Updated on 06.30.10

Getting Things Done: Getting “In” to Empty

Trent Hamm

This is the sixth 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 focused on going through your mind, your home, and your workspace to collect together all of the loose ends and undone things in your life. Getting these things into one central location makes it possible to direct all of your energy and mental focus on dealing with these things directly instead of having to keep them in your mind.

What do you do after collecting all of those things, though? Quite often, the reason all of these loose ends were out there is because you didn’t have any sort of process for dealing with them. The “process” part of Getting Things Done deals with that very problem. On page 119:

When you’ve finished processing “in,” you will have:

1 | trashed what you don’t need;
2 | completed any less-than-two-minute actions;
3 | handed off to others anything that can be delegated;
4 | sorted into your own organizing system reminders of actions that require more than two minutes;
5 | identified any larger commitments (projects) you now have, based on the input.

What you basically do is this: you go through each item in your inbox and ask yourself a series of questions about it.

Let’s walk through each of these steps.

Does This Item Require An Action From Me?
An awful lot of stuff that will be in your inbox doesn’t require any action from you, now or later on. Some of it will be outright junk. Other things just need to be filed away. Some of it might be stuff that you’ll do someday, but it’s just a vague idea you want to sock away (like the name of a book you might want to read someday). A few of the items might be things that you want to examine at a specific point in the future, like an agenda for a meeting that’s happening in a week and a half, for example. But none of this requires any action from you – you just have to deal with it.

Here’s what I do.

I chuck a lot of it straight into the trash. I usually leaf through magazines, tear out what I might reference in the future, and chuck the rest. I chuck tons of junk mail. I chuck some statements. I chuck ideas that once seemed good but now seem pretty poor on reflection. All of it goes right in the trash, no questions asked.

I keep some lists of “future stuff.” For me, the big one is a list of books to read someday which I keep on my computer. Sometimes, when I have a spare hour or so, I’ll go through that list, edit it, and reserve some of those books at the library. But when I’m processing, they just go on the list. I’ll add movies I’d like to see to my Netflix queue. I also keep a big list of “someday” ideas – things I might come back to down the road – which I also keep on my computer. During my weekly review sessions, I’ll look at that “someday” list and, every once in a while, something will just “click” and I’ll pull it off of the list to actually engage in.

I file a lot of the documents. When I’m processing, I just toss stuff to be filed for later (like statements and so on) into a wire basket that sits on top of the filing cabinet. Then, when I’m all done, I file what’s in that basket.

I put some items in a tickler file. A tickler file is basically just a file with a date on it – the date at which I’ll need to look at that item again. I check such files during my weekly review and pull out any ones that are due to come up in the next week. This isn’t the place to put items for the calendar – in fact, most items in the tickler file are things that are associated with specific events I place on my calendar. Quite often, when I put something in the “tickler,” I also write a note to myself to add something to my calendar and toss that note in my inbox.

At the same time, I ask myself another question about each item…

Could I Do This in Two Minutes or Less?
Many of the items in my inbox are very quick things, like calling someone up or sending an email to someone or taking food out of the freezer for supper. If I see a task in front of me that I can do in just two minutes, I do it immediately. This often takes care of many of the items in my inbox.

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether it’ll take two minutes or not – I just trust my gut instinct and run with it. If it takes five minutes instead of the two I’m expecting it to take, then it’s not the end of the world.

Can I Delegate It or Defer It?
Is there someone else that could be (or should be) working on this item I have in my hand? Sometimes – like when I’m going through some of the mail that’s found its way into my inbox, I find stuff that Sarah should look at. I sometimes find work-related tasks that need to be passed on to others. Maybe I just need to send out invites for a party (and the invites are sitting there in my inbox). In any case, doing that gets it out of my inbox and on to the appropriate person.

Similarly, I ask myself if this is something that can (or should) be done later, preferably at a specific date. Appointment notes are key examples of this, as I’ll often write down appointments in my pocket notebook and just toss the page in my inbox. Specific documents that are needed at a specific date are usually tied to an appointment and I put them in a folder for that week that goes in my filing cabinet – and I mention that document in my calendar.

Yes, a calendar is key. Anything that’s happening on a future date is recorded in my calendar and saved in one specific place. We’ll get to the specifics of that later on.

What’s Left?
What’s left at that point are longer tasks and projects, which should be a much smaller pile of things to do. I handle these separately by keeping a “next actions” list (one item on the list equates to one undealt-with item from the inbox) and a series of “project” folders in my filing cabinet, with the project folders coming together as described in the earlier piece about project planning.

In effect, this is the process I go through once a day with the stuff that I’ve collected in the inbox on my desk during that day. Of course, when you’re doing all of this for the first time, there’s going to be a giant mountain of stuff and processing all of it will take hours.

The Biggest Key Thing…
… is that nothing goes back into your inbox. Allen spells it out on page 124:

There’s a one-way path out of “in.” This is actually what was meant by the old admonition to “handle things once” […] Where the advice does hold is in eliminating the bad habit of continually picking things up out of “in,” not deciding what the mean or what you’re going to do about them, and then just leaving them there. A better admonition would be, “The first time you pick something up from your in-basked, decide what to do about it and where it goes. Never put it back in ‘in.'”

Yes, sometimes it can be important to do an emergency scan of your inbox, but that’s because you’re looking for a specific item or you’re trying to fill a tiny sliver of time. Once a day (at least), you should sit down and process through that inbox, and when you do that, you should not put anything back into your inbox once you pull it out and start to look at it. Deal with it now, even if it’s tempting to move on to something else.

So, in the end, we have two steps out of our five key steps for managing all of the things you have to do in your life.

Collect, which simply means keeping all of the stuff you need to do in one place and (more importantly) keeping it out of your head so you can focus fully on the task at hand.
Process, which means taking all of that stuff you collected and determining what needs to be done with each item, including doing the short ones.

Next time, we’ll look at chapter seven, which focuses on the “organize” portion of this system, where we talk a bit more in depth about the various places you put stuff when you’re processing.

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  1. Malisa says:

    I’ve been on and off my GTD horse for a couple years. I’m a teacher home for the summer and I’m determined to get a lot done. I’ve recommitted to my GTD system. I did my clean and capture Monday and have my giant stack to go through. It’s ironic that what kept me from pushing through it on Tuesday was that I went to hear David Allen speak an hour + away and used it as a reason to spend time in my old stomping grounds. Since then, things have been coming at me and I haven’t gotten back to it.

    Whether starting or recommitting, my biggest hurdle is that the time of the big stack/basket will take. I see it as something I don’t have time to do in one shot, so I avoid it. I have tennis plans this morning, but I’m committed to working on it for at least two hours when I get back. If I’m done, I’m done. If I’m not, I’ll set another ‘appointment’ with myself. Fingers crossed.

    Side note: It was GREAT to her DA speak. It was a presentation to a very small group of business people. There were a handful of GTDers and a couple handful of people not familiar with it/him. It was a quick, animated introduction to GTD. It was very inspiring.

  2. Lyann says:

    My question is whether that bucket/INBOX should be same as your TO-DO list.

    I use GTD with RTM and my favorite thing about it is that I can shoot stuff off my Mac through Quicksilver directly to RTM. In that way, it functions as my collecting bucket.

    But it’s also my To-do list which gets organize, prioritized and all that which Im sure you’ll go through later. So, at the moment it’s one and the same thing.

    The THING is, when things don’t always get done in the To-do list. Then, it gets postponed and goes back to ‘IN’. Which goes directly against the tenet of not putting anything back.

    It’s worked for me most times, it just means having to keep processing and perhaps there’s a more productive way? Maybe I shd use something else as an inbox? Like my mail inbox? I hadn’t really thought about not putting things back in IN for a llkng time since I put RTM in my GTD system.

  3. chacha1 says:

    This process is essentially what I used when I was running a small law office. I was the mailroom, fileroom, docket clerk, billing clerk, collections department, accounts-payable department, supply clerk, copier/printer repair person, benefits administrator, foreign filing specialist, and legal assistant to the senior partner.

    You’d better believe if I had put anything back in the in-box after once taking it out, I would have been buried in about a day.

  4. Amy S. says:

    I just wanted to let you know that I find this article series very motivating! I’ve been trying to find a system that works for me as I always seem to fizzle out after a day or two on anything I’ve tried. I’m a total list person, so this program seems perfect! Thanks so much – maybe I’ll finally start getting stuff done instead of constantly going “Yes, I STILL have to do that…later.”

  5. Jackie says:

    I think you’ve inspired me to finally sit down and figure out what GTD is all about.

  6. Melissa says:

    Thanks again, Trent, this is a great and very helpful series.

  7. Kelli says:

    I did the collect and am totally overwhelmed with the quantity of tasks in there. Last night I powered through some, but the stack is still enormous. I am just not sure the multitude of pieces of paper is going to do it for me, and was looking more at the Remember the Milk website to see if that could be a task list I could use to help me get things done. But then I decided I was wasting time I could have been using doing the actual tasks on figuring out a way to get out of doing them. I think I need to just remind myself that I am NOT going to get that whole stack done in a day, or a week, or maybe even this summer! But I did sort it into categories like basement, garden/garage, kitchen, money, so at least if I am going to sit down and work on money or scrapbooking stuff or friendship stuff, I pull out THAT pile, not the ENTIRE pile of a million things. I had to do that the night I did the collect. I was totally overwhelmed!!

  8. Mastering Time Management is important. Those who do this best are usually also very successful. I think its about prioritization, clearing out the clutter and focusing on the important stuff.

    I agree with the chucking stuff, future stuff, filing, and tickler approach. I particularly like the tickler so that things do not fall through the cracks. I find this particularly helpful when managing multiple things. A checklist and status checker is also critical.

  9. Pam says:

    I have applied some of the GTD plan through the years. One that continues to stick and is unbelievably successful is the project folders technique. I typically have 25 projects (defined as requiring more than 5 actions – could be 5, or could be 50)active at a time and the project folder technique is the only way I keep track of them all. I also keep 1 master list of the 25 projects title which includes only the next action step for each project. I update that list once a week. I can quickly review that list to see which actions can or should be handled the next week. I still have the other personal and business master list of things yet to do, but this allows me to feel in control of the active projects at work. I have been thinking about how to incorporate this same projects technique at home. I don’t want to feel like I’m at work though, so would like it to be a bit more relaxed. I’d welcome any ideas from others.

  10. michael bash says:

    “chuck” into the trash — it would be better to recycle.

  11. Jeff says:

    Can you please add the categories to this post like you did to the others in this series?

  12. maggy simony says:

    I’m so glad you’re doing this!! Thank you. Like others who have commented, I too have applied aspects of GTD to my long life — sporadically. And other systems as well. Always with good results. But I never stick to anything. STILL I have had accomplishments I’m proud of in my life and would not unless I had SPORADICALY gotten inspired to do better. Try, try again is one of life’s truisms.
    Your series is just the motivation I NEED RIGHT NOW. I’ve read the GTD book in the past, know the basic plan. Your extrapoltion and personal experience with GTD, nevertheless, is both illuminating and motivating.
    In 2007, at 87, got inspired to finish a book I’d been dabbling with for 15 years. And I did finally get it published POD in December 2009. Then I seem to have exhausted my self-discipline and have just floundered since, NOT doing the promotion I need to do.
    Now in 2010, at 90, determined to pull myself together, and once again use GTD philosophy to plan and implement book promotion for at least one year. After that I’ll give myself a break and just drift to the end so to speak. Aurora1920

  13. Claire says:

    I’m impressed that you file regularly! Most people, myself included, hate filing. And I have to admit that I don’t use my filing cabinet for much except have-to-keep items. Anything I’m working on has to stay out.

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