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You Need Time to Review
Productivity Principle #9
This is part 9 of a multi-part series exploring the principles of personal productivity, with the goal of making it the last thing you’ll ever need to read about the topic. If you missed it, you can read part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4 here, part 5 here, part 6 here, part 7 here and part 8 here (once all parts are published, I’ll create a proper index).
Now that you’ve gotten some of the foundational principles of productivity under your belt, and even picked up some habits on how to actually do the work, it’s time to talk about how you keep the momentum going.
In my experience, this is the part that usually gets missed. Maybe it’s because it’s always at the back of the productivity books, and people don’t get that far? Maybe it’s because reviewing sounds boring? Maybe it’s because reviewing actually takes time, and most people are looking for ways to save time?
Regardless of the reason, ignoring this principle can be disastrous. And you can always tell when someone has decided reviewing wasn’t important; they’re the ones who have a thousand sticky notes, ten to-do lists with a hundred things on each, and a backlog of emails that dates back to 1997. At that point, these people usually decide none of this personal productivity stuff is for them, and they go back to whatever they were doing before (which may or may not be any better).
However, a regular review is the thing that will keep you sticking to a system, and I promise you, that even if it seems like a waste of time, it will ultimately be a huge time and energy saver.
Applying the Principle
So, what is a review and how do you do it?
The exact format and frequency of a review changes depending on who you ask, but here are the elements that are non-negotiable
a) It’s scheduled and sacred
For some reason, we all have a tendency to deprioritize the things that will help us most when we get busy. This includes taking time to eat well, exercise, and yes, do a regular check-in with yourself on all the things you have going on. I’ve definitely done it. I’ve had weeks where I filled up every last minute of my calendar, and I just didn’t get around to doing a review. The result was that the feeling of overwhelm (that comes with having every minute of your life scheduled) was exacerbated.
I’ve found the only antidote to this is to schedule your reviews. Literally put them in your agenda as a meeting with yourself, and treat it as a meeting that’s just as important as one you’d be having with your boss, or your biggest client, or whoever in your life you never break meetings with.
You wouldn’t cancel a one-on-one with your boss just because a co-worker asked you for the most recent sales numbers. You’d tell your coworker that you’d get to it right after you dealt with this other important thing you have scheduled. You must do the same thing with your review.
b) You go through everything on your plate (ie. review)
Once you’ve set aside the time for your review, the next step is to actually… review. There are many ways you can do this, but the goal for all of them is the same: To take some time to take stock of where you are, and to ensure you’re headed in the right direction. A review is essentially an opportunity to adjust course to make sure that if you set out to sea aiming for India, you don’t accidentally end up in the Caribbean.
Every person’s review is going to be unique to his or her circumstances, but as a way of example, these are the things I review on a weekly basis:
I go through any physical documents that might be lying on my desk, or sitting in my physical in tray to see what has to be done with them
I go through my email, and take note of any emails that are still outstanding and that require some follow up from me
I go through all of my notes for the week, and look for things that require I take action on them
I go through my computer’s desktop and downloads folder, and see if there are any files that require action
I go through my calendar for the previous week and see if there are any events that generated actions for me
I go through all of the tasks and projects on my list
I take a few minutes to think through whether there is anything in my head that doesn’t appear in any of the previous places
As I said, your review might look completely different. Maybe you have a whiteboard that you need to clean up. Maybe you’ve got sticky notes that need to be collected. Maybe you tie string around your dog’s tail to remind you of things. Whatever it is, just make sure you’ve corralled all the things that need to get done.
c) You process everything
Once you’ve inventoried all of the projects and tasks that are on your plate it’s time to process them. If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by a to-do list with 726 items on it, then you’re probably skipping this step.
Processing means you look at every single item on your list and you decide what to do with them.
This might seem daunting, but really, it’s doing one of three things:
1. Schedule time to do it. If something is important, then you need to not just put it on a to-do list, but put time in the calendar when you’re going to get it done. Because, remember Principle 2, you will never get to the bottom of your to-do list, so make sure you schedule the most important things.
2. Toss it. By far my favourite part of processing is getting rid of things. As you go through your life and get better at capturing all the things in your head, you will invariably begin to realize that you are accumulating a bunch of unimportant stuff. Maybe that idea you had to quit your job and start a screen printing business seemed really great Wednesday at 3pm, but with a clearer head, maybe you realize that you don’t actually know what screen printing is, and maybe you were just getting ahead of yourself. Go ahead and just delete that. Cross it off the list. Throw it in the waste bin.
Chances are you’ll find this difficult to do, because you’ve been conditioned to believe that every item on your to-do list is important. But if you’ve done the work of knowing your why, you’ll soon see that a lot of the things on your plate are meaningless, and so, you should be tossing them. Remember, if you’re working on the meaningless stuff, you’re not working on the important stuff.
3. File it. Finally, if something isn’t important enough to schedule time for immediately, but is still important enough that you don’t toss it, find a way to file it away. Maybe this is a physical file that you come back to on a regular basis. Maybe it’s a “Someday / Maybe” list. Maybe it’s a filing system you have for things you’ll need to reference later. Just find a way to get it out of the way for right now.
A word of caution here. You will have an overwhelming desire to file everything, and toss nothing. Fight that desire. The more you file, the more you’ll have to review at some point in the future, so do future-you a favour and if you’re struggling to decide if something should get filed or tossed, toss it!
d) You take a step back
Now that you’ve taken stock, scheduled, tossed and filed, it’s time to take a step back and reflect for a moment. How do you feel about what just happened? Are you excited? Do you feel like you’re making progress towards a broader goal? Do you feel completely overwhelmed? Do you feel like you’re treading water? Don’t overthink it. Trust your gut.
This will tell you whether you’re headed in the right direction, or if you need to course correct. And if you do need to make adjustments, now’s the time to do it.
What Comes Next
Principle #10! We’re almost at the end! Don’t miss it…