Updated on 10.27.10

Making It All Work – Getting Control: Reflecting

Trent Hamm

This is the eighth entry in a twenty part series discussing the wonderful time and priority management book Making It All Work by David Allen. New entries in this series will appear on Tuesday mornings and Friday mornings through December 10.

making it all workFor me, the single most important part of keeping my life on track and headed in the direction I want is the time I spend reviewing what I’ve done, what I need to do, and whether I still want to reach that destination. It takes time – time that’s seemingly not productive – but it adds so much value to everything else I choose to do that without it, I would simply feel aimless and lost.

Because of this, I regularly allude to the power of review, as I did yesterday when discussing procrastination. I do small reviews at least twice a day and at least one big review a week, where I look at every goal and aim I have in my life and ask myself whether this is really of value to me and, if it is, what I can be doing right now to move forward with it.

What do I mean by “review”? It parallels quite closely with what David Allen talks about in this portion of Making It All Work.

Allen argues that there are dual functions to reflection and review, on page 163:

Reviewing your system serves two distinct but equally critical purposes: (a) to update its contents and (b) to provide trusted perspective.

Let’s look at these two roles that a review can provide.

On page 163, Allen offers further insight into the value of updating:

Invariably, the world comes at us faster than we can keep up with its details. By the very nature of work, when you are doing one task, you’re not thinking about others – nor should you. You may be capturing along the way, but you won’t be clarifying and organizing everything as it happens.

During a given day, tons of little things blip across my mind and my computer screen and the phone and the mail and from the lips of my wife that I need to take care of. Most of this stuff gets jotted down quickly so I can return to the task at hand, and most of those jottings get dealt with in some way later in the day. I either take care of the task or add it to my to-do list.

The problem is that, frankly, some of that jotted-down stuff is junk – and it’s rarely completely obvious whether it’s junk or not junk. Reviewing those things a time or two goes a long way towards making that distinction, rather than just adding more junk to your to-do list.

An example: I got a letter from my bank informing me of their refinancing offers. I jot it down and add it to my to-do list, since refinancing to a much lower rate would be very valuable to us. This is one of those “important but not urgent” things that’s easy to leap over.

Without review, that kind of item would easily be left undone on my to-do list and probably discarded and forgotten. A quick review of my to-do list, though, reveals several little things that are essentially wastes of time. There’s no real importance to reshelving all of these books, since they’re mostly just going out via PaperBackSwap anyway, so I toss them in the PBS box. I don’t need to make a trip to Ames just for some new photo paper, so I just add that to-do to the grocery list. It’s not vital that I fertilize my lawn, especially since it’s late in the year and dry. Suddenly, my to-do list looks barren and I have room for that “important but not urgent” thing.

This is a simplification, of course, but that’s the kind of thought process that happens when I stop for a moment and review what needs to be done. I see through the “urgent but not important” stuff and toss it, leaving me time for the “important but not urgent” things that really matter in my life.

Similarly, as the activities in your life change, the priorities that you put on various things changes as well. On page 164, Allen expands on that:

Because projects are likely to change their meaning over time, your system also needs to reflect that fact. What was an active project last week may have turned into a “someday” one, given all the new demands that have arisen since then.

The things left undone on my to-do list are often just as important as the things that I’ve done, because they indicate how the priorities in my life are shifting over time.

For example, if I’m consistently not keeping up with some activity I’ve adopted in life, I know it’s time to sit down and ask myself whether it’s something I really value or not. If it’s not – and if I’ve adopted a pattern of avoiding it and mostly just thinking about it, it’s not something I value – then I make the hard decision to just move on as soon as I can, without regrets.

Otherwise, it hangs on like a cobweb in my mind and my to-do lists, slowing down my thoughts and popping up as something I ought to be doing. For a long time, my life was chock full of those things – things I thought I should be doing and were taking up space in my thoughts and often physically in my home. Systematically reviewing all of it and getting rid of the cobwebs makes it incredibly easier to do the things that actually are important with gusto, focus, and passion.

Getting Perspective
All of the above material comes from applying a bit of perspective to all of the things going on in your life. Just as important is reversing that paradigm to look at the big picture things in your life and seek out how they lead to the day-to-day things you’re doing.

Once a week, I sit down and go through every major goal and project I have in my life and simply ask myself if this is still important to me and, if it is, what am I going to do in the next week to move forward on it. This takes about two hours, believe it or not – I usually do it when the children are napping on Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

This seems like a lot of work, and I like how it’s addressed on page 167:

“Write everything down? Decide the actions you need to take on everything? Keep all that on… how many lists? Keep an index of all my projects? And … what? Take two hours every week to review all of that and get all these lists complete? You’ve got to be kidding! I’m too busy.”

That’s exactly how I felt about all of this when I first started. “I have too much to do to waste my time with this,” I thought. What I found, though, is that I was constantly making poor choices in my life that didn’t reflect on what I really valued. I would choose work projects over my kids. I’d burn time on pointless conference calls instead of getting useful projects done. I’d deal with piles of paperwork that really didn’t need to be done while big projects sat untouched. I’d run around doing household busywork while my children were out in the yard wishing Dad was there. I’d devote hours and hours to things I didn’t really want to do because I was convinced I was supposed to be doing them.

Having a weekly review and a consistent system ended all of that. I threw out mountains of busy work – it wasn’t really important. I started spending a lot more time with my kids and a lot less time on household projects or other things. I let go of some unrealistic projects and started focusing on hitting home runs on projects more in line with my life goals (like The Simple Dollar, for example).

The simple process of having a list of all of my goals and dreams in life and all of my ongoing projects and a to-do list and then sitting down once a week to go through all of them and ask myself whether they’re really important and how I’m moving forward on the important ones is the single most valuable part of my week. It keeps me from wasting my time on the less important things and redirects me to spend my time on the more important things.

That’s well worth two hours on a Saturday afternoon, if you ask me.

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  1. SEC Lawyer says:

    The best thing I’ve done for myself in recent years is that for the last 18 months and continuing I have been living my professional life according to a two-page plan that I update every other Sunday afternoon.

    This began as “one page” and became two — the second page is a “details” page for several items on page one. The two-pager first included personal objectives and then excluded them, mainly because I wanted to be able to share my two-pager with colleagues. (I review personal objectives in the same Sunday afternoon session, keeping and updating handwritten notes.)

    For me the critical part is implementation or execution. With respect to each person with whom I interact (or wish to interact), I write down my next action step. I look at the two-pager daily and act on it throughout the day. Then I update it again, every fortnight.

    David Allen is more focused than I am, but that does not discourage me because I find that this discipline that I have embraced is increasing. Like any other habit, the more I do it the more natural it seems — the more disciplined I become. I encourage my colleagues (and others) to try this approach, which works for me. It is a great way to organize a hectic life and in doing so make sure you achieve what you actually want to achieve.

    In a variation of the old saw, I say, “Be careful what you set out to do. You might actually achieve it.”

  2. Nick says:

    Hate the reviews of this book.

  3. brad says:

    @ nick. same. only tweleve more postings to go :(

  4. brad says:


  5. Shannon says:

    Nick and Brad – add me to the list – this series is incredibly boring.

  6. Yeah, I’m not really sure why Trent picked this specific book for a 20 article series. Seems to me like there’s more thinking about what you should be doing, shuffling papers around, organizing this or that, than there is actually DOING anything.

    I’ve got an idea. How about instead of writing something on a “To Do” List, just do it and get it done. Then you don’t have to worry about it. Deal with things as they come instead of deflecting them until later. That seems much more productive than writing, organizing, shuffling, shuffling more, deciding something isn’t important, rearranging and more shuffling.

    Much energy and motivation is lost in all those steps. Maybe it works for someone who has an overfilled lifestyle but it isn’t practical in my life. I keep a planner and that’s all. I get my stuff done when it needs to be done and if I can take care of something right now, I do.

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