The Weekly Review

Posted on May 4, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , |

I initially thought this article would be about clearing-the-decks. A term I learned from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. Clearing-the-decks is something that helps us get back on track when we’ve fallen off the GTD bandwagon. But circumstances in my personal life have conspired to remind me of the importance of not allowing things to get this far! Seems only fair to write first about how to do things and then, later, I’ll write about how to pick yourself up after life gets the better of your attempts to remain organized.

This article is a companion to the previous Levels of Perspective article. It is my intention to focus on what I’ve done and am doing now rather than on the GTD theory behind it. Weekly reviews are extremely pragmatic activity – essentially, this is where the rubber meets the road. In my four distinct iterations of applying GTD, I have discovered that effective use of the Weekly Review directly determines my success and sanity. I cannot over-emphasize this activity!

Review Happens Every Week!

Figure 1 is a screen shot of the appointment in my Outlook calendar for a Weekly Review on 11 MAY 2009. I’ve scheduled a recurring Weekly Review appointment for every Monday morning from 0800 to 1000 hours. The time of day tends to move around periodically. As mentioned earlier I’m in my fourth iteration of using GTD since first being introduced in 2004 — I had two different jobs at one employer then was notified of a workforce reduction and began looking full-time for another job (Thanksgiving 2008); finally I’m back to work (as of 27 APR 2009). Each of these change of circumstances has dictated a different application of the weekly review. What you’re looking at now has evolved even more than the four job changes. In fact, it will likely change again when I begin teaching at the university. That’s the nice thing about GTD, it’s incredibly flexible.

Weekly Review

Figure 1. Weekly Review Appointment

Cleanup

There are three distinct steps to the Weekly Review — cleanup, review, preparation. Cleanup is kind of like clearing-the-decks. The idea is to gather everything together, start at the top of each in-box (I have an in-box on my PCs desktop and an in-box tray on my desk) and triage each item one-at-a-time. By triage I mean, to pick up a single item and spend up to 2-minutes reviewing what to do. If the item can be deleted, filed or completed in 2-minutes or less, I’ll do it on the spot. If it looks like it will take longer, I disposition it in my system. (See Mastering Workflow for a more detailed discussion of this process.)

Note the final two bullets of the first step refer to gathering tasks from my calendar and notes. I use Microsoft OneNote because it has a powerful search engine built in to identify action items for the past week. However, in the next month I will go from having a single PC where all of my data resides in one place to having my information scattered across four locations — home, two different employers and a laptop. To make this task easier and to ensure I capture things as they are happening, I’ve “moved into the cloud.” (The cloud is a reference to cloud computing where a desktop, laptop or palm top device allows access to data stored on the Internet.) I am experimenting with a private blog to capture a daily summary of work, an on-line Google Calendar for synchronizing several calendars into a single place and a pair of Google Docs spreadsheets for consolidating and archiving projects/tasks. This system is a bit cumbersome presently but it allows all of the same functionality without having to remember where I stored a file!

Review

Now that I’ve got everything that happened over the past week in one place, I’m ready to pull out some lists of things I’ve been tracking  — and consolidate them into an updated project/tasks list. I tend to be a pack rat when it comes to getting things done. Although I keep only active and future items on this list, I don’t want to forget anything either. Imagine having to prepare a report of what you did six months ago without notes! But I don’t want to keep all of this stuff in my head either. That’s where the archive spreadsheet comes in… in MS Excel, I was able to use one spreadsheet with two tabs, but Google Docs is not that sophisticated yet. Still, because I have have two browser tabs open next to each other, this seems to be working OK for now. See Figure 2.

Note the key in the top two rows of the spreadsheet. I’m a nut about keeping things consistent without having to memorize. The first row refers to the Levels of Perspective. The second line reminds me how I’ve kept track of my notes, there are examples of each within the figure. Also, note on the far left of the diagram where the row numbers have skipped from 4 to 14 to 29 and so on, the spreadsheet allows me to collapse rows so I can have a more compact view of the projects. Those hidden rows are simply tasks that support the projects listed in Column A. By the way, the Weekly Review and this spreadsheet are an excellent place to conduct Natural Planning.

Project-Task List

Figure 2. Project-Task List

 

Preparation

Now that I have gathered everything together from the past week and reviewed it so I know what needs to happen in the coming weeks or months, I’m ready to set my intentions for next week. Referring back to Figure 1, the third section shows I have 7 tasks. From Figure 2, you can see I have already completed 3 tasks (as indicated by the cells with stricken text) and one has been “added to my system” (as indicated by the green highlighting.) The other four tasks still need to get done, but not this week. This is what I mean when I refer to getting things out-of-my-head. I must have a place where I trust they’ll stick around until I have either the time, energy or motivation (like a deadline!) to work on them. By having them in this spreadsheet I don’t worry about losing them and I know I’ll revisit them in no more than one week.

A note on writing tasks… in a previous blog article I mentioned a movie called Memento  in which the protagonist, Leonard, forgets everything when he falls asleep. He is trying to find a murderer but someone is trying to kill him. So, each day before he falls asleep from exhaustion he leaves himself a warning note. Unfortunately, he writes these notes so ambiguously he can’t figure out the warning until yet another death attempt. Don’t be like Leonard, write your tasks as if they will be read by someone who is unfamiliar with their content — avoid all but the most common acronyms, leave breadcrumbs (links) to important reference materials, write complete sentences as appropriate, etcetera.

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Mastering Workflow

Posted on March 24, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , |

Once again, for this article I am leveraging heavily from David Allen’s GTD methodology and translating into my own words based upon my experiences. I encourage you to visit the DavidCo.com website for tips and tricks on productivity and to buy his books. In addition to the classic Getting Things Done he just published Making It All Work.

Workflow

I’ve “dressed up” the GTD model here a little and made a few minor modifcations based upon my preferences. This is the roadmap for processing your daily flow of work. Starting at the top center where “stuff” comes into your inbox (whether email, voicemail, notes, postal mail or otherwise), it must be understood and sorted – what I like to call, triaged. The trick is to gather everything together, start at the top of the pile and only handle items once. As you grab each item ask yourself, “can I take action on this?” If the answer is, “no” or, “I don’t know,” it will either be thrown out (preferred), incubated (for a time when you have more information or context to make a good decision) or filed (for later reference – be brutal here to avoid a glut of clutter.) My personal rule, if someone else generated it I only keep it if I will use it frequently or won’t be able to get it later and I know I will need it.

If you answered, “yes” to the action question, you are now allowing that item into your daily workflow. Next, ask yourself, “what is my next action with this item?” If it can be done within 2 minutes, do it now. (This is the GTD rule, sometimes I allow a 2-5 minute margin. Try to stick to 2 minutes and avoid anything longer than 5 as you will be derailed and not get through your processing!)

If the item will take more than 2-5 minutes to complete, you’re either going to delegate it to someone else (and track in a file called “waiting for”) or defer it for later. I use my calendar when something has an urgency or specific time element to it and a task item if it is not time sensitive. If the item looks confusing, complicated or just too big, it’s a project.

Projects are activities that will require two or more actions to complete. For example, your boss asked you to reserve a nice place to eat for the department celebration. Before you can place a phone call, you’ll want to know what’s the budget, who’s paying, how much time will be needed, who’s invited, preferences for venues, menu options and so on. Avoid putting this on your task list as a single item. Or, if you do, be sure to write out the specific steps that will be needed to complete the project. Why write them out? When the project is fresh and you’re clear about what needs to be done for completion, why redo your work later? If you use the note section of the calendar or task item, you’ll save valuable time later by simply reading and executing. See my article on Natural Planning for pointers on how to tackle more complicated projects. (These notes on the task or appointment is actually a project plan!)

Now that the item is captured in your system, work your system. If you are thorough about capture, process and organize, everything will be in your work process and you’ll be ready to get things done! As Henry Ford said, “Before anything else, getting ready is the key to success.”

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Natural Planning

Posted on March 16, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Because best is much better than good, it is always a good idea to take time to do some planning anytime you take on a project – even if it is a simple project, planning pays. The following 4-step natural planning model is derived from more than six years using David Allen’s Getting Things Done model (aka GTD) for time management plus another nearly 30 years of personal training, reading and trial and error. Although the GTD site is generally a good resource for tips that support the books, I found nothing on this topic, so I’m putting an article here for reference.

Natural planning is “natural” because we do it whether consciously or not… it happens naturally. What makes this concept powerful is that it specifically takes a “one size DOES NOT fit all” approach to planning. Sometimes having a robust and powerful project management software tool is necessary, these are also the projects with a dedicated “controller” whose fulltime job is to maintain the project plan and coordinate progress reports with the leads who are accountable for deliverables. Face it, 99.9% of projects do not have controllers and MS Project is overkill!

The following process works well using a spreadsheet program (Excel or Google Docs, etc) but can also be done in a project notebook or – my favorite – in the notes section of an Outlook Appointment or Task. (I like using Outlook appointments and tasks for two reasons, it keeps me in a single system and I can add a reminder.)

1. What Needs to Be Done?

Whether its just you or you and a hundred colleagues, explicitly stated purpose, vision, goals and metrics will play a unique and important role in getting things done. In more complex projects, these activities are often separate steps. When the project is small, they may be identified in a single step.

  • PURPOSE shows how this project fits with the bigger scheme of the company or your life. In bigger projects, purpose may never be fully realized. Then again, it might be as mundane and routine as “make sure my children’s teeth are healthy.”
  • VISION is the concrete form of the purpose, something you can literally “see.” For a company in the business of providing consulting services for a technology sector, it might be, “become the leading provider of XYZ services to ABC industry.”
  • GOALS are where you start to get “messy.” Some people will argue about objectives versus goals but don’t let that distract you. All are a form of nesting that simply make the goals easier to organize and track. Go with whatever terminology makes the best sense and get on with things. See my previous article on Linking Strategy to Tactics for details on goals.
  • METRICS sounds fancy, but only means knowing when you are finished. Will you have completed manufacturing of X number of widgets or will you have shipped them? Will you want them sold or is having booked orders good enough? It is always easier to answer these questions before you start than at the conclusion of the project!

2. Brainstorming

Having come from an engineer-driven work culture, I know very well the appeal immediate action has for getting things done. There is nothing more satisfying than identifying a problem, seeing its root cause and dispensing with a quick fix. However, often in life “slow is fast.” Meaning, if you have the time to think through various options, solicit input and gather data, you will be better off in the long term. Unless you work in an emergency room, first responder services or the military, there are very few real “emergencies”. (A wise, former boss used to remind me, “if it’s important it will still be here in the morning.”) A few hours of perspective or a few trusted colleagues’ differing perspectives may provide unique options you wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

3. Organizing

Do yourself a favor, while your plans are fresh and current, write them down! And write them as if they are for someone who has no knowledge of what was discussed. In the 2000 movie Momento, the protagonist is attempting to remember who killed his wife, but he’s sustained a blow to the head and loses his short term memory. Every time he falls asleep his memory is cleared and he has to start over. He attempts to write notes to remind him of what he’s learned, but they are too cryptic to be of value. Don’t be like Leonard in Momento, write your notes as if you have no short term memory.

When organizing my project plan, I’ve found it powerful to collect who, when and how measured. That is, who is responsible for getting the task accomplished (you may find the RACI model useful in keeping track of roles and responsibilities if your project is complex); when will the task be completed; and how will you know the project is finished?

4. Next Actions

Make the question, “what comes next?” automatic after every meeting, phone conversation or commitment you make. Planning is no different. By asking this next action question, you focus your energies on where they’ll matter most – the very next step closer to completion.

Summary

My rule of thumb is, anytime I feel nothing is getting done, lower my perspective; and when things are chaotic, raise my perspective. Simply put, when it feels like I’m working hard without getting anything accomplished, my perspective is too lofty. Lowering my perspective means I switch from a focus on the big picture and ask, “what is the very next thing that needs to get done?” This usually causes me to split up my existing tasks or add new details to my task list.

On the other hand, when I am so deep-in-the-muck that I feel overwhelmed… my thinking is too grounded. Chaos is a sign of activity not guided by purpose. This is where reminding myself of why I am here is useful and can often provide the perspective to either jump back into the fray or decide to change the game altogether.

Happy Planning!

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