We're creeping up on a new year, which means people are going to start writing retrospective blog articles about their year. If the idea of doing a huge review of your entire year sounds incredibly overwhelming to you, I don't blame you.
This is therefore the perfect time to talk about the microskill of reviewing your progress. I've written previously about the value of documenting everything; reviewing your progress is the other side of the same coin.
Reviewing Your Progress: A Surprising Way to Boost Productivity
Whether code or content, it's easy to get trapped on the production hamster wheel. You might know this as "the grind" or "the hustle," where you're just pumping out words, code, or videos as fast as you can. I spent a few years doing this and quickly burned myself out. Around mid-2020, while I was in the middle of recording two commissioned video courses on top of my day job, I had a realization: hustle just isn't everything. Just because you're moving quickly doesn't mean you're going in the right direction.
But how do we know which direction to go? How do we determine where to spend our time and what will bring us the biggest return?
Unfortunately, we don't have a crystal ball or a palantír from Lord of the Rings to guide us. By regularly reviewing your progress, though, you can basically fabricate one yourself using the magic of mindfulness.
So what do I mean by reviewing progress? As a developer, you might be familiar with the concept of a retrospective. Reviewing your progress is similar, but includes paying attention to current reality in addition to judging outcomes. In some scenarios, judging outcomes isn't useful at all because you don't have enough data or you're smack in the middle of a project. Noticing what's currently happening is nearly always useful.
There are different strategies for these reviews depending on when you're doing them:
- For weekly reviews (or daily or bi-weekly, depending on what works for you), look at your immediate obligations like projects, tasks, and appointments.
- For monthly reviews, look at progress on projects, goals, and habits.
- For semi-annual and annual reviews, look at systems, especially around creating and consuming.
Examples of systems I like to review are:
- Your IDE setup
- Your content creation processes (blogging, videos, or whatever else you're creating)
- Your learning systems (note-taking, video courses, subscriptions)
- YouTube subscriptions
- Newsletter subscriptions
During these reviews, ask yourself questions like:
- What's going well?
- What's not working?
- What's producing results?
- What tools are helping me right now?
- What can I delegate to someone else?
- What can I let go of?
You can choose to write down these reviews (whether or not you want to publish them), but even the act of noticing and asking questions will produce results for you. I generally don't write down any of my weekly reviews but try to keep notes on any reviews that are monthly or longer because I won't remember them otherwise. 😬
Why review regularly?
Why should you bother doing the extra work of adding a review process to your life? Here are my favorite reasons:
- It helps us predict the future by noticing patterns. As with documenting everything, a big part of the value of the regular review is mindfulness. If I'm paying close attention to what I'm doing and where I'm blocked, I can start to notice patterns. For example, I noticed I was consistently falling behind in any form of admin work like emails or paperwork. I haven't fully cracked a solution, but even the awareness of it is helping me build better systems to keep me on top of these.
- It clears the junk from our heads. We can only juggle so many things in our heads. By regularly noticing what we're thinking about and where we're spending time, we'll start to drop things that aren't helping us. We'll also have a clearer idea of the status of what we're working on, so we'll spend less time switching contexts when we work on something.
- It helps us remember things in the right contexts. You know how we only remember to buy shampoo when we're in the shower or buy trash bags when we're emptying the trash? (Maybe it's just me.) We go about our day and they slip out of our minds. Inevitably, we go to the store (or order something online) and then kick ourselves for forgetting the shampoo and trash bags! This is such a human thing. We're not the best at remembering things in different contexts. By simply having a place to collect related tasks (like a shopping list note) and then reviewing that place regularly, we're much more likely to make the connection.
- It helps us understand our true capacity. Consistently measuring allows us to determine your capacity. You'll start noticing where you're falling behind, how quickly you're finishing different types of projects, and what return you're getting from each project. This helps a ton in determining what to say yes or no to. I realized through this process that I'm really at only good at focusing on one or two side projects at once since I also have a day job. Overloading creative work caused admin and maintenance work to slip through the cracks, which can cause some nasty surprises!
How to Start Reviewing Your Progress
As with most things we talk about in this newsletter, the key is not to overthink it and just get started.
The best place to start is the weekly project review. You're going to want to look at two things:
- Your projects or tasks
- Your calendar
Every week, I look at my personal, work, and business projects and calendars. I find projects with tasks to be a much more effective system than endless to-do lists. I define a project as a discrete unit of work that has a clear outcome or deliverable. For example:
- Create talk on X.
- Build feature Y.
- Write blog post on Z.
- Find an accountant.
Notice how easy it is to tell whether each of these projects is finished. A blog post is either written or it's not. Avoiding vague projects like "Improve my career" or "Get better at writing" makes a big difference in productivity.
For each project, I ask:
- What's the current status?
- What's the next thing that needs to happen?
- What's the next action?
Be on the lookout for when you find yourself saying, "I need to figure that out." These are the projects that stay on your list for months because you just keep hitting the metaphorical snooze button on them. Usually when we're stuck like this, it's because we're not clear on what needs to happen next. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What's the outcome I'm looking for?
- What's blocking me?
- Whose responsibility is that?
Sometimes these projects that have been on the back-burner for a long time just need to be dropped altogether. It's okay to let things go. Maybe the idea just wasn't that great. Maybe it doesn't align with what you're working on right now. Maybe you just don't want to do it anymore. Just let it go. If you're worried that sometime you might want to revisit it, stick it in a "Projects Archive" notebook in Google Docs, Notion, or Evernote. Sometimes in a different time of life things come together and you can execute on an idea you've had in reserve. This might be because of new skills you've learned or new connections you've made.
One last important thing on the weekly review: don't judge yourself as you do this. A lot of the time we do these reviews to try to prove to ourselves that we were right and are disappointed when the data doesn't support this. I like to turn this disappointment into curiosity. Why didn't it work? What else happened? What can I learn from the fact that I didn't make progress on 3 of my 5 projects?
Overall, remember: the value of any review process comes from consistent observation. You'll grow more from starting small and sticking with it than big one-off attempts. Start with a quick weekly review for a few months and see what you notice. Think of it like a game!
How to Go Deeper
If the weekly review proves useful for you, you might go deeper with the Getting Things Done system by David Allen (which is where I first learned of the weekly review). The book is the best place to start. Once you're hooked, there are many good apps that support GTD, like OmniFocus (my favorite), Things, Todoist, and Evernote. Here's a great article about the GTD weekly review on the Todoist blog.
A great (free!) resource for annual reviews is Steve Schlafman's Ultimate Annual Review. It's packed with guiding questions for reviewing this year and planning for next year and is available as a Notion template, Google Doc, and PDF. I love the Notion template and am using it myself.
This article began its life as an issue of the Developer Microskills Newsletter. Each week, I send out a practical, actionable way to improve as a developer and developer advocate. Sign up below!