Never forget anything again—the power of Collect and Process

When it comes to productivity systems like David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD), I often wonder whether or not they’re worth the hassle of setting up. But after seeing GTD referenced again and again on Lifehacker and elsewhere, I decided to give it a closer look, so I read David Allen’s book and began using a full implementation of GTD in January.

So far, GTD has been awesome. GTD reduces stress, makes me more reliable, and helps me stay on top of multiple obligations at once. GTD is designed to be a time-saving system.

Now some caveats. I love to organize. I love to keep track of lists–I think my list management system is one of the coolest tools I’ve ever used. If you’re not a fan of these things, GTD might not be for you. I’ll also add that GTD seems optimized for your average adult, and some parts don’t translate particularly well to student life.

But caveats aside, GTD has many valuable components, and of those, the most broadly applicable are its Collect and Process phases (two of GTD’s five phases). Proper collecting and processing are essential to any workflow and are the greatest stress-reducers in GTD. In the rest of this post, I will explain the Collect and Process phases and how you can start using them right away.

Collect—Capturing everything remotely important

The collect phase has a very simple premise. Your brain is not an efficient, reliable place to store the hundreds of obligations you might have. Either you remember something when you don’t need to, thus wasting brainpower, or worse, you don’t remember something when you need to, creating stress. Ideally, you want a system that only reminds you about things that are relevant to where you are right now.

Reliable and Unreliable

Images from IsaacMao and Remember The Milk

To do this, you need to collect all of your tasks in a reliable place outside of your head, in some sort of inbox, which can be a physical box, a text document, a list on RTM, or some combination of these. You need to trust this collection or else you’ll start keeping track of things in your head again. As David Allen points out, you should never have to think the same thought twice.

The key to collection is that absolutely every obligation must be put into your system. Changing a lightbulb, making a call, completing a paper, deciding on a laptop to buy—these tasks need to get out of your head where they won’t bother you unnecessarily. The advantage of capture is that you no longer need to wonder what you need to do or worry that you’re missing something. By reviewing your lists, you can be assured that nothing is falling through the cracks.

Process—Putting everything in the right place

In collection, incoming tasks automatically go into your GTD inbox. From there, you process tasks into their proper locations in your system. As a student, it’s fairly easy to process tasks, so my inbox is empty 99% of the time.

David Allen has a diagram of how to collect and process incoming tasks, as seen in posts like this one. For the most basic form of GTD, you can bypass the chart. You just need three types of lists:

  • Next actions: these lists contain tasks that can be done right now, without waiting for other people or other tasks to be completed.
  • Projects: these lists contain your projects, which David Allen defines as anything that takes multiple tasks to complete. This could be something as small as cleaning your room (vacuum, de-clutter desk, organize files) or it could be something larger.
  • Someday: these lists contains items that are not a priority now, but you want to keep track of.

In the process phase, you place important items in your inbox on one of these lists and discard the others. You could probably make do with one of each type of list, for a total of three, but it’s extremely helpful to have one of each type for the areas of focus in your life (work, home, and any major projects).

What I use

I collect everything in Remember the Milk, and I have next action, project, and someday lists for the categories “personal,” “extracurricular/research,” “schoolwork,” and “professional.”

Here’s an example of how my personal lists are organized:

  • In my personal next actions list, I have things like “Draft blog post on GTD,” “Clean desk,” and “Make reservation at restaurant x.” These are all items I can do right now.
  • In projects, I have more generic items: “Blog,” “Read Kahneman” (a book), and “Ongoing Goals” (a list of habits I’m maintaining, such as exercise). These are larger areas that I don’t want to forget about.
  • In my someday list, I have lots of things I want to learn and books I want to read.
My lists on RTM

My lists on RTM

The main advantage of the next action list is that everything on the list is doable right now, and the only decision you need to make is which task to do first. Once you complete a bunch of tasks, you can look back at your projects and add more next actions.

There are two other things you need to have a complete system, namely a calendar, for obligations with a hard deadline, and a place to store reference material, which you might need for one of your projects.

What’s next?

Collect and Process comprise the meat of GTD. While GTD works best as a complete system, you can try out pieces of GTD first to see how you like it. The remaining three phases—Organize, Review, Do—will make your workflow more efficient, manageable, and maintainable, but they all capitalize on the benefits of collection and processing.

In upcoming posts, I’ll describe some more specifics of how to implement GTD, but in the meantime, I encourage you to try this small piece of GTD yourself!

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2 thoughts on “Never forget anything again—the power of Collect and Process

  1. This is what I need indeed; I always keep forgetting stuff and especially just before sleep all random things I need to pop into my head.. making me grab for my iPhone’s reminders at least five times before I finally fall asleep.. Looking forward to your next post!

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