Despite the emphasis I have made so far in developing productive and healthy everyday routines (from to-do lists to pomodoros), not everything about productivity happens at this tactical, day-to-day level. In this short post, I guide you through what I think is the centerpiece of my own personal productivity system: the weekly review.
It is raining outside. I can feel the Sunday afternoon blues settling in. What? Another week just went by? Damn! I know I have been doing a lot of things, because I remember distinctly not even having time to go to the bathroom during the day. Many times. But, frankly, I don’t know where all that effort and hectic-ness went. Even the weekend was rather full with cleaning up, doing groceries, some sport, the one social gathering that I barely managed to fit in. And tomorrow… another long list of stuff to do is waiting (and more will come when I open the email).
Probably you never have had this kind of Sysiphean train of thought/feeling (i.e., that life is just an infinite sequence of to-dos and tasks). Then, you can just skip the rest of this post. But I do get this – almost every Sunday. Thankfully, by now I am also able to recognize it as the cue for the most important productivity and personal development trick that does not happen every day: the weekly review.
The Weekly Review
I already mentioned in a previous post how important it is to take a few minutes every day to revise what you wanted to do that day, plan what you can realistically accomplish the next day, and even write down a short journal entry. That is the daily review. While this short reflection is crucial for your day-to-day sanity, it can also leave you with that sense of endlessness of tasks, which I alluded to before. This is where the weekly review comes in.
In a weekly review, you raise above the everyday noise, and plan a bit more strategically, looking not only at the urgent stuff, but also at the more important, long-term stuff that tends to get drowned by the imminent deadlines and the chasing of unexpected fires each day. The origins of this idea, and the way I do it, come from a variety of sources, from productivity systems like Getting Things Done1 and Zen To Done2, to the practices of agile software development teams (which often do a “retrospective” meeting after finishing a project or major milestone)3.
However, rather than going into a lot of research on why self-reflection is beneficial for our personal learning4 and wellbeing5, I will go directly to the nitty-gritty details of how I do my weekly reviews, in the hope that it will help you kickstart this hugely beneficial routine. Of course, your mileage may vary, feel free to tweak the process to fit your concrete situation, etc. The important thing is that you manage to do it, consistently, every week.
How I do my weekly reviews
I set aside around 30 minutes6, normally on Sunday evenings, when I know I will do nothing else of importance for the rest of the day. I often put the review as a task in my to-do list and/or calendar, so that I don’t just forget to do it. Then, I follow a rather simple but structured process (see also the photos for real examples):
- Take a look at the week that just ended (see the photos above), by reading your journal entries, to-dos (done and not done), and any other random notes from the week (I have a paper notebook for that, left of the photo)7. I also check my weekly most important tasks (MITs, see step 4 below), to see if I achieved them, and look at my calendar for the week that is coming to an end, to remember important events that happened, or things I did this week that may not be reflected in my notebook (right of the photo)8.
- Once I’ve had a quick overview of what happened this week, I do what the software industry calls a “retrospective” – see the photo below: a short, structured reflection about the period (i.e., the week) that just finished. I normally open a new page in the journal, and write down (important! do not just “think” answers) a few short responses to the following four questions9:
- What went well this week? What important tasks or goals did I achieve? What healthy or productive routines did I manage to stick to? What things that happened I’m satisfied with? For a minute, let these soak in and celebrate your achievements!
- What would I do differently? What didn’t go so well this week? which important goals did I miss? Where did my behavior fall short? Rather than bashing yourself as a failure, think in positive terms – what actions would you change in the future to avoid these problems?
- What lessons have I learned this week? This is probably the most important of the bunch. From the journal entries, from your successes and failures of the week, are there patterns you are starting to see, of things that are frequently useful, or unproductive, or things you have realized, or interesting things you learned (in your courses, your readings, etc.)?
- What still puzzles me? As scientists, making questions is a crucial skill. This is your chance to practice it a bit – in a real-life context. What lessons have you still not learned (but you would like to)? Are there questions floating through your mind frequently, for which you don’t have an answer? Are there problems which you often ruminate about, for which you still don’t have a solution? Formulate them as questions here (you may want to spend some time later on answering them).
- Write “3 good things” for the week. This is a very simple exercise in which you try to recall three (or more, if you feel inspired) good moments that happened during the week. It can be anything, as long as you enjoyed it somehow. The idea is to bring the episode to your memory, and write down a few short sentences describing it, how you felt and why you think you enjoyed it. I normally do a summarized version of this, in which I describe the episode in 1-2 sentences (enough to remember it vividly), and then abstract from the situation a few keywords about what I was doing, who I was with, how was the environment… anything you feel might be related with the fact that you liked the experience (you will see why this is useful later on).
- Plan your next week (see the photo above, right side). I don’t mean to fully plan all seven days to the tiniest detail, but rather draw the general strategy for how you want the next week to unfold. Concretely:
- I look at my general to-do list and my calendar for the next week (for me both are now the same thing10), and note any important events, meetings or deadlines
- I select what are the 1-3 Most Important Tasks (MITs) of the week11: what few tasks or projects will have the most impact if accomplished (or worst consequences, if not done)? It can be difficult to choose from our many tasks, but this is very important: if you had to choose between accomplishing two of your tasks because you don’t have enough time, which one would it be? One important thing to remember here is to not only put as MITs things that are urgent this week (e.g., a deadline), but also things that are important in the long term, which do not have a strict deadline and hence are often pushed back in time by the urgent but maybe not so important stuff. To this end, it is good to define your long-term goals somewhere (more on that in an upcoming post on “quarterly reviews”). Once you have selected these MITs, write them down somewhere in big letters, where you can come back to and read every day (I use a new page in my journal, where my notes for the week will start, see the photo above). Also, quite importantly, put in your calendar some “appointments with yourself” to dedicate the time needed to those MITs, and guard that time as fiercely as you would any other meeting with an important person.
- Finally, aside from the focus on accomplishing tasks, I also like to set a habit, routine or “mantra” that I want to focus on for this week. It can be anything, from “less, but better”, to “exercise 30 mins every day” or “keep the journal by my desk when I’m working”.
Bonus tip: cool stuff you can do with your weekly reviews
There is another step I normally follow when doing the review. I enter most of the information I generate in the review (the retrospective reflections, the three good things) on a spreadsheet. Of course, it would be more efficient to do the review directly on the spreadsheet in the first place. However, for some reason I find more creativity and satisfaction when I write down the reflections on an actual piece of paper – and then type them down again in the spreadsheet, to help the ideas sink in. One cool thing that this digital storage lets you do is to have a historic overview of these reviews, your lessons learned, your good things… and over time, you can see trends emerge. A very simple way I do this is by having some simple visualizations that I run periodically, like the ones below:
I can tell you, when I started doing this, I did not expect conversations, food or walking to be so high on the “good things” list. But doing the four steps above, week after week, has really helped me learn about what works for me in terms of being productive and happy, and to stay on track towards important, long-term goals. And precisely that is one of the other advantages of doing weekly reviews and having them stored in a centralized place: you have already pre-processed all the important stuff from this week, so that when you want to make those long-term plans, you don’t have to rely on your memory or read every one of the (almost a hundred) journal entries and notes for the last quarter – you just read a dozen of these retrospectives. More on that on a later post!
Of course, there are the usual caveats: this is just how I do weekly reviews, and multiple other ways of doing the weekly review are available out there. Your mileage may vary. But you can try the process presented here as a starting point, and tune it to your own needs. The important thing is to take a short while every week, take stock of what happened and plan what you want to happen next.
Back in my own Sunday evening, after I finish my weekly review (and the plan for the Monday that is coming up in just a few hours), I can often feel the relief of knowing what stuff is important in the near future, when am I going to do it, and why (and what I will leave for some other week). The warm feeling of gratefulness for the (>=3) good things that happened recently (which represent good things I have in my life) fills the room. My mind is not racing anymore.
Now I can take a book and read myself to sleep. Good night!
Do you also stop each week to plan what the next one will be like? Do you have your own particular process to do it? Please share it with us in the comments section below!
Allen, D. (2015). Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. Penguin. See also https://gettingthingsdone.com/. ↩︎
Babauta, L. (2011). Zen To Done: The ultimate simple productivity system. Available here. ↩︎
Babb, J., Hoda, R., & Nørbjerg, J. (2014). Embedding reflection and learning into agile software development. IEEE Software, 31(4), 51–57. ↩︎
Fritson, K. K. (2008). Impact of Journaling on Students’ Self-Efficacy and Locus of Control. InSight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching, 3, 75–83. ↩︎
Flinchbaugh, C. L., Moore, E. W. G., Chang, Y. K., & May, D. R. (2012). Student well-being interventions: The effects of stress management techniques and gratitude journaling in the management education classroom. Journal of Management Education, 36(2), 191–219. Available here. ↩︎
This is just the average time it takes me to do the review. You may find you are slower or faster than me, so be sure to check how long it takes you, and adjust how much time you allocate for this. This is a moment when you want to be in a calm and reflective mood, not on a hurry! ↩︎
This is another important everyday routine I took from many productivity systems: to have a notebook by my side at almost all times, holding the day’s to-dos, and enabling me to capture immediately new tasks that come my way, or jot down any ideas or creative insights I have throughout the day. Super-simple and super-important. I have bad memory. And even if you have good memory, your mind is not designed to hold ideas for long periods of time (i.e., trying to do that has a cost in terms of your available cognitive capacity – and I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a lot of that to spare!). ↩︎
I am now trialling the “calendar as to-do list” trick which I mentioned in the post on to-do list overwhelm, which I update as the day goes on, to reflect what and when I did things (at least, those that took me 30 minutes or more). Thus, by Sunday my calendar also shows how the work week was, and what I spent most time on. Pretty neat if you want to have this kind of quick overview of a week! ↩︎
Don’t spend too much time on polishing the wording of these reflections. Once you get an idea, write fast, intuitively, in a stream-of-consciousness manner. ↩︎
As I mentioned, don’t have a “general to-do list” anymore, as I’m using the calendar as a to-do list – i.e., all tasks need to be assigned a slot of time, or a reminder some particular day in the future, to be planned out in more detail (see “level 3” of the post on to-do list overwhelm). ↩︎
Yes, the MITs are the same idea that I apply when planning out the next day in the daily review (see “level 2” in the post about to-do list overwhelm). ↩︎