Every Saturday morning, I take 3-4 hours to think about how my week went and how I’ll make the next one better.
The format has changed over time, but for example, here’s some of what I reflected on last week:
I noticed I’d fallen far short of my goal for written output. I decided to allocate more time to reading this week, hoping that it would generate more ideas. And I reorganized my morning routine to make it easier to start writing in the morning.
I looked at some stats from RescueTime and Complice about what I’d spent time on and accomplished. I noticed that my time spent on Slack was nearing dangerous levels, so I decided to make a couple experimental tweaks to get it down:
I tried out Contexts, a replacement for the macOS window switcher, which I configured to only show windows from my current workspace—hoping that this would prevent me from cmd+tabbing over to Slack and getting distracted.
I decided to run an experiment of not answering immediately when coworkers called me in the middle of a focused block of time, and keeping a paper “todo when done focusing” list to remind myself to call them back, check Slack, etc.
I noticed that it felt hard for me to get useful info from the time-tracking data in RescueTime and Complice, so I revisited what questions I actually wanted to answer and how I could make them easy to answer.
I realized that I should be using Google Calendar, not RescueTime or Complice, to track my time spent in meetings, so I added that to my time-tracking data sources.
I also made several tweaks to the way I used Complice to make it easier to see various stats I was interested in.
And so on. By the end of the review I had surfaced lots of other improvements for the coming week.
While each individual tweak is small, over the weeks and years they’ve compounded to make me a lot more effective. Because of that, this weekly review is the most useful habit (or habit-generating meta-habit) I’ve built. Here are some of the improvements I’ve made that have come out of weekly reviews:
I decided to experiment with time tracking, realized that it needed to be zero-effort to succeed, and identified RescueTime as the best option, giving me much better data on how I was actually spending my time.
Once I started using RescueTime, I eliminated a bunch of distractions that it flagged. As a result I improved my focused time by 50%.
Later on, reviewing RescueTime stats also helped me realized I was spending much more time distracted by the Internet than I’d realized. I tried various things to break my Internet news habit and eventually found Focus, a zero-effort website blocker which has probably saved me hundreds of hours.
I identified “feeling low-energy on winter evenings” as a blocker and tried several experiments to improve my evening energy levels. One of them was an ultra-bright lightbulb which worked amazingly well, giving me back about an hour a day.
By thinking about how to help my partner with her PhD, I came up with the idea of doing one-on-ones, which she thinks helped her finish her dissertation a year faster.
By thinking about ways to improve our relationship and points of friction we’ve had over the last week, we’ve both started lots of useful discussions in those one-on-ones that have helped us understand each other and communicate better.
I’ve made hundreds of tweaks to my daily routine and habits to make sure I reliably exercise, sleep enough, and maintain high energy levels.
Of course, you don’t need to have a weekly review habit to come up with this type of improvement. But by systematically thinking it through, you’ll generate more of them. And by doing it consistently, you’ll be able to build these small improvements on top of each other.
I’ve had to iterate a lot on the format and timing of the weekly review to get to one where I can consistently maintain the habit and output useful weekly reviews. The format I currently have is:
Review happens first thing every Saturday morning. This time is sacred and (largely) immovable. Morning is really important for having the right energy and mindset; weekend is important so I’m not distracted by work; consistency is important so that I don’t lose the habit.
I start the review by re-reading some parts of my favorite essays of life advice. (Different parts/essays every week. This also sometimes gets me to notice new parts of the essays that resonate or spark interesting thoughts.)
Next, I load the week back into working memory by reviewing what happened during the week.
Based on the above I’ll write down a list of topics to think about, taking written notes on each topic as I think about them.
I also have a set of recurring prompts that I think about every week. I tweak them over time as they get stale, but some examples would be:
Was I consistent at my core habits this week (exercise, morning routine, todo system, etc.)? How can I tweak them to be more consistent or more useful?
What did I do this week that was a mistake and how can I avoid repeating it?
How much of this week did I spend on stuff that was truly my comparative advantage? For everything else, how can I get out of the loop?
As an appendix, some random tactical tips for weekly reviews:
Changing my physical environment helps me context-switch into a less focused, more reflective mindset. Back when cafes were open I’d often go to the cafe near my house. At home, I’ll work from a different room, play different background music, etc.
I still find it’s easy to get distracted during weekly reviews, so I make sure to close everything else on my computer when I start.
When I have granular, objective data on “what happened this week” (e.g. RescueTime, calendar, todo lists) I’ve found it helpful to review that because it occasionally surprises me. (See the points about RescueTime above.)
I find that taking notes while I think about things is really important—otherwise I lose track of what I’m thinking about or get distracted.
For note-taking, I’d recommend using hierarchical bulleted lists, not free-written paragraphs. Lists are more efficient because you can write in incomplete sentences and leave out transitions (relying on the bullet hierarchy to make the structure clear).
Bulleted lists are also easier to reorder (especially if you use an app that gives you keyboard shortcuts for it), so if you’re like me, they’ll let you more efficiently exercise your nervous tic of stack-ranking all lists.
This is remarkably similar to a practice I've had for the last 2 years. Having a fixed weekend morning to review the week and make tweaks. I've not experimented with time tracking as you have though, I'll check it out. Thanks for sharing!
Some things I do
Would you mind sharing your favourite life advice essays?
You are one of the few people with the discipline to record what they do and create todo lists. I could not keep this up for a week. Do you try to estimate the time it will take to complete a task?
Have you done any global analysis of your data? I analyse software engineering data and am always on the lookout for more data. I offer a free analysis, provided the data can be made public (in anonymous form). Here is one I did earlier:
I have almost no discipline, I've just spent a lot of time making my habits take so little effort that that doesn't matter :) Figuring out how to make it easy for myself to prioritize, and stick to those priorities, every day is actually a common recurring weekly review topic!
(I considered laying out my particular set of todo-related habits, but I don't think they'd be very helpful to anyone else because of how personal it is—the important part is thinking about it a lot from the perspective of "how can I turn this into a habit that doesn't require discipline for me," not whatever idiosyncratic system you end up with.)
You might look into bullet journalling - a lot of people find it a pretty helpful and low-mental-effort way to keep to-do lists and record what they do.