So you’re busy. Congratulations! It’s called LIFE.
If your todo list is just getting longer – even to the point that you don’t want to look at it, then this post is for you. You need a process alongside your lists that helps you make sense of it all, pick up the stuff that might otherwise fall between cracks, and ensure you keep your commitments and show up well prepared. Perhaps you’re lucky enough to have a PA to help with all this? But help is at hand for the rest of us in the shape of our Weekly Review – a habitual checkpoint process that acts as the glue to help you have a more productive and stress-free week. Let me explain…
The Science of Lists
I’m a big fan of lists, whether on paper or digital. Lists are a powerful way to help us combat the feeling of overwhelm and to maintain focus. Whether used to overcome a looming crisis, or as part of your regular work habit, they help us offload things from our active memory to a “second brain”, freeing up our energy to focus on creative thinking rather than simply remembering stuff.
Have you ever wondered why the act of writing a list makes you feel better? Turns out it’s down to a fascinating phenomenon first observed 100 years ago and known as the Zeigarnik Effect. At the centre of your brain’s limbic system is the Amygdala – one of two almond-shaped groups of nuclei, located deep in the temporal lobes. Research shows it plays a key role in our emotional reactions, memory and decision making.
Amygdala versus Prefrontal Cortex
Turns out it appears to be stimulated by unresolved things. That nagging, uncomfortable, anxious feeling of “we need to do something about this” is the Amygdala in operation. Interestingly, when we verbalise our “open switches” or write them down we stimulate the an area at the front of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (part of our conscious system, and associated with planning complex cognitive behaviour and decision-making).
In simplistic terms, when we write something down our prefrontal cortex sends a message back to the amygdala saying “don’t worry, I’ve got this”. This calms the amygdala down. Interestingly, it has nothing to do with actually doing the task – it’s simply this exchange between the conscious and the limbic systems that causes the amygdala to settle down. This explains why, for most people, the act of writing a list makes us feel a little better, even before we’ve actually completed anything and ticked it off! (In fact, that physical process of drawing a line through completed tasks has a positive neurological benefit, which is an advantage of paper todo lists over digital ones).
So many lists
So we’ve established that the brain is a lousy place to remember what you need to get done. It can only hold a few things in “working” memory in any case. So a good practice is build a habit of capturing potential tasks relentlessly as they arise and give your limbic system a break. Don’t think of this as a “To Do” list, but merely as a list from which you can make selections and decisions.
However, if you’re anything like me, the chances are that you create multiple lists in multiple places. While you may think you only have a single “todo list” you most likely have multiple places that might be sources of potential tasks – I prefer to think of these as “inboxes”. They are the stuff that you haven’t yet decided how you want/need to handle – your email inbox is an obvious example, but so is your paper notebook, you voicemail messages, the ideas you scribbled down on a post-it, those expense receipts in your car, the thought you had in the shower this morning. You get the idea?
Weekly Review to the Rescue
The trick is to have a way to process all this stuff into one place so that you can make a decision about relative priorities and sequencing. This is the essence of my Weekly Review and it’s the single thing that keeps my productivity system working smoothly. By contrast, when things are really busy, my weekly review is often one of the first things that I put off – which is crazy because that’s when things start to unravel. Fortunately, I also know that calmness is just a weekly review away!
I schedule time every week (usually 1-2 hours, depending on how frantic things have been since my last review) and use it to look back at the week just gone, look forward over the next couple of weeks ahead, review my potential tasks and make choices about what are the most important things to aim for over the forthcoming days. I can then spend more of my time actually executing my plan rather than rebuilding it from scratch every day.
Getting Started with your Weekly Review
Getting a working review system is not trivial and may seem a little daunting at first. I’m not going to kid you – it takes practice and commitment to refine this to an approach that works successfully for you. But I will guarantee you this: your weekly review will make you feel happier and more in control (it’s that amygdala/pre-frontal cortex thing again!)
I’ve now turned my weekly review process into a checklist that guides me through a comprehensive review – helping me rationalise all my “inboxes”, clarifying my tasks, looking back over the last week and looking ahead to the next. The checklist also reminds me of a few simple things that I try to do every day (like planning tomorrow’s tasks before I finish for the day). My checklist frees me up to think about the tasks rather than the steps of the process itself.
You can get a copy of my weekly review checklist HERE. While the steps are a little specific to my overall productivity setup, I’m certain you will find it a helpful startpoint. Let me know.
So what are you waiting for. Schedule a couple of hours at the end of this week and give it a go. As with any habit – practice makes perfect.