Updated on 07.06.10

Getting Things Done: The Power of the Collection Habit

Trent Hamm

This is the eleventh 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.

gtdAllen concludes the book with three short chapters discussing the power of various aspects of the GTD system. This first one focuses on how powerful the collection habit really is.

As Allen states it on page 225:

When people with whom you interact notice that without fail you receive, process, and organize in an airtight manner the exchanges and agreements they have with you, they begin to trust you in a unique way. Such is the power of capturing placeholders for anything that is incomplete and unprocessed in your life. It noticeably enhances your mental well-being and improves the quality of your communications and relationships, both personally and professionally.

In other words, if your system is reliable, you become reliable, and if you become reliable, you’ll become more confident of your abilities, other people will notice your increased reliability, and you’ll become more valuable in everything you do.

I’ve noticed this phenomenon in my own life. Whenever I am operating my system really efficiently, I seem to do a great job of managing all of the stuff on my plate and others do notice this. I tend to see the results of it in the form of better articles on The Simple Dollar and elsewhere, which attracts readers. I get more notes about how today’s article was really good. I tend to build relationships in my life in a positive manner because I’m on top of the feeding and growth that they need.

What makes that happen? In the end, it’s simply the fact that I’m collecting everything that’s incomplete in my life and doing something with all of that stuff. Even if the system isn’t going perfectly for a while, I’m still making sure that all of the open-ended things are either being closed or are moving forward.

That builds trust. That builds self-confidence – and confidence from others. It builds a feeling of control over your life instead of a sense that things are just spinning out of control.

Those are things that constantly help you throughout your career and personal life, not just in terms of building relationships, but in terms of the quality work that you’re able to produce.

One interesting part of sitting down and doing a full collection of all of the unfinished stuff in one’s life – and I certainly went through this myself – is all of the negative feelings it generates along the way. From page 226:

If you’re like most peoplw ho go through the full collection process, you probably felt some form of anxiety. Descriptive terms like “overwhelmed,” “panic,” “frustration,” “fatigue,” and “disgust” tend to come up when I ask seminar participants to describe their emotions in going through a minor version of the procedure. And is there anything you think you’ve procrastinated on in that stack? If so, you have guilt automatically associated with it – “I could have, should have, ought to have (before now) done this.”

This is normal. Almost every functional adult has a big pile of unfinished stuff hanging around in their life. Even highly organized adults do.

Where do these negative feelings come from? Allen has a great explanation on page 227:

But what are all of those things in your in-basket? Aggreements you’ve made with yourself. Your negative feelings are simply the result of breaking those agreements – they’re the symptoms of disintegrated self-trust. If you tell yourself to draft a strategic plan, when you don’t do it, you’ll feel bad. Tell yourself to get organized, and if you fail to, welcome to guilt and frustration. Resolve to spend more time with your kids and don’t – voila! anxious and overwhelmed.

This sums up so well why dumping everything in your inbox can be a downer, but processing it can be such an incredible positive feeling and release.

When you put all of that stuff in your inbox, you see all of the agreements you’ve broken with yourself, which is a major downer.

On the flip side, though, once you have all of those promises sitting there and you actually go through the process of dealing with all of them, it feels incredibly good. Why? You’re finally living up to all of those promises you made for yourself and all of the bad feelings you have associated with yourself and all of those promises are just swept away.

I find that when I start to get behind, I really get deeply upset with myself when I collect everything together. These moments are probably the most negative ones in my life because I criticize myself harshly when I see such a pile of unfinished stuff.

Yet, with every item I process, I feel better. Each item I collect and then deal with goes from being a broken promise (a negative) to a fulfilled one (a positive). It also often reaffirms a positive reputation with others, because quite often that fulfilled promise benefits others in some way.

What usually happens is that it feels so good to start running through these processes that I almost become addicted to it. I burn through my inbox, processing all of it, then I tend to stick to the system furiously for a while, coasting on all of the good feelings.

In fact, the only time I tend to fall behind with it is during times of extreme crisis or extreme time management situations where I have more things going on than my calendar can hold. It is in those situations that stuff starts slipping through the cracks and the system starts to fall apart.

A recent example of this was in the second quarter of 2010, where we had our third child, final book edits were due, my father became seriously injured, and my book was released in a period of about seven weeks or so. Add into that a ten day trip right in the middle and I simply found myself slipping behind.

That’s why going through this book and the whole GTD process starting on June 1 was a huge lift to me. I went through the collection and processing myself as I wrote these pieces and it was a huge personal lift.

I really can’t recommend this enough. Put aside a day – preferably two, make it a weekend – where you just collect everything you need to get done. That should take about a third to a half of a day. Then, spend the rest of that time processing it. Do the simple things. Come up with plans for the bigger things. Trash the things you really don’t want to deal with.

It’ll be incredibly cathartic. You’ll come out of that timeframe with a much more positive feeling about your career, your life, and your relationships.

In fact, I’ll bet you’ll label it as one of the best things you’ve done in your adult life.

On Friday, we’ll talk about the power of the next action.

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  1. This corresponds to the studies that show that most high powered CEO’s of major corporations have very few loose ends in their lives.

    It’s tough to handle broken commitments as it is, but to break our own commitments to ourselves is extremely difficult to cope with. Self-forgiveness is the hardest thing that I typically deal with on a day to day basis.

  2. People have obsession of the “Inbox-Zero”. They are preoccupied with “emptying” their inboxes without really “making sure that all of the open-ended things are either being closed or are moving forward.” I’ve been trying to follow the GTD discipline myself but I always fall short. I know exactly what you mean when you say it “feels so good to start running through these processes that I almost become addicted to it.”

  3. Fauxthoreau says:

    Thanks for this post. For me, reading this now has been most excellent timing and a nice boost of confidence. Last night I just finished dumping everything in my inbox, processing it, and doing it–with my actual email inbox. A miniature version of what you describe above, to be sure, but I wager the overwhelmingly positive feelings I felt seeing my empty inbox were similar. It’s crazy how much a little thing like an unwritten reply can weigh on you, and it often gets heavier the longer you wait. And you’re right, now I’m enjoying keeping everything up to date and riding on the good feelings.

  4. Time management is a key, both perosnally and professionally. People who are effective at it usually have higher positions at work (they are capable of management) and usually have fairly successful relationships and personal lives.

    If you are not good at it, do something, do anything.

    It is a key to success at life.

  5. Ryan Holt says:

    Long time reader, first time commenter. Thanks very much for your review on GTD… I read the book a few years ago and found it to be a huge aid in helping me to get on top of my schedule. Biggest challenge that I face now is finding a tool that will help me implement all the methodology in such a way that doesn’t increase workload just to move tasks from one trusted system to another. Currently I’m using toodledo and am now working with Nirvana.

    Quick suggestion; could you perhaps put a main post up with links to all the GTD posts in this series? Would love to pass this along to some friends.

  6. Lyann says:

    I would totally agree with you on his, “the only time I tend to fall behind with it is during times of extreme crisis or extreme time management situations where I have more things going on than my calendar can hold”, the sad thing is that in my office, there ARE more things than my calendar can hold. As a teacher, i am multitasking almost all the time and it’s more than usual to find tha you have to be at more than 2 places at a time.

    My solution? Quit full time and take on part time work where i deal with the core business of teaching not all the othervstuff than spreads myself too thin. The downside is less pay, but more sanity.

    It’s easy to say it’d worth it but sometimes I have my doubts.

  7. Sandy L says:

    I enjoyed this article. I’m personally a big fan of to-do lists so this article resonates with me.

    I think this advise works best with people who are already fairly efficient though. Most of my close friends/family see me as very organized person. When they ask for help, they almost always avoid the to do list.

    They say that making a list of everything they need to get done is overwhelming and depressing. It has had the opposite effect. They just want to avoid life even more.

    In those extreme cases, I’ve had to focus on asking “what’s the 1 most important task you have to get done today?” I think picking 1 thing often starts the ball rolling.

    It’s not a one size fits all formula, but I certainly love operating with lists. I don’t know what I’d do without them.

  8. Melanie says:

    Thank you for posting these articles. I have been trying to put GTD into action at work and home, but have been struggling. I just came back to your site and found these articles. Going to go back through the steps with your articles and see if I can get over the road blocks!

  9. G. Weiss says:

    IQPC/Six Sigma & Process Excellence IQ put together a really great video interview with David Allen. You can find it at http://www.sixsigmaiq.com/sponsor_video.cfm?externalid=704.

  10. Toby says:

    Hi Trent,
    I’m getting a lot out of this series, thankyou. However I’m having a problem with the collection stage.
    How do I produce a master list when I’ve got various streams of ‘work’ coming in? At home I get letters to action, books to read, emails to answer, voice notes to process and a todo list I’ve generated on the computer.
    Should I make a note of all the paperwork on my computer todo list? Already it’s huge and unusable!
    At work it’s worse, I also get customers ringing with urgent work, customer bug reports, internal memos and work coming on the internal bug tracking system.
    Should I be duplicating all the information on one list? It would be an awful lot of work.
    Do you have any advice please?

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