Updated on 06.14.10

Getting Things Done: Corraling Your Stuff

Trent Hamm

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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  1. Stephan F- says:

    I need to do this again. The last time I did it I noticed that the vast majority of my stuff only needed a word or two, and only occasionally a line or two of description.

    So instead of wasting a full page of paper I switched to notecards. If I filled it up with a big idea, I taped it to a piece of paper for extra room and continued on.

    Notecards are also more portable and handy especially if you make a Hipster PDA out of them.

  2. Melissa says:

    Notecards – that is brilliant. It’s the things that seem so little and insignificant that can make it doable, you know?

  3. Chris says:

    Oh this is handy! I have the day off work today and I was going to pretty much do this step! I already feel much more organised. I’m tempted to get the book out and jump ahead, but I’m just gonna wait ’till Friday! :D

  4. Stacy says:

    I love the idea of notecards rather than a full sheet of notebook paper. I was also thinking of one of the pocket sized spiral bound memo pads.
    I need to do this, but I’m a bit afraid of the pile of tasks that I’d come up with.

  5. Kate says:

    I’m so glad you’re doing this series. It’s a big help because although I have the book, sometimes when you read the same thing over and over again it becomes ‘brain furniture’ rather than inspiring. Reading it in different words makes it fresh.

  6. jill says:

    Instead of using paper to jot things down I recently started using Google Documents in the same way you are using note paper. I also use scraps of paper all the time to make menus, shopping lists and daily task lists, but I am excited to start using something that is always available to me, even when my little scraps of paper aren’t (for example, work). Another idea I had while reading this article, is that instead of printing off each email that needs attention, you could move them to a new folder(labeled “needs attention” maybe) and then move them back when the item’s completed. Thanks for the great review!

  7. Danielle says:

    I really love this series. Thank You!

  8. Shannan says:

    I use note cards too. The perfect size for me is 4″x5″, which I found by cutting up those 8″x5″ index cards in half :)

    From Shannan
    (Maze Architect)

  9. Joy Sosoban says:

    Thank you, Trent, for this series. I’ve been following this and printing each article. I have the book myself as I’ve been searching for a way to hone my system. But it wasn’t always easy reading and with my heavy schedule organizing special events plus freelance writing, time is of the essence. And this is just so timely as I need to launch a major event with expected crowd of up to 10,000!

    Thanks again and God bless!


  10. Dena says:

    I gotta tell you that this series is changing my mindset.I realize now how much I am taking on.And this explains so many things ie my energy level and my overall happiness.I always look forward to the next installment.Thanks for putting out such great content……..Dena

  11. Anupam says:

    Hi Trent,
    While this may be beside the moot point of this article, but I am surprised that you, of all people, are asking to print emails that need action.
    Most of the mail software provide features that you can use to highlight mails that require action (e.g. flagging in Outlook and Lotus, stars in gmail). Let us use those features instead of cutting more trees.

  12. Kristen says:

    You’re killing me! :-)

    I have been a lurker on your site for years…you’ve finally inspired me to leave a comment (to complain), oh my…no really you are a DAILY MUST-READ for me…can you create a link for the Getting Things Done posts that starts at the beginning and then we can just go to Part 2, Part 3, etc…you know for those of us who want/need to re-read the posts and often start over and over in this process! Thanks! :-)

  13. freelance says:

    this series is changing my mindset and this explains so many things ie my energy level and my overall happiness

  14. Peter Jay says:

    Me too Denna. I found this series helpful. Lot of small good idea slowly grown in my head after reading it.
    Look forward for the next series Trent. :)

  15. WendyH says:

    @ Notecards: I’ve been doing something similar with the large colored recipe cards, the different type of tasks (caulking-interior, caulking-exterior) get sorted according to color (house maintenance, landscaping etc.) and I also make $$$ with a price range because I’m trying to not start expensive projects while unemployed. I binder clip them together and flip through for my next task when I finish the current one. I guess I didn’t think of using them for ALL of my task lists because I wasn’t sure how to do re-occuring tasks. Looking forward to the next installment!

  16. Joless says:

    Wow! One question, are you supposed to write down everything you think you *should* get done but isn’t a necessity – such like ‘go through bookshelves’, as well as stuff that clearly *needs* doing – like ‘mend x’? What about repeating tasks like ‘mow the lawn’?

    I’m forever making lists and trying to capture everything. It makes me calmer when it’s all written down, even if I don’t get around to doing it all (working on that bit!)

  17. Joanna says:

    I also love this series. I tried a while back to read GTD and just got overwhelmed & ended up putting it down. It’s time to get back to it. I do have one question, though. How do you implement it in a family environment? My husband and I just bought a home and are both overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work that it adds to our lives. It feels like corralling alone I’d be missing half the to dos, but I’m not certain I can get the DH on board for the other pieces of it (or even the time commitment of the corraling). Trent, does Sarah do this with you? If not how do you handle the things in her head but not in yours? Does anyone else have any suggestions for an organized wife of a less organized husband? I know he would benefit from a system but I just don’t know if he’ll buy into it. Thanks in advance!

  18. Michele says:

    Hey! The link to the last article isn’t working. I missed Friday’s article!

  19. Kelli says:

    I just spent some time going back and reading all the whole series. The process of collecting really appeals to me . . . maybe because my DH is not around this week to get freaked out by it! I often have trouble “turning off” my brain and maybe this would help. I am curious to know more about how Jill does her Google Docs organization since I don’t work at home like Trent. But I don’t have a smartphone . . . so maybe not. Or, maybe have a work section of a notebook (addressed in another installment, I believe) and a personal section, and empty them into the appropriate inboxes in their respective locations. Glad you are doing this! I’m gettin’ the book from the library any day!

  20. Kelli says:

    Well, I did it. I went and collected the stuff. OMG. Let’s just say I am eagerly awaiting the next installment so I can see how to process all of it!!! I must have a stack of about at LEAST 300 items.

  21. Michael says:

    Sounds like a great idea. I’d like to try it… it’s on my list…

  22. Debbie M says:

    For things that need to be done repeatedly, Scouts use a kaper chart. I used to have a daily one to keep track of health stuff like how much I slept, how much water I drank, how much I exercised, etc. I’ve also made one for household chores and maintenance so I can see at a glance which ones are done. I also have a mental list of monthly bills that I don’t have automated (phone, gas, other utilities, charity, credit cards) that I double-check at the end of each month.

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