Making It All Work – Getting Control: Capturing

This is the fifth entry in a twenty part series discussing the wonderful time and priority management book Making It All Work by David Allen. New entries in this series will appear on Tuesday mornings and Friday mornings through December 10.

making it all workThis chapter is where the meat of the book begins, in my opinion, this chapter and the ten that follow it make up the heart of the book. So let’s dig right in.

The Key Idea of the Whole Book
Allen defines two key elements that are central in building a successful life: control and perspective. Control refers to the ability of a person to stay on top of all of the things going on in their life, while perspective refers to the ability of a person to discern what things in life are actually important.

Allen defines five different elements that make up “control” and six different levels of “perspective.” In essence, he plays these off of each other in these eleven chapters – in five of the chapters, he looks at an element of control through the lens of each level of perspective; in the other six, he looks at a level of perspective through each element of control.

The five elements of control are:
Capturing (identifying the things you need to know in your life)
Clarifying (deciding what to do with the things you’ve captured)
Organizing (putting the things you’ve clarified in appropriate places)
Reflecting (keeping up with the products of your organization)
Engaging (in essence, doing stuff)

The six levels of perspective are:
Actions (the things you need to do today)
Projects (the things you’re actively pushing towards completion shortly)
Areas of Focus (the areas of your life you’re dealing with regularly)
Goals (the specific things in life you want to accomplish in a few years)
Vision (the general things you want to accomplish in the next decade)
Purpose/Principles (why are you here? what is your life purpose?)

Thus, the focus of this chapter is looking at capturing at the six levels of perspective.

What Is Capturing?
Allen explains it on page 78:

The first thing to do, when you are feeling in any way out of sorts, is to clear the air by grabbing hold of whatever is pulling on your focus. If there is a lack of clarity, it is necessary to identify anything that might be the source of that discord.

In other words, if it’s on your mind, write it down or record it somehow in a concrete way. You can jot it on paper, type it, write it on a whiteboard, or even talk into an audio recorder. [...] You can add it to a list, or write each item on a separate sheet of paper and collect them in your in-tray. It doesn’t matter how you capture these thoughts, as long as you get them out of your head and have them all in some way easily accessible for review.

I think the phrase “if it’s on your mind, write it down or record it somehow in a concrete way” is really the key part of this. If you’re thinking about it, write it down somewhere (we’ll worry about dealing with it later).

Why? If you do that, then that idea doesn’t need to be in your head, distracting you from whatever task you have at hand. You can focus much more deeply on whatever it is you’re working on and push yourself into a “zone” state much more easily.

Great! How do you get started? On page 79:

[Y]ou identify anything in life or work that you think might need to be different or considered for whatever reason and create at least a crude placeholder for it in one delimited location.

In other words, take out a fat pocket notebook and a pen. Sit down at a table and just start thinking about all of the stuff that’s on your mind that you need to accomplish or think about. Write down each item on a page of that notebook and flip to the next one. When you feel like you’ve run out of things, you’ve made a good start. Now, go through your entire house or place of work and collect things that need looked at – mail, papers, and other such things.

Allen spends a lot of this chapter evaluating how to capture things at various levels of perspective. For example, if you’re capturing projects, you might want to think about Christmas or about how to care for your elderly parents or getting that will written or getting your kids involved in winter basketball. If you’re capturing areas of focus, think about some of the larger things you’re trying to accomplish at work (getting promoted, maybe) or as a parent or as a volunteer worker. You also might want to think about your larger goals in life – where do you want to be in five years? In ten? Just write those goals down. The same is true for your overall mission in life, whatever that might be.

Journaling
You’re not going to do this all at once, of course. Capturing is something you can get a big jump on in one sitting, but ideas and thoughts are going to come to you gradually over time.

One powerful way to keep this going is to start journaling. Allen describes it on page 87:

A wonderful way to begin to experience an increase in control during this first phase of capturing is to journal. Often the incomplete energies and loose edges of our lives are manifested only when we are willing to drop back into a more reflective mode and take note of what seems to want to express itself only through a more stream-of-consciousness modality.

Over the years I have gravitated toward two types of journal writing for myself. One is a kind of ad hoc running diary of events to record various aspects of my current situation in my workaday world; the other is more inner and spiritually focused.

I have journaled almost constantly since 1991 (yes, 19 years’ worth). I’ve found that time and time again, my ideas for where I’m headed and what I need to do pop up when I’m journaling and simply reflecting on my past day, past week, etc. (Here’s an example of what I mean, from a 2005 entry.)

Almost every day, something comes to the forefront when I’m journaling. It might be an immediate task I need to do tomorrow (or even that evening). It might be a revelation about an ongoing project in my life. It might be a realization that I’m no longer interested in a particular life goal. Every day, almost without fail, something valuable like this happens because of the journaling.

You Don’t Have to Do Everything
A final note from this chapter: you don’t have to actually do everything that you capture. The goal is to simply get it out of your head so you can reflect on it externally. From page 93:

A TV sitcom writer told me that reading Getting Things Done had been a transformative experience for him, solely because it gave him the idea and motivation to do a total mind sweep. In only one sitting he captured every single thing ye could possibly churn up from his psyche that he thought he would, could, should, or might do. He swor that once he’d accomplished that, it was the first time in his life that he realized he didn’t have to do them all at once, that he could only do one thing at a time, and that he could actually permit himself to not do anything on that list if, in the moment, it wasn’t appropriate.

When you actually dump all of this out, you can begin to make some real comparative choices about what’s actually important in your life. It’s very hard within your own head to compare the importance of the fifty things going on in your head. Getting them down on paper and spending the time to think about each one and ask yourself it it really matters makes all the difference.

In fact, it was really this very process that made me realize how out of whack my life used to be. Most of the things I listed that I wanted to do involved my family and rarely cost money. Most of the things I listed that I had to do involved work and were so dominant that they gave the boot to the things involving my family. After enough repetitions, I began to wonder what I was working for – I was earning money for frivolous stuff that didn’t really matter to me, and to earn that money I had to abandon the things (parenting, being a good husband, community volunteer work, etc.) that really did matter to me.

In short, I realized I didn’t need all of that extra money and that more time with my family was well worth a pay cut. It was through capturing all of the ideas in my head and evaluating them that I came to this realization.

This chapter is loaded with many, many great ideas related to capturing all of the loose ends in your life – this post really does just scratch the surface.

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3 thoughts on “Making It All Work – Getting Control: Capturing

  1. Sarah says:

    Wow — I thought there would be a ton of comments here since you’re touching on a system that I find vital in my own life: dumping out all of the mental clutter on paper, organizing priorities and working toward getting life/work flow moving again.

    I wonder how others deal with implementing these systems (which I use, too) when life throws some major curve balls or where there isn’t much time?

    I’m a mom of five, work 30 hours a week and have a lot of school/house activities — what I find is that recently I haven’t had the time or energy to get up early (5 am) to journal and dump out the mental clutter. I wonder how others fit in the time when time is pressed, and it’s when time is pressed this type of activity is most critical.

    Keeping a journal, lists and reviewing all of the ideas floating around in our minds is critical, and it is for me a lot like exercise…it keeps the mind healthy just like walking and yoga keep my body working.

    Lastly, I’d love to hear how other people break out of their own thinking — a few things I stare down at in my own life written in my journal or on long lists, but sometimes we need a break through — a real shift in thinking that needs to come from far out of the routine. Trent had a break through reading his journal, but sometimes we read the activities of our lives and we need some outside perspective — not just the monologue of writing a journal or listing priorities — to help us see new ways of doing or being…how do we get there???

    Does this book offer suggestions for shifting our own thinking — thinking outside the boxes we build for ourselves??

  2. Amy B. says:

    Sarah- I’m in a similar boat with lack of time. I’m trying to implement something on a weekly basis (about an hour) to process and dump. Otherwise, I’m stuck with just carrying a sticky note pad with me to catch the random thoughts that come and sticking them in a general group (Today, Soon, Maybe later).

    I liked the discussion in the book about the horizons. This makes a lot of sense to me – especially the part where he talks about jumping up to a level to see broad areas of responsibility, and how that can generate thinking about projects implicit in that. Plus, it was a good complement to the “anything goes” part of the collection of GTD. It’s hard to imagine putting something like “decide how often to check in with my Sister-in-Law” in my daily to-do list, but this makes sense as a place to park this kind of nagging thought.

  3. Sarah says:

    Amy — thanks for the insights! At this point in my life a once a week time to process and dump is much more realistic! As well, I will read the book, since this concept of “horizons” sounds like it could be most helpful. Thank you!

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