Getting Started: Setting Up the Time, Space, and Tools - Practicing Stress-Free Productivity - Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2003)

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2003)



Practicing Stress-Free Productivity


Getting Started: Setting Up the Time, Space, and Tools

IN PART 2 we’ll move from a conceptual framework and limited application of workflow mastery to full-scale implementation and best practices. Going through this program often gives people a level of relaxed control they may never have experienced before, but it usually requires the catalyst of step-by-step procedures to get there. To that end, I’ll provide a logical sequence of things to do, to make it as easy as possible for you to get on board and glean the most value from these techniques.

Much of the detail in this section can easily seem more than you can digest or implement on a first read. It’s included to provide a blow-by-blow instruction manual for you if you’ve decided to do a full-scale implementation of the model, which could take at least two full, uninterrupted days to implement. It is information and suggestions you will very likely want to revisit at some point, to glean a new level of application, as you get started down the GTD path.

Implementation—Whether All-Out or Casual—Is a Lot About “Tricks”

If you’re not sure you’re committed to an all-out implementation of these methods, let me assure you that much of the value people get from this material is good tricks. Sometimes just one good trick can make it worthwhile to range through this information: I’ve had people tell me, for example, that the best thing they got from our seminars was simply the two-minute rule. Tricks are for the not-so-smart, not-so-conscious part of us. To a great degree, the highest-performing people I know are those who have installed the best tricks in their lives. I know that’s true of me. The smart part of us sets up things for us to do that the not-so-smart part responds to almost automatically, creating behavior that produces high-performance results. We trick ourselves into doing what we ought to be doing.

It is easier to act yourself into a better way of feeling than to feel yourself into a better way of action.

—O. H. Mowrer

For instance, if you’re a semi-regular exerciser like I am, you probably have your own little tricks to get yourself to exercise. My best trick is costume—the clothing I put on or take off. If I put on exercise gear, I’ll start to feel like exercising; if I don’t I’m very likely to feel like doing something else.

Let’s look at an example of a real productivity trick. You’ve probably taken work home that you had to bring back the next day, right? It was mission-critical that you not forget it the next morning. So where did you put it the night before? Did you put it in front of the door, or on your keys, so you’d be sure to take it with you? For this you get an education? What a sophisticated piece of self-management technology you’ve installed in your life! But actually that’s just what it is. The smart part of you the night before knows that the not-so-smart part of you first thing in the morning may barely be conscious. “What’s this in front of the door? Oh, that’s right, I’ve got to take this with me!”

What a class act. But really, it is. It’s a trick I call Put It in Front of the Door. For our purposes the “door” is going to be the door of your mind, not your house. But it’s the same idea.

If you were to take out your calendar right now and look closely at every single item for the next fourteen days, you’d probably come up with at least one “Oh, that reminds me, I need to _______.” If you then captured that value-added thought into some place that would trigger you to act, you’d feel better already, have a clearer head, and get more positive things done. It’s not rocket science, just a good trick.

If you take out a clean sheet of paper right now, along with your favorite writing instrument, and for three minutes focus solely on the most awesome project on your mind, I guarantee you’ll have at least one “Oh, yeah, I need to consider ______.” Then capture what shows up in your head on the piece of paper and put it where you might actually use the idea or information. You won’t be one ounce smarter than you were ten minutes ago, but you’ll have added value to your work and life.

The big secret to efficient creative and productive thinking and action is to put the right things in your focus at the right time.

Much of learning how to manage workflow in a masterful way is about laying out the gear and practicing the moves so that the requisite thinking happens more automatically and it’s a lot easier to get engaged in the game. The suggestions that follow about getting time, space, and tools in place are all trusted methods for making things happen at a terrific new level.

If you’re sincere about making a major leap forward in your personal management systems, I recommend that you pay close attention to the details and follow through on the suggestions provided next in their entirety. The whole will be greater than the sum of the parts. You’ll also discover that the execution of this program will produce real progress on real things that are going on in your life right now. We’ll get lots done that you want to get done, in new and efficient ways that may amaze you.

Setting Aside the Time

Don’t be afraid to take a big step if one is indicated. You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps.

—David L. George

I recommend that you create a block of time to initialize this process and prepare a workstation with the appropriate space, furniture, and tools. If your space is properly set up and streamlined, it can reduce your unconscious resistance to dealing with your stuff and even make it attractive for you to sit down and crank through your input and your work. An ideal time frame for most people is two whole days, back to back. (Don’t be put off by that if you don’t have that long to spend, though: doing any of the activities I suggest will be useful, no matter how much or how little time you devote to them. Two days are not required to benefit from these techniques and principles—they will start to pay off almost instantly.) Implementing the full capturing process can take up to six hours or more, and clarifying and deciding on actions for all the input you’ll want to externalize and capture in your system can easily take another eight hours. Of course, you can also collect and process your stuff in chunks, but it’ll be much easier if you can tackle that front-end portion in one fell swoop.

The ideal time for me to work with someone in implementing this methodology is on a weekend or holiday, because the chance of outside disturbance is minimal then. If I work with someone on a typical workday, we first make sure that no meetings are scheduled and only emergency interruptions are allowed; phone calls are routed to voice mail or logged by assistants for review and handling during a break. I don’t recommend using after-hours for this work. It usually means seriously reduced horsepower and a big tendency to get caught up in “rabbit trails.”*

Dedicate two days to this process, and it will be worth many times that in terms of your productivity and mental health.

For many of the executives I work with, holding the world back for two contiguous days is the hardest part of the whole process—the perceived necessity to be constantly available for meetings and communications when they’re at work is difficult for them to let go of. That’s why we often resort to weekends. If you work in an open cubicle or office, it will be even more of a challenge to isolate sufficient time blocks on a regular workday during office hours.

It’s not that the procedure itself is so sacred; it’s just that it takes a lot of mental energy to capture and make decisions about such a large inventory of open loops, especially when they’ve been open, undecided, or stuck for way too long. Interruptions can double the time it takes to get through everything. If you can get to ground zero in one contained time period, it gives you a huge sense of control and accomplishment and frees up a reservoir of energy and creativity. Later on you can maintain your system in shorter spurts “between the lines” of your regular day.

Setting Up the Space

You’ll need to choose a physical location to serve as as your central cockpit of control. If you already have a desk and office space set up where you work, that’s probably the best place to start. If you work from a home office, obviously that will be your prime location. If you already have both, you’ll want to establish identical, even interchangeable systems in both places, though one will probably be primary. If you feel that you don’t have either—you really don’t have any central physical spot you would call home for dealing with your stuff—it’s imperative that you create one. Even if you have a mobile, high-tech life that is primarily virtual, you’ll still require a private setting as a base camp from which to operate. You will want to implement this program wherever you might actually do work and process input, but starting with a primary location is optimal.

The basics for a workspace are just a writing surface and room for an in-tray, and probably (for most people) space for core digital tools as well. Some, such as a foreman in a machine shop, an intake nurse on a hospital floor, or your children’s nanny, won’t need much more than that. Most homemakers won’t necessarily need a large area to manage their workflow, but having enough of a discrete space dedicated to the processing of notes, mail, home and family projects and activities, finances, and the like is critical. Usually this business-of-life stuff is scattered helter-skelter in the kitchen, in the hallway, on the dining table, on book and media shelves, etc., with a numbing effect.

The writing surface will of course expand for most professionals, to include a phone (and charger), a computer, stacking trays, working file drawers, reference shelves. Some may feel the need for a printer, whiteboards, and/or multimedia conferencing equipment. The seriously self-contained will also want gear for exercise, leisure, and hobbies.

You must have a dedicated, individual, self-contained workspace—at home, at work, and even in transit.

A functional workspace is critical. If you don’t already have a dedicated workspace and in-tray, get them now. That goes for students, homemakers, and retirees, too. Everyone must have a physical locus of control from which to deal with everything else.

If I had to set up an emergency workstation in just a few minutes, I would buy an unfinished door, place it on top of two two-drawer filing cabinets (one at each end), place three stack trays on it, and add a paper, pad, and pen. That would be my home base. (If I had time to sit down, I’d also buy a stool!) Believe it or not, I’ve been in several executive offices that wouldn’t be as functional.

If You Go to an Office, You’ll Still Need a Space at Home

Don’t skimp on workspace at home. As you’ll discover through this process, it’s critical that you have at least a satellite home system identical to the one in your office. Many people I’ve worked with have been somewhat embarrassed by the degree of chaos that reigns in their homes, in contrast to their offices at work; they’ve gotten tremendous value from giving themselves permission to establish the same setup in both places. If you’re like many of them, you’ll find that a weekend spent setting up a home workstation can make a revolutionary change in your ability to organize your life.

An Office Space in Transit

If you move around much, as a business traveler or just as a person with a mobile lifestyle, you’ll also want to set up an efficiently organized micro-office-in-transit. More than likely this will consist of a briefcase, pack, or satchel with appropriate folders and portable workstation supplies.

Many people lose opportunities to be productive because they’re not equipped to take advantage of the odd moments and windows of time that open up as they move from one place to another, or when they’re in off-site environments. The combination of a good processing style, the right tools, and good interconnected systems at home and at work can make traveling a highly leveraged way to get certain kinds of work done. As technology continues to deliver both more powerful mobile hardware and fast global access to most of us, the ability to virtually manage your life increases. But the problem inherent with that is the confusion of managing the traffic that ensues with all the options available on your mobile device(s). Without a good capturing, clarifying, and organizing methodology in place, with the appropriate applications and tools structured to handle it as it happens, the new world of global mobile access will be underutilized, if not a source of unproductive distraction and stress itself.

Don’t Share Space!

It is imperative that you have your own workspace—or at least your own in-tray and a place in which to process paper and physical material. Too many couples I’ve worked with have tried to work out of a single desk at home, and it always makes light-years of difference when they expand to two workstations. Far from being the “separation” they expect, the move in fact relieves them of a subtle stress in their relationship about managing the stuff of their shared lives. One couple even decided to set up an additional mini-workstation in the kitchen for the stay-at-home mom, so she could process work while keeping an eye on their infant in the family room.

You need to use your system—not continually have to re-create it.

Some organizations are interested in the concept of “hotel-ing”—that is, having people create totally self-contained and mobile workstation capabilities so they can “plug in” anywhere in the company, at any time, and work from there. That can provide savings in office space requirements, as companies operate more virtually with a workforce that can function independently from the “mother ship.” But that presupposes that each worker involved has a locus of control on his or her own. Experiments have failed in this scheme, because they disrupted the stable workstation. There must be zero resistance to using the systems we have. Having to continually reinvent our in-tray, our filing system, and how and where we process our stuff (“Where’s a darn Post-it, and a stapler?!”) can only be a source of incessant distraction.

You can work virtually anywhere if you have a clean, compact system and know how to process your stuff rapidly and portably. But you’ll still need a home base with a well-grooved set of tools and sufficient space for all the reference and support material that you’ll want somewhere close at hand when you land. Most people I work with need at least two file drawers for their general-reference and project-support types of paper-based materials. Given digital scanners and the continual technology advances in this regard, it is conceivable that one day all that support material can be in the cloud and retrievable as needed, anywhere. But it will still be a while before you don’t need your physical passport, EU cash you brought back from your trip to Milan, and temporary paper-based documentation of all sorts that remains the optimum way to handle some data. Big or small, that inventory of reference and collateral items needs a home, with easy access to it.

Getting the Tools You’ll Need

If you’re committed to a full implementation of this workflow process, there are some basic supplies and equipment that you’ll need to get you started. As you go along, you’re likely to dance between using what you’re used to and evaluating any possibilities for new and different gear to work with.

Note that good tools don’t necessarily have to be expensive. Often, on the low-tech side, the more “executive” something looks, the more dysfunctional it really is.

The Basic Processing Tools

Let’s assume you’re starting from scratch. In addition to a desktop workspace, you’ll need:

· Paper-holding trays (at least three)

· A stack of plain letter-size paper

· A pen/pencil

· Post-its (3×3"s)

· Paper clips

· A stapler and staples

· Scotch tape

· Rubber bands

· An automatic labeler

· File folders

· A calendar

· Wastebasket/recycling bins

· Current tools being used for data capture, organizing, and to-do lists, including mobile devices, personal computers, and paper-based planners and notebooks (if any)

Paper-Holding Trays

These will serve as your in-tray and out-tray, with one or two others for work-in-progress support papers and/or your read-and-review stack. The most functional trays are the side-facing letter-or legal-sized stackable kinds, which have no “lip” on them to keep you from sliding out a single piece of paper.

Plain Paper

You’ll use plain paper for the initial collection process. Believe it or not, putting one thought on one full-size sheet of paper can have enormous value. Most people will wind up processing their notes into some sort of list organizer, but by having initial thoughts separated into discrete placeholders (versus on one amorphous list), it makes it easier to wrestle it to closure later, in the processing and organizing steps. In any case, it’s important to have plenty of letter-size writing paper or tablets around to make capturing ad hoc input easy.

Post-its, Clips, Stapler, Etc.

Moment-to-moment collecting, thinking, processing, and organizing are challenging enough; always ensure that you have the tools to make them as easy as possible.

Post-its, clips, stapler, tape, and rubber bands will come in handy for routing and storing paper-based materials. Though their use is diminishing, we’re not finished with paper and other physical materials yet (if you haven’t noticed!), and the simple tools for managing them are essential.


The labeler is a surprisingly useful tool in this process. Thousands of people we have worked with now have their own automatic labelers, and our archives are full of their comments, like “Incredible—I wouldn’t have believed what a difference it makes!” The labeler will be used to label file folders, binder spines, and numerous other things.

I prefer a stand-alone tool or a simple plug-and-play labeler for the computer that can make single labels in the moment, reducing any friction to filing something when it shows up.

File Folders

You’ll need plenty of file folders. You may also need an equal number of file-folder hangers, if your filing system requires them. Plain-colored folders are fine—color-coding is a level of complexity that’s hardly ever worth the effort. Your general-reference filing system should just be a simple library.*


Although you may not need a calendar just to collect your incomplete items, you’ll certainly come up with actions that need to be put there, nonetheless. As I noted earlier, the calendar should be used not to hold action lists but to track the “hard landscape” of things that have to get done on a specific day or at a specific time.

Most professionals these days already have some sort of working calendar system in place, ranging from loose-leaf organizers to mobile devices to shared enterprise software applications.

The calendar has often been the central tool that people rely on to be “organized.” It’s certainly a critical component in managing particular kinds of data and reminders of the commitments and information that relate to specific times and days. There are many reminders and some data that you will want a calendar for, but you won’t be stopping there: your calendar will need to be integrated with a much more comprehensive system that will emerge as you apply this method.

You may wonder what kind of calendar would be best to use, and I’ll discuss that in more detail in the next chapter. For now, just keep using the one you’ve got. After you develop a feel for the whole systematic approach, you’ll have a better reference point for deciding about graduating to a different tool.

Wastebasket/Recycling Bins

If you’re like most people, when you implement this process you’re going to toss a lot more stuff than you expect, so get ready to create a good bit of trash. Some executives I have coached have found it extremely useful to arrange for a large trash bin to be parked immediately outside their offices the day we work together!

Do You Need an Organizer?

Once you know how to process your stuff and what to organize, you really just need to create and manage lists.

Whether or not you need an organizer tool, and if so, what kind, will depend on a number of factors. Are you already committed to using something for managing lists and at-hand reference information? How do you want to see your reminders of actions, agendas, and projects? Where and how often do you need to review them? Because your head is not the place in which to hold things, you’ll obviously need something to manage your triggers and orient yourself externally. You could maintain everything in a purely low-tech fashion, by keeping pieces of paper in folders. Or you could even use a paper-based notebook or planner, or a digital version thereof. Or you could employ some combination of these.

All of the low-tech gear listed in the previous section is used for various aspects of collecting, processing, and organizing. You’ll use a tray and random paper for collecting. As you process your in-tray, you’ll complete many less-than-two-minute actions that will require Post-its, a stapler, and paper clips. The magazines, articles, and paper reports and documents that are your longer-than-two-minute reading will go in another of the trays. And you’ll probably have quite a bit just to file away. What’s left—maintaining a project inventory, logging calendar items and action and agenda reminders, and tracking the things you’re waiting for—will require some form of lists, or reviewable groupings of similar items.

Lists can be managed in a low-tech way, as pieces of paper kept in a file folder (e.g., separate sheets/notes for each person you need to call in a Calls file, or bills to pay in a To Pay folder or tray), or they can be arranged in a more mid-tech fashion, in loose-leaf notebooks or planners (a page titled Calls with the names listed down the sheet). Or they can be high-tech, digital versions (such as a Calls category in the Tasks or To-Do section of a software application).

In addition to holding portable reference material (e.g., contact info) most organizing tools are designed for managing lists. (Your calendar is actually a form of a list, with time-and day-specific action reminders listed chronologically.)

One of the best tricks for enhancing your productivity is having organizing tools you love to use.

Probably thousands of types of organizers have been on the market since the latter twentieth century, from the early Day-Timers and Filofaxes, to the more sophisticated planners like Time/system and FranklinCovey, to the retro use of a simple Moleskine notebook, to the current flood of task-management software applications.*

Should you implement the Getting Things Done process in what you’re currently using, or should you install something new? The answer is, do whichever one will actually help you change your behavior so you’ll use the tools appropriately. There are efficiency factors to consider here, too. Do you get a lot of digital information that would be easier to track with a digital tool? Do you need a paper-based calendar for all the appointments you have to make and change rapidly on the run? Where and how is the easiest way for you to be reminded of calls you need to make when you’re moving fast? And so on. There are also the aesthetic and enjoyment factors. I’ve done some of my best planning and updating for myself when I simply wanted some excuse to use (i.e., play with) my smartphone while waiting for dinner alone in a restaurant!

If your reference system is not under control, it creates a blockage in your workflow that causes amorphous content to back up into your world.

Keep in mind, though, that the tool you use will not give you stress-free productivity. That is something you create by implementing the GTD method. The structure you incorporate will be extremely important in how you express and implement the process, but it is not a substitute for it. A great hammer doesn’t make a great carpenter; but a great carpenter will always want to have a great hammer.

When considering whether to get and use any organizing tool, and if so, which one, keep in mind that all you really need to do is manage lists. You’ve got to be able to create a list on the run and review it easily and as regularly as you need to. Once you know what to put on the lists and how to use them, the medium really doesn’t matter. Just go for simplicity, speed, and fun.

The Critical Factor of a Filing System

You will resist the whole process of capturing information if your reference systems are not fast, functional, and fun.

A simple and highly functional personal reference system is critical to this process. The filing system at hand is one of the first things I assess before beginning the workflow process in anyone’s office. As I noted in chapter 2, the lack of a good general-reference system can be one of the greatest obstacles to implementing a personal management system, and for most of the executives I have coached, it represents one of the biggest opportunities for improvement. It’s not because the content is so important or strategic—it’s rather that, unmanaged, it inordinately clouds physical and mental space. Random nonactionable but potentially relevant material, unprocessed and unorganized, produces a debilitating psychological noise. More important, it produces a block in the “flow” part of workflow, and things tend to back up into the area like we see with clogged plumbing. Many times I have driven to the local office-supply store with a client and bought a filing cabinet, a big stack of file folders, and a labeler, just so we could create an appropriate place in which to put two-thirds of the stuff lying around his or her desk and office. The transformation in clarity and focus regarding work was inevitably dramatic.

We’re concerned here mostly with general-reference filing—as distinct from discrete filing systems devoted to contracts, financial information, patient records, or other categories of data that deserve their own place and indexing. General-reference files should hold articles, brochures, pieces of paper, notes, printouts, documents, and even physical things like tickets, keys, buyers-club membership cards, and flash drives—basically anything that you want to keep for its interesting or useful data or purpose and that doesn’t fit into your specialized filing systems and won’t stand up by itself on a shelf (as will large software manuals and seminar binders).

If you are a digitally oriented person, you may think there’s no longer any need for file folders for physical stuff. At some point in the future, I may not need a physical passport, birth certificate, older kitchen appliance instructions, medical records, keys for seldom-used boxes, or paper currency from countries I will revisit. But until then, I need a coordinated physical place to park them.

To capture what you experience and sort it out … you must set up a file… . Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your files and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape.

—C. Wright Mills

If you have a trusted secretary or assistant who maintains that system for you, so you can put a “File as X” Post-it on the document and send it out to him or her, great. But ask yourself if you have some potentially interesting, confidential, or useful support material that should be accessible at any moment, even when your assistant isn’t around. If so, you’ll still need your own system in your desk or somewhere near it.

The same dynamic holds true, whether reference is in paper or digital form. As more and more information is coming to us virtually, the need to have general-reference locations for ad hoc data on your computer or mobile device is critical. Many people are still using their e-mail in-tray area as an amorphous general-reference storage place (“I need to keep this e-mail because it has information about my son’s school event schedule”), but they resist making an electronic folder named “Robert” or “School schedules” in their e-mail application in which to drag and store it, or copying and pasting it in a good reference storage program or database. Software is now available that allows capturing and categorizing this kind of information (and synchronizing it with multiple devices), but it does require some thought about how to structure it, as well as some directed behavior to flow this kind of stuff into appropriate places instead of complicating and confusing your digital environment. When I instituted a new general-reference filing application on my computer, it required a good three months of my experimentation to find the optimal way to organize it, and another three months to get it on “cruise control,” so now I’m just using it instead of thinking so much about it.

Success Factors for Filing

I strongly suggest that you maintain a personal, at-hand filing system—both physical and digital. It should take you less than one minute to pick something up out of your in-tray or print it from e-mail, decide it needs no next action but has some potential future value, and finish storing it in a trusted system. The same is true for scanning and storing documents or copying and pasting information in the computer. You may have a preponderance of digital over paper-based reference material (or vice versa), but without a streamlined system for both, you will resist keeping potentially valuable information, or what you do keep will accumulate in inappropriate places. If it takes longer than a minute to file something in an easily retrievable format, you’ll likely stack it or stuff it somewhere instead. Besides being fast, the system needs to be fun and easy, current and complete. Otherwise you’ll unconsciously resist emptying your in-tray because you know there’s likely to be something in there that ought to get filed, and you won’t even want to look at the papers or your clogged e-mail. Take heart: I’ve seen people go from resisting to actually enjoying sorting through their piles and digital world once their personal filing system is set up and humming.

You must feel equally comfortable about filing a single piece of paper on a new topic—even a scribbled note—in its own file as you would about filing a more formal, larger document. Because it requires so much work to make and organize files, people either don’t keep them or have junked-up cabinets and drawers full of all sorts of one-of-a-kind items, like menus for the local takeout café or the current train schedule. If you trust that all that kind of information is instantly and virtually available through the Web and you would never need to access hard copies, then make sure you’re not duplicating systems unnecessarily, and that what you choose and how you use it is seamless.

Whatever you need to do to get your reference system to that quick and easy standard for everything it has to hold, do it. My system works wonderfully for me and for many others who try it, and I highly recommend that you consider incorporating all of the following guidelines to really make reference filing automatic.

Keep Your General-Reference Files Immediately at Hand Filing has to be instantaneous and easy. If you have to get up every time you have some ad hoc piece of paper you want to file, or you have to search multiple places on your computer for an appropriate location for a piece of information you want to keep, you’ll tend to stack it or leave it in its original place instead of filing it. You’re also likely to resist the whole in-tray process (because you know there’s stuff in there that might need filing!). Many people I have coached have redesigned their office space so they have plenty of general-reference file drawers literally within swivel distance, instead of across the room.

One Alpha System I have one A-Z alphabetical physical filing system for general reference, not multiple ones. My e-mail reference folders are also organized this way. People have a tendency to want to use their files as a personal management system, and therefore they attempt to organize them in groupings by projects or areas of focus. This magnifies geometrically the number of places something isn’t when you forget where you filed it. Once you have filtered all the reminders for actions into your next-action lists, this kind of data is simply the content of your personal library. You should have the freedom to be as much of a pack rat as you wish. The only issue you need to deal with is how much room you have for storage, and how accessible the information is when you need it. One simple alpha system files everything by topic, person, project, or company, so it can be in only three or four places if you forget exactly where you put it. You can usually put at least one subset of topics on each label, like “Gardening—pots” and “Gardening—ideas.” These would be filed under G.

Using an effectively simple and easily accessible general-reference filing system gives you the freedom to keep as much information as you want.

The digital world provides the advantage of the search function across a wide swath of your data, and the ability to tag content with key words adds even more capability for retrieval. However, with so many options and locations for data storage, that power also can easily add complexity and confusion. Most people I know who are even moderately busy won’t take the time and effort to use these tools to catalog all their stuff within all their possible applications. So, though the computer gives us great power and flexibility and opportunity for a great reference library, it creates an even greater challenge to design your own simple and effective formats for referential information. Even digitally, it is very helpful to have a visual map sorted in ways that make sense—either by indexes or data groups organized effectively, usually in an alpha format. To find restaurants in London that I like, I go my current general-reference application, where I find “Locales,” then “London,” then “Restaurants”—all alphabetized within each level of abstraction.

The biggest issue for digitally oriented people is that the ease of capturing and storing has generated a write-only syndrome: all they’re doing is capturing information—not actually accessing and using it intelligently. Some consciousness needs to be applied to keep one’s potentially huge digital library functional, versus a black hole of data easily dumped in there with a couple of keystrokes. “I don’t need to organize my stuff, because the search feature can find it sufficiently” is, from what I’ve experienced, quite suboptimal as an approach. We need to have a way to overview our mass of collected information with some form of effective categorization.

Every once in a while someone has such a huge amount of reference material on one topic or project that it should be put in its own discrete drawer, cabinet, or digital directory. But if the physical material is less than half a file drawer’s worth, I recommend including it in the single general alphabetical system. And if it is a digital grouping, it perhaps deserves its own place as a subdirectory.

Make It Easy to Create a New Folder I keep a large supply of new file folders instantly at hand and reachable from where I sit to process my in-tray. Nothing is worse than having something to file and not having plenty of folders to grab from to make the process easy. Always ensure a supply within reach. The virtual version of this is getting comfortable with how to instantly create a new directory in your data-storage software as needed.

Make Sure You Have Plenty of Space for Easy Storage Always try to keep your physical file drawers less than three-quarters full. If they’re stuffed, you’ll unconsciously resist putting things in there, and reference materials will tend to stack up instead. If a drawer is starting to get tight, I may purge it while I’m on hold on the phone. If you have any attention on the storage room in your digital devices, it’s a good time to review and purge.

I know almost no one who doesn’t have overstuffed file drawers. If you value your cuticles, and if you want to get rid of your unconscious resistance to filing, then you must keep the drawers loose enough that you can insert and retrieve files without effort. The digital version of this is having any concern about space on the computer or in the cloud. A judgment call you consistently have to make is how much room to give yourself so that the content remains meaningfully and easily accessible, without creating a black hole of an inordinate amount of information amorphously organized. At times when I’m on hold on the phone, I’m purging my e-mail folders and old document directories.

Some people’s reaction to this is, “I’d have to buy more file cabinets!” or “I’d have to get a larger hard drive!” as if that were something horrible. But if the stuff is worth keeping, it’s worth keeping so that it’s easily accessible, right? And if it’s not, then why are you keeping it? If we’re in the Information Age, and you’re doing anything that hinders your usage of it … not smart.

You may need to create another tier of reference storage to give yourself sufficient working room with your general-reference files at hand. Material such as finished project notes and “dead” client files may still need to be kept, but they can be stored off-site, on storage drives, in the cloud, or at least out of your workspace.

Label Your File Folders with an Auto Labeler No matter how small your inventory of physical reference materials is, you need to stay positively engaged with it. Typeset labels change the nature of your physical files and your relationship to them. Labeled files feel comfortable on a boardroom table; everyone can identify them; you can easily see what they are from a distance and in your briefcase; and when you open your file drawers, you get to see what looks almost like a printed index of your files in alphabetical order. It makes it fun to open the drawer to find or insert things.

Things you name, you own. Collected but unnamed stuff owns you.

Perhaps later in this new millennium the brain scientists will give us some esoteric and complex neurological explanation for why labeled files work so effectively. Until then, trust me. Get a labeler. And get your own. To make the whole system work without a hitch, you’ll need to have it at hand all the time, so you can file something whenever you want. And don’t share! If you have something to file and your labeler’s not there, you’ll just stack the material instead of filing it. The labeler should be as basic a tool as your stapler.

In the fire zone of real work, if it takes longer than sixty seconds to file something where it belongs, you won’t file, you’ll “stack.”

Purge Your Files at Least Once a Year Cleaning house in your files regularly keeps them from going stale and seeming like a black hole, and it also gives you the freedom to keep anything on a whim “in case you might need it.” You know everything will be reassessed within a few months anyway, and you can redecide then what’s worth keeping and what isn’t. This applies equally to digital as well as paper-based reference information. As I said, I purge my files while I’m on hold on the phone (or marking time on a conference call that’s dragging on and on!).

I recommend that all organizations (if they don’t have one already) establish a “purge day,” when all employees get to come to work in jeans, put their phone on do-not-disturb, and get current with all their stored stuff.* Large trash bins, recycle containers, and “to shred” boxes are available, and everyone has permission to spend the whole day in purge mode—around their office and on their computer. A personal purge day is an ideal thing to put into your tickler file, either during the holidays, at year’s end, or around early spring tax-preparation time, when you might want to tie it in with archiving the previous year’s financial files.

Filing as a Success Factor Itself

Reference and support materials seldom are associated with urgency, nor are they strategic, in the grand scheme of things. Hence their management is very often relegated to a low priority, if dealt with at all. The problem, however, is that your mental and physical workspaces become cluttered with nonactionable but potentially relevant and useful stuff. “What is this?” “Why is this here?” “What should I do with this?” and “Where is what I need to access right now?” become subliminal voices plaguing the consciousness if this aspect of your world is not rigorously set up and maintained.

Wherever items of different character or meaning are piled into the same location, it’s too much work to continually think about the nature of the contents, so your brain will go numb to the pile.

Reference materials need to be contained and organized within their own discrete boundaries—physically and digitally—so that they don’t cloud other categories in your system, are available for a specific purpose, and can be accessed efficiently. Because they can be so voluminous, it is critical that they be easily managed for capturing, sorting, and accessing what you need, when you need it, and that they don’t get in the way of the more action-oriented components of your system. I have spent countless hours with some of the most sophisticated professionals in the world, assisting them in cleaning up and setting up a simple and functional reference system, and the results have often been phenomenal in freeing up their attention for the bigger things.

One Final Thing to Prepare …

You’ve blocked off some time, you’ve gotten a work area set up, and you’ve got the basic tools to start implementing the methodology. Now what?

If you’ve decided to commit a certain amount of time to setting up your workflow system, there’s one more thing that you’ll need to do to make it maximally effective: you must clear the decks of any other commitments for the duration of the session.

If there’s someone you absolutely need to call, or something your secretary has to handle for you or you have to check with your life partner about, do it now. Or make an agreement with yourself about when you will do it, and then put some reminder of that where you won’t miss it. It’s critical that your full attention be available for the work at hand.

Almost without exception, when I sit down to begin coaching people, even though they’ve blocked out time and committed significant money to utilize me as a resource for that time, they still have things they’re going to have to do before we quit for the day, and they haven’t arranged for them yet in their own systems. “Oh, yeah, I’ve got to call this client back sometime today,” they’ll say, or “I have to check in with my spouse to see if he’s gotten the tickets for tonight.” It bespeaks a certain lack of awareness and maturity in our culture, I think, that so many sophisticated people are ignoring those levels of responsibility to their own consciousness, on an ongoing operational basis.

So have you handled all that? Good. Now it’s time to gather representatives of all of your open loops into one place.