A mentor of mine once told me, “Have a plan, lest you be the object of someone else’s.” I think about this advice often when I consider the most effective people I’ve ever worked with. They all share a sense of deliberateness. They act with purpose. They take the initiative.
The same mentor often uses a sailing metaphor to describe the world of business. Our path to success is a distant voyage during which we endlessly battle the winds, currents, and tides conspiring to take us off course. Our journey is never a straight line. Instead, we zig-zag across the ocean, changing tack as the situation dictates. If we’re up to the challenge, we eventually arrive at our desired port. If not, we remain adrift at sea, flailing hopelessly against the forces of Mother Nature.
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Staying on Course
Viewed through this lens, becoming a more effective operator means having a plan to deal with the inherently complex and dynamic nature of knowledge work. One simple tactic that can help us navigate this challenge is performing a “weekly reflection.” The idea of this practice is to spend 30 to 60 minutes zooming out from the day-to-day in order to regain our bearings and alter our course as needed.
Like a sailor checking his or her current location, a weekly reflection often reveals that we’ve drifted off-course; what we set out to accomplish during the previous week bears little resemblance to what actually got done. Sometimes, new information has surfaced that warrants a change in overall direction. Other times, losing our way was the result of short-term, urgent tasks that demanded attention, or perhaps we simply allowed ourselves to get distracted, in which case we need to resume our previous bearing.
Either way, a weekly reflection allows us to make an objective assessment. Do we need to shift focus back to the tasks we’d previously planned on tackling, or has the situation changed such that it actually makes more sense to shift priorities?
With a weekly reflection, this becomes an active decision-making process. Without it, such decisions are often happening outside of awareness and driven largely by external circumstances. We become the object of someone else’s plan.
Simple Process, Big Returns
The best part of a weekly reflection ritual is that it’s a highly leveraged use of time; it’s a simple and quick practice that yields tremendous upside. As far as tools required, any word processor will do. Simply sit down on a regular day/time of the week — I do mine on Sunday mornings — and write down what you hope to accomplish during the week ahead.
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I group my weekly reflection outline by project. I’m typically focused on anywhere from three to seven projects, with anywhere from one to five bullet points under each project that represents the tasks I plan to accomplish. I keep this outline open during the week and periodically glance at it to keep my priorities top-of-mind.
During the following week’s reflection, I pull up the outline, check off what got done, note what didn’t, and answer a few prompts about each project:
- What went well?
- What didn’t go well?
- How do I feel about this project?
- What were my key takeaways from this week?
My answers to these prompts can range anywhere from a couple of words to a couple of paragraphs. As I answer these prompts, I create the outline of priority tasks for the following week. Then wash, rinse, and repeat. There’s nothing to it beyond a willingness to invest the time, to be honest with ourselves, and to get thoughts out of our heads and onto the page.
The kind of knowledge work we are engaged in creates prime conditions for a difficult voyage. It is fast-paced, dynamic, and unpredictable, and success can be hard to define. Creating a ritual of weekly reflection puts us in control. This practice provides an opportunity to step back from the demands of our day-to-day, to assess if we are on course, and to continually refine our plan to arrive at our desired destination.