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Whatever occupies your days, we all have a snowbank's worth of things to keep straight in our heads. And when time flies by at an unreasonable pace, it's hard to feel on top of things as week after week zips behind you. I remember some old guys at my childhood church joking that, at their age, “Every second day is Sunday…”
A weekly practice for mental clarity
It can be pretty overwhelming to find yourself buried under a snowbank of tasks and reminders — especially if you're a solo-operator like me, or part of a small team without layers of admin support.
A few months ago I started into a weekly practice I call “Close the Loops”. Every Friday I set aside a portion of the day to run through a structured list of everything that runs my life to make sure I'm not forgetting anything. I have a pretty good memory, but it's impossible to keep from dropping the ball somewhere along the way if I don't spend some time reviewing everything I'm responsible for.
“Closing the loops” every week has been enormously helpful, and every week I find myself exclaiming, “Oh yikes, I forgot about that!” at least once. My 6-year-old son has high hopes for time with me on Saturdays each week, so by quantifying my work-world on Fridays, I'm able to enter the weekend with a quiet mind, knowing all is accounted for.
In case such a practice would be helpful for you, I thought I'd share what my process looks like.
How I close my loops
I use an app called Things to structure my life, so I'll be referring to it a lot. But the technology isn't important. What is important is having some consistent method of translating cognitive load to captured tasks. So whether you use Omnifocus or a paper notepad, the task is the same: Write stuff down, and get it out of your head and into a space where you can review everything.
1. Clear email inbox
Email is bad for humans :) Whenever my inbox starts piling up, I can feel the noise in my head becoming louder — all these people who need something from me! Plus, it often takes some sleuthing to sift through an email's huge conversation history to keep track of what I need to respond to.
So as my first loop to close, I go through every message in my inbox and turn it into a task list. (E.g., “Get back to Scott about pricing for his proposal”; “Troubleshoot the Stripe bug in Awardify”) I also copy the email's URL into the task so that I can jump back into the email if I need more context than what I recorded.
Now that the email's tasks have been captured, I archive that email so that it can stop yelling at me every time I open my inbox.
Repeat until Inbox Zero.
2. Clear white board, paper notes, and desk
My white board, notepad, and desk are the three physical areas where stuff piles up.
Once my inbox is empty, I sort through all the paper on my desk and make a quick judgement call: “Chuck it?” “Scan it?” “Task it?” Maybe it's an invoice I need to pay, a cheque I need to deposit, or something I can just scan into Evernote. Much like my email inbox, papers laying around my desk yell for attention. So, getting them processed and off my desk puts them out of mind.
I use my 8-foot white board and my notepad to sketch out notes from client meetings or for figuring out the thinking behind my coding projects. Every Friday I make sure everything has been scanned and saved. I use a handy app called Scanner Pro to record written notes, paper documents, and my entire white board, and shovel it all into Evernote so that I can clear everything away without losing anything.
3. Clear computer downloads
Working on digital projects means a lot of stuff accumulates in my downloads folder. Most of it can be trashed, but some of it might be important to save onto a cloud somewhere. By processing my downloads folder every week, the task never becomes burdensome if there are only 7 days' worth of files sitting there.
4. Process Evernote inbox
I use Evernote as my dumping ground, like Dumbledore's pensieve, where I shovel things I need to keep but don't need to think about right now. On Fridays I look through the Evernote notebook where all my scans and saved notes arrive, and throw them into their long-term homes where Future Luke will know to look for them.
5. Check sales tasks
I use ClickUp to help manage my sales work, and so once a week I need to make sure I'm on top of the tasks associated with ongoing deals. (E.g., “Call back Mayor Quimby to set a date to meet about the village website”) This gives me some time to reschedule tasks, create new ones, or mark others as “completed” if I forgot to do so earlier.
6. Process project tasks
I use ClickUp to manage ongoing development projects and support issues so that I can see at a glance the status of all the various pieces of the puzzle. On Fridays I make sure my “pipeline” is up to date (e.g., if cards should be moved to “In Progress” or “In Review” or “Live”) so that ClickUp remains an accurate representation of my projects.
7. Check calendar (-2/+4 weeks)
At this point in the loop-closing, I take a good look at my calendar, starting 2 weeks ago and looking all the way to 4 weeks into the future. This allows me to notice things I may have forgotten (e.g., meetings I had, but didn't follow-up on), and anything that has been added to my calendar that isn't already noted in Things.
My wife and I use some shared calendars to keep track of all our plans regarding her business, mine, church ministry, and all the stuff for our kids. So looking backward and forward in the calendar helps to keep all the various things of life in order, especially when unintentional double-booking happens.
8. Budget review / invoicing
I take a few moments to look through my invoicing in Wave to make sure new invoices have gone out, and to take note of any that aren't paid up. At this point I also check my time tracker for any new hourly work I need to bill.
This is also when I look over my business budget planning and income forecasting to make sure I'm aware of the points on the timeline when I need to have more projects in the queue. I keep a dated list of revenue sources so that I can run income and expenses together and get a good grasp on the health of my business, now and into the next several months.
If anything in my invoicing, time sheets, or budgeting are worth noting, I drop some tasks into Things to ensure nothing is left unnoticed.
9. Prioritize and file new open loops
Steps 9, 10, and 11 could be combined into one big step, since they all take place in Things. But I list them separately since the type of thought involved is slightly different.
By this point, my Things inbox usually has quite a few new tasks in it. Nearing the end of my loop-closing, I tag tasks by priority and energy level to make them easier to schedule.
For instance, a major coding task might be “High Energy” but “Low Priority” if I need to upgrade my mail queue system. But getting back to a potential client about a time-sensitive project might be “Low Energy” but “High Priority”.
Having tagged tasks in this way, I can easily filter the day's tasks to make sure I'm getting through all the “High Priority” stuff each day. And in the late afternoon hours when I might feel less motivated, I can turn to some “Low Energy” tasks.
10. Review "Waiting For" list followup
Some tasks will require the participation of others. Maybe I'm waiting on an answer from my accountant, or needing input from a colleague with whom I'm collaborating. My loop-closing work will tell me if my “Waiting For” tasks have received the answers I needed, or if I should give myself some reminders to check in with someone about something I need.
11. Choose the coming week's tasks
Last stop on the trail! Everything is accounted for, so it's finally time to decide which tasks to schedule for the coming week. My "Things" app offers a handy “Today” view, which brings into focus tasks belonging to any project across the app that are scheduled for the current day. To conclude my loop-closing, I set deadlines and schedule tasks for the coming week.
Admittedly this last part is mostly guesswork, since who knows what might happen next week that I don't foresee? But at least I now head into Saturday ready to flip pancakes and play Lego and enjoy some real down time, knowing that Monday is in-hand and out-of-mind.
I entreat you! Identify the loops in your life, get them into a list you can look at each week, and devote some time to closing them. Your brain, your kids, and your breathe-easy-feelings will thank you.