When I talk about my Review System to others, people often ask, “Doesn’t it all take too long?”
In fact, it doesn’t. Setting up a new system for the first time may be an investment of time, but maintaining it is quick.
This morning, I did my Monthly Review for May. I timed myself, and it took me 12 minutes. Literally! I almost felt disappointed there was nothing more to do. I love the Monthly Review, and when the time comes for it (once a month, duh!), I want to savor it and enjoy it. But after 12 minutes, it was done.
What is the Monthly Review?
Ah, I’m so glad you asked. The Monthly Review is a periodic review of the past month and a preview of the upcoming month. I like to do this towards the end of each month. Here, I’ll be describing the Monthly Review for the end of May 2021.
If you haven’t heard, there’s a pandemic going on, and now the holiday season is also upon us. These things are timely and feel immediate (i.e., they are here right now), while my PhD doesn’t feel so urgent.
I noticed a few months ago that I didn’t feel much urgency related to my work. I thought, “I’m getting back in the groove of things, I still have 1.5 years until I need to finish my PhD, it’s all good, that’s loads of time.” That’s all fine, but time is ticking away. If I don’t focus and work now, I’ll be pressed for time later.
I needed to make my PhD work feel more urgent. But how to do that without any pressing deadlines? While February 2022 (the end of my PhD contract) keeps gradually coming closer, it’s still too far away to give me a tangible feeling of immediacy.
Two weeks ago when we found out we’ll be in quarantine at home for at least a month, something clicked for me: We need a routine! As a person who loves putting together routines, I was on fire. I took different daily activities and moved them around in my head, from morning to afternoon, before lunch or after, before our walk or after… Ahhh, the fun!
Since then, I’ve seen many psychologists and other experts online recommend the importance of routines in these otherwise unpredictable and strange times. Every time I see this, I think, “Yesss!!!” Great minds think alike; routines are key.
A routine ensures you have some sense of normalcy in a time when your usual habits have been disrupted. It can be comforting to control what you can control and accept the rest which you cannot control (and that’s a lot).
By having a routine, you also make sure the things you’ve deemed important get done every day or on some regular basis. In this way, fewer things slip through your fingers and you have more choice in how your life goes.
Our daily routine
Alas, since we have a young (almost 5-month-old) baby, we cannot stick to a very strict routine. I know, I know, it’s good for me to learn to be flexible… whatever. Instead of planning our day by the hour, I plan it in blocks of activities, as a sequence of which activities get done during which part of the day (approximately).
We wake up whenever William wakes up (usually between 7:00 and 8:00, but today it was 6:30…). We cuddle him, I nurse him, and we change his diaper and then out of his pajamas. Then, Jacob and I have breakfast, while William plays near us. Afterwards, we cuddle him a bit more and put him in bed for a nap. His morning nap usually begins between 8:00 and 9:00.
By the way, every time I put William in bed for a nap and wait for him to fall asleep, Jacob works. That’s how he manages to get stuff done. And in the afternoon and evening, he has longer uninterrupted stretches of time for work.
While William is sleeping, Jacob and I train in our living room. We’ve decided that we’ll get ripped during this quarantine! Nope, not really, but we’ve committed to doing 30-45 minutes of exercise every day in order to get our bodies moving and stay strong. We are fortunate to have kettlebells, elastic bands, a gym ball, a pull up bar, and some other equipment at home, so we can do a pretty good workouts, although I still miss barbells and weight plates.
Usually, William wakes up towards the end of our workout. We put him on his belly for tummy time (it’s important for babies to train their back muscles), so for 10 minutes or so the whole family is exercising! Then, I nurse and change him. After that, one of us plays with him while the other one showers. I also use this time to do things around the house (laundry, kitchen, tidying, etc.). These days the weather has been nice, so Jacob has been taking him out on the grass behind our building for some sun.
Soon, it’s time for William’s lunchtime nap, which usually starts anytime between 12:00 and 13:00. While he sleeps, we eat lunch, and I like to use this time to check and respond to email, messages, etc. The duration of this nap can vary greatly (between 40 minutes and 2 hours), so I may be able to get lots of stuff done or very few.
Around this time, I may write a blog post, read something interesting online, work on putting together our annual photo album, or do a home project. Jacob usually cooks at this time (he cooks 3 times a week now, and I help out sometimes or make an additional fancy meal or sauce).
When William wakes up from his nap, I nurse and change him (are you seeing a pattern here?). We play with him and let him explore the world a bit. Jacob usually works at this time, and I may be able to get something done too. Once William starts getting tired, we put him in the stroller and take him out for a walk. He takes a nap, and we get to walk (usually around 15:00 or 16:00).
We have a nice hour-long route to the park and back that we take every day. Since the weather is really pleasant these days, we chill on the grass in the park for a bit, letting William look around, and then we head back home. Sometimes I go on this walk alone with William if Jacob is busy, or I ask a friend to join us, so we can chat while keeping our 1.5-meter distance.
When we get home, I nurse William and change him (is this getting a bit repetitive? hahaha), and then Jacob and I have an early dinner (around 17:30 or 18:00). We like to call family or friends around this time to catch up and be social virtually.
Around 19:00, we start William’s bedtime routine, so he can be in bed around 19:30. I feed him, we change his diaper and put him in his pajamas, and then I carry him around the room and sing him a lullaby. Then he sleeps, which means PARTY TIME!!!
Okay, it’s not really that late. From about 20:00 until 21:30, it’s PARTY TIME–Jacob usually works, while I read, write, do administrative tasks, or something along those lines as well as have a snack. Sometimes we just talk and spend time together, and we intend to watch a movie one of these days!
At 21:30, I start getting ready for bed and am in bed by 22:00. That’s when William usually wakes up for his first feeding of the night, and after that we sleep. If I’m lucky, he wakes up twice more in the night (around 1:30 and 4:30), and then we wake up refreshed around 7:30. And if I’m unlucky, he wakes up about 4 times in the night and then around 6:30 in the morning (like last night), and then I wake up grumpy. You never know which one it will be.
Ah, it’s so nice to have a routine! Even though it’s never exactly the same and we can’t follow it to the dot, it gives structure and guides our days. We definitely get more done when we have a routine than when everything is up in the air because we know what to do during the different times of day.
How about you? Do you have a routine at this time? If so, what is it and how is it helpful? If no, why not and how does spontaneity work for you?
Who says that planning is rigid and inflexible? I recently proved this whole assumption false.
This is a question I often address at my workshops. At the end of a workshop on organization and productivity I give, I like to leave plenty of time for questions. One of the questions that almost inevitably comes up is, “How can you respond to sudden demands if you’ve already planned everything?”
While I understand the sentiment, I believe that having already planned things puts me in a good position to respond to unexpected demands.
The reason for this is that the act of planning things in itself means prioritizing. In order to decide what to put on your calendar, you first need to think about what’s important. You need to think about what work project is most important or urgent now and dedicate time to that during your work day. Or you need to decide that moving your body is more important than doing something else, so you schedule time to exercise.
And then when something unexpected comes up, you can compare its importance or urgency to the rest of the things you have planned and decide how to proceed.
How I applied this recently
The previous week was my last week at work; my maternity leave started this past Monday. Yay! Chill time at home doing baby things? Well, not exactly.
I had planned a relaxing last working week for myself. I wanted to do some final work on my new project in order to leave it in such a way that I could easily pick it up when I get back from leave. I also had quite a few admin things to take care of before leaving, which is easy to do.
And then right before my last week started, I got reviews on my paper. (In the field of cognitive neuroscience, when you’d like to publish a paper, you send it to a journal, they send it to reviewers who read it and give you feedback, and then you need to make edits that address the comments.)
In one way, this was great news because I got the reviews before my baby was born, so I could work on them before I get sleep deprived and overwhelmed with baby stuff. In another way, I felt pressure because I knew I should make edits as quickly as possible in order to make progress before the baby comes.
I thought about it and quickly decided to allocate all my working time to making edits that address the comments. All the tasks I had planned for that week had to take a backseat for a bit because the paper was more important and more urgent than the rest of the stuff. It was an easy choice.
Was it pleasant? Yes and no. On the one hand, my relaxed last week became more intense. It wouldn’t usually be a problem, but since I’m nearing the end of my pregnancy, I get tired easily now.
On the other hand, it was very motivating to be working on the edits for my paper. The comments were constructive, so I felt like I was truly improving my work. I was excited to get up each day and work hard on my paper. I was very happy with the progress I made and felt accomplished at the end of the day.
How did planning help me when I had to change my plans?
You may be wondering how planning helped at all in this situation. It seems as though I just did what I had to do and that was it. But that’s far from the whole story.
First of all, I have a very good system of keeping track of what I need to do. Especially in a process like making changes to a paper, there are many small tasks that need to be done, so I often felt like I was trying not to forget stuff. Thus, I wrote things down and then grouped the tasks in order to do them in the most efficient way possible. I also planned which types of tasks I’d do when depending on the task’s difficulty and whether I needed help from someone else.
I find it extremely helpful to come in to work, open my list of tasks, and know exactly what I need to work on. I waste no time wondering, “Oh, what was I doing here? What was I supposed to do with this?” It takes seconds to read through my notes for a particular task and start working on it. Then, when it’s done, I move on to the next task with the same ease and efficiency.
The other really helpful aspect of planning came from managing my time and energy. Especially the first two days, I was so motivated that I felt like I could keep working until late at night. However, I know that that doesn’t work for me in the long term, so I made myself stop at the end of the workday. There were also several things to arrange for the baby that week, so I made sure to make time for those as well and not just drop the ball on that.
Finally, having my planning set up well allowed me to take frequent breaks. This is something I really don’t like to do when I’m immersed in work, but it helps me to maintain my energy throughout the day. Especially with being pregnant and getting tired easily, I couldn’t afford to get too exhausted because then I wouldn’t be able to work as well the next day. So I got up from my chair every hour and walked down the hallway, went for 1-2 brief walks a day, exercised a couple of times a week, and slept enough (somewhat) during the night. I also made sure to do something fun each evening such as watch The Big Bang Theory.
In the end, I can say that this last-minute adaptation of my planning worked rather well. I was able to do my work efficiently and well and felt good about what I got done. It worked so well that I took Friday off to rest and get ready for a weekend of baby stuff. And then the following Monday, even though it was officially the first day of my leave, I went to work to finalize some administrative stuff. I didn’t even mind because I was relaxed and happy with the way my work as well as everything else was coming along.
That’s a the big win with planning! If we get our priorities straight and plan accordingly, we can make progress in multiple areas and feel like we’re accomplishing things simultaneously in different areas such as publishing a paper, taking care of our health, doing laundry, and even doing fun stuff.
Do you plan things in advance, do you prefer to fully go with the flow, or are you somewhere in the middle? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
After the blog post about the Weekly Review, I was asked for more info on how we handle groceries shopping. At first, I thought our approach is so simple that it’s not particularly interesting. But then I realized that the way we buy groceries is not typical, so it may be helpful if I explained it.
Schedule groceries shopping
I hear from people who go every day after work or every other day. Alternatively, they may be in the middle of cooking when they realize they are missing some ingredient, so they or their partner need to make a quick run to the shop. Unfortunately, this wastes a lot of time, and I’d be annoyed if I had to go buy groceries in a busy supermarket so often.
For that reason, we have groceries shopping on our calendars. We’ve figured out what days and times fit with our schedules, and we mostly keep to those. We go twice a week; we don’t need to go more often, but if we go less often, some of our produce goes bad in the meantime (we tried going once a week at one point, but it didn’t work for us). We buy lots of vegetables, and it’s a waste if some of them go bad before we use them.
Jacob goes shopping on Wednesday or Thursday, and I go on Saturday or Sunday. This works well since we can get all the ingredients before our bigger cook-ups, which are Thursday and Sunday evenings.
Always make a list
One of the most important tips about groceries shopping is to make a list. It makes you more efficient when you’re choosing what groceries to buy, and it also saves you money because it means you’ll be fewer extra items that you don’t in fact need.
Now, it could work to bring a list on paper, but there are better ways to be efficient given that you probably buy similar ingredients every week. I recommend using an app for lists on your phone (there are plenty such apps) where you can set due dates and reminders for each item, can make certain items recurring, and can make multiple lists.
We use an app called Wunderlist, and an extremely helpful feature is that we can share the shopping lists with each other. Each person can put items on the list, they will be synced, and the other person will see them. No need for endless texting: “Hey, can please get lemons and olive oil? Oh, and please also get dishwasher tablets.”
We have one shopping list for each shopping trip, thus, one for Wednesday/Thursday and one for Saturday/Sunday. We also have separate shopping lists per store in case we need to buy something from a specific shop. For instance, we get avocados from Albert Heijn, so I put that item there.
We also make our regular purchases into recurring tasks. In other words, I buy carrots every Sunday, and I don’t want to have to add them every time. Thus, I have them be due this Sunday, but once I check them off, they are due again next Sunday. This saves a lot of list-making time.
Consult the Food Planner
As I explained in the previous blog post, we make a food plan for each week. Every Saturday, I check the food planner and see what we’re going to cook. Then, I check the shopping lists for the upcoming week and see if all the ingredients we need are on there. That way, I don’t forget to buy some of the ingredients I’ll need for cooking.
Before I go groceries shopping, I check the fridge and see what we have. Sometimes, for example, we haven’t eaten all our potatoes yet, so I don’t need to buy more. In that case, I just check off the recurring tasks for potatoes and know I don’t need to get them this time.
Ordering groceries online
We order some ingredients online because they may be difficult to find in our nearby stores. We order local meat (grass-fed beef, free-range chicken) and fish (fresh mackerel, wild salmon), which arrive cooled or frozen. We put them in our chest freezer and have them last us a long time. This saves us a good amount of money.
We also order bones from animals such as grass-fed cows or wild deer and make bone broth or bouillon from them. The bones also stay frozen, we make bouillon in batches in the slow cooker, and then freeze that too. We defrost and warm up one jar of bouillon at a time.
In addition, we get some frozen fruit, such as berries. In the summer, we go to a blueberry farm nearby and pick blueberries. We picked around 15 kg this year and froze them all. When we want some berries, we defrost them and enjoy (they’re amazing with honey!).
Lastly, we buy nuts online. We mostly eat macadamia nuts and Brazil nuts, and when we order them in bulk online, we save money.
The approach in sum
Overall, I feel like our approach to groceries is very simple:
Make a list (or several) of what we need;
Share those lists with each other, so we can both add and check items off;
Make separate lists per shopping day and/or store;
Schedule when groceries shopping will take place and who will do it;
Look for better and cheaper options online for certain ingredients.
How do you handle your groceries? Do you have any comments or questions about our approach? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
In our home, we manage to get quite a lot of stuff done without too much stress, and we also get to relax and do fun stuff together. How do we do this? The key is the Weekly Review.
There are a couple of things we need to keep track of in our household. Both Jacob and I have work obligations that we need to communicate to each other, irregular working hours, and additional projects that need extra coordination. On the home front, we do substantial meal preparation since we cook all our food (each of us eats out about once per week), and we also exercise 3-4 times per week. Not to mention that we’re getting ready for a baby, which (who knew?) means that we’ve had to do more shopping than we’ve done in years.
How we started
Soon after Jacob and I started dating, we needed to coordinate schedules. We’d usually spend the weekends together, and on Sunday evening, when he was dropping me off, we’d talk about when we’d see each other next. Needless to say, this wasn’t the best time to have that conversation because both of us were trying to remember our schedules for next week off the tops of our heads. This led to lots of back-and-forth texting in the beginning of the week and too much logistics for a fresh couple.
One Sunday afternoon, I suggested a simple idea to him:
“Hey, how about we sit down and look at our calendars now to figure out what we’re doing next week?”
It was super quick and easy. We spent maybe 15 minutes comparing our schedules and figuring out when would be a good time to meet up. We kept this up for months until we moved in together. At that point, there were many more things to discuss, so I proposed adding some structure to the Weekly Review. I adapted it from my own weekly review which I do for work, and it was surprisingly effective.
We still do the Weekly Review every Sunday. We usually do it in the afternoon (before our meal prep), and it takes 30-60 minutes depending on how many things we need to discuss. Here’s what our Weekly Review looks like.
What we include in our Weekly Review
What did we do this week?
What went well?
What didn’t go so well?
Did things fit our priorities?
What will we do next week?
We sit next to each other with our laptops, and we go over the past week according to our calendars. There are several reasons why this exercise is useful:
It reminds you of everything you’ve done that week;
You may remember that you need to follow up on something or finish something up, so you can create a reminder or task to reflect that;
You can assess what went well during the week, so you may choose to attend an event you liked again, hang out with people you enjoyed, or continue to apply a time management strategy you tried out;
You can also assess what didn’t go so well. Maybe you thought you’d be finished with a task in an hour but in fact it took three; maybe you tried to pack in too many tasks in too short a time and felt stressed or overwhelmed; maybe you didn’t spend enough time on something you find important (such as putting together baby furniture…) or you worked hard but didn’t make time to see your friends.
The past week
I assess my week in this way, and then Jacob assesses his. We try to figure out what we’re happy with from the past week and what we can improve. We can also, of course, make suggestions about the other person’s things or share if something the other person did didn’t work for us.
We also ask ourselves whether what we did in the past week fit our priorities. You can have a very productive and perfectly organized week, but if what you did didn’t make you happy or if you missed something and couldn’t fit it into your life, you need to think about making a change. It’s okay if not each week fits our priorities, but we need to watch out for many weeks in a row feeling unsatisfying or draining. This could add up and lead to burn out, unhappiness, or health problems, so it’s much better to catch it early.
The upcoming week
Then, we move on to the next week. Again, we look at our calendars and discuss what we’re going to do. We discuss any logistical issues or things we may need to coordinate (who needs the car when; when we’re going to see which friends; when we’re going to assemble some baby furniture… do you see a pattern here?).
Then, we also check our tasks and projects (Wunderlist lists and Trello boards) and think about when we may do what. This we can often do individually, but we can also ask the other person in case we need some input. Often, we catch time conflicts in this way and manage to resolve them because there’s enough time (instead of it happening the night before).
We also leave some time as ‘couple time.’ We used to make the mistake where we completely booked ourselves with stuff, up till the end of the evening. It’s easy to do when I wanted to finish a little bit of work after dinner or when Jacob was studying for an extra qualification. In the end, we chose to reserve some time for those things but also leave some time for quality time together. A little bit of time like this a couple of times a week allows us to feel connected even when we’re doing a lot and juggling many other responsibilities at the same time.
Then, we look at our food plan for the upcoming week. I usually make the food plan because I care about eating delicious and non-boring food which is also healthy and makes me feel good. Jacob likes his food to be healthy, but he doesn’t care much for variety; he could eat the exact same weekly menu all year round, but I can’t do that. Thus, I look up cool recipes and add them to our weekly menu to spice things up. This also gets us ready for our meal prep session which follows after the Weekly Review.
Finally, we do a financial overview. We track our spending and use You Need a Budget, an app that helps us reflect on our spending and set budgets and financial goals for ourselves. We check this as part of our Weekly Review to see how we’re doing on different budgets, where we need to stop spending, where we can spend more, or what categories we need to transfer more money to. This also makes us more aware of our spending and how we might like to change that to reflect our priorities better.
Until next week!
And that’s it for the Weekly Review! It has both purely administrative and logistical uses such as time management and planning, and it also facilitates reflecting on our priorities. We both really appreciate the Weekly Review for what it does for our household; seriously, Jacob never wants to skip it because it contributes to a much smoother work- and life-flow. And for me that’s great because what could be more fun on a Sunday afternoon that the Weekly Review?! Really, nothing!
Are you tempted to try the Weekly Review? Do you do something similar in your own way? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.