How to remove daily work stress with just 15 minutes each week

A weekly review will relieve daily stress.
A weekly review will relieve daily stress.
Image: REUTERS/Catherine Benson
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Of all the productivity habits I’ve studied and recommended, there is one that stands head and shoulders above the rest in its importance: the weekly review.

First named by David Allen in his best-selling book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, the weekly review has become an institution in its own right. The simple practice of setting aside a dedicated time each week to review your commitments and gain some perspective has become one of the most universally accepted productivity tips.

But rarely do you get the chance to peer directly into the inner workings of a weekly review “in the wild.”

I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time and energy testing and tweaking my weekly review, boiling it down to its essence. In this article I’d like to show you how it works.

It’s not the “one right way” or a prescription for everyone to follow. But it does integrate seamlessly with my previous article on Inbox Zero, and more importantly, illustrates the weekly review’s unique ability to free up time and attention far out of proportion to how much it consumes.

Here is the checklist, which I keep on a little yellow sticky note on my computer’s desktop:

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It’s so humble and unassuming, isn’t it?

But this short checklist represents something very meaningful to me: the trained ability to go from total chaos to total clarity in 15-30 minutes. It can handle any type of information, from any source, in any quantity, over any period of time.

It doesn’t matter if I’m checking in after a couple calm days of work, or returning from a 3-week vacation. I follow the same steps in the same order every time. It’s the closest thing we have to automating an activity that takes up a huge amount of most people’s workday: processing incoming information and deciding what to work on next.

Let’s walk through the checklist step by step:

My review is separated into three distinct parts, each with its own purpose:

  1. Emergency triage: identifyfind out what’s urgent
  2. Preventative maintenance: keep anything from slipping through the cracks and becoming urgent
  3. Planning for action: decide what’s important, and what to work on this week

This allows me to stay focused on the intention of each part, surfacing emergencies as soon as possible while ensuring I maintain my focus on what’s important long term.

Part 1: Emergency triage

Triage is what the staff at a hospital emergency room does with incoming patients—deciding what each person needs and where to send them, without actually treating them on the spot. This allows them to prioritize the true emergencies, while maximizing the efficiency of the whole staff.

1. Clear email inbox

I start with email, because no other decision I make will be correct without the latest information. There is a risk here — that the sheer volume and urgency of my emails will throw me straight into the vortex, sucking me into reactive mode.

That’s why it’s so important to follow the method I laid out in my previous article: start with the oldest email and send each one, one at a time, to one of four productivity apps based on the action you want to take:

  1. a digital calendar (for events that need to happen on a certain day or time)
  2. a task manager (tasks that need to happen soon, but not at a particular time)
  3. a read later app (things you’d like to watch or read later, without any particular deadline)
  4. a reference app (information you’d like to reference for a project or for general interest)

Most critically: I’m not doing anything, just deciding what needs to be done. This is the key point that allows me to process hundreds of emails in one sitting.

2. Check calendar (-2/+4 weeks)

The next item is the calendar, since I want to know what the “hard landscape” of my day and week looks like as early as possible. Nothing too unconventional here: I put down any new events or appointments, and review existing ones to get a sense of the week.

My rule of thumb is to look two weeks into the past, to rememberfor anything I need to follow up on, and 4 weeks into the future, to anticipate for anything I need to start preparing for.

Part II: Preventative maintenance

Preventative maintenance is about getting all your workspaces clean, removing the clutter that stresses you out, making sure nothing is falling through the cracks, and capturing any new commitments you’ve made.

It might seem unimportant to give regular attention to your desktop or downloads folder, but I’ve found that left untended they overflow and become full-blown crises at the worst possible times.

3. Clear physical inbox/notebook

I start this step by going through any mail or other papers that have accumulated in my physical inbox (a simple tray where I collect postal mail, random brochures and postcards, or even odds and ends I find around the house).

Any new commitments I find there (“check out this sale at REI”; “fill out and return insurance forms”) I add to my calendar or task manager, and any new reference material (business cards from an event I attended; receipts from a business trip) to Evernote. And I’m sure to throw away, file, or shred every item as soon as it’s appropriately captured.

I also review my paper notebook, capturing any interesting ideas (sketch of an app design; brainstormed list of possible vacation destinations) by taking photos of the page.

4. Clear computer desktop/downloads folder

Then I do the equivalent for my digital piles. Somehow, over the course of the week my desktop has invariably become a morass of random files of unknown origin. For each file, I either trash it, put it in my computer’s file system, add it to Evernote, or capture it in my task manager.

I do the same for my downloads folder, sorting them into the same locations as above and then emptying the trash with a satisfying “whoosh.”

5. Check Mint transactions

This is an optional thing I like to do, to categorize new transactions, make sure I’m not getting charged for anything I didn’t buy, and reviewing my budgets to make sure I’m not overspending.

I include it here to illustrate that, once you have a weekly review established, it can serve as a platform for any other habits or routines you’d like to stick to. Some examples might include reviewing your goals, setting an intention for the week, performing a quick stretching routine, or planning your grocery shopping for the week.

Part III: Planning for action

6. Process Evernote inbox

By this time, there is usually a lot of stuff in my reference app, Evernote (read this article for more info on how I use it). Not only notes I’ve accumulated over the course of the week, but notes I’ve just finished gathering from steps 1-4: from emails, my calendar, my physical piles, and digital piles.

I take a few minutes to file these into the appropriate notebooks by project or by topic, so they’re available for future reference. This step also serves as a helpful reminder of ideas and images I captured during the week.

7. Prioritize and file new tasks

By this time, my task manager inbox is overflowing with new tasks I’ve captured, typically between 30 and 60 each week. I batch-process these all at once, clarifying for each one what the next required action is, its priority, and which project or area it fits into. By using keyboard shortcuts and doing them all at once, it takes just a few minutes.

8. Review and select follow-up items

I’ve found over the years that simply following up with people is one of the easiest ways to get what I want or need. I begin any task that I’m waiting for someone on with “waiting for:” followed by what I’m waiting on them for, so I can quickly call up all my follow-up tasks across all projects with one search, even if I’m on the go.

9. Choose tasks for the week

This is the moment we’ve been waiting for. Like most people, I start with what’s urgent — sorting my tasks by priority across all projects and moving the ones I absolutely must complete today to the “Today” section of my task manager.

But then, before immediately diving in to fight fires, I focus on what’s important — looking at the two or three projects I’m most focused on this week, what is most in line with my goals long term, and what best reflects my values and purpose.

What I’m left with by the end of Part III is a concise, clearly formulated, prioritized, sequenced list of tasks for the week, grouped by project and available at a glance on any device.

I don’t have to do any more planning or prioritizing after this— my mental horsepower for the rest of the week is dedicated to creating value, not keeping balls in the air.

Consider how much thinking informed this process:

  • My email inbox is completely empty, with all tasks moved to my task manager
  • My week’s schedule is fresh in my mind, both hard and soft commitments
  • All my tasks are captured and organized by project and priority
  • All the piles and accumulated documents are filed away, ready and waiting in their appropriate folders
  • All my ideas, insights, and random musings are captured and waiting in my Evernote notebooks, leaving my mind clear for focused thinking

Selecting your tasks for the week is a simple decision, but a critical one that requires some legwork to do well. Taking the time to make this decision from a place of perspective and balance and full information, you can make sure you’re not just reacting to the demands of the moment.

Why it’s hard

Maintaining a weekly review of some type may seem like a no-brainer. But in my experience, it is one of the most difficult habits to stay “on the wagon” with.

I have a theory as to why: any weekly habit exists on an unstable middle ground. It happens frequently enough that we feel we ought to get better at it, but not often enough to make it a daily habit. This creates an intense cognitive dissonance—we know such a routine could be a lynchpin in our personal productivity, but feel in our bones that it’s not worth the effort required.

And in the short term, we’re right. A week, two weeks, three weeks, or longer can go by without any apparent negative consequence. We logically conclude that such maintenance work is an unnecessary luxury we can do without.

But underneath the surface, unseen volatility is building. The chaos of constantly accumulating emails, files, photos, and tasks is approaching critical thresholds. Your mind is reaching its carrying capacity of “notes to self.”

It is usually an external crisis—a surprise deadline or a misplaced reminder—that triggers the explosion, all your seemingly trustworthy systems breaking down all at once.

You have a critical file on your computer, but you can’t find it in the thicket of icons cluttering your desktop. You need to know which gate your flight is departing from now, but your email is crammed with hundreds of unread messages. You’re sure you wrote down a brilliant idea, but you can’t find it anywhere.

Even worse than the crises you know about are the missed opportunities you don’t. A file lost in your downloads folder that you promised to send to a client goes unsent. The deadline to buy tickets to a conference, never scheduled on the calendar, passes without notice. A brilliant idea you had late one night with friends goes undiscovered when you most need it.

By the time an “emergency” strikes, it’s too late for planning and organizing. You can’t do forest management while fighting a wildfire. Instead of pretending like emergencies are unusual, totally unforeseeable events, what if we planned every week expecting them to show up? We could sweep the decks, plan for contingencies, maintain our tools, and identify our top objectives in advance, just like anyone who has to perform under pressure: athletes, soldiers, police officers, and yes, firefighters. If no disaster strikes, we’re left with spare capacity and sail right through the week. But if one does, we are ready.

You plan for and show up for every meeting with people you trust and respect – why not keep a standing weekly meeting for the most important person in your life, yourself?

Tiago Forte is the Founder of Forte Labs, a productivity training firm based in San Francisco, and the author of Design Your Work.