In this video, Todd Brown and Robert Peake talk about the read-and-review category and how it can help you take control of information overload.
00:00 Robert Peake: Welcome everyone, once again, to the Change Your Game with GTD Podcast. My name is Robert Peake, I’m here with Todd Brown.
00:07 Todd Brown: Hello, everyone.
00:08 RP: Hey, Todd. So the purpose of this podcast is to help you explore how you can basically get a little more done with a little less stress, with more ease and clarity and focus, using the Getting Things Done, GTD methodology. So we’re gonna explore a variety of different aspects of that methodology and how it can work for you on a practical basis. One really practical element that we were just chatting about, prior to going live here with this podcast, was the… It’s called the Read and Review. I think it’s an unsung hero, personally, of the Getting Things Done methodology, something that people don’t always necessarily realise the power and the value of. So as soon as I said that, Todd, you went, “Yes, that! Let’s do that!” You were saying you had some recent conversations around that. Do you wanna start us off with some of your initial thoughts on the purpose, the value, what is the Read and Review? What is that?
01:13 TB: Yeah, I think that’s worth… That’s a great foundation to start with. So I think that the core idea here is that many of us, most of us, have things in our lives where the next action on it is to read it, to go through it, to review it, right? The nature of those things can vary. Sometimes it’s things that we wanna read because they are self-developmental things, they’re helpful in terms of our professional development. Sometimes they’re just interesting in terms of maybe a hobby that we’ve got. Or, in other cases, they might involve work that we are doing in order to enable other people to do their work.
01:56 TB: So in other words, we need to read a document to provide feedback on it, or we need to go through a legal text and mark it up, but in all cases, the common thread there is that what we need to do is to read it, and so we have this idea of a list or an inventory called the Read and Review list, or the Read and Review inventory. And the thinking about it, then, is that it is a place where the things of that nature can be stored, so that when I realise that I’ve got some time on my hands, maybe I’m between meetings, and I know I have 10 minutes free and I could focus on a bit of reading, or maybe I’m waiting for an appointment with somebody, I’m sat in a waiting room somewhere and I’ve got some time free and I realise, in that time, if I wanted to put it to productive use, reading something would be a good option.
02:46 TB: So I think that’s kind of it in a big nutshell. You’re quite right, I see this a lot out in the world. I think a lot of us struggle with, just quite frankly, keeping up with our reading. And so, when you mentioned this as a possibility, you’re quite right. Over the last week or two, I’ve had a few instances with some of our trainers, some of our aspiring trainers, with some clients, where this has come up, and this has been a topic. What’s your experience been? What’s it look like in your world?
03:22 RP: Well, I love the Read and Review category, partly because… So my background is in IT and, as you know, trying to keep up with the pace of change in the IT world is a losing battle. You’re always gonna be running against slipping sands, and yet it’s really important, it’s important to read as much as you can and stay up as much as you can with what’s going on out there. At the same time, if all of that that comes your way feels potentially like it’s really actionable, it drowns out the stuff that’s truly actionable in your world that you need to get done, the stuff you need to send, and draft, and make phone calls about, such that it can be really, really overwhelming.
04:11 RP: So to me, in my world, the way that I hold the Read and Review category is that when something comes in, I’m reading it really for… I’m skimming it, let’s say, for two purposes. One, is it actionable? Is there something in this that I really need to do, and if I need to do this, it goes on one of my action lists, it potentially has a project related to it, it becomes action support, project support, what have you, in a real classic GTD sense of “This is an actionable thing.”
04:41 RP: If I read through it and I… Obviously it’s not, it’s not, into the bin or into the filing it goes, but then, there’s this kind of middle ground where I say, “You know, it’s not… The world’s not gonna end if I don’t read this, but at the same time, it would be nice. I would like to put this in an area where, when I have some time to read, when I’m feeling like staying current with what’s going on, and when I feel like that would be a good thing to do, this is one of the options that shows up for me.” So to me, it’s a slightly different list than a strictly actionable list, where that Read and Review item could be part of a project, or is part of something that, if I don’t get it done, there’s gonna be a problem.
05:26 RP: So often, when I say to people, “If you don’t read this, would the world end?” They say, “No.” I say, “But do you wanna read it if you have a chance to read it?” “Yeah, yeah.” Answering those two questions in that way, that, to me, is what defines my Read and Review space, that’s a space where I have the option, I have the stuff all in one place, but if I don’t get to it every single week, or every single day, or what have you, the world’s not gonna end, and that’s a huge relief for me, to not have that stuff that’s trade publications, and keep up stuff, and interesting reading material, and so forth, mixed in with, “Hey, I’ve really gotta call this person about this timely issue,” and, “Hey, I’ve really gotta send these emails,” and, “Hey, I really have to look through this report and do something with it.” So that, to me, was a huge, huge help with this endless flood of mixed together, FYI, and you need to do something that just is bombarding us in the modern world. I don’t know, does that that match your experience of it?
06:32 TB: Well, I think what you’ve hit on there is a really important distinction that can be helpful to think about and helpful to think about whether we wanna implement it in our systems. And what I mean there is, the way you’ve described it, it’s got this feeling of “someday maybe” about it, right? In other words, if I read it, fine, and if I don’t read it, that’s kind of okay too, right? And so, what I’ve found over the years is that, if I have a single inventory, which is of that nature, if I read it, that’s fine, and if I don’t read it, that’s okay too, that will capture everything for me, and you’ve implied this as well.
07:11 TB: And so what I’ve done, with many clients, actually, is create a subdivision of this, let’s call it the Read and Review category, and I’ll have two different subdivisions of it, one will be “read for information” and the other will be “read for response.” And the distinction there is, if it’s “read for information,” I think it’s more like what you’re talking about, primarily in your system where, yeah, I’d like to read it, and it would be helpful self-developmentally or whatever, so that’s great if I get a chance, but it’s… In the greater scheme of things, it’s not part of any bigger workflow.
07:48 TB: Whereas the other sub-division is, as I say, “read for response,” and what goes in there are the things that I need to read because somebody else… Either it’s because somebody else is counting on me to read it and provide feedback, or it’s because it’s something I need to read in advance of a meeting that’s coming up, or it’s something that’s got more heat on it, more pressure on it. And I think that’s an interesting perspective and it’s an interesting lens, I think, to put on our systems and to ask… If that idea resonates with you. That is, I do have both of those kinds of things. I’ve got “read for response” type things and “read for information” type things. Do I have a good way in my system, good places to keep those things so that I can quickly get my hands on them if I’d like to get my hands on them?
08:36 RP: That’s great, and that’s, I think, a great way to make that distinction, right? It’s sort of, is it optional or is it actionable? Is it information or by necessity when you have to respond? That is an action, that is an actionable thing, when you have to respond to it. For me, one of the things I experience with clients is that, very often, there’s one magic missing piece that they need to get to be able to fully clear their inbox, to get their inbox to zero and to keep their inbox to zero.
09:13 RP: And very often with people, there’s a sense of hanging on to some of that stuff in there that might be useful, it might be useful, there might be some interesting, or there might be something useful in there. And again, a lot with these people that are involved with strategy, people that are involved with anything to keep up with current trends of any kind, whether that’s IT or, really, any discipline these days, right? You need to keep up with your industry. And very often, what I find is that magic missing piece is the Read and Review, and specifically that read for information part, that they’re hanging on to it, going, “Well, it’s not technically part of a project, part of an action, whatever, but I’m worried that if I don’t generally keep up with this kind of stuff, over time, I’m gonna be slipping, I’m gonna be missing things.” It’s like I’m not reading the news.
10:04 RP: And so, having a place to park that, and knowing that that’s there as an option, as you have time and availability, you will be able to engage with that. It not just goes away, not just deleted. Sometimes it’s the thing that just uncorks and then, finally, they can get the rest of the inbox, they can really move it along, ’cause they were holding that stuff in the inbox, going, “It’s not strictly actionable, but it’s not strictly not, I don’t wanna lose it, but I don’t wanna… I don’t… ” It’s not really, doesn’t strictly belong on a list, so that kinda “read for information” DMZ middle ground place can be really valuable to people, I think. It can really unstick some stuff. I don’t know what you think about that.
10:48 TB: Yeah, I think… Yeah, sorry. I think that’s right. I think, for a lot of people, they struggle with this idea of putting things like that in reference, which would be another reasonable question to ask, is this reference material? But of course, once it ends up in your reference system, the reference elements of your system, then your commitment to it is completely different, you’re not necessarily gonna see it again, right? Whereas, having this Read and Review inventory, the implied commitment there is, “Hey, I’m gonna look through this and determine whether I wanna read these things,” so there’s more confidence. I have more confidence that it will come back in front of my eyeballs again, and I’m not going to lose it.
11:26 TB: You know, as we’ve been talking about it, something else that occurs to me is that it might be helpful for people to talk through the difference between holding on to this information in digital form versus physical form. How do you do that in your own system? Do you have a preference? How do you manage that?
11:44 RP: That’s interesting. So there’s what I would call push and pull in my world, meaning, as soon as I get stuff, email or even, rarely these days, but occasionally, clippings or something in a physical form, so I do have physical form Read and Review for that kind of thing. Mostly these days, that comes in the form of physically having one place to put, for example, books.
12:13 TB: That’s right.
12:14 RP: Currently, I have some books that I’m reading to write some critical reviews for a literary journal; that lives in one place, that’s Read and Review, that’s available to me as I’m gonna have time to read. It’s a long deadline, so I can just dip into that and mull over my thoughts and prepare that review over time by having that in one place. So that is, strictly speaking, that is actionable, but it’s on such a long timeline that I just wanna be able to dip in and out as I go along, so that’s one physical area that I have.
12:51 RP: I do have a Read and Review for email. Less and less, I’m collecting things into there these days, just because I’ve gotten pretty ruthless about unsubscribing to newsletters and things like that, and flipping things and shifting things into much more of a pull mode. So I have a Read and Review bookmark on my browser top bar, and in there, I have things like, I use Feedly as my RSS aggregator, so I have a lot of different RSS feeds aggregating by topic, and pretty much, once a day I’ll dip into there. I’ll check out the news, I’ll check out the IT security feeds.
13:32 RP: I’ll check out a few things related to different hobbies, but I’ll get lots of things in one place aggregated up for me there, and some… Just some really key social media touch points as well that I kinda feel like I need to. So I have curated lists on Twitter, very specific sub-groups that I feel like I need to just dip in with. And again, a subgroup on Facebook, I don’t look at the big master super-duper timeline. It’s just a quick touch in with a few people. So that’s my Read and Review bookmark folder, and that’s more and more become how I choose to stay current with what’s going on.
14:14 RP: In the old days, I’d say even several years ago, I’d largely be receiving, via email, lots and lots of different newsletters and filing those in the Read and Review, and then going back to that on email and rereading those emails for information, but more and more these days, I’m flipping it to where I proactively have a little bit of a routine to manage what I choose to and want to read. What about you, Todd? What’s your landscape look like there?
14:45 TB: So it’s interesting, and I love, love, love hearing the suggestions, and it’s always interesting to compare notes with you and compare notes with other folks who have them done, how have you really implemented all this? How does this work in your world? I have to say, I’ve played with a lot of approaches over the years that sounds like a bit like you, and my evolution, and it’s a bit of self-awareness, and it’s also evolution of my own thinking, but I’ve gotten to the point where I realise that I prefer, for anything that’s more than a couple of pages, my preference is to deal with it in paper.
15:17 TB: And so I have… My primary Read and Review inventory is a folder, is a paper folder. And what paper means for me is, it’s much easier, obviously, for me to annotate, it’s much easier for me to flip back and forth between pages and keep track of what I’ve looked at, and so that works better for me. After I’ve read the thing, if there are any actions, those do end up in my system, if it’s reference material, it’ll end up in more long-term reference storage, or it will just get recycled if there’s no further value for me of holding on to it. Yeah, so for me, it’s primarily a physical thing at the moment.
15:57 TB: Again, I think, for everybody out there, I think what you’ve heard is that we both deal with these things differently. The key is… Let’s go back to the core principle about a good organizational system. It has clean edges. And so, whether it’s physical or digital or whatever, as long as you can point to some place in your system and say, “Here is where I find the things that are of this nature,” then you’re good. You know, as we’re talking about it, something else that occurs to me, it’s a story from a coaching that I did.
16:27 TB: This was several years ago now. Somebody who works for a company that does research into financial institutions, basically stock research. And he covered a huge amount of territory, he was… Basically, his research focus was… I’m gonna get this slightly wrong, but I wanna say it was all of South America and half of Africa, something like that. He had a huge space that he needed to be on top of for his company, and a single… And back to the point that you made, getting a handle on Read and Review was really a game changer for him. But what he chose to do, interestingly, was organise his Read and Review information by country.
17:21 TB: And so, with that… Thinking about that in broader GTD terms, we could say that, well, what he’s doing there is organising it by areas of focus. These are the various areas that I’m responsible for. So I guess I just mentioned that as a possibility, and people might wanna consider that if they have a lot of Read and Review information, it feels a bit overwhelming. As we said before, you can try the “read for response” versus “read for information” kind of approach if that’s helpful, but another way to do it would be, yeah, let’s break this down by the roles that I play. Here’s the Read and Review that has to do with this hobby of mine, here’s the Read and Review that has to do with my role as a salesperson, or here’s the Read and Review that has to do with my role as a coach.
18:07 TB: So again, you don’t wanna… It’s like anything in GTD, you don’t wanna over-structure things, you don’t wanna create categories for the sake of having categories, but if it feels like that sort of distinction in your system would be helpful, then great. I’d say go there.
18:24 RP: I think that’s a great idea. I think I’ve… Just reflecting, and I think I’ve also naturally fallen into structuring a little bit of what I’m doing by exactly that, by areas of focus. And what’s so nice about that is that you’re acknowledging that these areas of focus, these areas that need ongoing maintenance and support that are part of your life also require ongoing new input, positive input, useful input. So again, for me, in that pull model, my RSS feeds, looking down, I have IT security, general technology, wellness, arts and culture, news, and then a couple hobbies.
19:07 RP: And so, these are things where I go, “I want ongoing information coming to me about these topics.” Why? Because these are topics that correlate to things in my life, like staying healthy, things in my job, like keeping up with the latest zero-day security exploits to make sure we’re patched up, and stuff I enjoy, like what’s playing in London. So I think that can be very, very powerful for certain people, because again, it’s making that link and making that acknowledgement that, the reason this is a Read and Review category for me is that it’s an area of focus, is that it’s something that I wanna support ongoing. So that was great, that was kind of a new awareness for me, so thanks for that. Parting thoughts on Read and Review? Closing ideas about how to make this work?
19:58 TB: Yeah, just one other point that I wanted to make here. We’ve been talking today a lot about reading. A lot of people have very similar lists for either listening or viewing, so I think, let’s not get too focused on the printed page, necessarily. Some people prefer to learn in different formats. I got a new beard trimmer last week, how exciting is my life? And the user guide that came with it was in printed form, and it was dire, it was terrible, it was really, really awful. And I found, with about a 30 second browse of YouTube, a great little video on how to use this beard trimmer effectively.
20:47 TB: So if your preference is, either generally or in a specific instance, that you’d rather take in that information in visual form, or in audio form, you might wanna have a list of podcasts, or just an inventory, whatever your podcast technology is, you could just have a list of podcasts that you wanna listen to on your podcast app. Yeah, so again, let’s not get too focused on the printed page, the point is, what are the various types of information that you want to read through, listen to, view, and how would you best keep track of those? I don’t know, what do you think?
21:25 RP: That’s perfect, that’s great. Yeah, yeah, no, that’s a really good point to make, and really important, I think, just to make explicit. I have a client in the music business who, his main Read and Review has nothing to do with reading, it has to do with listening, and so he has a Spotify playlist called “You Gotta Hear This,” and he puts in anything and everything and goes, “Oh, you gotta hear this!” If I would say to a friend, “Hey, you gotta hear this!” And put it in there, and then I listen back to it, and I get ideas for new songs that I’m gonna write, or artists that I wanna sign, or what have you.
21:57 RP: So, yes, absolutely, and that’s a case for digital, for having some digital Read and Review or equivalent component, is that you can put in any kind of different kind of mixed media in there. I think the key, as I see it, is to make it work for your brain, as always. And again, one of the biggest keys to making it work for your brain is to cast yourself forward in time and think about, how am I gonna wanna consume this? How am I gonna wanna have this back? Where am I gonna be? Am I gonna be drinking my morning coffee and I wanna click into a bookmark bar and see a few things? Am I gonna be on the road and I wanna be able to call something up on my phone that I can make good use of my commute time standing on a train with? Where are you gonna be? What are you gonna be thinking about? What are you gonna wanna have available to you when you have reading time? What’s that gonna look like for you?
22:57 RP: And just doing a little bit of that, thinking about what the end state is pretty quickly, I think, can help most people figure out how, then, to structure it most appropriately. What’s it called? Is it called “You Gotta Hear This?” ‘Cause that’s exciting and that sparks a sense of fun and enthusiasm for music. Is it just called “On the Train?” Is it called “Keeping Up with the Times?” And where does it go? So what is it called, where does it go, how does it work for you really is a very personal matter, but I think it’s very important, and again, a bit of an unsung hero and a best kept secret of GTD, that when you do implement this, particularly “read for information” type of approach, it can be a real breath of fresh air in your system. Todd, what do you think? What are your tips for making this work?
23:48 TB: Yeah, I’ve been nodding a lot as you’ve been summarising there. I think having this kind of inventory, or these kinds of inventories, in your system is just another form of being kind to your future self, but also, I think the other thing to mention is, this is certainly my case, when it comes to Read and Review, quite often, my eyes are a bit bigger than my stomach. And so, I’ll gather an inventory of things which, on further reflection, it turns out some of those things, yeah, well, at the time, I really thought that I had a commitment to read those, but you know what? Looking at it now with fresh eyes, it feels a lot less important. So don’t be a slave to your past self, be kind to your future self, but don’t be a slave to your past self. And be willing to go through your Read and Review inventory, whatever that looks like, and do some pruning. Get rid of the stuff that you just say, “Hey, at the time, it looked like a good idea. As I look at it now, nah, not so much.”
24:48 RP: Great tip, for sure. So if any of that spoke to you and seems useful, go establish a Read and Review of some kind that’s gonna work for you, and review it as often as you want or need to, and keep it fresh, keep it current, see how it goes for you. We’d love to hear from you as well. If you find this or any of the podcasts useful, if you have thoughts or ideas about future podcasts, do get in touch, firstname.lastname@example.org is a great way to reach us. That does come to us, we’ll get the information directly about what you think and what you like. Meanwhile, add us, add the podcast to whatever Read and Review mechanism you’re using as well, so that you can get us on the train, plane, or automobile of choice. And so, until next time, go read, review, do GTD, enjoy, and we’ll see you again real soon. Bye for now.