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GTD for Academics: The Trimesterly Review

This is part 10 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, Simple Trusted System, and the Weekly Review.
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In the previous entry in this series, we discussed the all-important weekly review. Setting aside time for a weekly review of your trusted system is essential for keeping it running smoothly and keeping yourself in the loop. What this post is going to address is another level of review, done less frequently but at a higher "altitude".

High-altitude reviews, academia, and "work-life balance"

Imagine living in a city. When you walk around, you need to have "street-level" knowledge: Where you are, where you need to go, and what you need to do in your immediate environment. That's essential for taking care of your business in the moment. But on a larger scale, you also need to know the bigger context: Not only what's on your street but one or two blocks over, not only what you need to do or where you need to go now but also in the next couple of hours or days. To get that larger context, you could go higher --- for example finding a nearby building and taking the elevator up to the fifth floor and looking out the window. The higher up we go, the more details fade away and the larger context comes into view.

Our work is like this. Having a functioning trusted system is like having a good knowledge of the "street level" layout of our work and our lives. The weekly review, on the other hand, is going up a couple of stories to see what's in the adjoining city blocks, and it helps us to know what's coming and what's possible. But going even higher is also important: It helps us know how everything -- life, work, values -- all fit together.

In GTD, not only do we do a weekly review (on top of occasional reviews of our systems in between weekly reviews) but also occasional high-altitude reviews --- not so much focused on our trusted systems, but of our values and goals. These high-altitude reviews bring the big picture into focus, into which our projects and tasks connect. David Allen in the canonical GTD book goes into some depth about this, but I wanted to describe why this high-altitude review is so important for people in academics.

We academic types are big-picture thinkers. We got into academia because we fell in love with big ideas. We invested years in graduate school to go deep into the recesses of those ideas to find something new and to bring it to light. As we entered and progress in our careers, our connections to big ideas don't go away, although they can sometimes change form. We live for big ideas and have deep core values and ambitious goals. Getting away from all those big ideas impoverishes us. And yet it seems like we spend most of our time dealing with anything but these big ideas. "Death by 1000 paper cuts" is a phrase that commonly describes the college professor's work: grading papers, committee meetings, reports to write... Where is this all leading? we sometimes ask when we are honest about it. Is this why I got a Ph.D.? It's especially bad when all the small stuff along with commitments to the larger stuff leads to overwork, and we end up sacrificing personal and family time just to tread water in our careers.

The whole concept of "work-life balance" is an outgrowth of this phenomenon. We do so much work just to check off to-do list boxes with no overarching sense of purpose that we end up feeling like intelligent robots rather than human beings. "Work-life balance" is a term coined to describe the state that we truly want, but I'm not sure "balance" is the right word. I prefer the terms unity or integration. It's not that we want to do "less work" necessarily (although many of us work too much). It's that we want to know that our work is meaningful and that the meaning of our work is somehow congruent to the meaning of our lives.

And that's where the high-altitude review comes in. The idea is to take occasional times out during the year and clarify your values and goals as a person; then use that clarity to provide structure for your projects and ultimately your tasks. The resulting meta-system will include your projects and tasks, as well as a sense of why you are doing those projects and tasks and where they fit in your life.

The trimesterly review

Here's how I practice these deep-dive big-picture reviews. I do this three times a year, so I call it the Trimesterly Review. This is heavily based on this article by Michael Hyatt about what he calls the Quarterly Review, but scaled to fit the academic lifestyle and calendar.

As the name suggests, this happens three times a year: Right after the ending of Winter (Spring) semester in April, right before the start of Fall semester in August, and just after the end of Fall semester in December. So they are roughly 100-ish days apart. For each Trimesterly Review, I take the entire day and clear my calendar between 8:00am and 5:00pm. I chose the scheduling of these days so that I can do these reviews in times where there's no work going on (post-final exams or pre-start of semester) but my kids are in school, so I can commit the whole day without subtracting time from family.

On these review days, I get away from all my normal contexts --- away from my house and away from my office. The point is that I need to get a change of scenery to get above street-level. I have a special "happy place" where I always do this that's out of the ordinary for me, and no I am not telling you what it is. Then, starting at 8:00am, I go through the following routine:

  1. Review my personal mission statement and values. A while back, I took time to write a personal mission statement (as Steven Covey describes) and this document called The Ten Commitments. Those two documents summarize the kind of life I want to live, the kind of person I want to be, and the kind of career I want to have. I sometimes tweak these because life changes, but mostly I just meditate on what's already there and think about what it would mean to fulfill what's written there. If you've never taken time to write something like this, I highly encourage you to do so --- maybe that could be the sole focus of your first all-day review.
  2. Review my near- and long-term goals. I have another document that has several lists of goals I'd like to achieve: Goals for the next 100 days, the next 1-2 years, the next 3-5 years, and long term, 5+ year goals. When I first made these lists out, I started with the personal mission statement and worked backwards: Based on my personal mission statement, what are appropriate goals for 5-10 years from now? And then, To accomplish those goals, what are appropriate and more specific goals for 3-5 years from now? And so on, with the specificity of the goals increasing as the time horizon gets closer. This ensures that my goals both near- and long-term have integrity because they are connected explicitly to my core values --- in fact that's where those goals evolved from. I take time to review those goals, mark off any that I've attained, remove any that aren't relevant any more, add any new ones, and so on.
  3. Set goals for the next 100-ish days and convert them into projects and tasks. After all that review, it's time to get concrete. I spend some time writing down goals for the next 100 days or so --- to be accomplished by the next Trimesterly Review --- that are concrete instantiations of my values. I make a big list, then cut it way down to include only the ones that seem particularly important, making sure that each one is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-constrained. Once that's done, I make sure to take each goal and make sure it's in my street-level view as a project or task in my system. That way I can start working on it tomorrow.
  4. Take a break. The first three steps usually take 3 hours or so. That gets me done around lunchtime and it's a good time for an hour break or so. My personal preference is to take the hour to go to Mass and then to Confession. As a Catholic, I can think of no better way to finish off a morning thinking at a high altitude than by connecting with God in these most intimate of ways. Obviously your preferences may be different but take a break regardless --- this kind of thing is hard work and we academics are not good at taking breaks.
  5. Do a multiple-hour focused sprint on one major project. After the break, I hole up work for 3-4 solid hours on a single project from my system that needs focused attention. I usually come to the Trimesterly Review with a short list of specific projects I want to focus on and then pick one when it's time. One time for me, it was a journal article that needed to get done but was stuck in the outlining phase. Another time it was a series of 10 pre-class assignments I needed to write for a class. I tend to look for projects that have been stuck in neutral for a long time, the kind that haunt my ToDoist like a spirit in Purgatory. Quite often, after 3 hours of focused effort, the project is not only out of neutral but completely finished. That was the case with both of the examples I just mentioned. The power of focused effort cannot be underestimated.

That gets me done with the review around 4:00 or 5:00pm, and then I go home and enjoy my family.

What the Trimesterly Review provides

When the Trimesterly Review is done right, it provides a layer of connections between the "street level" view of day-to-day work with the "airplane level" view of the big picture. It is a major step toward re-integrating everyday work with the big ideas and causes that make us who we are. I always come away from a Trimesterly Review feeling like my life is back on track somehow.

I think the most important thing that the Trimesterly Review provides is a systematic framework for saying "yes" and "no" to things. Academics really struggle with saying "yes" to too much --- to everything sometimes, or to the wrong things, or to the right things for the wrong reasons. I think it happens out of a combination of conflict avoidance and a sense that you have to say "yes" to earn job security. But we'd be a lot happier, a lot more productive, and ironically a lot better at our jobs and with people if we would stop giving out "yes"es to everything and start giving honest "yes" or "no" answers based on a consistent value-based framework. And you can't have such a framework without reviewing your values, connecting values to goals, and connecting goals to projects and tasks.

Here's a real-life example from my big-picture system that helps me to know whether to decide to say "yes" or "no" to something in the moment and then trace that decision all the way to my core values.

Here's a snippet from my personal mission statement that describes my goals as a scholar:

In my work as a scholar, I will seek out interesting and important questions, pursue them with discipline and skill, and share with others. I will also continuously improve my skills so that I can better pursue these aims.

Pretty broad, I know, which is why I have goals that stem from this overall value. For example, one of my 3-5 goals as a scholar is "Publish regularly in the research literature for the scholarship of teaching and learning". That's a little more specific but still pretty broad, which is appopriate for a goal at that level. Then, on the 1-2 year horizon, I have more specific goals in mind that feed into this, such as:

  • Read books/take courses on doing educational research.
  • Finish the flipped learning in calculus study [a research project I started a few years ago and didn't finish] and publish results.
  • Read books and articles on blended and online learning.

(That third goal pertains not only to scholarship but also to my teaching. It's good when you can formulate one shorter-term goal that contributes to several long-term ones.) Now to move this more into the present, to fulfill the first goal about reading books or taking courses on educational research, shortly after the last Trimesterly Review I signed up for a five-course MOOC certification from Coursera on Research Methods in the Social Sciences. One of my 100-day goals last time was to complete the first three of those five courses. Happily, I finished that earlier this month.

The reason I bring this up is that all these values and cascading goals help me decide what to say "yes" to, and what to decline. Suppose for example that I got a call tomorrow from a publisher that was interested in having me write a new book for them. (This is 99.9% unlikely to happen, but work with me for a minute.) This represents a significant opportunity for me as a professional and it's the sort of thing that many academics would say "yes" to, automatically. What I would do with that request, on the other hand, is try to make it fit into my framework. Does this book help me advance toward my near- and long-term goals? Or does it get in the way or lead me sideways? While writing a new book is appealing (it's actually another one of my 3--5 year goals), it's not clear that it fits in the larger context of my goals. If the book isn't about scholarship of teaching and learning (for example, they want me to write a calculus textbook) then this takes huge amounts of time from those three goals I listed above. On the other hand, if the book they wanted me to write was about blended learning, then it would give me a really good excuse to invest lots of time in the first and third goals listed above --- but it would also all but eliminate the possibility of finishing that calculus study. I'd have to really think about the cost/benefit on this and make a decision based on the sum total.

But the thing is, I have a framework for deciding and it's internal, not external (as opposed to "I should say yes because this is how I get promoted"). So whatever choice I make, I can back it up based on my values and goals, and ultimately feel no regret either for saying "no" to it, or for paying the opportunity cost of saying "yes". This is an incredibly empowering thing for academics.

My next Trimesterly Review is next Friday, so wish me luck.

My personal challenge to you: Schedule a Trimesterly Review for the fall --- right before school starts back up --- or even now in the spring if you're feeling adventurous. If you haven't taken time to write a personal mission statement yet, maybe think about two days for this, one to write the mission statement and another to do the review. Then report back on how it went.

The end

Thanks for reading all these articles on GTD for academics. I intend for this to be the last in the series, with one exception: If you have specific questions you want me to address, please email those to me (using the email in the sidebar or one of the other contacts) and tell me what it is. If I get enough questions, I'll do an AMA post later. Otherwise, I wish you the best as you try to apply these principles to your life and work.

GTD for Academics: The Trimesterly Review
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