The world is full of wasted motion. Many things are far below where they should be, many actions fail to achieve their goals, and this includes many of your actions. And this is not because you’re failing, but because achieving your goals is hard.
This is obviously not a problem that can ever be solved. But one thing I find interesting is that often my mistakes are obvious and can be fixed, if only someone points them out! Indeed, often I can notice my mistakes, if someone just prompts me to stop and consider what I’m currently getting wrong. The problem is not some deep, ineffable mystery in the world, but rather just that I am not stopping to ask myself the right questions.
Again, I think this is an understandable mistake. The step of zooming out, being meta, and asking myself the right questions is hard. It is not the default action. The problem right in front of me always feels urgent, going meta never feels like the thing I should do right now, so I never do it. But this thought pattern is a mistake. What are the common mistakes you make in your life? What things do you miss, until someone points them out to you? Could you be doing better?
My main tool for this is having a weekly review - a routine where I set out a regular time to reflect on my life, how it’s going, and what I want to change. A routine that makes reflection the default in my life. When people are getting started on debugging their life and ask me for first steps, this is one of my main recommendations - I find it extremely useful, and I think it’s a key basis for noticing your mistakes and actually doing something about them. This post is my case for why this is a worthy habit, and how I think about implementing it.
I find there’s a lot of value in just making time to stop and reflect on your life, even if you don’t have a concrete plan - this makes reflection and going meta the default, which is the key first step! But I think it is even more valuable to go in with good questions, to get yourself thinking in the right way.
I think the importance of good framing is highly underappreciated - my life is full of blind spots and systematic mistakes, but asking the right questions can often make those blind spots obvious. A common example is the planning fallacy: when I take on a new project, I am always too optimistic. I expect things to be easy, for nothing to go wrong, and think I’ll get it done extremely quickly. But inevitably get bogged down in details and distractions, and fall far short of my goal. But, if I instead ask myself the question “how long did this type of project take before?”, and take an average, I am way more accurate.
A key mental move here is pre-hindsight: It’s much easier to explain a past event with hindsight, than it is to predict something in the future, or notice something unexpected - the past is concrete and easy to reason about, the future is abstract and harder. But this is just a state of mind! For example, when I am writing an email, I often realise a mistake or missed detail just after I click send. Absolutely nothing has actually changed, but the email goes from a future thing to a past thing. And often this mental shift can happen deliberately - take something vague and fuzzy that my mind wants to flinch away from, and make it concrete. For example, I find it hard to notice mistakes when I make them, but easy to answer “what was the biggest mistake I made this week?” - the key is to make not answering not an option, and to implicitly assume there was a mistake.
Some prompts for questions I find helpful:
Of course, the right questions are going to be specific to you! I like questions that focus on what I’m missing, prioritisation, learning and improvement, tracking progress, asking for help, bottlenecks, etc. The right questions for you will come from your goals, and what you often miss out on.
Exercise: What are some questions that you would like to answer once a week? Are there any past mistakes, that you needed someone else to point out to you? Big, systematic blind spots? Small things, that slip through the cracks? What questions would it have been useful to ask yourself, over the past month?
It’s easy to agree that going meta and reflecting is valuable, and far harder to actually do it. The core problem is that reflecting often feels important, but rarely feels like the top priority. It’s easy to be stuck in the short-term, chasing whatever is currently top of my mind, and letting my blind spots forever remain blind spots. And I think it is hard to just spontaneously decide to be meta where appropriate. So the second key insight of this post is that you need to systematise going meta - make it the default in your life. I personally find it easiest to do this by having a routine - thus the weekly review - but the important part is to follow whatever systems work best for you.
I outline my general thoughts on systematising things in a previous post, but for this, the key parts are to build a routine around it, to minimise decision points and to keep the routine sacrosanct. Some tips:
Another benefit of having a weekly time to check in and review your life, is that this makes debugging anything else in your life easier. If you have any new ideas for weekly habits, blind spots, new things you want to try, it’s much easier to attach them to your weekly review. By having a reliable time when you go meta and reflect, it can make everything else in your life go more smoothly! Some suggestions for good things to peg to it: (I’m trying to throw out a ton of suggestions here - I recommend picking the few that seem most helpful. Don’t try to do all of them!)
I currently do my weekly review first thing on Saturday morning, and do it by following a Google Form (you can make a copy of my current form here) - I put in the questions and prompts I want to follow, and then just fill out the form. I am a really, really big fan of Google Forms for things like this - they are a super flexible medium to set an algorithm for my future self, and reduce following that algorithm to just filling out boxes. It creates a super clear default action! When I previously tried things like having a list of questions in a word document, I found it easy to start reordering and skipping questions, and getting easily distracted. And they’re easy to edit, so it’s easy to iterate, remove the bad questions, add new habits to my scaffold, etc.
I swap the questions in the form in and out, depending on what’s currently going on in my life, what I am currently finding useful, etc. But these are the parts I’ve consistently found most useful:
At this point in the post, I’ve hopefully sketched out what a good regular review could look like. But this kind of thing is also effort - setting up and maintaining a routine is hard in the short-term, and even if it works, it’s a consistent drain on your time. So a natural question is, is it worth your time?
I think that for most people reading this who don’t currently do a regular review, the answer is overwhelmingly yes. If you’re the kind of person who reads this blog, agrees with the core insight that your problems are fixable, and that life could be better, but aren’t sure what to actually do about this, I think this is an excellent place to start. Improving your life isn’t a single flash of inspiration where you realise how to resolve your core problem. It’s a slow, incremental process of noticing problems, trying to fix them, iterating, and slowly making progress. And slow, incremental progress is really powerful in the longterm
But it is not the default. For me, a regular review is a cornerstone habit, upon which I can build everything else. Once I see a mistake, fixing it is comparatively easy, but I need to have a routine that forces me to look for them. One friend of mine claims to have completely turned his life around over the past year, and thinks having a regular review was the core of this. There were always failures, off weeks, and times he just didn’t care enough. But the important part was having a safety net, a routine that always got him to return to caring about things
I expect that for some people this is overkill, but only if you feel like you already do this well enough, without the routine. And I think that that’s pretty rare.
If, at this point, you feel convinced that this could be a good idea, but feel unsure, then I suggest re-framing this as an experiment! You’re uncertain about whether regular reviewing is a good idea, and it would be valuable to reduce that uncertainty. Seek upside risk! Make a plan for a weekly review, and make yourself stick to it for the next 3 weeks. And at the end of that, see whether it felt useful - if it did you can continue doing it and get value over the rest of your life, if it didn’t you can just forget about it, with a bit of time and effort wasted. The benefits massively outweigh the costs. And, at least personally, I find that both the enthusiastic and skeptical parts of me can get behind running an experiment - it reframes the problem from “reviews are definitely awesome” to “I want to reduce my uncertainty”.
Further, it’s hard to be confident a review would be useless, without trying it. The benefits are slow and incremental, and we have a systematic bias against noticing the benefits of gradual, exponential growth. Especially when it takes time away from my “urgent”, short-term concerns, that I know I rarely care about a month from now. The only way to resolve a bias like this is to go out, gather data, and try things!
And finally, the goal is not to have a perfect review the first time, this is something you can always improve and iterate. If there’s a 50% chance any given question is worth doing, you can just delete the half that aren’t useful! I’ve deliberately given a ton of prompts in this post, I expect some to be helpful and some to be irrelevant. And you can resolve this by trying and seeing. The question is not whether you could design an excellent review now, but whether it would be useful after several rounds of iteration, which is much easier. And something you can only figure out by trying and seeing!
Overall, I think regular reviews are extremely valuable. Your life will be full of mistakes, and things that could be better. Your goal is not to avoid this, your goal should be to slowly notice them and then actually do something about it. This is not the default, but you can make it the default. And this can form a cornerstone habit - a source of gradual, incremental growth, a scaffold to peg other things to, a way to notice the wasted motion in your life, and do something about it.
And if you’ve gotten to this part of the article, and buy my case that this is worth trying, implement it! I suggest that you set a 5 minute timer right now, and make a start on implementing this routine - pick a time, put it in your calendar, set yourself a reminder, and start to brainstorm good questions.
Imagine it’s a month from now, and you’ve never got round to doing a review. Are you surprised by this outcome? If not, what are you going to do about it?
My anchor for the thing which generates this frame goes something like this:
Great operationalization post! It made me slightly update towards having a weekly review, although my daily habits of journaling and my natural tendency to try to clarify what I'm doing already give me some of the benefits.
This reminds me of the advice to just do the obvious things.
I agree that reviews or writing about your life is great for this, but sometimes the best thing to do is just to talk to someone IMHO.