Organizing: Setting Up the Right Buckets - 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


Organizing: Setting Up the Right Buckets

Airtight organization is required for your focus to remain on the broader horizon and eliminate the constant pressure to remember or be reminded.

HAVING A TOTAL and seamless system of organization in place gives you tremendous power because it allows your mind to let go of lower-level thinking and graduate to intuitive focusing, undistracted by matters that haven’t been dealt with appropriately. But your physical organization system must be better than your mental one in order for that to happen.

Being organized means nothing more or less than where something is matches what it means to you. If you decide you want to keep something as reference and you put it where your reference material needs to be, that’s organized. If you think you need a reminder about a call you need to make, as long as you put that reminder where you want reminders of phone calls to make, you’re organized. As simple as that sounds, it begs a very big question: What does something mean to you? It turns out that much of what people are trying to organize has not been clarified, as per the previous chapter. And even once it has, there are more refined distinctions that are possible, which will add greater creativity and control for you. I will expand on some of those in this chapter, as I’ll lead you through the organizing steps and tools that will be required as you process your in-tray. As you initially process “in,” you’ll create lists and groupings of things you want to organize and you’ll invariably think of additional items to include. In other words, your organization system is not something that you’ll necessarily create all at once, in a vacuum. It will evolve as you process your stuff and test out whether you have put everything in the best place for you. It should and will evolve, as you do. The core distinctions of what things mean to you will be true forever, but the best structure for you to manage them a year from now may look different than what you come up with dealing with your world today.

I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s.

—William Blake

The outer ring of the Workflow Diagram (opposite) shows the main groupings into which things will go as you decide what they are and what needs to be done about them.

The Basic Categories

There are seven primary types of things that you’ll want to keep track of and manage from an organizational and operational perspective:

· A Projects list

· Project support material

· Calendar actions and information

· Next Actions lists

· A Waiting For list

· Reference material

· A Someday/Maybe list

The Importance of Hard Edges

It’s critical that all of these categories be kept pristinely distinct from one another. They each represent a discrete type of agreement we make with ourselves, to be reminded of at a specific time and in a specific way, and if they lose their edges and begin to blend, much of the value of organizing will be lost.



That’s why capturing and clarifying what your relationship to them is, specifically, is primary to getting organized. Most people try to create more control in their world by just “getting organized,” and they wind up rearranging incomplete inventories of still unclear things. Once you’ve gone through my previously suggested processes, however, you will have very clear contents of what you need to track, and a very practical way to sort them and create their descriptors.

The categories must be kept visually, physically, and psychologically separate, to promote clarity.

If you neglect this categorization, and allow things of different meanings into the same visual or mental grouping, you will tend to go psychologically numb to the contents. If you put reference materials in the same pile as things you still want to read, for example, you’ll go unconscious to the stack. If you put items on your Next Actions lists that really need to go on the calendar, because they have to occur on specific days, then you won’t trust your calendar and you’ll continually have to reassess your action lists. If you have projects that you’re not going to be doing anything about for some time, they must go on your Someday/Maybe list so you can relate to the Projects list with the rigorous action-generating focus it needs. And if something you’re Waiting For is included on one of your action lists, nonproductive rethinking will continually bog you down.

All You Really Need Are Lists and Folders

Once you know what you need to keep track of (covered in the previous chapter, “Clarifying”), all you really need are lists and folders—totally sufficient tools for reminders, reference, and support materials. Your lists (which, as I’ve indicated, could also be items in folders) will keep track of projects and someday/maybes, as well as the actions you’ll need to take on your active open loops. Folders (digital or paper based) will be required to hold your reference material and the support information for active projects.

I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

—Oliver Wendell Holmes

Lots of people have been making lists for years but have never found the procedure to be particularly effective. There’s rampant skepticism about systems as simple as the one I’m recommending. But most list makers haven’t put the appropriate things on their lists, or have left them incomplete, which has kept the lists themselves from being very functional for keeping your head clear. Once you know what goes on the lists, however, things get much easier; then you just need a way to manage them.

As I’ve said, you shouldn’t bother to create some external structuring of the priorities on your lists that you’ll then have to rearrange or rewrite as things change. Attempting to impose such scaffolding has been a big source of frustration in many people’s organizing. You’ll be prioritizing more intuitively as you see the whole list against quite a number of shifting variables. The list is just a way for you to keep track of the total inventory of active things to which you have made a commitment, and to have that inventory available for review.

When I refer to a “list,” keep in mind that I mean nothing more than a grouping of items with some similar characteristic. A list could look like one of at least three things: (1) a file folder or container with separate paper notes for the items within the category; (2) an actual list on a titled piece of paper (often within a loose-leaf organizer or planner); or (3) an inventory of items on a list in a software program or in a digital mobile device.

Organizing Action Reminders

If you’ve emptied your in-tray, you’ll undoubtedly have created a stack of Pending reminders for yourself, representing longer-than-two-minute actions that cannot be delegated to someone else. You’ll probably have anywhere from twenty to sixty or seventy or more such items. You’ll also have accumulated reminders of things that you’ve handed off to other people, and perhaps some things that need to be placed on your calendar or in a Someday/Maybe holder.

You’ll want to sort all of this into groupings that make sense to you so you can review them as options for work to do when you have time. You’ll also want to divide them in the most appropriate way physically to organize those groups, whether as items in folders or on lists, either paper based or digital.

The Actions That Go on Your Calendar

For the purposes of organization, as I’ve said, there are two basic kinds of actions: those that must be done on a certain day and/or at a particular time, and those that just need to be done as soon as you can get to them, around your other calendar items (some perhaps with a final due date). Calendared action items can be either time specific (e.g., “10:00-11:00 meet with Jim”) or day specific (“Call Rachel Tuesday to see if she got the proposal”).

The calendar should show only the “hard landscape” around which you do the rest of your actions.

As you were processing your in-tray, you probably came across things that you put right into your calendar as they showed up. You may have realized that the next action on getting a medical checkup, for example, was to call and make the appointment, and so (since the action required two minutes or less) you actually did it when it occurred to you. Writing the appointment on your calendar as you made it would then have been common sense.

What many want to do, however, based on perhaps old habits of writing daily to-do lists, is put actions on the calendar that they think they’d really like to get done next Monday, say, but that actually might not, and that might then have to be moved to following days. Resist this impulse. You need to trust your calendar as sacred territory, reflecting the exact hard edges of your day’s commitments, which should be noticeable at a glance while you’re on the run. That’ll be much easier if the only things in there are those that you absolutely have to get done, or know about, on that day. When the calendar is relegated to its proper role in organizing, the majority of the actions that you need to do are left in the category of “as soon as possible, against all the other things I have to do.”

Organizing As-Soon-As-Possible Actions by Context

Over many years I have discovered that the best way to be reminded of an “as soon as I can” action is by the particular context required for that action—that is, either the tool or the location or the situation needed to complete it. For instance, if the action requires a computer, it should go on an At Computer list. If your action demands that you be out and moving around in the world (such as stopping by the bank or going to the hardware store), the Errands list would be the appropriate place to track it. If the next step is to talk about something face-to-face with your partner, Emily, putting it into an “Emily” folder or list makes the most sense.

How discrete these categories will need to be will depend on (1) how many actions you actually have to track; and (2) how often you change the contexts within which to do them.

If you are that rare person who has only twenty-five next actions, a single Next Actions list might suffice. It could include items as diverse as “Buy nails,” “Talk to boss about staff changes,” and “Draft ideas about committee meeting.” If, however, you have fifty or a hundred next actions pending, keeping all of those on one big list would make it too difficult to see what you need to see; each time you got any window of time to do something, you’d have to do unproductive re-sorting. If you happened to be on a short break at a conference, during which you might be able to make some calls, you’d have to identify the calls among a big batch of unrelated items. When you went out to do odds and ends, you’d probably want to pick out your errands and make another list.

Another productivity factor that this kind of organization supports is leveraging your energy when you’re in a certain mode. When you’re in “phone mode,” it helps to make a lot of phone calls—just crank down your Calls list. When your computer is up and running and you’re cruising along digitally, it’s useful to get as much done online as you can without having to shift into another kind of activity. It takes more energy than most people realize to unhook out of one set of behaviors and get into another kind of rhythm and tool set. And obviously, when a key person is sitting in front of you in your office, you’d be wise to have all the things you need to talk about with him or her immediately at hand.

The Most Common Categories of Action Reminders

You’ll probably find that at least a few of the following common list headings for next actions will make sense for you:

· Calls

· At Computer

· Errands

· At Office (miscellaneous)

· At Home

· Anywhere

· Agendas (for people and meetings)

· Read/Review

Calls This is the list of all the phone calls you need to make; you can work off it as long as you have a phone available. The more mobile you are, the more useful you’ll find it to have one single list of all your calls: those strange little windows of time that you wind up with when you’re off-site, out and about, traveling, on a break, or waiting for a plane or for your kid to come out from school offer a perfect opportunity to make use of that list. Having a discrete Calls category makes it much easier to focus and intuitively pick the best one to make in the moment.

I suggest that you take the time to record the phone number alongside each item. There are many situations in which you would probably make the call if the number was already there in front of you but not if you had to look it up, and if you’re using a mobile device then only a tap is required to engage.

At Computer If you work with a computer—particularly if you move around with a laptop/tablet or have a computer at work and another at home—it can be helpful to group all those actions that you need to do when it’s on and running. This will allow you to see all your options for computer work to do, reminding you of the e-mails you need to send, the documents you need to draft or edit, and so on.

Think carefully about where and when and under what circumstances you can do which actions, and organize your lists accordingly.

Because I fly a lot, I maintain an Online action list, separate from my At Computer one. When I’m on a plane without a Wi-Fi service I can’t connect to the Web or my servers, as many actions require. So instead of having to rethink what I can and can’t do whenever I look at my At Computer list, I can trust that none of my At Computer actions require that I be connected, which frees my mind to make choices based on other criteria.

If you only do at-computer work at your office, or at your home, you could incorporate those actions on those location-specific lists, though you might still find it functional to see reminders of computer work grouped together when you’re sitting in that context. On the other hand, if your work and activities are primarily mobile-centric, and you could be taking actions equally on a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, then parking those reminders on a single Digital context list or folding them into the Anywhere category might work best.

Errands It makes a lot of sense to group together in one place reminders of all the things you need to do when you’re out and about. When you know you need to go somewhere, it’s great to be able to look at that list to allow for the option of handling numerous things along the way, in one trip. Actions like “Get stock certificates from bank deposit box,” “Pick up suit at the tailor,” and “Buy flowers for Robyn at the florist” would all go here.

We must strive to reach that simplicity that lies beyond sophistication.

—John Gardner

This list could, of course, be nothing more elaborate than a Post-it that you keep in your planner or on your refrigerator door, or in an Errands category in some digital task manager.

It’s often helpful to track sublists within individual Errands items. For instance, as soon as you realize you need something from the hardware store, you might want to make “hardware store” the list item and then append a sublist of all the things you want to pick up there, as you think of them. On the low-tech end, you could create a “hardware store” Post-it; on the high-tech side, if you were using a digital list, you could attach a “note” to “hardware store” on your list and input the details there.*

Simplifying your focus on actions will ensure that more of them get done.

At Office If you work in an office, there will be certain things that you can do only there, and a list of those things will be useful to have in front of you then—though obviously, if you have a phone and a computer in your office, and you have “Calls” and “At Computer” as separate lists, they’ll be in play as well. I’d use an “Office Actions” or “At Office” list for anything that required me being physically present there to take the action, such as purging an office filing cabinet or printing and reviewing a large document with a staff person.

A major trend now is for organizations to become more open, flexible, and virtual. “Hotel-ing” (i.e. not having a permanent office, but rather “plugging in” in any available location) is on the rise. Consequently, At Office could mean simply an action that requires being at any of several company locations. Or, for some people, it’s useful to have both an At Office “A” and an At Office “B” list, for those things that are still discretely tied to one physical location or another.

At Home Many actions can be done only at home, and it makes sense to keep a list specific to that context. I’m sure you’ve got numerous personal and around-the-house projects, and often the next thing to do on them is just to do them. “Hang new watercolor print,” “Organize travel accessories,” and “Switch closets to winter clothes” would be typical items for this grouping.

If you have an office at home, as I do, anything that can be done only there goes on the At Home list. (If you work only at home and don’t go to another office, you won’t need an At Office list at all—the At Home list could suffice.)

Similar to people who work at various locations, many people have multiple personal work environments, such as vacation homes, boats, and even the local gourmet coffee shop or café. “At Starbucks” can be a fine categorization for an action list!

Agendas* Invariably you’ll find that many of your next actions need to either occur in a real-time interaction with someone or be brought up in a committee, team, or staff meeting. You have to talk to your partner about an idea for next year; you want to check with your life partner about his schedule for the spring; you need to delegate a task to your assistant that’s too complicated to explain in an e-mail. And you must make an announcement at the Monday staff meeting about the change in expense-report policies.

Standing meetings and people you deal with on an ongoing basis often need their own Agenda list.

These next actions should be put on separate Agenda lists for each of those people and for that meeting (assuming you attend it regularly). Professionals who keep a file folder to hold all the things they need to go over with their boss already use a version of this method. If you’re conscientious about determining all your next actions, though, you may find that you’ll need somewhere between three and fifteen of these kinds of lists. I recommend that separate lists be kept for bosses, partners, assistants, and children. You should also keep the same kind of list for your attorney, financial adviser, accountant, and/or computer consultant, as well as for anyone else with whom you might have more than one thing to go over the next time you talk on the phone or in person.

The broader your responsibilities, and the more senior your organizational roles, the more you will get things done through your communications and transactions with other people.

If you participate in standing meetings—staff meetings, project meetings, board meetings, committee meetings, parent/teacher meetings, whatever—they, too, deserve their own lists, in which you collect things that will need to be addressed on those occasions.

Often you’ll want to keep a running list of things to go over with someone you’ll be interacting with only for a limited period of time. For instance, if you have a contractor doing a significant piece of work on your house or property, you can create a list for him for the duration of the project. As you’re walking around the site after he’s left for the day, you may notice several things you need to talk with him about, and you’ll want that list to be easy to capture and to access as needed.

Given the usefulness of this type of list, your system should allow you to add Agendas ad hoc, as needed quickly and simply. For example, inserting a page or a list for a person or a meeting within an Agenda section of a loose-leaf notebook planner takes only seconds, as does adding a dedicated “note” within an Agenda category in your digital tools.

Read/Review You will no doubt have discovered in your in-tray a number of things for which your next action is to read. I hope you have held to the two-minute rule and dispatched many of those quick-skim items already—tossing, filing, or routing them forward as appropriate.

Those who make the worst use of their time are the first to complain of its shortness.

—Jean de La Bruyère

To-read printed items that you know will demand more than two minutes of your time are usually best managed in a separate physical stack tray labeled “Read/Review.” This is still a “list” by my definition, but one that’s more efficiently dealt with by grouping the documents and magazines themselves in a tray and/or portable folder.

For many people, the Read/Review stack can get quite large. That’s why it’s critical that the pile be reserved only for those longer-than-two-minute things that you actually want to read when you have time. That can be daunting enough in itself, but things get seriously out of control and psychologically numbing when the edges of this category are not clearly defined. A pristine delineation will at least make you conscious of the inventory, and if you’re like most people, having some type of self-regulating mechanism will help you become more aware of what you want to keep and what you should just get rid of.

Some professionals (e.g., attorneys) still work with significant printed materials, and although most of their documents may be generated and maintained in digital form, working with the document in physical form still remains the optimal way to deal with it. In those cases it often makes sense, in addition to a Read/Review box or tray, to have a Review/Respond category for the more rigorous reading that requires a different kind of focus.

It’s practical to have organized reading material at hand when you’re on your way to a meeting that may be starting late, a seminar that may have a window of time when nothing is going on, a dentist appointment that may keep you waiting, or, of course, if you’re going to have some time on a train or plane. Those are all great opportunities to browse and work through that kind of reading. People who don’t have their Read/Review material organized can waste a lot of time, since life is full of weird little windows when it could be used.

Given the amount of digital input we’re getting that includes data to read and view, much of which is not really critical to our work or life but is potentially interesting or fun, it can be useful to create an organizational bucket within that world for such things. A Review/Watch file in your e-mail folder system or a Surf Web action list could be a good place to hold e-mails with links to recommended videos, blogs, or online articles.

Organizing “Waiting For”

Manage the commitments of others before their avoidance creates a crisis.

Like reminders of the actions you need to do, reminders of all the things that you’re waiting to get back from or get done by others have to be sorted and grouped. You won’t necessarily be tracking discrete action steps here, but more often final deliverables or projects that others are responsible for, such as the tickets you’ve ordered from the theater, the scanner that’s coming for the office, the OK on the proposal from your client, and so on. When the next action on something is up to someone else, you don’t need an action reminder, just a trigger about what you’re waiting for and from whom. Your role is to review that list as often as you need to and assess whether you ought to be taking an action, such as checking the status or lighting a fire in some way under the project.

For many people, especially those in managerial or supervisory positions, getting this inventory of unfulfilled commitments that we care about from others captured, current, complete, and reviewed creates tremendous relief and improved focus going forward.

You’ll probably find that it works best to keep this Waiting For list close at hand, in the same system as your Next Actions reminder lists. The responsibility for the next step may bounce back and forth many times before a project is finished. For example, you may need to make a call to a vendor to request a proposal (which then goes to your Waiting For list). When the proposal comes in, you have to review it (it lands in your Read/Review tray or on your At Computer list). Once you’ve gone over it, you send it to your boss for her approval (now it’s back on your Waiting For list). And so on.*

It’s also very useful to have your Waiting For list available when you are meeting with or talking to anyone who might be responsible for any of those deliverables. It is much more elegant to broach a conversation early on, such as “Oh yeah, how’s it going with the Gonzalez proposal?” than to wait until it’s overdue and the situation is in a stress mode.

It’s important for this category in particular to include the date that each item is requested for each entry, as well as any agreed-upon due date. Follow-up is much more meaningful when you can say, “But I placed the order March twentieth” or “You’ve had the proposal now for three weeks.” In my experience, just this one tactical detail is worth its weight in gold.

You’ll get a great feeling when you know that your Waiting For list is the complete inventory of everything you care about that other people are supposed to be doing.

Using the Original Item as Its Own Action Reminder

Keep actionable e-mails and paper separated from all the rest.

The most efficient way to track your action reminders is to add them to lists or folders as they occur to you. The originating trigger won’t be needed after you have processed it. You might take notes in the meeting with your boss, but you can toss those after you’ve pulled out any projects and actions associated with them. While some people try to archive texts or voice mails that they still need to do something about, that’s not the most effective way to manage the reminders embedded in them.

There are some exceptions to this rule, however. Certain kinds of input will most efficiently serve as their own reminders of required actions, rather than your having to write something about them on a list. This is particularly true for some paper-based materials and some e-mail.

Managing Paper-Based Workflow

Some things are their own best reminders of work to be done. The category of Read/Review articles, publications, and documents is a good example. It would obviously be overkill to write “Review Vogue magazine” on some action list when you could just as easily toss the magazine itself into your Read/Review tray to act as the trigger.

Another example: if you are still doing paper-based bill paying, you’ll probably find it easier to deal with the bills by paying them all at one time, so you keep them in a folder or stack tray labeled “Bills to Pay” (or, more generically, “Financial to Process”). Similarly, receipts for expense reporting should be either dealt with at the time they’re generated or kept in their own Receipts to Process envelope or folder.*

The specific nature of your work, your input, and your workstation may make it more efficient to organize other categories using only the original document itself. A customer-service professional, for instance, may deal with numerous requests that show up in some standard form, and in that case maintaining a tray or file (paper or digital) containing only those actionable items is the best way to manage them. An attorney or accountant may deal with documents they need to spend time reviewing to determine actions, which could be stacked in a tray on the desk with items of that specific nature.

The primary reason for organizing is to reduce cognitive load—i.e. to eliminate the need to constantly be thinking, “What do I need to do about this?”

Whether it makes more sense to write reminders on a list or to use the originating documents in a tray or folder or digital directory will depend to a great extent on logistics. Could you use those reminders somewhere other than at your desk? If so, the portability of the material should be considered. If you couldn’t possibly do that work anywhere but at your desk, then managing reminders of it solely at your workstation is the better choice.

Whichever option you select, the reminders should be in visibly discrete categories based upon the next action required. If the next action on a service order is to make a call, it should be in a Calls group; if the action step is to review information and input it into the computer, it should be labeled “At Computer.” Most undermining of the effectiveness of many workflow systems I see is the fact that all the documents of one type (e.g. service requests) are kept in a single tray or file, even though different kinds of actions may be required on each one. One request needs a phone call, another needs data reviewed, and still another is waiting for someone to get back with some information—but they’re all sorted together. This arrangement can cause a person’s mind to go numb to the stack because of all the decisions that are still pending about the next-action level of doing.

My personal system is highly portable, with almost everything kept on lists, but I still maintain a Read/Review stack tray in my office and the traveling version as a plastic folder with the same title. Though I store and read some magazines digitally, it’s still both logistically functional and aesthetically pleasing to me to have the physical version at hand.

Managing E-mail-Based Workflow

Like some paper-based materials, e-mails that need action are sometimes best as their own reminders—in this case within the e-mail system itself. This is especially true if you get a lot of e-mail and spend a lot of your work time with your e-mail software active at hand. E-mails that you need to act on may then be stored within the system instead of having their embedded actions written out or distributed on another list.

Many people have found it helpful to set up two or three unique folders on their e-mail navigator bars. True, most folders in e-mail should be used for reference or archived materials, but it’s also possible to set up a workable system that will keep your actionable messages discretely organized outside the “in” area itself (which is where most people tend to keep them).*

If you choose this route, I recommend that you create one folder for any longer-than-two-minute e-mails that you need to act on (again, you should be able to dispatch many messages right off the bat by following the two-minute rule). The folder name should begin with a prefix letter or symbol so that (1) it looks different from your reference folders and (2) it sits at the top of your folders in the navigator bar. Use something like the @ sign or the hyphen, whichever will sort into your system at the top. Your resulting @ACTION folder will hold those e-mails that you need to do something about.

Next you can create a folder titled “@WAITING FOR,” which will show up in the same place as the @ACTION folder. Then, as you receive e-mails that indicate that someone is going to do something you care about tracking, you can drag them over into the @WAITING FOR file. It can also hold reminders for anything that you delegate via e-mail: when you forward something, or use e-mail to make a request or delegate an action, just save a cc: or bcc: copy into your @WAITING FOR file.*

It takes much less energy to maintain e-mail backlog at zero than at a thousand.

Some applications allow you to file a copy of an e-mail into one of your folders as you send it (with a “Send and File” button). Others will simultaneously save only into your universal “Sent Mail” folder. In the latter case, what seems to work best for many is to copy (“cc” or “bcc”) themselves when they delegate via e-mail, and then to put that copy into their “@WAITING FOR” folder.

Getting E-mail “In” to Empty The method detailed above will enable you to actually get everything out of your e-mail in-tray, which will be a huge boon to your clarity about, and control of, your day-to-day work. You’ll reclaim “in” as “in,” so anything residing there will be like a new message in your voice mail or an unread text on your mobile device—clues that you need to process something. Most people use their e-mail “in” for staging still-undecided actionable things, reference, and even trash, a practice that rapidly numbs the mind: they know they’ve got to reassess everything every time they glance at the screen.

Again, getting “in” empty doesn’t mean you’ve handled everything. It means that you’ve deleted what you could, filed what you wanted to keep but don’t need to act on, done the less-than-two-minute responses, and moved into your reminder folders all the things you’re waiting for and all your actionable e-mails. Now you can open the @ACTION file and review the e-mails that you’ve determined you need to spend time on. Isn’t that process easier to relate to than fumbling through multiple screens, fearing all the while that you may miss something that’ll blow up on you?

A Caution About Dispersing Reminders of Your Actions

Paper-based data is sometimes easier to trust for utility than digital versions.

There’s an obvious danger in putting reminders of things you need to do somewhere out of sight. The function of an organization system is primarily to supply the reminders you need to see when you need to see them, so you can trust your choices about what you’re doing (and what you’re not doing). Before you leave your office for the day, or before you decide to spend a big part of your day doing something previously unplanned, those actionable e-mails that you still have pending must be reviewed individually, just like your Calls and At Computer lists. In essence, @ACTION is an extension of your At Computer list and should be handled in exactly the same fashion. Your paper-based Pending workflow must likewise be assessed like a list if the paper materials are being used as your only reminders.

Distributing action triggers in a folder, on lists, and/or in an e-mail system is perfectly OK, as long as you review all of the categories to which you’ve entrusted your triggers equally, as required. You don’t want things lurking in the recesses of your systems and not being used for their intended purpose: reminding you. The digital world can be dangerous in this regard, because as soon as data is offscreen, it can tend to disappear as a viable prompt. This has caused many computer-savvy people to revert to a paper planner—its physicality and visual obviousness can create much more trust that their reminders will actually remind them!

In order to hang out with friends or take a long, aimless walk and truly have nothing on your mind, you’ve got to know where all your actionable items are located, what they are, and that they will wait. And you need to be able to do that in a few seconds, not days.

Organizing Project Reminders

Creating and maintaining one list of all your projects (that is, again, every commitment or desired outcome that may require more than one action step to complete) can be a profound experience! You probably have more of them than you think. If you haven’t done so already, I recommend that initially you make a Projects list in a very simple format, similar to the ones you’ve used for your lists of actions; it can be a category in a digital organizer, a page in a loose-leaf planner, or even a single file folder labeled “Projects,” with either a master list or separate sheets of paper for each one.

The Projects List(s)

A complete and current Projects list is the major operational tool for moving from tree-hugging to forest management.

The Projects list is not meant to hold plans or details about your projects themselves, nor should you try to keep it arranged by priority or size or urgency—it’s just a comprehensive index of your open loops. You actually won’t be working off of the Projects list during your moment-to-moment activities; for the most part, your calendar, action lists, and any unexpected tasks that come up will constitute your tactical and immediate focus. Remember, you can’t do a project; you can only do the action steps it requires. Being aware of the horizon represented by your projects, however, is critical for extending your comfort with your control and focus into longer reaches of time.

The real value of the Projects list lies in the complete review it can provide (at least once a week), ensuring that you have action steps defined for all of your projects and that nothing is slipping through the cracks. A quick glance at this list from time to time will enhance your underlying sense of control. You’ll also know that you have an inventory available to you (and to others) whenever it seems advisable to evaluate workload(s).

The Value of a Complete Projects List

The very broad and simple definition of a project that I have given (more than one action needed to achieve a desired result) provides an important net to capture the more subtle things that pull or push on your consciousness. If you work in an industry that is formally project focused (manufacturing, software, consulting, etc.), it may be challenging to realize that “look into getting a dog for our kids” and “find a good tailor” are projects! But whether you call them “projects” or something else, they still demand a certain kind of attention to relieve their pressure on your internal space.

Getting the inventory of all of those things complete, current, and clear for yourself, and acquiring the habit of maintaining it that way, could be one of the most valuable things you do to enable stress-free productivity for yourself from now on. Here are some of the reasons why:

· Critical for control and focus

· Alleviates subtle tensions

· Core of the Weekly Review

· Facilitates relationship management

Critical for Control and Focus It is impossible to be truly relaxed and in your productive state when things you’ve told yourself you need to handle continue to pull at your mind—whether they be little or big. It seems that “I’ve got to get my driver’s license renewed” can take up as much space in your head as “I need to formulate the agenda for next year’s conference” when an external list of such things is not complete and reviewed regularly.

Projects seldom show up in nice, neat packages. Small things often slip unexpectedly into bigger things.

Alleviates Subtle Tensions The smaller or more subtle things we tell ourselves we need to deal with create some of the more challenging stresses to handle, simply because they are not so much “in your face.” Projects often don’t show up in nice, neat packages. They start as what seems a simple situation, communication, or activity, but they slowly morph into something bigger than you expected. You thought you handled getting your daughter into preschool, but now there’s a problem with the registration forms or a change in the logistical details. You thought the invoice you sent was complete and accurate, but now the client says he didn’t agree to something you billed him for. Getting these kinds of situations identified and into your system with desired outcomes for appropriate engagement creates a wealth of fresh energy with unexpected positive results.

Core of the Weekly Review As I have indicated in other places, the Weekly Review is the critical success factor for marrying your larger commitments to your day-to-day activities. And a complete Projects list remains the linchpin for that orientation. Ensuring weekly that you’re OK about what you’re doing (or not doing) with a dog for your kids, along with what you’re doing (or not doing) about next year’s conference, is an essential practice. But that Projects list must already be there, in at least a somewhat recent form, before you have the capability to think about things from that perspective.

Facilitates Relationship Management Whether you are in conversation with your boss, your staff, your partner, or your family, having a sense of control and overview of all of your commitments that may have relevance in your relationships with them is extremely valuable. Invariably there are challenges with allocating limited resources—your time, your money, your attention. And when others are involved with you in ways that pull on those resources, being able to negotiate (and frequently renegotiate) those explicit and implicit agreements is the only way to effectively relieve those inherent pressures. Once executives and spouses and staff people get the picture of the commitments of their work and life, it triggers extremely important and constructive conversations with those involved. But it doesn’t happen without that complete list.

Where to Look for Projects Still to Uncover

There are three primary areas in which you are likely to have “hidden” projects:

· Current activities

· Higher-horizon interests and commitments

· Current problems, issues, and opportunities

Current Activities Often there are projects that need to be captured from a simple inventory of your calendar, your action lists, and your workspaces.

What meetings are on your schedule—past or upcoming—because of some outcome you’re committed to achieving that the meeting itself does not complete or resolve? You may notice that a conference call you’ve been scheduled for is about a client request for a new custom program he or she might want. Voila! A project—“Look into possible custom program for Client XYZ.” You may have an evening orientation event calendared for parents at your son’s school that reminds you that you have an issue to resolve about his schedule of classes. Personal or business trips coming up, conferences on your calendar, etc.—all should be assessed for projects that deserve acknowledging.

There are also very likely still unrecognized projects connected to the next actions on your lists. Many times people we work with have “Call Mario re: the fund-raising event” on their Calls list, but have not yet identified “Finalize the fund-raiser” as something that should be on their Projects list.

And—though it should be obvious but at times isn’t—there are proposals or contracts to review in your briefcase, forms to fill out for the bank on your desk at home, or a broken watch in your purse that are actually project artifacts. Double-check that you have them all associated with the further and final outcomes instead of remaining workflow orphans.

Higher-Horizon Interests and Commitments There is a good chance that you might still have subtle attention on some of your commitments and interests from a longer and higher view of your responsibilities, goals, visions, and core values.

A review of the accountabilities you’re invested in professionally—the things you need to be doing well in your roles at work—and the areas of your life you need to keep up to certain standards will likely trigger some reminders of things that may have been taking some of your attention, for which defining a project about them will be valuable.

If you have professional goals, company objectives, and strategic plans, have you identified all the projects that they should engender for you, so that you can move on them appropriately? I have seldom had an executive pull out and review any long-range planning document without her realizing there is at least one project she needs to clarify for herself in regard to it. Are there things coming toward you further out in the future of your personal life that have started to pull on your attention to do something about them—kids or parents growing older, your retirement, life partner’s aspirations, fun and creative things you’d love to start exploring? This kind of reflection often produces at least some “look into” kinds of projects that, once identified, will produce a greater sense of being on top of your bigger world.

Current Problems, Issues, and Opportunities A very rich place from which to gather items for your inventory is the broad area of often-amorphous things that can disturb your focus if not recognized and dealt with by shaping them into real projects with action steps. These fall into three categories:

· Problems

· Process improvements

· Creative and capacity-building opportunities

When is a problem a project? Always. When you assess something as a problem instead of as something to simply be accepted as the way things are, you are assuming there is a potential resolution. Whether there is or not might still need to be determined. But at the very least you have some research to do to find out. “Look into improving Frederick’s relationship with his school,” “Resolve situation with landlord and building maintenance,” and “Get closure on compensation dispute with business partner” are the kinds of very real projects that you might resist defining as such. When you actually do put words to it, put it on your list and create a next action for it; you will surprise yourself with a new level of elegance in the stress-free productivity game.

Invariably there are also projects lurking amid your administrative, maintenance, and workflow processes—in both the professional and personal arenas. What do you find yourself complaining about regarding your systems or simply how things are getting done (or not)? Is there anything frustrating about your procedures for filing, storage, communication, hiring, tracking, or record keeping? Does anything need improving in terms of your personal or business expense reporting, banking or investing processes, or how you keep in touch with friends and family? These are also the kinds of projects that usually become projects slyly—it’s tricky to notice when they cross the line between mildly irritating and a real bother (or inspiration) that deserves to get done.

Finally, there might very well be things you’ve been telling yourself you’d like to learn or experience to expand your own development or creative expression. Would you like to learn Italian cooking or how to draw? Have you been telling yourself it would be great to take an online course in digital photography or social media marketing? It’s very possible that many of these kinds of “might like to” projects would live just fine on your Someday/Maybe list. But as you gain greater familiarity with the effectiveness of GTD, you will want to take advantage of the methodology to more readily incorporate new, interesting, and useful experiences into your life by defining desired outcomes about them on the Projects list.

One List, or Subdivided?

Most people find that one list is the best way to go because it serves as a master inventory rather than as a daily prioritizing guideline. The organizing system merely provides placeholders for all your open loops and options so your mind can more easily make the necessary intuitive, moment-to-moment strategic decisions.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter how many different lists of projects you have, so long as you look at the contents of all of them as often as you need to. For the most part you’ll do that in one fell swoop during your Weekly Review.

Some Common Ways to Subsort Projects

There are some situations in which it makes good sense (and eases some anxieties!) to subsort a Projects list. Let’s look at some usual options.

Personal/Professional Many people feel more comfortable seeing their lists divided up between personal and professional projects. If you’re among them, be advised that your Personal list will need to be reviewed as judiciously as your Professional one, and not just saved for weekends. Many actions on personal things will need to be handled on weekdays, exactly like everything else. And often some of the greatest pressures on professionals stem from the personal aspects of their lives that they are letting slip.

Delegated Projects If you’re a senior manager or executive, you probably have several projects that you are directly responsible for but have handed off to people who report to you. While you could, of course, put them on your Waiting For list, it might make better sense to create a “Projects—Delegated” list to track them. Your task will be simply to review the list regularly enough to ensure that everything on it is moving along appropriately.

Specific Types of Projects

The right amount of complexity is whatever creates optimal simplicity.

Some people have as part of their work and lifestyle several different projects of the same type, which in some instances it may be valuable to group together as a sublist of Projects. For example, a corporate trainer or a keynote speaker might maintain a separate category of “Projects—Presentations,” with a chronological listing of all the upcoming events of that nature. These would be “projects” like the rest, in that they need to be reviewed for actions until they are completed; but it might be helpful to see them all organized on one list, in the order they are coming up on the calendar, apart from the other projects.

If you are a real estate agent, sell consulting services, or develop proposals for a relatively small number of prospective clients in any profession, you will likely find it useful to see all of your outstanding “sales relationships in progress” in one view. This could be a separate list in a planner or digital application, but to be optimally functional it would need to be complete and each item regularly reviewed for current actions.

Some people like to sort their projects by major areas of focus—parents tracking those about their children, an entrepreneur dividing projects by the various roles he’s fulfilling (Finance, Sales, Operations), and the like.

Again, how you decide to group your projects is not nearly as critical as ensuring that your inventory is complete, current, and assessed sufficiently to get it off your mind. No matter how you organize it now, you will very likely change your structure as you get more experience using your system and as the nature of your focus shifts in work and life.

What About Subprojects?

Some of your projects will likely have major subprojects, each of which could in theory be seen as a whole project. If you’re moving into a new residence, for instance, and are upgrading or changing much of what’s there, you may have a list of actionable items like “Finalize the patio,” “Upgrade the kitchen,” “Set up home office space,” and so on, all of which could in themselves be considered separate projects. Do you make all of this one entry on your Projects list—say, “Finish new home upgrades”—or do you write up each of the subprojects as an individual line item?

Actually, it won’t matter, as long as you review all the components of the project as frequently as you need to in order to stay productive. No external tool or organizing format is going to be perfect for sorting both horizontally across and vertically down through all your projects; you’ll still have to be aware of the whole in some cohesive way (such as via your Weekly Review). If you make the large project your one listing on your Projects list, you’ll want to keep a list of the subprojects and/or the project plan itself as “project support material” to be reviewed when you come to that major item. I would recommend doing it this way if big pieces of the project are dependent on other pieces getting done first. In that scenario you might have subprojects with no next actions attached to them because they are in a sense waiting for other things to happen before they can move forward. For instance, you might not be able to start on “Upgrade the kitchen” until you have finished “Assess and upgrade home electrical system.” Or, you can only afford one of your major home projects at a time, so keeping them lined up in order of your priorities would make sense. However, you might be able to proceed on “Finalize the patio” independent of the other subprojects. You would therefore want a next action to be continually current on any portion of this larger project that you could make progress on independently.

Don’t be too concerned about which way is best. If you’re not sure, I’d vote for putting your big projects on the Projects list and holding the sub-pieces in your project support material, making sure to include them in your Weekly Review. That often makes it easier to see the larger field of what’s going on in your life from a higher perspective, at a glance. But if that arrangement doesn’t feel quite right, try including the active and independent subprojects as separate entries on your master list.

How you list projects and subprojects is up to you; just be sure you know where to find all the moving parts and review them as frequently as needed to keep them off your mind.

There’s no perfect system for tracking all your projects and subprojects the same way. You just need to know you have projects and, if they have associated components, where to find the appropriate reminders for them.*

Project Support Materials

Project support materials are not project actions, and they’re not project reminders. They’re resources to support your actions and thinking about your projects.

Don’t Use Support Material for Reminding

What continues to talk to you psychologically in your environment, demanding that you do something about it?

Typically, people use stacks of paper, stuffed file folders, and/or a plethora of e-mails and digital documents as reminders that (1) they’ve got a project, and (2) they’ve got to do something about it. They’re essentially making support materials serve as action reminders. The problem is that next actions and Waiting For items on these projects have usually not been determined and are psychologically still embedded in the stacks and the files and e-mails—giving them the aura of just more stuff that repels its (un)organizer instead of attracting him or her to action. It delivers an incessant subliminal chant: “Do something about me! Decide something about me! Follow up with something about me!” When you’re on the run, in the heat of the activities of the day, files like that are the last things you’ll want to pick up and peruse for actions. You’ll actually go numb to the files and the piles because they don’t prompt you to do anything and they simply create more mental noise and emotional anxiety.

If you’re in this kind of situation you must first add the project itself to your Projects list, as a reminder that there’s an outcome to be achieved. Then the action steps and Waiting For items must be put onto their appropriate action reminder lists. Finally, when it’s time to actually do an action, like making a call to someone about the project, you can pull out all the materials you think you might need to have as support during the conversation.

To reiterate, you don’t want to use support materials as your primary reminders of what to do—that should be relegated to your action lists. If, however, the materials contain project plans and overviews in addition to ad hoc archival and reference information, you may want to keep them a little more visibly accessible than you do the pure reference materials in your filing cabinet or on your computer. These are fine to store support stuff, too, as long as you have the discipline to pull out the file drawer or open the computer to the proper directory and files and take a look at the plans every time you do your Weekly Review. If not, you’re better off storing those kinds of project support files (perhaps with printouts from computer files) in a standing file holder or a separate Pending stack tray on your desk or other visually available surface.

To return to the previous example of moving into a new residence, you could have a folder labeled “Upgrades—37 Pinkerton Place” containing all the plans and details and notes about the patio and kitchen and office area. In your Weekly Review, when you came to “Upgrade new residence” on your Projects list, you’d pull out the file for that project and thumb through all your notes to ensure that you weren’t missing any possible next actions. Those actions would then get done, delegated, or deferred to your action lists, and the folder would be refiled until you needed it again for doing the actions or for your next Weekly Review.

Many people who interact with current and prospective clients have attempted to use client folders and/or client-relationship-management (CRM) software to “manage the account.” The problem here is that some material is just facts or historical data that needs to be stored as background for when you might be able to use it, and some of what must be tracked are the actions required to move the relationships forward. The latter can be more effectively organized within your action-lists system. Client information is just that, and it can be folded into a general-reference file on the client or stored within a clients-focused library. But if I need to call a client, I don’t want that reminder embedded anywhere but on a Calls list.*

Organizing Ad Hoc Project Thinking

In chapter 3, I suggested that you will often have ideas that you’ll want to keep about projects but that are not necessarily next actions. Those ideas fall into the broad category of “project support materials,” and may be anything from a notion about something you might want to do on your next vacation to a clarification of some major components in a project plan. These thoughts could come as you’re driving down the freeway listening to a news story on the radio, or reading a relevant article. What do you do with that kind of material?

There is no need ever to lose an idea about a project, theme, or topic.

My recommendation here is that you consider where you’re keeping tabs on the project or topic itself, how you might add information to it in that format, and where you might store any more extensive data associated with it. Most professionals will have several options for how to handle support materials, including attaching notes to a list item, organizing digital information in e-mail and/or databases, and maintaining paper-based files and notes in notebooks.

Attached Notes Most organizing software allows you to attach a digital note to a list or calendar entry. If you’re keeping a Projects list within the software, you can go to the project you had a thought about, open or attach a note to it, and type in your idea. This is an excellent way to capture “back of the envelope” project thinking. If your Projects list is paper based, you can attach a Post-it note next to the item on your master list or, if you’re a low-tech type, on the item’s separate sheet. In any case, you’ll need to remember to look at the attachment when you review your project to make use of the data.

E-mail and Software Applications The digital world offers an infinite variety of ways to deal with project thoughts. E-mails that might contain good information related to your projects can be held in a dedicated e-mail reference folder, labeled accordingly. If you have a large volume of e-mails related to one project, consider creating two folders: “Johnson Partnership—Active” and “Johnson Partnership—Archive,” or some such. You may also find it worthwhile, if you don’t have one already, to set up a more rigorous kind of digital database for organizing your thinking on a project or topic. An enormous flowering of such tools has happened in this century—from simple and elegant cloud-based note-taking and notebook-organizing software that permits infinite customization for how it’s used, to group-sharing file and project management systems, to personal project-organizing applications for everything from free-form mind mapping to organizing large writing and research endeavors.

The inherent danger in the digital world is how much data can be spread into how many different places so easily, without coordinating links.

The bad news about the good news of the huge assortment of options for digital project support is the ease with which we are seduced into spreading potentially meaningful information into such a multiplicity of locations and mechanisms that it can take us almost back to square one: we don’t know where it all is, can’t see it all integrated for appropriate overviewing from the right perspective at the right time, aren’t sure exactly how to put what data where … so we wind up trying to keep it all coordinated back in our heads! I continually find interesting new ways to track relevant information for various things I’m doing, but I retain sanity only when I keep a clearly delineated and accessible Projects list and ensure that I’m scanning across any related parts of my system regularly for pertinent details.

Paper-Based Files Having a separate file folder devoted to each project makes a lot of sense when you’re accumulating paper-based materials; it may be low-tech, but it’s an elegant solution nonetheless. Simplicity and ease of handling make for a good general-reference filing system—one that lets you feel comfortable about creating a folder for scraps of paper from a meeting. At times it’s easier to overview and access project-related information for planning sessions and conversations using a physical folder than trying to use the digital pieces themselves in the moment. I will often print all potentially useful items pertaining to the project—spreadsheets, schedules, e-mails, Web pages, etc.—to have in hand as reference for those kinds of interactions.

Pages in Notebooks A great advantage of paper-based loose-leaf notebooks is that you can dedicate a whole page or group of pages to an individual project. For years I maintained a midsize notebook with a Projects list in front and a Project Support section toward the back, where I always had some blank pages to capture any random thinking or plans and details about projects on my list. Though paper-based personal system components are increasingly giving way to their digital counterparts, the notebook model is a valuable one, supporting a more integrated and multilevel platform for well-oriented thinking.

Each of the methods previously described can be effective in organizing project thoughts. The key is that you must consistently look for any action steps inherent in your project notes, and review the notes themselves as often as you think it is necessary, given the nature of the project.

You’ll also want to clear out many of your notes once they become inactive, unreal, or redundant, to keep the whole system from catching the “stale” virus. I’ve found a lot of value in capturing these types of thoughts, more for the way it consistently helps my thinking process than because I end up using every idea (most I don’t!). But I try to make sure not to let my old thoughts stay around too long, pretending they’re useful when they’re not.

Organizing Nonactionable Data

Interestingly, one of the biggest problems with most people’s personal management systems is that they blend a few actionable things with a large amount of data and material that has value but no action attached. Having good, consistent structures with which to manage the nonactionable items in our work and lives is as important as managing our action and project reminders. When the nonactionable items aren’t properly managed, they clog up the whole process.

Nonactionable items fall into three large categories: reference materials, reminders of things that need no action now but might at a later date, and things that you don’t need at all (trash).

Reference Materials

Much of what comes across your desk and into your life in general is reference material. There’s no action required, but it’s information that you want to keep, for a variety of reasons. Your major decisions will be how much to keep, how much room to dedicate to it, what form it should be stored in, and where. Much of that will be a personal or organizational judgment call based upon legal or logistical concerns or personal preferences. The only time you should have attention on your reference material is when you need to change your system in some way because you have too much or too little information, given your needs or preferences.

The problem most people have psychologically with all their stuff is that it’s still stuff—that is, they haven’t decided what’s actionable and what’s not. Once you’ve made a clean distinction about which is which, what’s left as reference should have no pull or incompletion associated with it—it’s just your library. Your only decision then is how big a library you want. When you’ve fully implemented this action-management methodology, you can be as big a pack rat as your space (physical and digital) will allow. As I’ve increased the size of the hard disk on my computer and added an almost infinite backup capability on attached drives and in the cloud, I’ve kept that much more e-mail in my archives and that many more digital photographs. The more the merrier, as far as I’m concerned, since increasing the volume of pure reference material adds no psychological weight.

The Variety of Reference Systems

Reference material now shows up in many forms (topics and media), with numerous ways to organize it. What follows is a brief discussion of some of the most common.

· General-reference filing—paper, e-mail, and simple digital storage

· Large-category filing

· Contact managers

· Libraries and archives

Your reference and filing system should be a simple library of data, easily retrievable—not your reminder for actions, projects, priorities, or prospects.

General-Reference Filing As I’ve emphasized in previous chapters, a good filing system is critical for processing and organizing your stuff. It’s also a must for dealing with the paper-based material and ad hoc digital information that are valuable to you for one reason or another, and you’ll need a way to store both. Ideally you already set up a general-reference filing system as you were processing “in.” You need to feel comfortable storing even a single piece of paper that you might want to refer to later, or an article you read online, and your general-reference system must be informal and accessible enough that it’s a snap to file something away, right at hand where you do your work and personal administration and review. If you’re not set up that way yet, look back at chapter 4 for help on this topic.

Most people wind up needing from one to four physical file drawers, many dozens of e-mail reference folders, and other digital storage locations and categories that can range from a few to hundreds.* The Web itself is nothing more than a huge digital filing cabinet, which both relieves the need to create your own digital reference library and produces a huge amount of the type of information that you will likely want to collect and organize within your own system. The ever-increasing plethora of information and ways to access and organize it only forces the necessity to distinguish nonactionable from actionable inputs, and to create and maintain an easily usable system of reference data storage.

Large-Category Filing Any topic that requires more than fifty folders and/or major documents should probably be given its own section, drawer, or digital database, with its own alpha-sorted or other easily searchable system. For instance, if you’re managing a corporate merger and need to keep hold of a lot of the paperwork, you may want to dedicate two or three whole file cabinets to hold all the documentation required in the due-diligence process. If gardening or sailing or cooking is your passion, you may need at least a whole file drawer for each of those designated hobbies.

Bear in mind that if your area of focus has support material that could blend into other areas of focus, you may run into the dilemma of whether to store the information in general reference or in the specialized reference files. When you read a great article about wood fencing and want to keep it, does that go in your Garden cabinet or in the general system with other information about home-related projects? As a rule, it’s best to stick with one general-reference system except for a very limited number of discrete topics.

Contact Managers Much of the information that you need to keep is directly related to people in your network. You need to track contact information of all sorts—mobile, home, and office phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and so on. In addition, if you find it useful, you may want to maintain information about their birthdays, names of family members, hobbies, interests, etc. In a more rigorous professional vein, you may need or want to track hire dates, performance-review dates, goals and objectives, and other potentially relevant data for staff development and legal purposes.

The “contacts” section of most of the digital and paper organizers (along with the calendar) has probably been the most commonly used component. Everyone needs to keep track of phone numbers and e-mail addresses. It’s instructive to note that this is purely and simply reference material. No action is required—this is just information that you might need to access in the future. As digital as the world seems to have become, many people still have stacks of collected business cards that are subtly yelling at them, “Decide something about me! Do something with me!”

But once you have filtered actionable items out of those inputs, there’s no big mystery about how to organize contact information, aside from the logistics for your individual needs. Again, the only problem comes up when people try to make their contact manager serve as a tool for reminding them about things they need to do. That doesn’t work (unless it’s part of a well-functioning CRM system that includes both customer information and action triggers appropriately assigned and incorporated). As long as all the actions relative to people you know have been identified and tracked in your action reminder lists, there’s no role for a contact manager to fill other than being a data store.

The only issue (or opportunity) then becomes how much information you need to keep and where and in what equipment you need to keep it in order to have it accessible when you want it. Nothing’s perfect in that regard, but as the mobile digital Internet-connected tools increase in power, along with their connection to various data stores, both the ease of access and the confusion of options will increase in this regard.

Libraries and Archives: Personalized Levels

If material is purely for reference, the only issue is whether it’s worth the time and space to keep it.

Information that might be useful lives at many levels. You could probably find out pretty much anything if you were willing to dig deep enough. The question of how much to keep, how close, and in what form will be a changing reality, given the variables of your needs, your particular comfort levels with data, and the technology that turbocharges your relationship to global information. Relative to your personal organization and productivity, this is not a core issue, so long as all of your projects and actions are in a control system that you work with regularly. Reference material in all its forms then becomes nothing more or less than material to capture and create access to according to your particular proclivities, requirements, and capabilities.

Some degree of consistency will always make things easier. What kinds of things do you need with you all the time? Those must go into your ubiquitously available mobile device or notebook. What do you need for meetings or off-site events? That should be put into your briefcase, pack, satchel, or purse. What might you need when you’re working in your office? That should be put into your personal filing system or your networked computer. What about rare situations relative to your job? Material needed for those could be archived in departmental files, off-site storage, or deep in the digital cloud. What could you find on the Web anytime you might need it? You don’t need to do anything with that information, unless you require it when you’re away from a good Internet connection, in which case you should print the data out when you’re online and store it in a file you can take with you.

Do you see how that personal organization of reference material is simply a logistical and purpose-based one? Distinguishing actionable from nonactionable things is the first key success factor in this arena. Second is determining what your potential use of the information is, and therefore where and how it should be stored. Once these are addressed, you have total freedom to manage and organize as much or as little reference material as you want. There is no “perfect” reference system. Its structures and content demand a highly individual decision that ought to be based on the ratio of the value received to the time and effort required for capturing and maintaining it. You are better off starting with real information you want to keep, deciding the best place to put it so it’s retrievable, and crafting that from the ground up than trying to choose or design a system theoretically. You will definitely hone your reference libraries into a larger, more sensible framework as time goes on, but that will best be built from upgrading how you’re managing your day-to-day realities. Tolerate some ambiguity here, in terms of figuring out the best way to do it all. The key will be some regular overviewing and reassessment of your system, and dynamically course-correcting as needed.


Someday/Maybes are not throwaway items. They may be some of the most interesting and creative things you’ll ever get involved with.

The second thing to deal with in organizing nonactionable items is how to track things that you want to reassess in the future. These could range from a special trip you might want to take one day, to books you might want to read, to projects you might want to tackle in the next fiscal year, to skills and talents you might want to develop. For a full implementation of this model you’ll need some sort of “back burner” or “on hold” component.

There are several ways to stage things for later review, all of which will work to get them off your current radar and your mind. You can put the items on various versions of Someday/Maybe lists or trigger them on your calendar or in a digital or paper-based tickler system.

Someday/Maybe List

It’s highly likely that if you did a complete mind sweep when you were collecting things from your mental space, you came up with some things you’re not sure you want to commit to. “Learn Spanish,” “Get Marcie a horse,” “Climb Mt. Washington,” “Write a mystery novel,” and “Get a vacation cottage” are typical projects that fall into this category.

If you haven’t already done it, I recommend that you create a Someday/Maybe list in whatever organizing system you’ve chosen. Then give yourself permission to populate that list with all the items of that type that have occurred to you so far. You’ll probably discover that simply having the list and starting to fill it out will cause you to come up with all kinds of creative ideas.

Activating and maintaining your Someday/Maybe category unleashes the flow of your creative thinking—you have permission to imagine cool things to do without having to commit to doing anything about them yet.

You may also be surprised to find that some of the things you write on the list will actually come to pass, almost without your making any conscious effort to make them happen. If you acknowledge the power of the imagination to foster changes in perception and performance, it’s easy to see how having a Someday/Maybe list out in front of your conscious mind could potentially add many wonderful adventures to your life and work. We’re likely to seize opportunities when they arise if we’ve already identified and captured them as a possibility. That has certainly been my own experience: learning to play the flute and how to sail in the open ocean started in this category for me. In addition to your in-tray, there are two rich sources to tap for your Someday/Maybe list: your creative imagination and your list of current projects.

Make an Inventory of Your Creative Imaginings What are the things you really might want to do someday if you have the time, money, and inclination? Write them on your Someday/Maybe list. Typical categories include:

· Things to get or build for your home

· Hobbies to take up

· Skills to learn

· Creative expressions to explore

· Clothes and accessories to buy

· Toys (hi-tech and otherwise!) to acquire

· Trips to take

· Organizations to join

· Service projects to contribute to

· Things to see and do

Reassess Your Current Projects Now’s a good time to review your Projects list from a more elevated perspective (that is, the standpoint of your job, goals, and personal commitments) and consider whether you might transfer some of your current commitments to Someday/Maybe. If on reflection you realize that an optional project doesn’t have a chance of getting your attention for the next few months or more, move it to this list.

People have at times found it useful even to subcategorize their Someday/Maybe projects. There might be a significant difference for you to think about projects you really want to do around your home as soon as you have the resources versus your “bucket list” kind of fantasies, such as climbing a mountain in Nepal or creating a foundation for disadvantaged kids. In a company this might be a distinction between “parking lot” ideas (“Let’s save that to discuss at our next quarterly meeting”) and keeping track of the projects you might energize when and if significant capital shows up. The key here is to pay attention, as you experiment with these options, to whether your lists and subcategories are unnerving or energizing you.

Special Categories of Someday/Maybe

More than likely you have some special interests that involve lots of possible things to do. It can be fun to collect these on lists. For instance:

· Food—recipes, menus, restaurants, wines

· Children—things to do with them

· Books to read

· Music to download

· Movies to see

· Gift ideas

· Web sites to explore

· Weekend trips to take

· Ideas—Misc. (meaning you don’t know where else to put them!)

These kinds of lists can be a cross between reference and Someday/Maybe—reference because you can just collect and add to lists of good wines or restaurants or books, to consult as you like; Someday/Maybe because you might want to review the listed items on a regular basis to remind yourself to try one or more of them at some point.

In any case, this is another great reason to have an organizing system that makes it easy to capture things that may add value and variety and interest to your life—without clogging your mind and work space with undecided, unfinished business.

The Danger of “Hold and Review” Files and Piles

What lies in our power to do, lies in our power not to do.


Many people have created some sort of “Hold and Review” pile or file (or whole drawer or e-mail folder) that vaguely fits within the category of Someday/Maybe. They tell themselves, “When I have time, I may like to get to this,” and a “Hold and Review” file seems a convenient place to put it. I personally don’t recommend this particular kind of subsystem, because in virtually every case I have come across, the person held but didn’t review, and there was numbness and resistance about the stack and contents. The value of someday/maybe disappears if you don’t put your conscious awareness back onto it with some consistency.

Also, there’s a big difference between something that’s managed well, as a Someday/Maybe list, and something that’s just a catchall bucket for stuff. Usually much of that stuff needs to be tossed, some of it needs to go into Read/Review, some needs to be filed as reference, some belongs on the calendar or in a tickler file (see page 182) for review in a month or perhaps at the beginning of the next quarter, and some items actually have next actions on them. Many times, after appropriately processing someone’s “Hold and Review” drawer or file, I’ve discovered there was nothing left in it!

Using the Calendar for Future Options

Your calendar can be a very handy place to park reminders of things you might want to consider doing in the future. Most of the people I’ve coached were not nearly as comfortable with their calendars as they could have been; otherwise they probably would have found many more things to put in there.

One of the three uses of a calendar is for day-specific information. This category can include a number of things, but one of the most creative ways to utilize the calendar function is to enter things that you want to take off your mind and reassess at some later date. Here are a few of the myriad things you should consider inserting:

· Triggers for activating projects

· Events you might want to participate in

· Decision catalysts

Triggers for Activating Projects If you have a project that you don’t really need to think about now but that deserves a flag at some point in the future, you can pick an appropriate date and put a reminder about the project in your calendar for that day. It should go in some day-specific (versus time-specific) calendar slot for the things you want to be reminded of on that day; then when the day arrives, you see the reminder and insert the item as an active project on your Projects list. Typical candidates for this treatment are:

· Special events with a certain lead time for handling (product launches, fund-raisers, etc.)

· Regular events that you need to prepare for, such as budget reviews, annual conferences, planning events, or meetings (e.g., when should you add next year’s “Annual sales conference” or “Get kids set up for next school year” to your Projects list?)

· Key dates for significant people that you might want to do something about (birthdays, anniversaries, holiday gift giving, etc.)

Events You Might Want to Participate In You probably get notices constantly about seminars, conferences, speeches, and social and cultural events that you may want to decide about attending as the time gets closer. So figure out when that closer time is and put a trigger in your calendar on the appropriate date—for example:

“Chamber of Commerce breakfast tomorrow?”

“Lions football tickets go on sale today”

“BBC special on climate change at 8:00 p.m.”

“Garden Club tea next Saturday”

If you can think of any jogs like these that you’d like to put into your system, do it now.

It’s OK to decide not to decide—as long as you have a decide-not-to-decide system.

Decision Catalysts Once in a while there may be a significant decision that you need to make but can’t (or don’t want to) right away. That’s fine, in terms of your own self-management process, as long as you’ve concluded that the additional information you need has to come from an internal rather than an external source (e.g., you need to sleep on it), or there is a good reason to delay your decision until a last responsible moment (allowing all factors to be as current as possible before you choose how to move on it). But in order to move to a level of OK-ness about not deciding, you’d better put out a safety net that you can trust to get you to focus on the issue appropriately in the future. A calendar reminder can serve that purpose.*

Some typical decision areas in this category include:

· Hire/fire

· Merge/acquire/sell/divest

· Change job/career

· Potential strategy redirection

This is a big topic to devote so little space to, I know, but go ahead and ask yourself, “Is there any major decision for which I should create a future trigger, so I can feel comfortable just ‘hanging out’ with it for now?” If there is, put some reminder in your calendar to revisit the issue.

The “Tickler” File

One elegant way to manage nonactionable items that may need an action in the future is the tickler file.* A three-dimensional version of a calendar, the original version of this allows you to hold physical reminders of things that you want to see or remember—not now, but in the future. It can be an extremely functional tool, allowing you to in effect set up your own postal service and “mail” things to yourself for receipt on a designated future date. I have used a tickler file for years. Even though technology has made reminders of this sort more easily digitized in software and mobile access devices, it’s possible that numerous things for you are more easily managed in this low-tech manner. The promise of digital management of such things is marching forward incessantly, but there remain many things in my personal system that are more efficiently managed by physical particles as reminders.

Essentially the tickler file is a simple file-folder system that allows you to distribute paper and other physical reminders in such a way that whatever you want to see on a particular date in the future “automatically” shows up that day in your in-tray.

If you have a secretary or assistant, you can entrust at least a part of this task to him or her, assuming that he or she has some working version of this or a similar system. Typical examples would be:

· “Hand me this agenda the morning of the day I have the meeting.”

· “Give this back to me on Monday to rethink, since it applies to our board meeting on Wednesday.”

· “Remind me about the Hong Kong trip two weeks ahead, and we’ll plan the logistics.”

Then every day of the week, that day’s folder is pulled and reviewed.

Even if you are in a high-level professional role, while you can (and probably should) utilize staff to handle as much of this as is appropriate, I recommend that, if you can integrate it into your lifestyle, you maintain your own tickler file functionality. There are many useful things you can do, at least some of which you may want to avail yourself of outside the pale of your assistant’s responsibilities. I use my tickler file to manage travel documents I need at hand on a certain day, reminders of birthdays and special events upcoming (that would take up too much visual room on my digital calendar), printouts of interesting things to explore when I might have more time in a couple of months, etc.

Bottom line: the tickler file demands only a one-second-per-day new behavior to make it work, and it has a payoff value exponentially greater than the personal investment. It represents a unique executive function: deciding not to decide until a certain point.

Setting Up a Tickler File If you are doing this in a physical system, you need forty-three folders—thirty-one labeled “1” through “31,” and twelve more labeled with the names of the months of the year. The daily files are kept in front, beginning with the file for tomorrow’s date (if today is October 5, then the first file would be “6”). The succeeding daily files represent the days of the rest of the month (“6” through “31”). Behind the “31” file is the monthly file for the next month (“November”), and behind that are the daily files “1” through “5.” Following that are the rest of the monthly files (“December” through “October”). The next daily file is emptied into your in-tray every day, and then the folder is refiled at the back of the dailies (at which point, instead of October 6, it represents November 6). In the same way, when the next monthly file reaches the front (on October 31 after you empty the daily file, the “November” file will be the next one, with the daily files “1” through “31” behind it), it’s emptied into the in-tray and refiled at the back of the monthlies to represent November a year from now. This is a perpetual file, meaning that at any given time it contains files for the next thirty-one days and the next twelve months.

The big advantage of using file folders for your tickler system is that they allow you to store actual documents (the form that needs to be filled out on a certain day, the meeting agenda that needs to be reviewed then, the invoice that you’re holding payment on until that day, etc.).



In order for the system to work, you must check and update it every day. If you forget to empty the daily file, you won’t trust the system to handle important data, and you’ll have to manage those things some other way. If you leave town (or don’t access the file on the weekend), you must be sure to check the folders for the days you’ll be away, before you go.

Checklists: Creative and Constructive Reminders

The last topic in personal system organization that deserves some attention is the care and feeding of checklists, those “recipes of potential ingredients” for projects, work processes and procedures, events, and areas of value, interest, and responsibility. In essence, any of the lists or categories of reminders we’ve already discussed are checklists, in that they serve the function of providing things to check or review to ensure that you’re not missing something in that area. The more common idea of checklists, however, refers to a listing of the contents of a topic, procedure, or some arena of interest or activity, to be utilized either at a specific time or whenever you engage in a particular kind of activity. These can range from big-picture outlines of areas of focus in your job or your life down to the detailed instructions of how to load pictures onto a Web site.

Many years ago Alfred North Whitehead cogently observed, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” Checklists provide the micro version of that macro observation: whenever you have to think about anything, either because of some regularity of a refreshed view (“At the end of every calendar year, I want/need to …”) or a specific situation that requires more detail than you can easily recall (“Before I deliver a seminar, I need to …”), you should entrust those jobs to your “external mind”—your management system that holds the details you need to engage with at appropriate times.*

There are an infinite number of possible checklists that allow you to have more relaxed control in various situations across your life and work. If you ever refer to a recipe in a cookbook in order to prepare a specific dish, you’re using a checklist to boost your focus and productivity. If your board has tasked you with three key initiatives or outcomes for the year, reviewing those prior to your board meeting would be utilizing a checklist.

Because I am describing the process of clarifying and organizing what may be on your mind, to begin to implement this system I’ll focus on a common set of topics that emerge for people, for which checklists are often the best solution.

Things You Want to Pay Attention To

Often, when we are working with people to clear up what is on their minds, what shows up are things like this:

· Exercise more regularly

· Spend more quality time with my kids

· Do more proactive planning for my division

· Maintain good morale on my team

· Ensure we’re in alignment with corporate strategy

· Keep the client billing process up-to-date

· Focus more on my spiritual practices

· Pay more attention to the individual goals of my staff members

· Keep myself motivated in my job

· Keep current conversations and updates going with key people in my company

What should you do with these “fuzzier” kinds of internal commitments and areas of attention?

First, Identify Inherent Projects and Action

For much of this kind of stuff, there is still a project and/or an action that needs to be defined. “Exercise more regularly” really translates for many people into “Set up regular exercise program” (project) and “Call Sally for suggestion about gyms and personal trainers” (real action step). In such cases, inherent projects and actions still need to be clarified and organized into a personal system. Or “Maintain good morale on my team” should become a project (“Explore team-building processes for my department”) with a specific action step (“E-mail our HR director to get her input on this opportunity”).

But there are some things that don’t quite fit into that category, and often, appropriate checklists are needed to address them.

Blueprinting Key Areas of Work and Accountability

Objectives like “Maintain good physical conditioning” or “Keep my team motivated” may still need to be built into some sort of overview checklist that will be reviewed regularly. You have multiple layers of outcomes and standards playing on your psyche and your choices at any point in time, and knowing what those are, at all the different levels, is always a good idea (and yet not so easy to habitually maintain and adhere to).

I suggested earlier that there are at least six levels of your “work” that could be defined and that each level deserves its own acknowledgment and evaluation. A complete inventory of everything you hold important and are committed to on each of these levels would represent an awesome checklist. It might include:

· Career goals

· Service

· Family

· Relationships

· Community

· Health and energy

· Financial resources

· Creative expression

And then moving down a level, within your job, you might want some reminders of your key areas of responsibility, your staff, your values, and so on. A list of these might contain points like:

· Team morale

· Processes

· Timelines

· Staff issues

· Workload

· Communications

· Technology

All of these items could in turn be included on the lists in your personal system, as reminders to you, as needed, to keep the ship on course, on an even keel. Many times the value is simply to affirm that the specific area is OK as is; nothing needs to be added or changed. But knowing that adds to your relaxed focus.

The More Novel the Situation, the More Control Required

The degree to which any of us needs to maintain checklists and external controls is directly related to our unfamiliarity with the area of responsibility. If you’ve been doing what you’re doing for a long time, and there’s no pressure on you to change in that area, you probably need minimal external personal organization to stay on cruise control. You know when things must happen and how to make them happen, and your system is fine, status quo. You could manage those in your sleep. Often, though, that’s not the case.

Did you ever have to go through some prescribed procedure to manage a discrete kind of financial transaction, log in and refresh a software application, or even go through several necessary steps to check in to a friend’s vacation cabin, and you had the experience of asking yourself, “Wait a minute, what do I need to do, now?” In any of those situations you may want or need to repeat, you need a checklist. I am dangerously semiliterate in terms of computers and software, and whenever I get instruction from our IT experts about how to fix some recurring glitch, it is easy to convince myself I will remember what they told me. I have learned (too many times the hard way) to create checklists for them.

Checklists can be highly useful to let you know what you don’t need to be concerned about.

Many times you’ll want some sort of checklist to help you maintain a focus until you’re more familiar with what you’re doing. If your CEO suddenly disappeared, for example, and you instantly had to fill her shoes, you’d need some overview and outlines in front of you for a while to ensure that you had all the mission-critical aspects of the job handled. And if you’ve just been hired into a new position, with new responsibilities that are relatively unfamiliar to you, you’ll want a framework of control and structure, if only for the first few months. As we have instituted a novel organizational structure and operating system in our company, we have been using many critical checklists to support our meeting practices for its implementation, until they become automatic.

There have been times when I needed to make a list of areas that I had to handle temporarily, until things were under control. For instance, when my wife and I decided to create a brand-new structure for a business we’d been involved with for many years, I took on areas of responsibility I’d never had to deal with before—namely, accounting, computers, marketing, legal, and administration. For several months I needed to keep a checklist of those responsibilities in front of me to ensure that I filled in the blanks everywhere and managed the transition as well as I could. After the business got onto “cruise control” to some degree, I no longer needed that list.

Checklists at All Levels

Be open to creating any kind of checklist as the urge strikes you. The possibilities are endless—from “Core Life Values” to “Things to Take Camping” to “Potential Holiday Gifts.” Making lists, ad hoc, as they occur to you, is one of the most powerful yet subtlest and simplest procedures that you can install in your life.

To spark your creative thinking, here’s a list of some of the topics of checklists I’ve seen and used over the years:

· Job Areas of Responsibility (key responsibility areas)

· Exercise Regimens (muscle resistance training programs)

· Travel Checklist (everything to take on or do before a trip)

· Weekly Review (everything to review and/or update on a weekly basis)

· Training Program Components (all the things to handle when putting on an event, front to back)

· Key Clients

· People to Stay in Touch With (all the people you might want to connect with in your network)

· Year-end Activities (all the actions for closing up for the time period)

· Personal Development (things to evaluate regularly to ensure personal balance and progress)

· Jokes

Get comfortable with checklists, both ad hoc and more permanent. Be ready to create and eliminate them as required. Make sure you have an easily accessed place to put a new list that’s also attractive and even fun to engage with—in a loose-leaf notebook or in a software application that is readily available. Appropriately used, checklists can be a tremendous asset in enhancing personal productivity and relieving mental pressure.

Capability and willingness to instantly make a checklist, accessible and used when needed, is a core component of high-performance self-management.

If in fact you have now captured everything that represents an open loop in your life and work, clarified and processed each one of those items in terms of what it means to you and what actions are required, and organized the results into an intact system that holds a current and complete overview—large and small—of all your present and “someday” projects, then you’re ready for the next step of implementation in the art of stress-free productivity: the reflection process.