How I Conduct a Meta-Review

I’ve written previously about the importance of the Weekly Review. It’s the one appointment that I make with myself during the week that I (for the most part), never cancel. In fact, I’m always sure to schedule a backup Weekly Review window in case I end up in an unavoidable situation that means I have to cancel. 

It’s that important. 

While the Weekly Review gives me pause to look at my projects and commitments that I have undertaken, I also need to be mindful of the fact that all of this is redundant if I don’t trust the productivity system that I have in place. Checking my Next Actions list is fine, however, if I’m not confident that I’m taking action based on accurate inputs, then I’ll always have that nagging doubt that stops me from fully believing that I’m taking action on the right project at the right time. 

That’s where the meta-review comes into play. 

The meta-review is the terminology I use for assessing my productivity system as a whole. It differs from the Weekly Review in that it doesn’t occur in one sitting, or even on a specific timescale. No, the meta-review is an organic process that sits a level above any other that I carry out, be it daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly. 

Here is how I created the process.

1 - Define the Review Elements

Before anything could happen with regards to scheduling the review of my Productivity System, I needed to know what was involved. What was my system comprised of? How many tools did I have in play? What was working and what wasn’t? 

I needed to unload my thoughts on this matter and this is where my trusty mind map came into play. Now, as a follower of Tony Buzan’s excellent teachings, I have to say I use iMindMap 10 as my mind mapping solution on macOS, however, there are many other tools available that can work just as well. None more so than pen and paper for getting your thoughts down into print. 

I identified the following elements that needed to be checked on a semi-regular basis:

Goals

We all need something that we are aiming towards, otherwise, we can find ourselves drifting, with no means of steering or course correct. 

Habits

Aristotle famously quoted that “we are the sum of our actions, and therefore our habits make all the difference”. It’s important to have habits in place that align with the goals we have just defined. 

Processing Points

I refer to the various inboxes that I have in my life as Processing Points. These are both physical and digital and represent the areas where new inputs are found. These can be email, voicemail, physical inbox, notebooks, mobile applications - as many as you need but as few as you can get away with. As part of the meta-review, I’m not emptying these Processing Points (that’s part of my daily/weekly review). Instead, I need to assess whether I have the right amount, are they working, what is slipping through the cracks?

Calendar

As above, I’m not checking what is on the calendar, but checking my calendar system as a whole. Do I have enough virtual calendars? Are they configured correctly? Am I missing appointments or not recording any correctly? 

ToDo List Manager

This is one of the big ones for me. I use Omnifocus as my ToDo List application and there are lots of elements here that need a thorough review. 

  • Are my contexts current and up to date?
  • Are any Perspectives sitting idle and never used?
  • Is my folder structure correct? Are my Areas Of focus as they should be, or have they changed in the last quarter?
  • Are my new Goals reflected in OmniFocus?
  • Is OmniFocus still the right tool for me?

These are all questions that I ask as part of this review process. I’m not reviewing the projects, moreover, the system that contains the projects. 

Information Storage

Being able to retrieve information as and when I need it is a core part of being productive. If I have a system that involves me using long and lengthy search practices to get what I want, when I want, then I’ve got a problem that needs to be resolved. We need to reduce the friction involved. 

I’m sure we all know that without due care and attentions, tools such as Evernote and DEVONthink Pro Office can quickly become bloated and unwieldy. I use this time to check the following:

  • Are my folders/groups correct and current?
  • What friction have I encountered since my last review?
  • Am I able to both input/retrieve content with ease?
  • Have there been any blog articles from those I trust on how they have improved their systems?
  • Is DEVONthink Pro Office still the right tool for me? 

2 - Schedule the Review

Once I had all of the elements I wanted to cover noted down, the next stage was to look at the frequency required for the review to take place. As I have templates in OmniFocus for my Daily, Weekly, Monthly and Quarterly reviews (I don’t do Annual - too far away for me!), I simply needed to define the steps required to carry out the meta-review and add them to the appropriate template. Here’s what I decided on:

Goals - Weekly/Monthly/Quarterly

I look at my Goals as part of three different reviews. This may seem a lot, however, if I don’t look at them regularly, then I worry that I will drift off course, or miss my life targets. That’s not something I’m comfortable with. 

I follow Brian Moran’s 12 Week Year style of working so I set long term goals as part of my quarterly review. These goals are then broken down into individual milestones, which I intend to reach on a weekly or monthly basis. That’s how they fit into these checks. With weekly, monthly and quarterly goals, it’s very difficult for me not to get to where I need to be. 

Habits - Weekly

I assess my Habits Weekly using an application called Streaks on iOS. I check how many days I’ve achieved and look at whether it can still be considered a habit that needs to be tracked, or whether it is now muscle memory and happens automatically. If so, then I delete that particular habit and look for another one to take its place. Streaks lets you have a maximum of six habits to track, however, I try to have no more than four running at any time. Too many means it’s easy to lose focus on a key habit. 

Processing Points - Monthly

This usually doesn’t take very long - namely because I don’t have many processing points. I’ll look at Drafts as this is my main capture application on iOS. When I discover something on the move that I need to enter manually into my iPhone, I use Drafts. As Drafts has lots of actions you can configure, to automatically send the text to different applications, I’ll perform a quick check to make sure the actions I have setup are current and in use. I’ll also look at the online Action Directory to see if there are any new ones I can download that may help. 

I’ll also consider my email schedule. I process three times a day at the moment and this works. This may not always be the case though, so knowing that I will review this schedule at some point in the future gives me confidence. 

Calendar - Monthly

I also check my Calendar configuration on a Monthly basis. I’m a visual person who needs to see colours and images to convey different pieces of information on the fly. Therefore I have several iCloud calendars setup that are colour-coded for different activities (Business, Family, Research, Writing etc). Once a month I’ll check this calendar setup works for me still. If I’ve missed appointments, or feel there is a lack of balance in my base calendar, I can address it here. 

To Do List Manager - Monthly

I’m a keen follower of Tim Stringer’s website over at Learn OmniFocus. This is great because there is a plethora of advice, hints and tips there for how to improve your OmniFocus setup. The downside is that I am always getting inspired to tweak my configuration! Just when I think I’ve got it right, I’ll get another idea for a change. 

This is no bad thing because OmniFocus is my hub or second brain. It takes a lot of maintenance but it’s a trade-off I don’t mind, because of the amount of processing power it takes away from my brain, allowing me to be creative and (occasionally) produce some magic. 

I’ll review the notes I’ve taken over the course of the last month and look at changes I can make to the system. I’ll also review the Contexts and Perspectives as a whole to make sure there are no redundant ones laying around. 

I’ll also check to see what has gone wrong with OmniFocus since my last review - and what actions I’m going to take to prevent them in the future. One such action may, in the future, be trialling another application. I’d only do that, however, if I was sure that my approach to ToDo List Management was correct. I’d never blame OmniFocus for an issue that was down to my flawed system - that’s not how things work. 

Information System - Quarterly

This is the only one that doesn’t sit in either a weekly or monthly review period. That’s a deliberate measure and it’s down to the simplistic setup I have for DEVONthink. I have several databases and rely heavily on the Search and AI functionality within DEVONthink to both file and retrieve what I need automatically. 

Each database has very few groups setup (the groups being the containers for the files they hold) and I use a tagging mechanism to help facilitate the search. I’d rather throw pieces of paper into one or two large bins than aim for twenty or so. The searching within DEVONthink is beyond equal and I leverage it to it’s full capacity. 

Once a quarter, I’ll check the databases are active and archive any to my Synology that are for client projects that are now closed. I’ll check the tags database and make sure they are in use, as well as review any occasions where I haven’t been able to find a file I need in a timely period (very rare). 

Summary

At Think Productive, we call the above Boss Mode thinking. By dedicating enough time in ensuring the systems and processes you have are right for you, you’ll be able to spend more of your time in Worker Mode, where you just go out and get stuff done. That’s why I love spending time on these meta-review tasks. 

I know it’s going to allow me the freedom to make a difference in the areas of my life that need it most.