Time Budgeting: What I’ve Learned from Doing 364 Weekly Reviews

Why the weekly review is the cornerstone of my life

I rage quit my consulting job in June of 2013.

I had had enough of the consulting world. Enough of the overwork and burnout, enough of the lack of guidance and support, and enough of working on other people’s goals instead of my own.

A couple weeks later, on my first day newly unemployed, I woke up in my tiny apartment with a terrifying thought: "I’m all on my own."

For the first time I could remember, there was no company or school or community that was my default “place to go” each day. It felt like being lost in a dark forest where no one would ever find me. Like being plunged into ice cold water far out to sea, far from any solid land to stand on.

That was the moment I decided I needed structure if I was going to make it. I needed a routine that would carry me through the day and tell me what to do and when.

I was pacing around my tiny apartment and pondering this problem when a blue-and-orange book cover on my bookshelf caught my eye. It was the original edition of Getting Things Done, the classic book on personal productivity by David Allen. I had read it a couple months before, and even ran a book club with my colleagues to discuss its teachings.

I flipped open to my highlights, and quickly found this quote: “The Weekly Review is the master key to your productivity.”

Those are powerful, hard-to-ignore words.

I decided that day that my Weekly Review would be the cornerstone of my life. It has been the steady rudder keeping me on course through the howling winds of unemployment, the raging storms of a freelancing career, and eventually, the Category 5 hurricane known as entrepreneurship.

My Weekly Review has evolved dramatically in the 7 years since then. At times it has been long and elaborate, taking several hours. At other times, it has been short and concise, taking only minutes. It is like a living organism, evolving to meet my needs in each chapter of my life.

Every discipline has a “basic move” at its core. Chefs have basic knife skills. Tennis has the forearm swing. Martial arts have the straight punch.

These moves are basic, but have infinite depth. You can improve them endlessly, but never quite perfect them. They are the building blocks that must be mastered before you can ascend to higher forms.

Like the famous “wax on, wax off” of Karate Kid fame, you have to humble yourself with these foundational moves before you can advance.

The Weekly Review is the “basic move” of personal productivity. It is the foundational building block out of which all other workflows are built. It keeps the most important system of all – you – running smoothly.

I’ve shared exactly the Weekly Review process I follow each week, in The One-Touch Guide to Doing a Weekly Review. It includes narrated videos of me completing each of the 5 essential steps in real time:

  1. Email
  2. Calendar
  3. Desktop/Downloads
  4. Notes
  5. Tasks

But lying beneath the checklists, there are universal principles. Principles that apply regardless of which app you use, which platform you’re on, or even whether you use software at all.

Those principles snapped into view for me when I read the personal finance book You Need a Budget by Jesse Mecham (here’s my members-only summary). Managing money has striking parallels to managing time, and shares many of the very same principles.

Here are the 6 most powerful principles of time budgeting I’ve learned from completing my own Weekly Review approximately 364 times over the last 7 years.

  1. Move quickly, touch lightly
  2. Age your tasks
  3. Change the plan frequently
  4. Manage what exists
  5. Make tradeoffs visible
  6. Play with the rules

Move quickly, touch lightly

Several years after my previous job, I worked briefly with a small consulting firm founded by a mentor of mine. They built technology solutions for large companies, solving their business problems with customized software.

At the time, I took on every new task the same way: by throwing everything I had at it. I’d dive in headfirst, putting in unlimited hours, even forgetting to eat and sleep, until it was done.

I considered this a superpower, and performed it with pride. It had served me well in the first years of my career. But increasingly, my mentor saw, it was holding me back. I was getting sucked into each new thing as if it was my sole mission in life, and in the process neglecting other, potentially more fruitful opportunities.

My mentor’s refrain for me became, “Move quickly, touch lightly.” She wanted me to be more strategic, more opportunistic. As a small firm we had to keep multiple projects in flight, and all the clients happy. We couldn’t afford to put all our eggs in one basket. We needed to stay agile and flexible as the market quickly shifted around us.

This is the opposite of most productivity advice about “deep work.” Deep focus is the god of personal productivity.

Yes, it is important to learn how to focus deeply – you’re never going to get the plane off the ground without a “heavy lift” of focus. But sometimes focus is a false god.

Once you’re in the air, you need something different. More like a “cruise control mode,” making small adjustments to the controls while allowing your systems to do most of the work for you. Otherwise, you’re going to exhaust yourself before you’ve gotten to the really interesting destinations.

The principle of “moving quickly and touching lightly” manifests itself in many different ways.

It means clearing your email inbox without getting sucked into taking action on every single email as I describe in my article One-Touch to Inbox Zero.

At each stage of my Weekly Review, I’m not taking action. I’m only deciding which action needs to be taken. A subtle, but all-important difference. If you stick to deciding only what needs to be done, without doing it yet, there’s no way your review can take more than 30-45 minutes.

To move quickly and touch lightly is to move at the speed of change. It means to keep multiple balls in the air and multiple plates spinning, because you never know which of them will pay off. And crucially, using external systems to track those balls and those plates, not your own brain.

It is impossible to move quickly or touch lightly if your mind is burdened with inane details.

It means constantly asking “What is the minimum I can do?” and “How long can I wait before acting?” You keep your options open, build up reserves of energy and knowledge and trust, and when that one golden opportunity opens up, only then do you strike at it with everything you have.

Age your tasks

There is an important idea in personal finance, that you should “age” your money.

Aging your money means that you want as much time as possible to pass from the day a dollar enters your checking account, to that dollar being spent.

The “age” of your money is important because it represents your buffer between income and expenses. If you only have one week of buffer (i.e. your age of money is only 7 days), it means that if you get fired tomorrow, you’ll only have one week before you start going hungry. Your age of money is your real-time financial reserve, measured in terms of time.

The same principle applies to your To Do list. Just as you age our money, you should age your to do’s. In other words, you want as much time as possible to pass from the time a task gets added to your To Do list, to it being completed.

This idea feels deeply counter-intuitive to most people. Shouldn’t we try to execute our tasks as soon as possible? If you want to be efficient, yes. But if you want to be strategic, no. What are the chances that the task landing in front of you this very moment is the most important thing you could be doing right now? Practically nil.

You have to remember that tasks don’t inherently matter – only the results they produce do. If you could produce the exact same results by completing only half as many tasks, wouldn’t you? That would mean you’re achieving the same outputs with half the inputs. You’re realizing the same return with half the investment. By that measure, you’ve become twice as productive by doing half as much work!

Any given task is avoidable. Rarely does an entire project or goal revolve around a single task. There are always many ways to skin a cat. You have to use your creativity not just to complete each task as efficiently as possible, but to question whether it’s really necessary in the first place.

The key mental shift that is necessary here is to reframe a task from an obligation to an option. If tasks are all obligations, you want to keep your To Do list as lean as possible. Every item that gets added to it feels like another burden added to an already backbreaking workload.

But if you think of your tasks as options, that changes everything. Suddenly, you want as many as possible. More options means more choices.

Framing your tasks as potential options means that the larger your To Do list grows, the more freedom you have. Your freedom to do what you feel like doing, to do what aligns with your energy and motivation. You gain the ability to step back from the minute-to-minute demands, look for patterns across your full range of tasks, and choose groups of to do’s that are strategically aligned with each other.

This is how you work half as much and produce twice the results. It is how you kill two birds (or even three) with one stone. What is the task that makes two other tasks unnecessary?

But you can’t do any of this if you’re completing every task just as it arrives. You have to age your tasks.

Change the plan frequently

A To Do list is a plan. It is a plan of action, designed to achieve certain results within a certain timeframe.

Most people take one of two approaches to making this plan: they either meticulously prioritize their To Do list, and then stick to it religiously no matter what happens; or they throw caution to the wind and make no plan of any kind, spending their days reacting to one emergency after another.

But there is a middle ground: to use your plan as a guide to real-time decision making.

It’s Monday morning, and you might make a plan for what you want to accomplish this week. But that is only a forecast or prediction. It doesn’t take into account the actual weather when that day arrives.

Instead of resisting change and trying to execute the plan as designed, you should get good at adapting the plan. Expect that the plan will change, and design it in the first place so that it’s as easy to change as possible.

Implicit in this approach is that there is no such thing as failure, only reprioritization. Reprioritization isn’t something to be avoided – it is something you should welcome.

There’s another parallel to personal budgeting here. When you make your budget at the beginning of the month, there’s no way for you to possibly know every expense that will pop up during the month. There are always unwelcome surprises – a flat tire, a kid’s last-minute school project, an emergency visit from the plumber.

That’s just life. Things don’t go according to plan. But there’s no problem in rerouting funds from one category to cover these surprise expenses. That’s that the budget is for! It’s not there to force you to stick to the original plan in the face of new information. It’s designed to enable real-time changes in your budgeting priorities, not prevent them.

The same is true of your To Do list. If you don’t get to the 3 most important tasks you identified for today, what does that mean? You can choose to interpret it not as a reflection of you – your character, motivation, or dedication – but as merely a signal from your environment.

The environment is telling you that the plan was not in accordance with reality. Which means your thinking was not in accordance with reality. Which means you have an opportunity to change your thinking to better match the facts.

Manage what exists

It is tempting when it comes to our To Do list to focus our attention on an imaginary future.

We can so easily get caught up in future plans, in grand visions, in theoretical scenarios about what could/should/would happen. But if you treat productivity as a way to improve your relationship with reality, it becomes very clear that we have to focus our attention instead on “managing what exists.”

Instead of all the tasks you will or should do, how about the ones you’ve already started but not finished? How about following up on that thread you started, wrapping up the final stages of the last project you worked on, or gathering the random papers sitting on your desk right now?

The truth is, the future doesn’t exist. At least not yet. It might turn out one way or another. But your control over that future is rooted in the here and now. If you can’t manage the work-in-process that exists now, what makes you think you will be successful in managing the work yet to come?

Managing what exists doesn’t seem as exciting as envisioning a fanciful future. It involves a lot of gathering, collecting, reviewing, processing, prioritizing...not exactly most people’s idea of an exhilarating time.

But when you commit to managing the work that already exists, a curious thing happens. The part of your mind that was occupied just keeping track of that work gets freed up. The stress and anxiety of not quite knowing how much is actually on your plate is relieved. Paradoxically, shifting the time horizon of your planning closer to the present creates the space you need to imagine the future you want to create.

When you manage what exists now, your mental map of the world gets just a little more accurate. You see more clearly how that action you took weeks ago produced the situation you have now. You see how certain decisions led to a certain outcome. You close the feedback loop between the past and the present, which makes your predictions about the future that much more accurate.

Make tradeoffs visible

A key feature of the Weekly Review is that it makes the tradeoffs we are making visible.

In personal budgeting, the key moment is when you move funds from one category to another. A few months ago we went over our “Shopping” budget, and I had to move funds from “Home down payment” to cover it. The pain of that moment – the twinge of loss as our dream of owning a home got pushed a tiny bit further into the future – is what caused us to change our behavior.

The purpose of a budget is not to constrain us – it is to make the consequences of our financial decisions clearly visible. We need to be faced with the tradeoffs that our choices are forcing upon us. Otherwise, those tradeoffs get made silently and unconsciously in the background, leading us inexorably toward a future we may not necessarily want.

The same is true of productivity. The key moments are those when we decide to do one task over another. The constraints of time, energy, and resources force us to make those decisions, and thank goodness they do.

Because in such moments, we discover what truly matters. We realize that we have priorities and values that matter deeply to us. Often they only become clear in moments of crisis, when one thing needs to be sacrificed for another to succeed. Without tradeoffs, we would take on everything, say yes to everything, never having to face the choices that define who we are.

What is critical is that you see that tradeoff being made. You need to know where the money is coming from that went to pay for those school supplies. You need to know what it will cost you – not just in financial terms but in terms of opportunity cost – if you decide to go out for that nice dinner tonight.

Likewise, it is critical to see the tradeoffs you are making with your priorities. What won’t get done because you made a certain decision about what to work on next? What is it costing you? Are you willing to pay those costs?

Play with the rules

One of the unmistakable signs of mastery in any craft is “playing with the rules.”

When you’re a beginner, it takes a long time to learn the rules in the first place. You might spend months or even years learning your scales on the piano, making free throws on the basketball court, or rigging a sailboat.

But once you’ve mastered these rules, you start to see that no rule is absolute. Every rule is one manifestation of an underlying principle. And principles always have more than one way they can be manifested.

And that’s how we get someone like Dick Fosbury, who upended decades of tradition by doing the high jump backwards instead of forwards in the 1968 Olympics. He understood that the goal was only to get over the bar, and invented a new way to do so that ended up revolutionizing the sport.

It is easy to see all these productivity systems and rules as rigid obligations. To think that the goal is strict conformity. In the beginning they might seem that way. But as your practice evolves, the nature of these rules starts to change.

They become like a carpenter’s tools, able to craft any experience, state of mind, or result that you want. You start to see that you can discard some of them, reinvent others, and make up completely new rules to suit your goals.

Watching the videos of me completing my Weekly Review, some people commented that I seemed to be able to identify each next action within seconds. That’s no accident. It’s the result of deliberate practice, through which I’ve developed a series of rules for myself.

For example, I have rules that I’m NOT allowed to:

  • Keep tasks in my head – I have to write them down as soon as I notice them (known as the “Capture Habit”)
  • Create tasks that don’t have a “physical next action” (i.e. they can’t be “thinking about,” “deciding,” or “considering”)
  • Create tasks to “read” or “watch” things (those should be saved in Instapaper, my Read Later app)
  • Create tasks that take less than two minutes to complete (the “2-Minute Rule”)
  • Put more than 10 tasks on my “Today list” (since I know that my long-term average is 8 tasks completed per day, and much more than that just overwhelms me)
  • Mark a task as “high priority” if I can’t take action on it (for example, if I’m waiting on someone else to take an action first)
  • Create a task without adding the critical piece of information required to take action on it (such as a phone number, email address, or link)
  • Do light, easy tasks in the morning (which is reserved for deep work)

These rules work for me, but they may or may not work for you. When you learn to play with the rules, the Weekly Review becomes a personalized, tremendously rewarding activity. Because no single aspect of it is absolutely required, you are free to customize it as your heart desires.

What happens if I drop this item from my checklist? What goes wrong in my world if I do? What if I substitute it with a different action? What happens if I change the order? What happens if I combine two of them? How often does each item need to be performed to be effective? Which parts are essential and which are optional? What can be automated or outsourced?

These are the questions of an experimenter, of a scientist. Your subject is your own psychology, and it is a lifelong quest to understand it.

I often see people on an endless search for the “perfect” productivity system. A mythical app that will somehow organize every bit of information, decide all their priorities, and just “tell them what to do.”

But I hope that after reading this, you understand why that’s not only impossible, it’s not even desirable.

There is at least as much creativity in deciding what your work is, as in doing it. There is as much power in setting intentions, as in executing on them. Instead of giving over control of our lives to our systems, we need to use those systems to make decisions faster, more intuitively, and more decisively.

It is our calling to create the constraints that our systems lack. They will never completely do it for us. There will always be a need for our priorities, for our desires. Luckily, the process of creating those constraints is itself a wonderful quest to understand ourselves more deeply.

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