Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2003)
Practicing Stress-Free Productivity
Capturing: Corralling Your “Stuff”
IN CHAPTER 2 I described the basic procedures for capturing your potential work and meaningful input. This chapter will lead you in more detail through the process of getting all your incompletes, all your “stuff,” into one place—into “in.” That’s the critical first step in getting to the state of “mind like water.” Just gathering a few more things than you currently have will probably create a positive feeling for you. But if you can hang in there and really do the whole capturing process, 100 percent, it will change your experience dramatically and give you an important new reference point for being on top of your work and your world.
When I coach a client through this process, the capture phase usually takes between one and six hours, though it did take an entire twenty hours with one person (finally I told him, “You get the idea”). It can take longer than you think if you are committed to a full-blown collection that will include everything at work and everywhere else. That means going through every storage area, including your computers, and every nook and cranny in every location, including cars, boats, and other garages and homes, if you have them.
Until you’ve captured everything that has your attention, some part of you will still not totally trust that you’re working with the whole picture of your world.
Be assured that if you give yourself at least a couple of hours to tackle this part, you can grab the major portion of things outstanding. And you can even capture the rest by creating relevant placeholding notes—for example, “Purge and process boat storage shed” and “Deal with hall closet.”
In the real world, you probably won’t be able to keep your stuff 100 percent collected all the time. If you’re like most people, you’ll move too fast and be engaged in too many things during the course of a week to get all your ideas and commitments captured outside your head. But it should become an ideal standard that keeps you motivated to consistently clean house of all the things about your work and life that have your attention.
Ready, Set …
There are very practical reasons to gather everything before you start clarifying it:
You can only feel good about what you’re not doing when you know everything you’re not doing.
It can be daunting to capture in one location, at one time, all the things that don’t belong where they are. It may even seem a little counterintuitive, because for the most part, most of that stuff was not, and is not, “that important”; that’s why it’s still lying around. It wasn’t an urgent thing when it first showed up, and probably nothing’s blown up yet because it hasn’t been dealt with. It’s the business card you put in your wallet of somebody you thought you might want to contact sometime. It’s the little piece of techno-gear in the bottom desk drawer that you’re missing a part for, or haven’t had the time to install properly. It’s the printer that you keep telling yourself you’re going to move to a better location in your office. These are the kinds of things that nag at you but that you haven’t decided either to deal with or to drop entirely from your list of open loops. But because you think there still could be something important in there, that stuff is controlling you and taking up more of your energy than it deserves.
So it’s time to begin. Grab your in-tray and half-inch stack of plain paper for your notes, and let’s …
The first activity is to search your physical environment for anything that doesn’t permanently belong where it is, the way it is, and put it into your in-tray. You’ll be gathering things that are incomplete, things that have some decision about potential action tied to them. They all go into “in,” so they’ll be available for later processing.
What Stays Where It Is The best way to create a clean decision about whether something should go into the in-tray is to understand clearly what shouldn’t go in. Here are the four categories of things that can remain where they are, the way they are, with no action tied to them:
· Reference Material
Supplies … include anything you need to keep because you use it regularly. Stationery, business cards, stamps, staples, Post-it pads, paper clips, ballpoint refills, batteries, forms you need to fill out from time to time, rubber bands—all of these qualify. Many people also have a “personal supplies” drawer at work containing dental floss, Kleenex, breath mints, and so on.
Reference Material … is anything you simply keep for information as needed, such as manuals for your software, the local takeout deli menu, your kid’s sports team schedule, or your list of internal phone extensions. This category includes all your telephone and address information, any material relevant to projects, themes, and topics, and sources such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, and bound archives of corporate records. It also includes books and magazines that you may be keeping as a library.
Decoration … means pictures of family, artwork, and fun and inspiring things pinned to your bulletin board. You also might have plaques, mementos, and/or plants.
Equipment . . . is obviously your phone, computer, printer, scanner, wastebasket, furniture, clock, chargers, pens, and notepads.
You no doubt have a lot of things that fall into these four categories—basically all your tools and your gear, which have no actions tied to them. Everything else goes into “in.” But many of the things you might initially interpret as supplies, reference, decoration, or equipment could also have action associated with them because they still aren’t exactly the way they need to be.
For instance, most people have, in their desk drawers, on their shelves and bulletin boards, and tucked away in computer files a lot of materials and information that either are out of date or need to be organized somewhere else. Those should go into “in.” Likewise, if your supplies drawer is out of control, full of lots of dead or unorganized stuff, that’s an incomplete that needs to be captured. Are the photos of your kids current ones? Is the artwork what you want on the wall? Are the mementos really something you still want to keep? Is the furniture precisely the way it should be? Is the computer set up the way you want it? Are the plants in your office alive? In other words, supplies, reference materials, decoration, and equipment may need to be tossed into the in-tray if they’re not just where they should be, the way they should be.
Issues About Capturing
As you engage in the capturing step, you may run into one or more of the following:
· you’ve got a lot more than will fit into one in-tray;
· you’re likely to get derailed into purging and organizing;
· you may have some form of stuff already collected and organized; and/or
· you’re likely to run across some critical things that you want to keep in front of you.
What If an Item Is Too Big to Go in the In-Tray? If you can’t physically put something in the in-tray, then write a note on a piece of letter-size plain paper to represent it. For instance, if you have a poster or other piece of artwork behind the door to your office, just write “Artwork behind door” on a letter-size piece of paper and put the paper in the in-tray.
Be sure to date it, too. This has a couple of benefits. If your organization system winds up containing some of these pieces of paper representing something else, it’ll be useful to know when the note was created. It’s also just a great habit to date everything you handwrite, from Post-it notes for your assistant, to voice mails you transfer onto a pad, to the note you take on a phone call with a client. If you are using a digital tool that has a date-stamp function, it’s great to use that for the same reason. The 3 percent of the time that this little piece of information will be extremely useful makes it worth developing the simple habit.
What If the Pile Is Too Big to Fit into the In-Tray? If you’re like 98 percent of the people we work with individually, your initial gathering activity will collect much more than can be comfortably stacked in an in-tray. If that’s the case, just create stacks around the in-tray, and maybe even on the floor below it. Ultimately you’ll be eliminating the stacks, as you process and organize everything. In the meantime, though, make sure that there’s some obvious visual distinction between the stacks that are “in” and everything else.
Instant Dumping If it’s immediately evident that something is trash, go ahead and toss it when you see it. For some of my clients, this marks the first time they have ever cleaned their center desk drawer!
If you’re not sure what something is or whether it’s worth keeping, go ahead and put it into “in.” You’ll be able to decide about it later, when you process the in-tray. What you don’t want to do is to let yourself get wrapped up in things piece-by-piece, trying to decide this or that. Clarifying requires a very different mind-set than capturing; it’s best to do them separately. You’ll process your stuff later anyway if it’s in “in,” and it’s easier to make those kinds of choices when you’re in that decision-making mode. The objective for the capturing process is to get everything into “in” as quickly as possible so you’re appropriately retrenched and have “drawn the battle lines.”
No person who can read is ever successful at cleaning out an attic.
Be Careful of the Purge-and-Organize Bug! Many people get hit with the purge-and-organize virus as they’re going through various areas of their office (and their home). If that happens to you, it’s OK, so long as you have a major open window of time to get through the whole process (at least a whole week). Otherwise you’ll need to break it up into chunks and capture them as little projects or actions to do, with reminders in your system, like “Purge four-drawer cabinet” or “Clean office closet.”
What you don’t want to do is let yourself get caught running down a rabbit trail cleaning up some piece of your work and then not be able to get through the whole action-management implementation process. It may take longer than you think, and you want to go for the gold and finish processing all your stuff and setting up your system as soon as possible.
What About Things That Are Already on Lists and in Organizers? You may already have some lists and some sort of organization system in place. But unless you’re thoroughly familiar with this workflow-processing model and have implemented it previously, I recommend that you treat those lists as items still to be processed, like everything else in “in.” You’ll want your system to be consistent, and it’ll be necessary to evaluate everything from the same viewpoint to get it that way.*
“But I Can’t Lose That Thing … !” Often in the capturing process someone will run across a piece of paper or a document that causes her to say, “Oh, my God! I forgot about that! I’ve got to deal with that!” It could be a note about a call she was supposed to handle two days before, or some meeting notes that remind her of an action she was supposed to take weeks ago. She doesn’t want to put whatever it is in the huge stack of other stuff in her in-tray because she’s afraid she might lose track of it again.
If that happens to you, first ask yourself if it’s something that really has to be handled before you get through this initial implementation time. If so, best deal with it immediately so you get it off your mind. If not, go ahead and put it into “in.” You’re going to get all that processed and emptied soon anyway, so it won’t be lost.
If you can’t deal with the action in the moment, and you still just have to have the reminder right in front of you, go ahead and create an “emergency” stack somewhere close at hand. It’s not an ideal solution, but it’ll do. Keep in mind that some potential anxiousness is going to surface as you make your stuff more conscious to you than it’s been. Create whatever supports you need.
Start with Your Desktop
Ready now? OK. Start piling those things on your desk into “in.” Often there’ll be numerous things right at hand that need to go in there. Many people use their whole desktop as “in”; if you’re one of them, you’ll have several stacks around you to begin your collection with. Start at one end of your workspace and move around, dealing with everything you come across. Typical items will be:
· Stacks of mail, memos, reports, reading materials
· Post-it notes
· Collected business cards
· Meeting notes
It’s easy to resist and avoid picking up anything in your world that you know requires some thinking.
Resist the urge to say, as almost everyone does initially, “Well, I know what’s in that stack, and that’s where I want to leave it.” That’s exactly what hasn’t worked before, and it all needs to go into the in-tray. I have never had anyone who gave in and actually put their familiar stacks through this system who didn’t feel a ton of relief when they did.
As you go around your desktop, ask yourself if you have any intention of changing any of the tools or equipment there. Are your mobile devices and phone system OK? Your computer? The desk itself? If anything needs changing, write a note about it and toss it into “in.”
Next tackle the desk drawers, if you have them, one at a time. Any attention on anything in there? Any actionable items? Is there anything that doesn’t belong there? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, put the actionable item into “in” or write a note about it. Again, whether you use this opportunity to clean and organize the drawers or simply make a note to do it later will depend on how much time you have and how much stuff is in there.
Continue working your way around your office, collecting everything sitting on the tops of cabinets or tables or counters that doesn’t belong there permanently. Often there will be stacks of reading material, mail, reports, and miscellaneous folders and support material for action and projects. Collect it all.
Maybe there is reference material that you’ve already used and just left out. If that’s so, and if you can return it to the file cabinet or the bookshelf in just a second, go ahead and do that. Be careful to check with yourself, though, about whether there is some potential action tied to the material before you put it away. If there is, put it into “in” so you can deal with it later in the process.
Inside the Cabinets
Consider whether your collectible and nostalgia items are still meaningful to you.
Now look inside the cabinets. What’s in there? These are perfect areas for stashing large supplies and reference materials, and equally seductive for holding deeper levels of stuff. Any broken or out-of-date things in there? Often I’ll find collectibles and nostalgia that aren’t meaningful to the person any longer. One general manager of an insurance office, for example, wound up tossing out at least three dozen recognition awards he had accumulated over the years.
Again, if some of these areas are out of control and need purging and organizing, write that on a note and toss it into “in.”
Floors, Walls, and Shelves
Anything on bulletin boards that needs action? Anything tacked onto the walls that doesn’t belong there? Any attention on your pictures, artwork, plaques, or decorations? How about the open shelves? Any books that need to be read or donated? Any catalogs, manuals, or binders that are out of date or have some potential action associated with them? Any piles or stacks of things on the floor? Just scoot them over next to your in-tray to add to the inventory.
Equipment, Furniture, and Fixtures
Is there anything you want to do to or change about any of your office equipment or furniture or the physical space itself? Does everything work? Do you have all the lighting you need? If there are actionable items, you know what to do: make a note and put it in “in.”
Don’t let things to be handled that you have considered “not so important” gnaw away at your energy and focus.
Depending on the scope of what you’re addressing in this process, you may want to do some version of the same kind of gathering anywhere else you keep stuff. As I mentioned in the previous chapter, if you’re determined to get to a really empty head, it’s imperative you do it everywhere.
Some people I work with find it immensely valuable to take me home with them, or to a second office location, and have me walk them through this process there as well. Often they’ve allowed the “not so important” trap to ensnare them in their home life and secondary workspaces, and it has gnawed away at their energy.
This Is Not About Throwing Things Away That You Might Want People often mistake my advice as an advocacy for radical minimalism. On the contrary, if throwing something away is uncomfortable for you, you should keep it.* Otherwise you would have attention on the fact that you now don’t have something you might want or need. My counsel is how to assess and organize whatever you keep in your ecosystem so that it doesn’t pull on your focus unnecessarily. In many areas I’m a confirmed pack rat (such as with digital photos). The issues are simply how much room you have, and that you have made the appropriate distinctions that don’t leave embedded projects and actions submerged in what you’re keeping. You like having and keeping your twelve boxes of old journals and notes from college? You like keeping all kinds of nutty toys and artwork and gadgets around your office to spur creative thinking? No problem, as long as they are where you want them to be, in the form they’re in, and you have anything you want or need to do about that captured and processed in your system.
Mental Gathering: The Mind Sweep
Once you feel you’ve collected all the physical things in your environment that need processing, you’ll want to collect anything else that may be residing in your mental RAM space. What has your attention that isn’t represented by something already in your in-tray?
This is where the stack of plain paper really comes into play. I recommend that you write out each thought, each idea, each project or thing that has your attention, on a separate sheet of paper. You could make one long list on a pad, or in some digital application, but given how you will later be processing each item individually, it’s actually more effective on separate sheets. There is a discipline required initially to stay focused on one item at a time, as you process it. So giving each thought its own placeholder, as trivial as it might seem, makes it that much easier. And your first captured thought will seldom be the final content you’ll want to track about it (the desired outcome and next action for it will be). You will likely not keep these pieces of paper, but it’ll be handy to have them as discrete items to deal with as you’re processing.*
It will probably take you between twenty minutes and an hour to clear your head onto separate notes, after you’ve gathered everything else. You’ll find that things will tend to occur to you in somewhat random fashion—little things, big things, personal things, professional things, in no particular order.
In this instance, go for quantity. It’s much better to overdo this process than to risk missing something. You can always toss the junk later. Your first idea may be “Implement global climate change,” and then you’ll think, “I need cat food!” Grab them all. Don’t be surprised if you discover you’ve created quite a stack of paper in “in” during this procedure.
To assist in clearing your head, you may want to review the following Incompletion Triggers list, item by item, to see if you’ve forgotten anything. Often you’ll just need a jog to unearth something lurking in the back of your mind. Remember, when something occurs to you, write it on a piece of paper and toss it into “in.”
Professional Projects started, not completed
Projects that need to be started
“Look into …” projects
Commitments/promises to others
Others in organization
Communications to make/get
Initiate or respond to:
Social media postings
Other writing to finish/submit
Rewrites and edits
Conversation and communication tracking Meetings that need to be set/requested Who needs to know about what decisions?
Profit and loss
Formal planning (goals, targets, objectives) Current projects (next stages)
Changes in facilities
Installation of new systems/equipment Travel
Filing and reference
Needing to be set/requested
Things to learn
Things to find out
Skills to practice/develop
Books to read/study
Formal education (licensing, degrees) Career research
Waiting for …
Completions critical to projects
Answers to questions
Decisions of others
Personal Projects started, not completed
Projects that need to be started
Commitments/promises to others
Communications to make/get
Cards and letters
Social media postings Upcoming events
Home office supplies
Filing and records
Places to visit
People to visit
Heating and air conditioning
Lights and wiring
Purging, organizing, cleaning
Projects/tasks completed by family/friends The “In” Inventory
Capturing is complete when you can easily see the outer edges to the inventory of everything that still has some of your attention in any way.
If your head is empty of everything, personally and professionally, then your in-tray is probably quite full and likely spilling over. In addition to the paper-based and physical items in your in-tray, your inventory of “in” should include any resident voice mails and all the e-mails that are currently staged in the “in” area of your communication software. It should also include any items on your organizer lists for which you have not yet determined next actions.
I usually recommend that people transfer their voice mails onto paper notes and put those into their in-trays, along with any organizer notebooks they may have used, the contents of which often need significant reassessment. If you’ve been using a digital application for anything other than calendar and contact information, I suggest you print out any task and to-do lists and put them, too, into your in-tray. E-mails are best left where they are, because of their volume and the efficiency factor of dealing with them within their own subsystem.
But “In” Doesn’t Stay in “In”
When you’ve done all that, you’re ready to take the next step. You don’t want to leave anything in “in” for an indefinite period of time, because then it would without fail creep back into your consciousness, since your mind would know you weren’t dealing with it. Of course, one of the main factors in people’s resistance to collecting stuff into “in” is the lack of a good processing and organizing methodology to handle it.
That brings us to the next chapter: “Getting ‘In’ to Empty.”