Where do your review cycles run?

I’m currently taking the second year of the Chinese curriculum here at MIT, and as anyone learning another language knows, there’s a lot to remember. It can be easy to focus on the short term and review just the most recent vocabulary and characters we’ve learned, but the class is cumulative; I am often asked to read or recall anything we’ve learned in the first year as well.

Naturally, this means that I need to regularly review the old material on a semi-regular basis, using Quizlet flashcards created by one of my classmates that match up with the text. But the exact mechanics of how I do so are not as important as the fact that I’m reviewing at all. In fact, after I took one year of Chinese, I decided to try to take a break and gauge whether I’d be able to keep it up long-term. After a year of doing so, I was satisfied with how much I was able to retain that I decided to go for one more year.

Languages like this are rather conspicuous examples; if you don’t use them, you lose them. I’m already (sadly) planning on allowing the German I learned in middle school and high school to fade gracefully, rather than latching onto the few German-speaking peers and starting conversations with them just to keep it up.

But it’s helpful to think in terms of review cycles in many other areas, too, especially those where we need to make intentional effort to do or be something.

Another classic example of an explicit review cycle my wife Grace and I have built in is in the cleaning of our apartment. Left alone, most areas of our apartment would steadily get dirtier or messier without us even really noticing. Sure, we would clean up the table if we needed to eat there, and take out the trash if there wasn’t any more space in the bag for more, but we likely wouldn’t vacuum until the floor was literally covered in hair, and we wouldn’t remember to change our bedsheets or clean our bathtub until after the point where we’d regret it.

So we made a plan: Every week, we clean a different part of our apartment. On the first Tuesday of the month, we clean the living room / study; on the second, the bathroom; on the third, the bedroom, and on the fourth, the kitchen / dining room. For months with five Tuesdays, we take a week off of cleaning. We then have a short or long list of tasks to do for each area, and for the long lists, we take turns drafting who will do each task. (Technically, we use a snake draft, i.e. we pick in ABBAABBBA… order, alternating who starts from month to month.) This lets Grace do the tasks that she enjoys the most (e.g. vacuuming) while I generally do the tasks I like more (e.g. taking out trash), but allowing some flexibility to balance the relative difficulty.

Some of the simplest tasks are also some of the most important. For instance, kitchen sponges can become some of the most bacteria-infested places in the kitchen, and we smear them across all of our dishes! It’s recommended to change your sponges monthly, so that’s a task we add to our kitchen set (though not one we draft, it’s so easy).

For another somewhat unusual example, we have a cart that we like to use to bring food or laundry up to penthouse floor of our building, which has both a nice lounge and a laundry room. The wheels on this cart are screwed in, and they unfortunately have a tendency to loosen over time, to the point where one day one of them got bent as it fell off while I was pushing laundry around. To fix this, I simply added a task to the living room set of tightening the wheels. It only takes a minute or two every month, but means we never have to worry about it.

Our cleaning habits are just some of our review cycles. On a daily basis, I record my weight and we pray for different people groups (e.g. distant friends) depending on the day of the week. On a weekly basis, we go over our purchases from the last week in Mint, plan our meals for the upcoming week, and do our laundry, and I try to clean out my starred e-mails in Gmail. On a monthly basis, I write personal reflections like one I shared recently. And every couple of years I do a two-week time audit, examining everything I’m spending time on in order to spend it more wisely.

Now I know what some of you are thinking: How do you remember all of these things? Presumably you write them down, but how do you remind yourself every day, every week, every month?

And the truth is, I’ve had some help. I bounced around from system to system for years (here’s one system I experimented with briefly back in 2014) before finally settling on Remember the Milk. It isn’t the only well-designed task management system out there, but it works perfectly for what I want to do. Two features are most important for me: The ability to create automatically repeating tasks with a wide variety of repeat frequencies (e.g. “every month on the third Tuesday”), and the easy functionality that lets me postpone tasks to a later date. Of course, the mobile app, priority system, smart lists, and ability to store notes with each task are also major pluses for me.

Before going to bed, I always make sure to check RTM and at least read over and postpone tasks that I’m not going to get done. That way if there’s something crucial, I can catch it and get it done. For instance, we don’t always get the requisite cleaning done on Tuesday; sometimes we push it to Wednesday, Thursday, or the weekend.

Why review cycles?

I’ve given a lot of examples of review cycles from my own life and how I go about running through them, but I haven’t addressed why you’d want to set up your life this way. Why go through all of this effort, especially if you’re more of a spontaneous type of person who is afraid they’d feel caged in?

In reality, none of these review cycles are really that demanding. Unless we have another reason like guests coming over, we don’t have to clean each room of our apartment right on the appropriate Tuesday, or review all of our expenses in the last seven days before some deadline kicks in. Some months I don’t write my reflection until midway through the next month! Heck, right now we actually have two rooms’ worth of cleaning leftover from the last couple of weeks that we need to get to at some point.

Instead of feeling burdensome, I guess these review cycles are my way of making sure that nothing ultimately falls through the cracks. The wheels on our cart are actually a great example: There are some areas of our lives where something can steadily decay without us noticing until it breaks and causes actual damage. Review cycles keep everything fresh and fight that steady decay.

It might seem like I have a lot of review cycles already, but I still could use some more longer-term ones. For example, take my electronics: My primarily laptop is over five years old, and my work laptop was so cheap it might as well be. My phone is also several years old, an iPhone 5C, and I’ve definitely noticed all three of them get a bit slower over time, but it’s never been bad enough to spontaneously get me to go out and buy a new one. Any time I’m tempted, I remind myself of how much work it would be and just put it off. An appropriately-timed review cycle would remove the uncertainty of timing by giving me a default time to actually go and get that new laptop.

So that’s where I’m at: I have some fairly robust review cycles for cleaning our apartment and reflecting on my life as a while, but haven’t established many longer-term cycles like upgrading electronics. What about you? Where do your review cycles run, and where do you need to create new ones?


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