Getting Things Done – the book – part 6

… starting from the point where the story stopped.

Clarifying – or how to empty your in-tray

Getting “in” to empty doesn’t mean actually doing all the actions and projects that you’ve captured. It just means identifying each item and deciding what it is, what it means, and what you’re going to do with it.David Allen

Three rules

Process the top item first1

The idea is that you don’t want to avoid dealing with anything in there. The best way to achieve this is to process everything equally from the top to bottom – no matter how urgent and important is the stuff below. Do not look for the most urgent, most fun, easiest, or most interesting stuff to deal with first.

Everything gets processed equally – in order

As soon as you break that rule and process only what you feel like processing, in whatever order, you’ll invariably begin to leave things unprocessed. Then you will no longer have a functioning funnel, and it will back up all over your desk and office and e-mail “in” repositories.David Allen

Process one item at a time

This rule is related to the first one, you don’t want to pick something up, not know exactly what you want to do about it, and then let your eyes wander to another item farther down the stack and get engaged with it. As the author points out, This is dangerous territory.

The focus on just one thing forces the requisite attention and decision making to get through all your stuff.David Allen

Never put anything back into “in”

This rule can be encapsulated in one sentence:

There’s a one-way path out of “in.”

The next-action decision

Much of the time the action will not be self-evident; it will need to be determined.David Allen

Seemingly, this is perhaps the most fundamental practice of this methodology. If there’s something that needs to be done about the item in ‘in,’ then you need to decide what, exactly, that next action is. Importantly, the action step needs to be the absolute next physical thing to doa visible activity. The author gives a few examples here to help you understand what he means. One of them is about setting a meeting. Writing down “Set meeting” is not good enough; this is not a physical, visible activity. Instead, you should have something like “Call John to ask him if he’s available on Monday for a meeting.”

If you haven’t identified the next physical action required to kick-start it, there will be a psychological gap every time you think about it even vaguely. You’ll tend to resist noticing it, which leads to procrastination.David Allen

Stuff that is NOT actionable

As alluded to in part 2 of this mini-series, if the answer to the question “Is it actionable?” is “No”, you have three possibilities:

  • Trash2
  • Someday/maybe
  • Reference

The trick is to decide whether or not to keep something for future reference – or to trash it. Here is the author’s advice on that matter:

I have two ways of dealing with that:
   When in doubt, throw it out.
   When in doubt, keep it.
Take your pick.

Once you have decided what the action step is, you have three options:

  • Do it (if the action takes less than two minutes3)
  • Delegate it (if you’re not the most appropriate person to do the action)
  • Defer it into your organization system as an option for work to do later

Do it

I could not but resist commenting on this directive: Even if the item is not a high-priority one, do it now if you’re ever going to do it at all. If I were to follow this – especially after my initial capturing step – it would take me months to empty my in-tray. Fortunately, David Allen has an answer:

Two minutes is in fact just a guideline. If you have a long open window of time in which to process your in-tray, you can extend the cutoff for each item to five or ten minutes. If you’ve got to get to the bottom of all your input rapidly, in order to figure out how best to use your afternoon, then you may want to shorten the time to one minute, or even thirty seconds, so you can get through everything a little faster.

You shouldn’t become a slave to spending your day doing two-minute actions.

Delegate it

Interestingly, the author lists several options (five to be precise) to hand the stuff to the appropriate person – from emails to face-to-face talk – explaining the pros and cons of each. He also recommends a specific order; having this to say about the last option:

The least preferable option would be to interrupt what both you and the person are doing in the moment to talk about the item. This is immediate, but it hampers workflow for both of you and has the same downside as voice mail: no written record.

“Oops, I have to rethink my way of delegating things at work”

It’s important that you record the date on everything that you hand off to others. This, of all the categories in your personal system, is the most crucial one to keep tabs on.David Allen

Defer it

There is not much in this chapter about this part, the author only states These actions will have to be written down somewhere and then organized in the appropriate categories so you can access them when you need to. Before explaining, a topic I’ll cover in step-by-step detail in the next chapter.

One last step – the project loop

If any of the action steps you have determined before – for each of the actionable stuff in your in-tray – is the first step, then this stuff becomes a project. In other words, if there is more than one single action step involved, this is a project. There will be other action steps and you need to ensure that you’ve got placeholders for all those open loops.

If the action step you’ve identified will not complete the commitment, then you’ll need some stake in the ground to keep reminding you of actions you have pending until you have closure. You need to make a list of projects.David Allen

To be continued…

1 Theoretically you should flip your in-tray upside down and process first the first thing that came in. This is called the First-In, First-Out (FIFO) method, as opposed to the Last-In, First-Out (LIFO) approach. ^
2 Sarcastically, I could say that throwing something out is an action, but I will refrain from commenting. The same applies to all three possibilities, though. Sorry, can’t resist commenting! Here is how the author defines Next action: the next physical, visible activity that would be required to move the situation toward closure. Trashing something, writing it on a Someday/Maybe list, or filling it for archival or support purposes all fulfill the aforementioned definition, isn’t it? ^
3 Here is the reasoning behind the 2-min rule: The rationale for the two-minute rule is that it’s more or less the point where it starts taking longer to store and track an item than to deal with it the first time it’s in your hands—in other words, it’s the efficiency cutoff. ^

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