Think, Review, Do

I use the Think, Review, Do (TRD in short) approach every day to get work done. It is based on David Allen’s framework to doing knowledge work. I’ve taken his philosophy, simplified and consolidated it further.

Think, Review, Do is a systematic approach to getting work done. Using this process effectively enables you to manage your agreements with yourself and others appropriately.

Using this process correctly is the key to making a trusted system work for yourself. If the Trusted System is the body of the car, then TRD is the engine that makes the car work. TRD is the process you use to make that trusted system work for you.

It also allows you to be present and focused with whatever you’re doing at any given moment. And only when are present and focused can you have the freedom and space to be truly creative.

There are times for thinking about your work, times for reviewing, and times for doing. Most people spend far too much time doing the work and not enough time thinking and reviewing (and/or reflecting).

And because we know that thought precedes action, thinking and reviewing is more important than doing. Doing is easy. Thinking is the hard part. Thinking involves questioning things. It’s about capturing, deciding what those things mean, and organizing those things and parking the results of that thinking in a trusted system. Then, it’s just about reviewing them at the appropriate times and doing them. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this approach is a consolidated version of David Allen’s methodology. Even though I’ve simplified it, you still have to go through the five steps that he advocates.

There are a few reasons why this approach works:

  • The fundamental problem that this approach tries to solve is being comfortable with whatever you’re doing in the present without worrying about what you’re not doing and to also be okay with it.

  • When you use this model, it will help you gain control and perspective. Control is about things that have your attention. Perspective is about looking at your life from different maps/horizons, such as projects (weekly), areas of focus (monthly), short-term goals (quarterly), etc. It’s about seeing the forest from the trees.

  • This process works because it follows the principles of divergence and convergence, which is aligned to the right and left brains. It’s how we naturally work. Explore, Evaluate, Execute is probably the best example of it, the practical applications of which are endless.

  • When you think and review your work more often, it’ll help you gain clarity about your commitments because using this approach will be proactive rather than reactive. And that’s part of being a pro.

We need some time every day to think about and review our work. Unless we do that, how can we know for sure if we’re working on the right things? We don’t. In that sense, thinking and reviewing your work is akin to leadership, and doing that work is similar to management. Thought precedes action — always.

Thinking happens every day when you spend time defining the work you want to do. The problem occurs when we try to think and do at the same time. This is as true with getting work done for yourself as it is for working in groups and (especially) in meetings. Too often, we get into our workday without reviewing what we need to work on. And too often, we get to the end of the work day without reflecting on what we accomplished.

Thinking includes:

  • capturing things that have your attention,
  • deciding what those things mean to you, and
  • organizing them in a trusted system

Review is the bridge that closes the gap between thinking about your work and doing that work. It lets you come out of the work view and see your work from an elevated perspective — you can see the forest from the trees (in the case of weekly reviews and broader maps/horizons). It also gives you the space to reflect on things before doing them. Reviewing work can happen daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, semi-annually, annually, etc. No matter the frequency, the review is the key part of the process that makes it all work.

Of course, there are different kinds of reviews for different time horizons. For instance, daily review is about reviewing your calendar and list manager for a given day. Weekly review could be about reviewing all your projects on a weekly basis. Monthly review could be about reviewing your quarterly goals and ensuring that you’re on the right track, and so on.

Also, just because reviewing things frequently appears to be a simple practice doesn’t mean that we always practice it. Yet, it’s the cornerstone habit that makes the whole process work.

As David says, and I concur with him that there are three kinds of work: Work that you’ve predefined, unplanned or ad hoc work that shows up through the day, and the work of defining work (or thinking about your work).

Doing involves doing predefined work, which is work you’ve defined/planned for yourself; doing also includes doing ad hoc work, which is unplanned work.

Once you have thought about and reviewed your work, then it’s just a matter of showing up and doing the work at the appropriate time.

Just because you have thought about your commitments (including capturing, deciding, and organizing them in their own place) doesn’t mean that you have to do them all now. You don’t have to do anything right now. At best, you can do anything but not everything. The idea isn’t to do everything on your lists right now, but to finish the thinking required and to capture the results of that thinking in your trusted system so you can do them at the appropriate time in the future.

Ideally, we want to spend as much of our working time as possible doing predefined work. This is work that we have already thought about and committed to, either on a particular day and time using a calendar, or when we have any discretionary time at all using a list manager. Of course, that is not always possible because there is always unplanned work that shows up at any given time that is both important and urgent, such as deadlines and what not. The idea is to spend as much of our working time doing predefined work and as little of our time doing unplanned work.

  • 70–75% (or more) doing predefined work
  • 15–20% defining work
  • 10% (or less) doing unplanned work

For example, in a typical 8-hour work day (9–5), you could spend:

  • 5–6 hours doing predefined work,
  • 1–2 hours defining work (think and review; includes morning review and evening reflection), and
  • 1 hour doing unplanned work

There are a couple challenges with using this approach:

  • The fundamental challenge with using this approach consistently will be about making it part of your lifestyle. It’s okay to fall off the bandwagon. The great thing about this approach is that it’s just as easy to get back on as it is to fall off. If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough. At the end of the day, it’s about consistency, which is true with anything worth pursuing.

  • The litmus test for this approach will occur when you least feel like following it. Your system is only as good as the day you least feel like doing it.

Here are a few best practices for making this process work for you:

  • Spend some time every day in the morning performing daily review. This will set you up for an effective workday. Even better, if you spend some time the night before to do this review. That way, you can have a running start to your day without thinking what needs to be done first.

  • Spend some time in the evening every day reviewing what you accomplished during the day, define work using your system, and prepare for the following day. More on this in a future draft.

  • Spend the day doing as much predefined work as possible, and keep unplanned work to a minimum.

  • Capture items that have your attention quickly during your work day, then get back to your work. You can decide what those things mean for you later when you’re defining work in the evening.

  • Review your Projects list every week. Set up at least 90 minutes on a weekly basis for doing this kind of thinking. Make it part of your weekly routine, schedule it in your calendar and do it at the same time every week so you don’t have to remember it. This will ensure that you’re working on the right projects.

  • When you’re doing the work, focus on doing the work. When you’re defining your work during periods of thinking, do that. There’s time for project planning and then there’s times for doing. The important thing is to keep them separate because you can’t do them at the same time.

  • Another way you can use this model is to use areas of focus to get work done. Think about the areas of your work, capture things in each of those areas in a given week, schedule them in your calendar, and do them. In this case, the thinking and the reviewing happens in the beginning. The doing happens in the following week when you show up to do the work.

Once you start using this process effectively using a trusted system, you’ll find yourself present a lot more often without having to worry about what you’re not doing. You’ll be able to manage your agreements with yourself and others even better. And, you’ll find yourself more creative with all of the free mental space that you’ll reclaim using this process. There is no limit to how much you can improve when using this simple method of working.

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