The Friday Update: On journaling to get things done

Tell them what you did. And what you're going to do. And how you're going to do it. Weekly.

Where'd the time go?

It's not that you were sitting around doing nothing. You were busy, with emails and meetings, going through the motions of work. But was it all for naught? Did you actually accomplish anything? Or was it just a flurry of activity with little progress to show?

Suddenly the adage that the days are long and the years short feels true. Days blur into weeks into quarters, and the OKRs you set at the beginning of the year still feel as loftily unobtainable as they did at the outset.

Half of the logic in keeping a journal is to allay those fears of wasted time. It's not that journaling stops the days from flying by. It's that you'll have lines on a page that say you were here, you did this, your time and effort actually moved the needle. And if it didn't, if you were just spinning your wheels, if all those meetings added up to so many wasted minutes, the loss will be all the more apparent on paper, enough to spur you to action before another week ends.

Which is the logic behind the Friday Update.

Tell them what you did.

A Friday Update from Zapier

Join the Zapier team, and the first thing you'll learn isn't how to automate more of your work or commit your first line of code. Before all that comes that first Friday with its requisite Friday Update.

You'll write, as Zapier co-founder Wade Foster described later, what you completed on your top priority this week, and list your top priority for next week. “It's not crossing twenty things off your to-do list,” explained Foster. “It's about getting the most important thing done.” You'd zoom out and “think through your prioritization,” as Foster described, with the added motivation of adding “public accountability to your top priority.”

With a few minutes of reflection and a few more of writing and editing behind you, you'd pull your accomplishments together into a brief post. Then you'd publish it on Zapier's Automattic P2-inspired internal blog, and log off for the weekend.

And that was our shared ritual. Everyone wrote a Friday Update, from the founders to the newest person on the team. Some weeks you'd have some great stuff to share; you'd come back Monday to comments and kudos. Others you'd realize, belatedly, that you were off track, and—ideally—would come back Monday with a new take on how to break through.

Write your way out

“A to-do list is, ultimately, nothing more or less than an attempt to persuade yourself,” wrote Clive Thompson in a Wired essay on to-do lists and their failure to make us get things done. They're too easy to ignore until Friday, until it's all-hands-on-deck, this ship is going down if these tasks aren't done now.

Yet we often have it wrong. Maybe we wrote down the tasks we were perpetually delaying, and they weren't the truly important things anyhow.

As I Done This founder Walter Chen told Thompson, the majority of the tasks that people log are things they hadn't added to their to-do list in the first place. And he would know; his app was built to help people list what they'd accomplished. People more often than not used it to log the random tasks that they thought of doing as they went about their work, not the stuff they'd written on a to-do list. Folks did the things that actually made a difference, unlike the perhaps needful but less urgent things that could wait long enough to write them down.

Then they'd get to the end of the week and go to write down what they'd done, and “often you discover that you’ve done more than you gave yourself credit for,” remarked Chen to Thompson. “And this kind of motivates you—inspires you!”

That, or infuriates you enough to get back at it, when you realize this week didn't amount to all that much, when somehow all your accomplishments don't quite add up to what you anticipated on paper. And—it's all out there in the open, ready for everyone else to read and critique. You'll have to do better next time.

The shared nature of the Friday Update might have been the truly crucial step. Self-reflection is all well and good, something David Allen built into his Getting Things Done methodology. “Block out two hours in the afternoon of your last workday for the review,” recommended Allen, which might be a bit excessive. But it would be time well spent if you truly figured out a way to do better work next week.

On your own, though, you could sigh, put your notebook back in your desk drawer, and head out for the weekend. Oh well, another dud week—next week will be better, you'd rationalize.

Nope. “You need a weekly regrouping ritual,” suggested Allen, hinting at the power of collective review. That's what made Zapier's Friday Update tick—both the personal review, and the communal sharing that motivated you to put your best self forward.

The best company rituals, writes Erica Keswin in Harvard Business Review, “support psychological safety and purpose, which leads to increased performance.” The Friday Update falls squarely in that framework. Safety: Everyone’s sharing their update, not everyone hit their goals this week, and you’re good with what you’ve got. Purpose: Everyone’s trying to push their projects together, we’re all in this together. Performance: It’s hard for you to ignore something that’s not working when it’s on paper, even harder for others to ignore, giving you all the more reason to drop what’s broken and rethink your work.

It’s a secular confession for the workplace, almost, where absolution is on offer if you figure your stuff out and continuously improve it.

It's the routine that counts.

Zapier's team isn't alone in writing what they did each week. I Done This built a product around the idea—though, in their iteration, you'd email the app at the end of each workday to log what you accomplished. For developer teams, agile standup meetings and scrum sprint reviews aren't that far removed, with meetings where you “discuss what went well during the sprint, what problems it ran into, and how these problems were solved” on a one to four-week cadence.

You'll find individuals keeping themselves motivated with progress notes. Rizwan Sattar from Apple’s Photos team shared that he—inspired by fellow software engineer Greg Heo—keeps a Notes doc for every week of his work. “I make a new Notes doc in a ‘Work’ folder, and title it Week <#>: YYYY-MM-DD, and then put in my rough meeting notes, bulleted lists, etc.,” shared Sattar.

And you'll see teams writing them as part of the shared startup struggle in Y Combinator's Startup School, where each week founders have to share what they learned from users, what improved their primary metric, and their top goals for the next week. “These weekly updates are one of the best parts of doing Startup School,” shared @aravind_sanal in a discussion about those weekly updates.

“What did you accomplish this week?” asks the Pioneer community of startup founders at the end of each week with a similar routine. Here, this week's answers are contrasted with what founders said they’d do last week. Then you wait for others to rate your progress; woe to the companies who fall short of the goals they set. It's hard to fall behind when you'll have to tell the world—or even a tiny jury of your peers—of your failings.

You could bet on it, as apps that let you set goals where you lose an actual cash bet if you miss them prove. But a Friday Update might be enough. With the routine of reviewing your accomplishments, or the lack thereof, and the accountability of sharing them with your peers, you'll be motivated to keep at it. Or at least, to figure out why, for all your trying, you're not getting the truly important stuff done.

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