Getting Things Done: Corraling Your Stuff

This is the fifth entry in a fourteen part series discussing the time management classic Getting Things Done by David Allen. New entries in this series will appear on Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings through July 16.

gtdLast time, we discussed what exactly you need to have in place to get yourself organized (time, a bit of space, and a few supplies). What’s the first step in that organization process? Collecting. In other words, now is the time to corral all of that stuff you’ve got floating around in your mind and in various places.

What exactly does that mean? To put it simply, you’re just going to spend time gathering all of the stuff you need to do and haven’t yet completed into one place. A lot of it is going to be in your head, but you’re going to want to get it out of there. Other things will be spread throughout your house. Quite a few will probably be on your computer. Some may be in your car. Some may be at work.

It takes longer than you think. Allen, on page 104, estimates a few hours:

When I coach a client through this process, the collection phase usually takes between one and six hours, though it did take all of twenty hours with one person (finally I told him, “You get the idea”).

Most people expect that the process will take just a few minutes, but it doesn’t work like that, not if you’re thorough. The first time I thoroughly did this (sometime in 2005), it took me about four hours to put everything down.

Every once in a while, I do the whole thing again, just to make sure nothing I need to be addressing has fallen through the cracks. It still takes me about two hours to collect everything.

Now, it’s important to note that I’m collecting stuff for both my personal life and my professional life. I work from home, so the line between the two in terms of my “to-do” lists is often incredibly blurry. Many days, I practically alternate between “work” tasks and “personal” tasks. Plus, with the type of work that I do (it amounts to being a freelance writer when you bundle everything together, I suppose), there are always lots of little things I need to be remembering, so my collection time for professional stuff might be longer than it is for others.

Still, even if you’re unemployed, the collection process should take a good hour, minimum.

Another important part of this equation is that all you should be focused on is collecting stuff, not actually doing stuff. It can be really tempting when you’re collecting together all of the stuff to actually do many of the simple tasks, but that’s actually counterproductive because you never actually end up collecting all of the stuff you need to collect. Allen explains on page 105:

There are very practical reasons to gather everything before you start processing it:

1 | it’s helpful to have a sense of the volume of stuff you have to deal with;
2 | it lets you know where the “end of the tunnel” is; and
3 | when you’re processing and organizing, you don’t want to be distracted psychologically by an amorphos mass of stuff that might still be “somewhere.” Once you have all of the things that require your attention gathered in one place, you’ll automatically be operating from a state of enhanced focus and control.

The interesting part about this really is the sense of control and freedom you get when everything is collected in one place… but I’ll get to that again in a minute.

So How Do You Actually Do It?
Rather than go into great detail about how Allen explains it, I think it works best if I explained exactly how I’ve done it in the past that worked well for me.

First, I just sat down with a big, thick notebook in front of me and started thinking of all of the stuff left undone in my life. Each item took up a full page in that notebook, giving me plenty of room to jot down any notes about it that I need to remember.

As I wrote down a task, I literally tore the sheet out of the notebook and tossed it in the inbox on my desk.

What did I think about? Allen offers a list of things to think about several pages long, starting on page 114 of the book. Here’s a sampling from the “personal” part of the list:

Projects started, not completed
Projects that need to be started
Commitments/promises to others:
– Spouse
– Children
– Family
– Friends
– Professionals
– Borrowed items
Projects: other organizations
– Civic
– Service
– Volunteer
Communications to make/get
– Family
– Friends
– Professional
– Initiate or respond to:
=== Phone calls
=== Letters
=== Calls
Upcoming events […]

This giant list goes on for several pages. I simply spent a moment thinking about each item and jotting down everything that came into my mind related to it. I didn’t worry about duplicating items, either, because I can deal with duplications later on when I process the pile. My goal is to collect everything, not to worry about organization.

After that was done, I toured my house, visiting every single room in it. I looked into cabinets and closets and dresser drawers. Whenever I saw something that needed to be done, I jotted it down in that notebook (one item per page), and when I returned to my office, I tore out all of those pages and tossed them in my inbox. In some cases, I actually picked up the physical item, like mail and magazines and such.

Key places to look include your email inbox (print off all emails that require some action), desk drawers, countertops, closets, the inside of any and all cabinets, the little drawers in your end tables, the top of your refrigerator, the back of the laundry room, and so on. Every place where you’ve hidden away stuff because you were unsure how to deal with it is a key place to look. And if you’re like virtually everyone else in America, you’ll find a lot of stuff you haven’t dealt with.

The first time I did this, I had almost 1,000 things in my inbox. I’m not kidding in the least – it was an amazing pile of stuff. And here’s the thing – you probably will, too.

In fact, one common problem is that you completely overwhelm whatever you have set up as an “in” basket. Allen is there for the save, on page 108:

If you’re like 98 percent of my clients, your initial gathering activity will collect much more than can comfortably be stacked in an in-basket. If that’s the case, just create stacks around the in-basket, and maybe even on the floor underneath it. Ultimately you’ll be emptying the in-stacks, as you process and organize everything. In the meantime,though, make sure that there’s some obvious visual distinction between the stacks that are “in” and everything else.

I certainly had several stacks. At the time, we still lived in the old tiny apartment, so the stacks took up much of the kitchen table for a day.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you see that kind of accumulation. I was a bit overwhelmed at first, but what I found was that when I realized that everything I needed to take care of in my entire life was in those piles and I didn’t have to think about them at all any more, it became much, much, much easier to deal with all of it. I didn’t have to have items stuck in my head to remember them any more and for the first time in a very long time, my mind wasn’t crowded with lists of things left undone. That filled me with a lot of physical and mental energy as I began charging through the big pile of stuff, processing all of it.

What usually scares people about the pile is that they’re not sure what they’re actually going to do with all of that stuff. “Where will all of this stuff go?” they’ll ask themselves. Allen riffs on this on page 118:

When you’ve done all that, you’re ready to take the next step. You don’t want to leave anything in “in” for an indefinite period of time, because then it would without fail creep back into your psyche again, since your mind would know you weren’t dealing with it. Of course, one of the main factors in people’s resistance to collecting stuff into “in” is the lack of a good processing and organizing methodology to handle it.

And that’s exactly what will happen next – building a good organizing and processing methodology to handle all of that stuff in your inbox.

Next time, we’ll look at chapter six, which focuses on the “process” portion of this system.

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