The Manager's Secret Weapon for Getting "Un-Overwhelmed"

If you're like most managers, you are constantly being bombarded with new information, requests, papers, e-mails, calls, ideas, etc.  It doesn't take long to start feeling swamped, and it only gets worse from there.  There are tools and strategies to help you get out of overwhelmed mode, but some of them take quite a bit of work to implement.  One strategy you can use that doesn't take a lot of effort to implement and will actually help you dig your way out is the Weekly Review.  It just might save your sanity.

The Weekly Review: a quick overview

Almost every time management system includes some kind of "big picture thinking" component, and often there is a recurring review involved.  The Weekly Review is most concretely defined by David Allen in Getting Things Done, and David has repeatedly stated in interviews that he sees the Weekly Review as the most fundamental part of his methodology: it's that important.  

The idea is to set aside time once every week to stop the inflow of new stuff and just get on top of what you currently have, so that you can be more organized and strategic when you dive back in.  In the Getting Things Done book, David outlines exactly how to conduct your weekly review for maximum benefit.  However, if you are currently feeling overwhelmed and disorganized, you might not be ready to tackle the full process.  

For example, the first step is to process your inboxes to zero.  If you have 6,000 unread e-mails, it's just not feasible to get there.  (You'll probably want to set aside some time in the future to work on that, though.)  Here is a modified approach you can use until you're at a point where you can follow the full approach.

How to do the weekly review when you don't have time

First, you need to shut down incoming information, even if it's just for thirty minutes. Shut your door, turn your ringer on your phone off, sign off of instant messenger, and close your e-mail.  Some people find that the only way to really do this is to come in early, stay late, or even come in on a weekend.  Do what you have to do - it's important that you're not interrupted.  The steps below are prioritized by impact - start at the top and get as far as you can.  It's better to do at least a little than nothing at all.  Save the last five minutes of whatever time you have allocated to clean up your task list.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that this time is not for doing - you are just getting the full landscape of everything you've currently got going on.  If you start doing things, you'll never finish your review.  For the first few times you do this, you'll probably even want to avoid quick e-mail responses, as those can quickly turn into trying to "work" your inbox.

For each of these steps you'll need to have your task manager handy, whether that's an app or Outlook Tasks or a notepad, whatever you use for tracking to-do items.  If not having a task manager is part of the problem, then just start with a notepad and use that as your task manager until you have time to figure out what will work best for you going forward.

Step one: the calendar scan

Review the next four weeks on your calendar, and if relevant, the team calendar.  What are the key events and deadlines coming up?  I find it helpful to write each major event or deadline down on a notepad first and then go back through them to identify any action items associated with them, but if you're in a hurry, just quickly scan and then enter any actions in your task manager (which could be a notepad).  Even if you don't do any of the other steps, this one will save you from getting blindsided by the fact that three of your employees are out of the office at the same time, or that a major report is due soon.
(Optional) Review the past two weeks on your calendar and make sure you don't have any actions that haven't already been captured.  Does something need to be rescheduled because it didn't happen?  Were there things you promised someone in a meeting that you didn't have a chance to write down because you were running off to your next meeting?  Hopefully, there won't be many things you catch this way, but sometimes it can be nice just to know that you've got it already captured.

Step two: the e-mail scan

Again, this is not about doing!  Think of this as emergency triage of your (likely overflowing) e-mail inbox.  The only action you are allowed to complete at this point is to delete or file e-mails that do not require any action.  Otherwise, just quickly look down your inbox view and capture any action items in your task manager.  This could include things like "review" a particularly long or complex e-mail.  Try to resist the urge to start working on anything particularly urgent.  This is a quick review - you can start on that urgent task in just a little while. 

Step three: the paper scan

Scoop up all the loose paper and files on your desk and put them in your physical in box.  If you don't have one, create a pile or, if one is handy, use a file box to hold everything.  Just as with e-mail, the idea isn't to do anything other than file, trash, or write down action items.  Sort through the pile and identify any action items, and add those to your task manager.  If you're not sure what the next action is for something or it's really complex, capture an action of "review X to identify action items" or "brainstorm possible strategies for Y," whichever seems most appropriate.  Do not put anything important back into the pile without capturing something in your task manager.  If you do, your brain will keep tracking that item, which defeats the point of processing it.

Step four: the mind scan

If you still have time, do a quick brain dump of all the stuff floating around in your head.  Some people like to do this as one big list, others like to put one item per piece of paper and then put it all in their physical inbox.  Do whatever appeals to you, and don't work about trying to be coherent. Just get it all out of your head and onto paper or screen.  Then, go item by item and identify any crucial next steps that need to happen, and put those in your task manager.

The last 5 minutes: the task scan

At this point, you've probably added a number of things to your task list, which wasn't short to begin with.  To make it manageable, go through your tasks and reprioritize based on your scans and the things you've added.  Delete or put on hold things you definitely don't have time for right now, and make sure you put in a reminder to revisit your "on hold" list in a few weeks.  
By doing this process at least once a week (or anytime you're feeling completely overwhelmed), you will be able to identify the most important things to spend time on and ensure that you don't get blindsided by a longer-term project or deadline.  Stepping out of the frantic daily craziness can help to identify tasks that really aren't that important or don't need to get done.  The more clear you are, the better direction you can give your team, thus ensuring that you get the results you need and keep everyone from burning out in the process.

Related resources

  • Tips on managing your task list
  • Guide on the basics of a productivity system
  • Getting Things Done book by David Allen
  • Weekly Review checklist (note: you'll want to have your system in place and at least an hour available)
  • Essentialism book by Greg McKeown

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