Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

A Pattern Language for Productivity, Pattern #21: Weekly Review

by Andre · 3 Comments

A common problem with task management systems is the length of time that entries remain unexamined. Action lists contain items that no longer reflect current reality. Things that seemed like good ideas at the time they were written down are no longer priorities, no longer practical, or simply no longer interesting.

Hard landscape items on calendars are as valuable for seeing the discretionary time between them for working off action lists as they are for tracking the appointments themselves. For calendars, action lists, and other support material to work effectively, they need to be examined and updated regularly; otherwise they fall into disuse, and the mind takes up the slack for tracking actions and projects, which is unscalable. The short-term memory space, the “mental RAM,” that defines our attention span is too limited to track dozens of projects simultaneously.

Many people are surprised to find that when they collect and process everything in their lives for the first time (paperwork, email, verbal commitments, inchoate plans), they typically wind up with 40 to 60 projects and 100 to 200 next actions. This load is overwhelming directly to the degree it’s kept in the mind instead of an external system. The system needs to be complete and current for the mind to trust it. The goal is to keep your mind clear.

To maintain a trusted system, schedule a meeting with yourself at least once per week — a Weekly Review — to add missing actions and projects, to eliminate completed ones, to eliminate or reevaluate ones that are stuck, to update support materials, and to reconsider active projects and someday/maybe options.

Schedule the weekly review in advance. As with physical exercise, weekly review sessions should be done to a protocol, not on a whim. Doing a weekly review when the mood strikes is a formula for failure.

How long should a weekly review take?

The honest answer is: as long as it takes to no longer have anything on your mind. As you complete your review, you reach a tipping point where you can start to feel your stress and preoccupation with “all the things” you need to do melt away — it becomes like a 21st Century form of meditation. You catch up with yourself, bringing your relationship with the small and large changes in circumstance that have accrued over the last seven days into harmony.

The practical answer is: one hour. Many erstwhile adherents of GTD undermine their once-per-week discipline by either scheduling two or more hours for the weekly review, or not scheduling the review at all. If your review is excessively long (scheduled) or open-ended (unscheduled), you’ll end up looking for or creating gratuitous actions and projects to fill time.

A more refined answer is: start with one hour, then adjust the time incrementally as needed. You may actually need two hours, or possibly 30 minutes — when everything is off of your mind, you’ll know. But to get the ball rolling, commit to a one-hour dash, then reflect on whether or not you have any open loops that still need to be closed.

When should the weekly review be done?

The best way to know is to experiment. As a freelance writer I have the luxury of doing a weekly review any time, but I schedule a 90-minute block on Saturday mornings between 8:00 and 9:30 at the café around the corner from me. When I had a real Monday-to-Saturday job, I scheduled the review on Sunday morning. I personally prefer doing weekly reviews on off days, since nothing gets work off of my mind like a weekly review.

Others prefer to do their review during the workweek, in the office. A frequent opportune time is Friday afternoon, when work is winding down but coworkers, clients and vendors are still accessible. Some people schedule theirs on Wednesday to get a “second wind” in the middle of the week. I found that I was too conscious of the surrounding bustle to do a focused weekly review at work. I should have had the discipline to disengage from the commotion, but couldn’t muster it. Others find that having all their workstation’s resources at hand — from general reference files to personnel — makes a comprehensive review easier.

What should the weekly review consist of?

It’s always a good idea to work from a Weekly Review checklist to work from rather than memory. The sequence can very according to your preferences, but a checklist for a thorough review should include at least the following:

  • Collect all loose papers, from receipts to contracts, and put them in your intray or “In” folder
  • Process all email in your inbox until it’s empty (see Inbox Zero for the true meaning of an empty inbox)
  • Review your calendar for the previous week, deleting or rescheduling items as needed
  • Review your calendar for the following week and beyond, ensuring that it’s up to date, adding new items as needed
  • Review any relevant project support materials, like plans and checklists
  • Do a mind sweep: write down any thoughts or intentions that are potential actions or projects
  • Process your papers and your mind sweep, discarding, filing or crossing off each processed item
  • Review your Next Actions, eliminating now-irrelevant ones, reevaluating undone/unclear ones (they may simply need to be reworded), replacing completed ones with new ones for their respective projects
  • Review your Project List, adding new projects, deleting completed and abandoned projects, ensuring that each active project has at least one next action you can take to move it forward, and moving uncommitted projects to Someday/Maybe
  • Review your Someday/Maybe list, adding newly postponed items from your Project list, adding new potential projects, eliminating items no longer worth considering
  • Brainstorm and capture any new ideas that may have occurred as a result of your mental housecleaning

The exercise analogy holds. The longer you wait between reviews, and harder it is to resume the habit. Your mental inventory keeps piling up, making the process of dealing with it that much more daunting. So do your best to make weekly reviews weekly.

Tags: A Pattern Language for Productivity


  • Vered - MomGrindNo Gravatar // May 1, 2008 at 1:04 am

    One hour sounds like a long time to spend on a weekly review, but I’m glad you gave this guidance. I am aspiring to no more than 30 minutes, though.

  • Daniel BeckNo Gravatar // May 3, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    You wrote that “Doing a weekly review when the mood strikes is a formula for failure.” I almost agree. I think that you definitely need that once a week review at a regularly scheduled time, but sometimes, when things get chaotic, you shouldn’t resist doing an additional review mid-week, if the mood strikes you. Otherwise, great article.

  • Andre KibbeNo Gravatar // May 3, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    Hi Daniel,

    You’re absolultely right. Anytime you feel overwhelmed or out of sorts is a good time to do a review. Weekly reviews a minimum to keep a clear head, the same way that daily showers are a minimum to keep a clean body. But sometimes additional showers, or additional reviews, are needed.

    Thanks to all commenters who’ve pointed out errors and oversights in this series. In the next few days I’ll be revising the totality of series and make it available as a PDF download. I expect that it’s going to be a substantial revision.