Never Forget Anything – The Power of Collection and Processing Through GTD

I got a lot of positive feedback on my last post, Getting Things Done – Simply, for which I would like to say ‘thank you’ to those who took a moment to share or comment. I enjoyed writing that post, but I realize that in my earnest I may have put the cart before the horse a little bit.

As I mentioned in that post, I recently read David Allen’s excellent productivity book, “Getting Things Done”, which itself has created an entire subculture of devout fans and productivity communities. Weird, I know, but if you get a chance to read the book and implement the methodology, you’ll see what I mean.

Since reading it, a lot of people around me both at work and in my personal life have suffered through my awkward attempts at explaining it (and trying my damnedest to make it seem cool). “Yeah man! You, like, put everything in your inbox, man. And then you process it! But, there’s this two-minute rule, and you have to decide what to do with it in two minutes or less. Oh! And you think about what the next action is and….” Bless them for their infinite patience.

So I’m going to back up a little bit. I’m going to do my best to describe Getting Things Done (without writing another book about it) so you know what the hell it is I’m talking about when I hashtag #GTD. Before starting, though, I’d like to go into why I think this is so important (and the coolest thing to hit the office since collated printing).

While I thought I was fairly organized before starting GTD, I still felt overwhelmed a lot of the time and doing work about work was one of my biggest complaints. I also had trouble keeping up with the many moving pieces that are zipping around at my job. GTD has helped me in several ways: I never forget anything, my workload is completely optimized, and it reduced my stress levels. Let me put it in a different way: my boss thinks I’m awesome and I’ve freed up a bunch of time to dedicate to projects without sweating deadlines. I never feel overwhelmed or overburdened, and I never panic about dropping any balls. Boom.

Key Concepts – AKA Jargon

GTD doesn’t have a lot of jargon, but there are some me things I’d like to explain so you know what they are and how they fit in to the system as a whole.

Two minute rule – If I can do whatever the next action is for an item in my inbox in under two minutes, I do it right then and there. If I can’t, I delegate it or defer it until I can. If it’s not actionable, it has to be one of three things: trash, something to do later in the future (and filed as such), or it’s reference material and filed into a specific reference folder.


Inbox, Delegate, Waiting, and Next Action inboxes – the initial capture and first processing steps.

Inbox – this where everything and anything comes to me initially. If somebody hands me something, I put it in the inbox. If I have a great idea, I write it down on a sticky note and put it in the inbox. If I have a piece of trash that I need to throw away, I put it in the trash can. (Just checking to see if you’re paying attention 😛 ) This is where the two-minute rule comes into play, and serves as the beginning of the GTD funnel.

Delegate – this is the inbox I use when something falls either outside of my responsibility, needs someone else’s attention, or I just don’t feel like doing it myself (kidding). Things that need to be given to someone go here until I am ready to give it to them.

Waiting – for items that I’m waiting for someone’s feedback on, for them to get back from vacation, or just need to be ruminated on for a little bit, they all go into the waiting inbox until I’m ready to move forward.

Next action – this scrappy little wire basket holds the items that have been processed through the inbox and now contain the definitive next action required to move the project forward. The next step. It is here they will remain until I have the time to move on it.

Active Projects, Quick Ref, Tickler - Where stuff gets filed.

Active Projects, Quick Ref, Tickler – Where stuff gets filed.

Active projects – anything that requires multiple steps in order to be deemed “complete” go here. It contains all the reference material and next actions that I need to take to move the project forward.

Quick reference – this stack of folders contains any reference material that I refer to often.

Tickler – this is genius (I didn’t come up with it). This is a stack of 43 folders, and that number is very important. 12 folders are labeled for every month of the year and 31 folders numbered for every day of the month. The current month is in front with the days behind it, in order. When a day goes by, you take that folder and put it in the back. This Tickler system essentially lets you “mail” yourself reminders in the future, and it work like magic. If I have something I don’t need to be reminded of until the 27th of February, and it’s currently the 3rd, I put it in the the folder labeled 27 and forget about it. In the morning I open up my tickler file and see what’s inside. If there’s something in there, I take action on it as necessary and move the folder to the back. If nothing’s there, I just move it to the back. It’s saved my butt on so many occasions, and I use it all the time.

A close up view of the tickler file.

A close up view of the tickler file.

General reference – this is all the crap that has been (unfortunately) deemed necessary enough to not throw away, but not important enough that I access it regularly, so it’s filed in a drawer in my desk and hardly ever sees the light of day.

Agenda – this folder tucked in the Active Projects folder deserves a little special attention due to its purpose. Anything that I need to discuss with someone else (e.g. meeting items) is written down and goes into this folder, so I never forget at a meeting what I wanted to talk with them about.

How to Implement

It’s all about the collection and processing of your information. So what does that mean exactly? Anything that comes to me (literally ANYTHING) gets first collected and put into my initial inbox. When I’m available to do so, I go through my inbox one item at a time.

Let’s onto through some examples together. I pull off the first item and take a look at it. What is it? It’s a memo that has nothing to do with me, so I throw it away.

What’s the next item? It’s a sticky note reminding me to email my boss about that training workshop next week. I can do that in less than two minutes, so I send her the email, with a few emoticons for good measure, and LeBron it straight to the recycling bin.

What’s the next item? It looks like I have to apply a payment for finance by filling out a processing form. Bor-ing. It’ll take me some time to do that, but I put a sticky note with my next action on it “fill out processing form” and pop it into my Next Action box. I’ll get to it when I have time later after processing my inbox.

What’s that on there? It’s an email I printed from a coworker discussing some topics for an event we’re having next month. Ain’t nobody got time for that right now, but I’ll definitely need a reminder two weeks from now (February 17) , so I put it in my rolling tickler folder under 17 so that I get the reminder when I actually need it.

Next item is a request from another department asking for information about a specific account. It’s Manuel’s account, so I put it in the delegate inbox with a sticky that has his name on it to give to him later.

Next? It’s a request from marketing about our active fundraising campaigns. I’m waiting to hear back from my coworker on this, so I put it in the waiting box with a sticky stating what I’m waiting on before I can move forward. Damn, we’re processing real good!

Next up is some information about our new database system update. Very important, but there’s no action from me, so I file it into my Database System quick reference folder if I ever need to go back to it.

The last item is a note I wrote about an idea I wanted to talk to my boss about. I file it directly into the agenda folder so I won’t forget during our next meeting.

Wow. We’ve sure processed a lot, huh? Doesn’t it feel good to be productive? Now, that’s a very, very brief summary of how GTD works using real examples from my job. But there’s another critical aspect that I would also like to cover: ubiquitous capture and never forgetting anything.

The Takeaway – What Will You Gain From This?

How many times have you had a great idea, only to have forgotten it the next day, or even after a few hours? That’s where ubiquitous capture comes into play. It take a little bit of habit change, but it’s worth the result. Any time an idea pops into your head that you’d like to take action on – whether it be now or someday, write it down. Seriously. Write it down. I have a constant supply of sticky notes and steno pads at my desk. Write it down and process it like you would anything else. The purpose of this is twofold: it gets whatever you have in your head OFF your mind and into a system where you can take action on it (resulting in a less “busy” mind), and it prevents you from letting an otherwise great idea fall through the cracks. Everything you write down might not get done – that’s not necessarily the point (e.g. I’d love to build a dirigible to circumnavigate the earth in, but it’s probably not going to happen). The point is to get it off your mind so you can focus on the more important things. Doing this lets you assess the importance of the idea in the context of what you currently have going on with the resources you have available and take an appropriate action – something we do NOT do well in our heads (especially with 25 ideas zinging around like a nest of angry hornets).

Here’s an example. The other day I thought of a way to engage our board through our weekly emails. I knew this would be something my boss would want me to implement, and my mind began wandering at how to execute while I was working on another project. I stopped immediately, wrote it down, and threw it into my inbox. The result? I was able to discuss it later with my boss, resulting in its implementation and a great reception from our board while continuing on with my project distraction free. Trust me, it works!

There is truly something liberating in getting things off your mind and into a system you can work with. It can be a physical one, like mine, or it can be digital. The Important thing is that you trust your system complicity to never let you down (mine hasn’t). If you don’t trust in it completely, you won’t use it and will most likely go back to doing things how you’ve done them before. But take my word for it, it works wonders. It might seem like extra work at first, but I assure you that it’s not. Once you get set up and get comfortable with the system (just like with anything, it takes some practice) you’ll be floored at how effortless it is to get things done. It’s amazing, and it’s rekindled my passion at work so much that even my boss has noticed. Which is great when I go to ask her for more money next month…

I hope you enjoyed this brief glimpse into GTD. Please let me know if you have any questions and I’ll do my best answer them. Live long, and #GTD.

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