This is one part of a multi-part series on how I get things done.
I’ve already covered my analog and digital productivity tools in this series but these tools are only one piece of the puzzle. We must pair them with routines for preparation and reflection to get the most value out of them.
Preparation and reflection are the practices that counterbalance the constant pressure to “do”. Without them, we risk exhaustion and burnout. When I find myself overwhelmed I know I need to spend even more time preparing and reflecting rather than redoubling my execution efforts.
These practices, over time, build trust in your productivity system which allows your subconsciousness to stop worrying about items falling through the cracks. They also lead to better outcomes as you review the big picture and identify the biggest areas for impact. This virtuous cycle improves outcomes for while reducing stress along the way.
Starting the day catching up on email and slack is a trap. I know because I fall into it at least weekly. Those are the days when I find it is lunchtime, I’m stressed, overwhelmed, and I don’t recall what I’ve done for the past 3 hours.
The days when I turn on some music and carve out 5 to 15 minutes to review my calendar and analog productivity system, plan my most important tasks, and prep for any meetings are the ones where I tend to leave feeling accomplished with fuel left in the tank.
Finding 5 to 15 minutes for this practice can feel impossible when the rush of the day is already breathing down or neck. At the same time, 5 to 15 minutes in an 8-hour day is something we can all find. Both of these are true and this is why I often fail to live this practice. When I fail, I try to get back on the horse by remembering the value of putting on your air mask first so we can support those we care about.
An evening reflection is a the bookend to a morning review. This is a newer practice for me and I still hit oand miss (even more than the morning review). All the same, traps exist here. Finding 5 to 15 minutes can seem impossible at the end of a long day of work followed by dinner and corralling two young kids into bed. At the same time, putting on your air mask is critical.
The evening habit I’m building is a 5-year journal. While there are several journals you can buy in this format I decided to build my own using the same notebooks I use for my analog productivity system.
Every evening that I sit myself down I capture a few reflections about the day and one thing I’m grateful for. The low commitment of a few lines and the promise of seeing the same day in my life over many years speaks to me. The few times I’ve had a previous entry to review have been lovely. I find that a few minutes of reflection pushes back against the constant pressure to “do”, regardless of the contents of the reflection.
There is no need to cover the weekly review in depth here. Instead, I’d suggest David Allen’s cheatsheet for a quick overview or Tiago Forte’s post for a deeper dive. What I can add is my particular customization of the practice. I structure my review with the following checklist in a Keep note:
Sometime either Friday afternoon or Saturday morning I’ll sit down, turn to the next page of my analog productivity system, draw the page structure, and start fresh.
My first step is to collect all the outstanding tasks for the week. That includes copying over unfinished tasks from the previous page, writing down any tasks that have come in through my ubiquitous capture system, and writing down any upcoming reminders on my calendar for the coming week. This is a quick and mindless step.
The next step is to hunt for tasks hiding in other inboxes. This is where I look through my future calendar events, emails I’ve been ignoring, and files that have flowed into one of my PARA inboxes. While I’m going through these and capturing tasks I’m also cleaning and organizing to get to or near inbox zero.
Finally, I review the project lists in my analog system and my PARA structures. If a project is still active and ongoing I’ll copy it over to the new page. If it is completed it I’ll move it to the archive folder of the PARA structure. If it is still ongoing but not active it might live in the PARA folder but stay out of my analog system so it doesn’t distract me during the week. Once I’ve compiled the list of projects I review them to make sure I have captured any next steps or loose ends as tasks.
Keep It Simple
The key here is simplicity. Once a week, start fresh and reset. Twice a day find 5 to 15 minutes to break out of the never-ending push to “do”. It can feel impossible but the return on this time is immense. The feeling of ease and accomplishment that stems from preparing and reflecting is hard-won, easy to lose, and is available to each of us if we focus on it. I’ll leave you with a quote from author Annie Dillard who reminds us:
“how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”