There is a secret to radically improving your productivity – it’s called a Weekly Review.
It’s not a very secret secret. It’s a secret hiding in plain sight. We’ve all heard countless times that we should take some time each week to review our schedule and priorities for the week.
We’ve all heard it, but in my experience, strikingly few stick to it. Even hardcore productivity geeks find it incredibly difficult to maintain the habit.
Here’s a recent Twitter poll in which only 38% of people said they regularly completed one, and this is for a productivity-obsessed audience:
I think I know why: most people’s idea of what a Weekly Review entails is fundamentally misconceived.
They think it’s a comprehensive “life review,” requiring hours of intense introspection. They think it’s an “overhaul” of their productivity systems, which likewise requires hours of concentration.
If you think you have to review every life goal, big and small, short-term and long-term, just to get clarity for tomorrow, of course you’ll avoid it.
Who has the time to undertake such a herculean feat in the midst of an already jam-packed week?
This tension – between the need to perform this valuable habit, and the impossibility of doing so – creates an incredible sense of guilt and even shame in so many people I work with. It burdens them with the fear that the linchpin of their productive life – what productivity guru David Allen calls the “master key” to personal productivity – is missing.
In this guide, I’ll reframe what a Weekly Review is and what it’s for – from a gargantuan endeavor to a short, quick, and easy habit that you’ll look forward to completing.
What is a weekly review?
Let’s start at the beginning: what exactly is a Weekly Review?
Let’s use an analogy to budgeting. What exactly do people mean when they say they “do budgeting”?
They sit down and review their budget categories, making small tweaks and updates and using their budget to make spending decisions for the week.
We have an intuitive sense of how long “budgeting” should take: maybe 15 minutes up to half an hour per week at most.
The only way to keep it that short is to not include things like making major financial decisions, rebalancing your investment portfolio, or reconsidering long-term financial goals.
We can’t afford to completely overhaul our finances every week. Not only because that would take WAY too much time and be way too stressful, but the power of an investing strategy is that it doesn’t change too often.
Every financial advisor will tell you not to try to “time the market.” They will advise against changing your investment goals with the wind. We want our money to compound, and compounding can only happen if we leave our money well enough alone.
All this makes perfect sense when applied to our finances. But now think about how most people conduct Weekly Reviews for their productivity.
They think they have to review their life goals, reorganize their desk and office, reevaluate every project they’re working on, reflect on their values and areas of responsibility, and much more.
I want to be clear: this is totally crazy.
Your productivity is just like your finances: it doesn’t work if it changes too often. You are investing your time and effort in very much the same way that you invest your money. But for your time and effort to compound, you have to leave your goals well enough alone.
If you are trying to completely overhaul your life goals every week, that is a recipe for chaos, not clarity. It means you are interrupting the pursuit of your goals in order to change your goals.
This is like Google Maps recalculating a new route to a new destination every 5 seconds – ensuring you arrive nowhere.
Your Weekly Review should be a quick check-in to give you clarity for the coming week, in the same way that a quick update of your budgets helps you navigate your weekly finances.
Specifically, your Weekly Review should accomplish three things:
- Clear your digital workspaces: tidy up the virtual environment where you get things done
- Update your available tasks: update your to do’s based on new information that’s come in
- Decide on your priorities for the week: select a subset of to do’s that you are actively committing to for this week
Each of these is essential, not “nice-to-have.” You absolutely must clear your digital workspaces in order to do your work. You have to update your list of available tasks as they stream in through email and other channels. And you have to decide on your top priorities for the week, so you know what to take action on next.
Since you have to do each of these tasks anyway, why not make them a bit more intentional, strategic, and efficient?
Your Weekly Review is all the tasks you have to do anyway, combined together into one checklist and streamlined for maximum efficiency.
How to do a Weekly Review
I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time over the years testing, tweaking, and refining my Weekly Review.
I’ve tried long, comprehensive checklists that took me half a day, down to tiny check-ins that took minutes. I’ve tried automating it, streamlining it, and integrating it into my daily routines. I’ve even tried outsourcing it!
The results of all these experiments can be boiled down to this extremely simple, 5-point checklist:
I keep it in a digital “sticky note” in the corner of my computer screen, so I can reference it anytime:
This checklist is deceptively simple. But its purpose is profound: to take me from total chaos to total clarity about my priorities for the week in 30 minutes flat.
It doesn’t matter if I’m checking in after a couple calm days of work, or coming back from a 3-week vacation: I follow the exact same steps, in the exact same order, every time. This produces an almost meditative experience, with each step deeply embedded in my muscle memory.
To understand why each of these items is essential, it helps to understand each of them as an “inbox” where a certain kind of crucial information from the outside world is collected:
- Email: emails from other people
- Calendar: calls and meetings at specific times
- Desktop/Downloads: files and downloads
- Notes: digital notes I’ve saved
- Tasks: my to do’s
These 5 “digital inboxes” – your email inbox, your calendar, your computer desktop and downloads folder, your digital notes app, and your task manager – are absolute essentials for knowledge workers. Each one is like a holding area, storing incoming pieces of information until I’m ready to deal with them.
When I sit down to focus on one thing, I need to be able to completely shut off all communication channels and be shielded from interruptions. But I can’t shut myself off from the outside world if I don’t have the confidence that anything new will be reliably captured somewhere.
Even if I manage to completely turn off all notifications, my own mind will interrupt me if I’m not certain that I’ll be able to come back and catch up on it all.
This diagram illustrates how a Weekly Review functions as a “sweep” across your digital inboxes, with each step flowing into the following one so you only have to “touch each item once”:
Let’s examine what each step entails. Each step includes a video where I walk through what it looks like as part of my own Weekly Review on a typical Monday morning. You can view the full playlist on YouTube here.
Step One: Email
As the main source of new tasks for most knowledge workers, email has the biggest influence on everything that comes after. That’s why we want to start here – so that we’re making all subsequent decisions with the latest updates in mind.
But starting with email also introduces a huge pitfall that nearly everyone falls victim to: getting sucked into the vortex of replying and taking action on emails.
If you fall into this vortex, I can guarantee that you won’t escape. You’ll spend the rest of the day fighting fires, reacting to emergencies, and watching with dismay as more emails just continue to pour in.
The key here is to follow One-Touch to Inbox Zero, my guide to setting up your email in such a way that you can “touch each email only once.” If you stick to this guideline, and learn to decide what needs to be done about each email, instead of doing it, you can get through many dozens of emails within minutes.
Inbox Zero is a powerful starting point, and this guide builds on it, showing you what to do with all the items you’ve cleared from your email inbox while continuing to follow the principle of “touch each item only once.”
Notice that by clearing our email inbox first, certain items “flow” into the other inboxes we’ll be checking next:
For example, you may notice an email invite for an upcoming call, and add that to your calendar for tomorrow. You might see an attachment and download it to your Downloads folder for later review. You could save a snippet of text from an email as a digital note. And of course many emails will have associated tasks that you want to save in your task manager.
You can take each of these actions with full confidence that you’ll close the loop in the subsequent steps. That is the confidence you need to hit “archive” on each email and move to the next one.
Step Two: Calendar
Your calendar comes next. David Allen calls it the “hard landscape” of your day – it’s not just the things you’d like to get done at a certain time, but the things that must happen at a certain time. If you miss an email, it’s not such a big deal, but if you miss an appointment, the consequences could be severe.
In this step, I start by scanning my calendar two weeks into the past, looking for any followup actions I need to take. These could include sending a thank you note to someone I met with, following up on a decision that we made as a team, or writing down a task that someone else is waiting on me for. Following up is a superpower!
Next, I scan my calendar about four weeks into the future, to get a sense of what’s coming up soon. This often surfaces events or meetings I need to prepare for, important dates like birthdays and anniversaries, or approaching decisions that I need to start thinking about.
In any case, if I find any action I need to take – sometimes referred to as an “open loop” – I hit the “quick capture” shortcut on my keyboard (which I have set to control-space bar) and capture it in my task manager, Things.
Just as in the previous step, any items that need further action get funneled down into subsequent steps. Appointments you encounter on your calendar, both past and future, often trigger ideas for associated notes or tasks, which you can capture in seconds using a quick capture feature like the one above.
Step Three: Desktop/Downloads
Now I’m starting to get a sense of what’s on my plate for the week. But I don’t want to stop here!
Next it’s time to clear my digital workspaces – the places where I keep the files and documents I need to do my daily work. In my case, those are my computer desktop and downloads folder, where files I download or receive as email attachments collect.
Somehow, over the course of the week these places always become cluttered with random documents of unknown origin.
For each file, I quickly look at what it is, and then either send it straight to the trash, add it to my computer file system or digital notes app (following my PARA organizing system), or capture it in my task manager using the quick capture shortcut.
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This step is all about keeping your workspaces clean, removing the clutter that subconsciously stresses you out, and making sure nothing is falling through the cracks. It’s like Marie Kondo’s tidying method, but for your digital environment.
It might seem unimportant to regularly clear these places, but check out my experiment with Desktop Zero for examples of the surprisingly valuable stuff you can find there. Some of these files represent real intellectual effort you’ve put in, and you want to be sure to save them for the future.
Once again, items found on the desktop and and in the downloads folder often become notes or tasks, flowing down into buckets that you’ll pick back up on in a few minutes:
Step Four: Notes
By the time you’ve completed the first three steps, you’ve probably captured a bunch of new notes. They could be snippets of text you saved from important emails, bullet-point agendas for upcoming meetings on your calendar, or files you want to preserve from your computer desktop.
I use and recommend the popular notes app Evernote, because of its simplicity and ability to capture content from a wide variety of sources. I teach an online course called Building a Second Brain where I lead students through the process of building their own notetaking system, which is so powerful that I call it a “Second Brain.”
You’ll also encounter other notes you might have saved over the course of the week from other sources, like articles you’ve read or random ideas you’ve had. This step serves as a useful “review” of the interesting notes I’ve taken during the week, which I might want to be reminded of.
By collecting all of your notes in a single, centralized notes app, you can now file them away all at once, in one big batch. I usually find that I create about 15-30 notes per week, and it takes me no more than 5 minutes to move them into notebooks.
In step four, you’ll continue to encounter open loops that can be distilled down into your task manager. A note on web design might trigger an idea to send to your web designer. A note you took from a book you’re reading triggers an idea to talk over with your boss. A clip you saved from an article triggers an idea for how to improve your product development process.
If a note triggers an idea for an associated task, you can use the same quick capture shortcut I showed you previously to capture it. Instead of trying to copy content from one app into another, I just copy the link to the note right into the task, as demonstrated in the video above. Whenever I decide to take that action, I’ll be able to bring up the note with just a click.
Step Five: Tasks
All 4 of the inboxes I’ve cleared so far feed into what I am ultimately seeking: a succinct, yet comprehensive list of tasks that I know represent the most important priorities for just this week.
As you might expect, by this point my task manager inbox is full of lots of different tasks from across my life. I like to batch process these tasks all at once, deciding for each one:
- What the next action is: make sure the task is as clear as possible
- What priority it is: apply a tag for High or Medium priority (if it’s low priority I don’t apply any tag)
- Which project or area it falls into: move it into the most actionable project or area of responsibility
This might seem like a lot of decisions, but by using shortcuts and doing them all at once, it doesn’t take more than 5 minutes.
The key is to be as selective as possible, only applying the “high priority” tag if it truly must be done this week. Otherwise I risk creating a list that doesn’t seem feasible to complete, which kills my motivation. And I know I’ll come back and select a new round of tasks for next week, so I’m free to leave most of them off the list.
Once I’m done processing my inbox, it’s time to choose the tasks that I’m actually committing to this week. I use the “Today list” feature of my task manager, but nearly every other task manager app has similar functionality. The point is that you need some way of selecting a subset of your total task list to focus on, instead of being faced with every possible task you could complete, which is completely overwhelming.
To choose my Today list (which is really my This Week list), I filter my tasks by priority, and choose the ones that I want to focus on this week, as demonstrated in the video above. This is an intuitive process of deciding what I can take action on, what I need to take action on, and what I want to take action on. By having all the potential tasks I could possibly choose from laid out in front of me in one view, each one succinct and clear, this process is vastly easier than it would be otherwise.
For each task I want to add to Today, I select it and press the Things shortcut, command-t. Once on the Today list, I can put tasks under headings I’ve created so I know exactly when they should be completed. I’ve now created a concise, clear, prioritized list of tasks to guide my actions for the week, available at a glance on my computer or mobile device when I’m out and about.
Think about the incredible amount of information encompassed in this list. In the process of reviewing my week, I’ve ALSO completely reset and refreshed my digital world:
- My email inbox is empty, with any tasks extracted and prioritized in my task manager
- My calendar is fresh in my mind, both hard and soft commitments
- My computer folders are empty and waiting for the next round of downloads, their contents organized so I can find them easily
- My notes inbox is empty, all the ideas and insights stored where they’ll be most useful
- My task manager inbox is empty, all the new open loops neatly filed away
At this point, I can put to rest all my fears about what I might be missing. I can sit down and focus on doing my best work, because my mind is completely dedicated to the task at hand, not keeping track of open loops in the background.
This is the secret to total commitment – knowing that each and every new piece of information has been considered on an equal playing field.
Most conventional productivity advice tells us to focus all our attention on what we have to do “today” or “right now.” But the truth is, our To Do list is the endpoint, not the starting line.
It is the end result of a cascading process, with information flowing in from multiple channels before being distilled down to a succinct To Do list that summarizes everything I need to know to take action.
Preventative maintenance for the mind
Every profession requires preventative maintenance to keep things running smoothly.
Firefighters have to check their gear and make sure pumps are in working order. Pilots have to do systems checks every time they fly. Surgeons have to make sure their instruments are sanitized and neatly laid out before surgery.
But when it comes to knowledge work, we act as if preventative maintenance isn’t required. We let our email inboxes pile sky-high, continue dumping hundreds of files into every corner of our computer, stick any random thing onto our calendar, and have to do’s scattered across any number of places.
Is it any wonder that our digital lives are a mess? That doing our work invokes such an incredible amount of stress and anxiety? That we find ourselves constantly overwhelmed by information?
We tend to cast the blame outward, on a so-called epidemic of “Information Overload.” But let me tell you, not everyone is overwhelmed with information. I’m certainly not. There is another way. If we really want to be empowered instead of overwhelmed, the solution won’t be found in changing the external world. We have to look inward, at our fundamental lack of preparation in the face of a complex world.
When I say “preventative maintenance,” I don’t mean the physical hardware of your devices. That’s important too, but modern technology is so capable that very little maintenance is needed.
I’m talking about preventative maintenance of the mind. I’m talking about the care and feeding of the most advanced yet also the most fragile machine in the universe: the human brain.
What’s so difficult about maintaining the mind is that it’s so adaptable. You can ignore this maintenance for a long time, and there don’t seem to be any repercussions.
But underneath the surface, the chaos is accumulating.
A file lost in your downloads folder that you promised to send to a client is ticking like a time bomb. The deadline to register for an important conference isn’t reflected on your calendar, and the consequences of missing it are looming like a storm. A brilliant idea you saved to your notes goes undetected until it’s too late, like that funky smell in the back of the fridge.
This chaos only becomes apparent when it breaks out onto the surface. When everything seems to break down at once, which usually happens at the worst possible moment. Like a car breaking down on the highway during a long family road trip, our systems tend to collapse at the moment of maximum stress.
Your phone runs out of space mid-meeting just as you need to take a photo of an important slide. The next browser tab you open for an urgent task is the one that crashes your computer. A request from your boss gets missed because your email inbox is in total disarray.
These are the “accidents” that are, in fact, totally inevitable when you don’t maintain your tools and your environment.
The Weekly Review is preventative maintenance for your mind, no more and no less. It is a weekly standing appointment with yourself, with one item on the agenda: get back to order and clarity. It is the one time when you evaluate all your potential commitments on equal terms, and make decisions about what stays and what goes. It is a purge of the low-level thinking clogging your brain, leaving your mind free for its best creative thinking.
If you aren’t doing or haven’t done a Weekly Review, it’s not a reflection on your character or self-discipline. It’s not your fault – it’s the fault of an outdated system of education that never taught you how to do preventative maintenance for your brain, your most important tool and asset.
If you’ve resisted doing it until now, it’s a sign that your subconscious has been looking out for you. It’s known that spending hours to review every aspect of your life was neither helpful nor necessary. It has resisted what it knows is a flawed exercise.
The quick-and-easy approach to doing a Weekly Review that I’ve shared with you in this guide is a tool. It’s a reliable tool for gaining clarity anytime you need it. It provides a way to shield yourself from the constant onslaught of new information, without losing touch with reality. It provides a clear milestone where you get to feel a sense of completion and celebrate a week well spent.
French novelist Gustav Flaubert once said, “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
How to do so is no longer a mystery: your Weekly Review is the regular and orderly part, and the violently original part is everything else you are free to do knowing that you can return to order in just 30 minutes.
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