational Review Time: I’ve coached many executives to block out two hours on their calendars at the end of their workweek. For them the biggest problem is how to balance quality thinking and catch-up time with the urgent demands of mission-critical interactions. This is a tough call. The most senior and savvy of them, however, know the value of sacrificing the seemingly urgent for the truly important, and they create their islands of time for some version of this process.