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GTD for Academics: The weekly review

This is part 9 of an ongoing Tuesday Sanity Check series on Getting Things Done (GTD) for Academics. You can find the first seven posts here: Setting the Stage, Engaging the System, Acquiring the Habits, Collect, Process, Planning, Doing, and Simple Trusted System.


Here's what we've learned about GTD so far:

  • GTD is a framework for organizing the things we have to do in our lives and for thinking about those things, in order to make the best decisions possible about what we should be doing at any point in time.
  • GTD is about changing the way we think about and behave around our work --- not about apps or tools.
  • GTD is predicated on the practice of simple habits, done consistently.
  • The basic four habits are Collecting (capturing items that grab your attention and putting them into external storage,x like a notebook or notes app), Processing (going through the captured stuff on a regular basis to decide what to do with it), Planning (setting up intentional blocks of time to do things to that stuff), and Doing (actually executing the tasks that you planned).

If you wanted an absolutely minimal GTD system, you could stop right here. Just take time, like the next 60 days, to consistently practice these habits and get them ingrained into your daily life. Use whatever tools you want --- analog or digital, simple or complex. If you do this consistently, you will be in a much healthier position with respect to your work, and you'll probably find you get more done and stress out about it less.

A fifth "habit" is the use of a simple trusted system to organize all the stuff that you have collected, processed, and planned out. Last time we discussed a basic "stack" of software tools that powerful but fairly simple to use. But you can always use less, or simpler tools.

What I have tried to emphasize throughout this series is that despite appearances, GTD is not complicated. It's really just a collection of habits. But forming new habits can be hard --- GTD isn't effortless. Like any good habit, it has to be built. It takes dedication, a clear sense of why you're doing it, and a commitment to do the simple things consistently. And then one day it becomes truly habitual, something that is just part of the way you do things.

That said, I'm sure many readers are wondering just how anybody makes all of this work. I'll come out and say, there's no magic shortcut. To use GTD effectively, and reap the rewards, you have to just practice it. But while there's no magic, there is a secret ingredient that makes it work long-term once the basic habits have been formed. And it's the next habit we'll discuss.

The weekly review

The weekly review is a time, blocked off once per week, in which four things happen:

  • We clear out all our physical and electronic workspaces, including all inboxes, getting those inboxes to zero. (While we should do Processing on a regular basis, at the weekly review we always do it.)
  • We examine all of our lists of actions and projects, and ensure that they are up to date and organized the way we want.
  • We examine our calendars for things that are coming up (as well as things in the recent past) that need attention and put items on the calendar that belong there.
  • Finally, we take time to think about the big picture. What are the big items coming up next week? Where does all of this stuff fit into the larger context of my long-term goals and my values? What are some creative ideas that I can begin to nibble on next week?

The goal of the weekly review is to have our entire simple trusted system 100% ready for the upcoming week, so that when this week begins, we can go straight into the Doing habit with no worries about whether something that should be in the system is there or whether we've forgotten anything. Because of this, the weekly review is absolutely essential for successful GTD practice.

Why academics need review (and I don't mean peer review)

College faculty, especially, need the weekly review (along with all the other parts of GTD). This is because although we faculty have a lot of work to do, and we somehow manage to get enough of it done to stay afloat most of the time, I fear that many of us have a profoundly unhealthy approach to that work. That approach is best described as a survival-based approach. It's about keeping your head above water. It's the approach we take when there's so much to do, that we just try to keep the fires out and the plates spinning. We tend to focus a large portion of energy on the most urgent things rather than the most important things and fail to realize that there's a difference between these two.

I think we in higher ed have tolerated this survival-based approach to work for so long that we think that it's normative or in some sense OK. Well, it's not OK. It's actually a serious epidemic that is making higher education worse, and could eventually bring about its collapse.

I've worked in higher education for 20 years as of this fall, in three different institutions (and taught as an adjunct in a two-year college prior to getting my Ph.D.). I also go around to colleges and universities to give talks and workshops. At all of these places, I've seen this survival-based based approach entrenched among nearly all faculty I meet. The results are not pretty. Faculty are working nights and weekends, cutting back on sleep and on time with family and anything else outside of work, out of a sense that this is what I have to do to survive. Add isolation to the overwork, and you have a recipe for depression and burnout. Of course, students are among the biggest losers when all this faculty overwork comes home to roost.

Overwork is a shared problem. Administrators need to be mindful of their role in all of this, especially regarding the issue of contingent faculty whose jobs are predicated on teaching insane loads on a regular basis for slave wages. GTD will not solve the problem, and I don't want to imply that the solution to this epidemic is for us faculty to get our acts together and be more productive.

But, while we work together on a long-term solution, the good news is that there are some simple things that faculty can do to get back in control of work, not so that they can get more done, but so that they can do what they love. This involves getting oneself into a position of control with regard to work, so that the faculty member is in control of the work, and not vice versa[1]. The simplest possible step that an academic can take in this direction is adopting basic GTD habits and doing a 90-minute weekly review.

We are all too busy not to spend time reviewing once a week.

How I do the weekly review

My weekly review occupies a 90-minute block of time that I set aside every Sunday afternoon. David Allen recommends doing this on Fridays at the end of the work day, but I am still doing actual work on Friday afternoons, and anyway I prefer the quiet and stillness of Sundays for this. This is the only work-related task that I allow myself to do on Sundays.[2]

I do my weekly reviews in some quiet, isolated place like my home office, the library, or a coffee shop. I go through each of the following steps:

  1. I first process all inboxes to zero. These include three email accounts, notes in Google Keep, a folder in Dropbox, my Todoist Inbox project, my Evernote +INBOX notebook, and (if I'm at home) physical inbox in my home office. I do processing occasionally through the week, so my inboxes are usually close to zero and therefore this step isn't very time consuming. If you've never zeroed out your inbox before, take a week(end) to do this first before trying a weekly review.
  2. Next, I go through all my project lists in Todoist, and for each project, I mark off any completed tasks that I forgot to mark off, delete any obsolete tasks, add any new actions that need to be added, and make sure everything has the correct tags and priority levels. Especially, I make sure every project has a @next action.
  3. Now I move on to Google Calendar. I look back at the previous 2--3 weeks because sometimes past events trigger a follow-up action I need to add. Then I look at the upcoming week and add projects and action items. Then, I look ahead 1--2 weeks into the future to scout for upcoming events that need actions logged in Todoist. The second part here, looking ahead at the upcoming week, takes the most time because this is where I register all the teaching, service, and scholarship tasks that need to be done.
  4. After looking at the calendar, I check three related files. One is called Waiting For and is just a list of all the actions I've delegated or things I've asked other people for, like reimbursements or email replies; if something has been on the Waiting For list for 2-3 weeks with no updates, I'll make a note to follow up. The second file is called Big Picture and contains longer-term goals that I set for myself. The third file is Someday/Maybe file we've met before; it's for things that are not actionable, but not really reference material either, but instead something interesting you'd like to maybe do someday. Those last two I review each week to stay in touch with what's important to me but not in the stream of daily actions.
  5. Finally, I finish up by writing out a list of my Big Rocks for the upcoming week, which we discussed in the post about Planning. Then, I block out time during the week to work on those Big Rocks. And then finally I go back into Todoist and mark off 3--5 MIT's (most important things) for Monday.

How much time does all this take?

This week I timed all the steps of my weekly review with a stopwatch.

  • The Processing step took around 15 minutes. Fully 5 minutes of that was spent on one item: A little book that my 8-year old son wrote in school called "Gingerbread Man versus the Shark". (It's as awesome as it sounds.) This was in my physical inbox after I got it at his parent-teacher conference and I wanted to save it. So I had to unstaple it, scan it, restaple it, and then put it in a special storage box we keep for super-cool kid stuff we want to archive. It was worth it.
  • Reviewing my project lists in Todoist took 13 minutes.
  • Reviewing my calendar took 20 minutes. Like I mentioned, this is usually the most time-consuming step because it's where I look ahead at my upcoming classes and think about what I need to do with them. This time in particular, I looked at the class schedule (which is on my Google Calendar) for the next 2--3 weeks and decided that I didn't like the way I had it laid out, and I took time to change things up.
  • Reviewing my Waiting For, Big Picture and Someday/Maybe files took 5 minutes.
  • Planning out Big Rocks and MIT's took 20 minutes, which is unusually long for me --- usually this takes less than half that amount. But this week is a little different because I have several things to get done by the first week of April, and I'm not on campus each day, so scheduling time and space for the Big Rocks was trickier than normal.

Add in time for a couple of interruptions, and this adds up to 75 minutes. On the rare occasions when I've skipped my weekly review because I thought I was "too busy", I am certain that I wasted more than 75 minutes during the week because my actions weren't organized.

Conclusions

By doing a 75-90 minute weekly review like this, you completely organize all the actions for which you have responsibility. Anything that you could do, is now somewhere in your system, properly organized and tagged, and it will be ready for you to do when the time and context are right. There will be no nagging worries about stuff that might not have remembered, because you cleared all those inboxes out, updated all your projects, and checked in with your calendar. This doesn't reduce the amount of work you have to do; but it greatly increases your control over that work, which means more of it will get done, and with less stress.

For me this brings an amazing sense of peace and quiet, that sense you get when everything's been taken care of. It really is the best 75-90 minutes related to work that I spend all week, and I'm a different --- and worse --- person, and professor, when I don't do it.

My personal challenge to you: If you haven't gotten the first four habits down yet, spend the next week doing that. Also set up a simple trusted system for all this. Then -- do a weekly review.


  1. Some will object to this and say that it doesn't matter how much they get done, they are still not "in control" of work because other people keep giving them work to do. In fact, if we get more done, doesn't that mean that we'll be given more to do? This is definitely the case, if we never learn to say "no" to things. We are all in a position to say "no" to many of the things that people try to put on our plates. The secret to being able to do this without getting fired is (1) you have to have a proven record as a person who is faithful in getting things done , so that when you tell the Dean or Provost "no", they will know that it's not sheer laziness; and (2) you have to have enough of a sense of the meaning and structure of your work and how it connects to your basic values, that you have a sound idea of what to say "no" to and what to say "yes" to. And that's not possible without regular reviews. ↩︎

  2. To clarify: I very rarely work on the weekends in any form. I prefer not to even think about work on the weekends. This is because I have things in my life that take precedence over work. Four of those things share a house with me, and three of them are 8, 11, and 13 years old. As a Catholic, I follow Church teachings about avoiding "servile work" on Sundays. The weekends are for rest, recuperation, having fun, getting stuff done around the house, and investing time with my family and with my church. This is generally not negotiable with me. One of the main reasons I practice GTD is to be able to pull this off on a regular basis and not get fired. If you want to hear more about this, email me and I'll do a post on it. ↩︎

GTD for Academics: The weekly review
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