For anyone who is familiar with any decent run-of-the-mill productivity system – getting things done (GTD) comes to mind – you probably know that one of the hardest steps you have to take is what David Allen of GTD calls the “collection” process. This process occurs when you literally go around your office, home, workspace, computer, and whatever else you use to work, and you look for incomplete tasks or open loops. Some could be as simple and obvious as “finish the last slides of presentation,” but you will probably also find a bunch of more hidden tasks that tend to be postponed and forgotten like “reorganize desk” or “hang pictures on the wall.” You would be surprised how common a messy closet is in virtually every home.
Before Collecting your Stuff
It is important to outline what exactly it is you intend to accomplish in the task collection process. Some people tend to get overwhelmed, think they can process tasks and organize and collect tasks simultaneously. Ultimately, people who go through this all-inclusive rout of organization and task management tend to hit a brick wall. They get so caught up in something like cleaning out their closet, that they spend countless precious hours in there. Meanwhile, they have an incomplete list of things they need to do, and sometimes their productivity system never even has a chance to get off the ground.
The purpose of the collection process is to give yourself an extremely accurate assessment of the volume of work you have ahead. If you can get an accurate idea of everything that you need to get done at some point, you will have an extremely value reference point and benchmark for your productivity system. Having everything that you need to do in one place gives purpose to the task processing and organizing activities because you can actually see the light at the end of the tunnel; processing tasks before collecting all of them isn’t the best idea because, in the back of your mind, you are still worried about all of the stuff you haven’t yet collected. This is why I (and David Allen) think it’s best to collect everything you need to do first and process/organize it later.
Once You Begin Collecting Stuff
Establish Your Inbox
The first order of business to begin the collection process is to designate an “inbox” for all the incomplete tasks and open loops (for short, we’ll call it stuff). This inbox will serve much like the inbox of an email system (or how an inbox should serve for an email system): A transitory place for stuff before you process and organize it. Notice the emphasis on transitory. For now though, you are allowed to store stuff in your inbox until you are done collecting. An ideal location for an inbox would be a clear space on your desk. However, for this first collection process, it will most likely stack too high, so you may want to use a spacious area on the floor in your office.
What Belongs and What Doesn’t
Have an Inbox? Great! Now all you have to do is wander around your office and look for things that are not where they belong, permanently. This begs the question, what does belong where it is? For all intents and purposes, things that do belong fall into one of the following categories:
- Supplies – Anything you use regularly obviously belongs somewhere within reach of your office or workspace. This includes your computer, printer, telephone, wastebasket, furniture, Post-its, paper, staples, legal pads, pens, pencils, SD card readers, batteries, rubber bands, and things of that nature.
- Reference Materials – Any information you think you may need from time to time falls under reference material. Most of your reference material should be in file cabinets or on bookshelves or perhaps in your office closet. I also consider software installation disks to fall under this category as you occasionally need to re-install a program to a different machine or new operating system.
- Decorations – Obviously your family photos, art, plants, and artifacts (bobble heads, etc.) are decorations and belong (in at least some capacity) in your office.
Now, do keep in mind that just because something in your workspace falls under one of these categories does not mean that it is exactly where it should be. For instance, a lot of reference material may be stored in inappropriate places like desk drawers (or even just stacked on top of the desk). Try to find the most optimal place for your reference material; it’s helpful to keep it somewhere within reach (so that you’ll actually be willing to file reference material) but make sure that reference material doesn’t get in the way of important supplies or especially inbox space.
Keep in mind that some supplies have more priority than others. If you only use your scanner twice a year, maybe it doesn’t even need to be on your desk. Generally, you want to have the supplies that you use the most within closest reach of your desk chair. If you see any supplies that don’t seem where they should be, put them in your inbox.
While decorations are a nice way to make your workspace more pleasant and inspiring, remember that it is definitely (and easily) possible to overdo decorations. Too many decorations on your desk, for example, can make your workspace cluttered and even deter you from going to your desk to work. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have to throw away any decorations though; you may just have to distribute more evenly throughout your office or home. For now, just put any of the “superfluous” decorations in your inbox.
Problem Solving While Collecting
As you get into the thick of the collection process, especially as you begin collecting physical objects that don’t belong around your workspace, you will probably run into a variety of problems that could potentially slow down or even halt your collection process. Some of the major problems include the following:
Too Much Stuff Is Too Big for your Inbox
This problem happens in a number of different ways. Either you have:
- Things that are too big to put in your inbox or
- Too much stuff in general.
For having things that are too big or impractical to put in your inbox, the solution is actually quite simple. Just write a note down on a letter-size piece of paper, and this note will represent the item that wouldn’t fit in the inbox. For example, you have a large framed photograph by your desk that needs to be hung; just write a note saying something around the area of “Large framed photograph be desk” on a sheet of paper, and put that note in your inbox. It’s also not a bad idea to date the note.
For having too much stuff in general to fit into the inbox, just start making new stacks around the original. Obviously you don’t want to stack too high or it might topple and mix with pieces of paper that aren’t supposed to be in your inbox. Just be sure that you can differentiate your inbox stacks from everything else in you workspace.
Purging and Organizing
Remember that there will be some things that you won’t necessarily have to put in your inbox. If you see something and immediately think, “Oh, that’s trash,” or “I don’t need that anymore,” throw it away! There’s no point in processing something that you can immediately tell you don’t need to worry about. This also goes for any item that has a definite place in your office that is left out. Perhaps you find a book left out that you are no longer reading for any project; put it back on your bookshelf rather than putting it in your inbox.
If you are not sure whether you should keep or throw away an item, you should probably put it in your inbox and process and organize it later. During the collection process, you shouldn’t be spending your time deciding what goes where (or how to organize your bookshelf); you should only be focusing on collecting all of your loose ends into your inbox, so you can process them later.
It’s extremely tempting, during the collection process, to get into a cleaning and organizing frenzy. You’re already throwing out a lot of items that you know aren’t going to your inbox; why not optimize the supply positioning on your desk or organize a drawer? Well, the only problem with this is if you didn’t allot yourself enough time to both collect and organize.
Let’s put it this way. By the end of your collection process, you want to have every incomplete task or idea in your inbox. If you have enough time to both collect everything around your office/home and organize your workspace, have at it. However, if time is dwindling, and you aren’t sure if you will be able to finish collecting everything that you possibly need to do, you should just write a note on a sheet of paper for anything around your office that needs organization or cleaning, and put those notes in your inbox. Bottom line: It’s better to have all of your tasks collected and processed than to have a clean and organized workplace with no productivity system installed yet.
Stuff Already on Lists or Planners?
This really depends on whether you’re initiating a new productivity system or not. This type of mass collection process shouldn’t be necessary under a well-functioning productivity system, so odds are you might even want to collect things that are written down on calendars, lists, and planners. It will never hurt to write things down more than once anyway.
Moving Beyond Physical Collecting
Once you’ve gathered all things physical around your home and office that are not as they should be, you must now do a mental collection process. There are many things going on in your head that are not yet in your inbox. I recommend writing each thought, idea, or project on a separate sheet of paper.
Sure, you could write down a long list on one piece of paper. However, you will later have to process each item on this list individually later, and I find it to be a neater mental process when you have each idea or potential action represented as discrete items. Also, you will be less likely to forget accidentally skip something on your list if you use separate papers for each idea.
Be liberal with the mental collection process. It is better to write more than less, even if your inbox gets slightly redundant. Remember to think big and small and account for all projects current, past (if you need to still properly reference or save them), and future. Not only should this mental collection process cover your professional tasks, it should also get a great deal into personal tasks as well. For a list of “triggers” to help you remember any loose ideas that might not come to you very often, consult this list.
What to Do When You Are Done?
Once you have everything you can possibly think of and find in you inbox, you can take the next step, which in most productivity systems is processing everything in your inbox. This is extremely important because, if you leave too many items in you inbox for an indefinite period of time, you compromise the whole info structure of your productivity system. If it’s in your inbox but hasn’t been processed, it’s probably still on your mind, and the whole point of collecting and processing your tasks is to get them out of your mind and into a trusted system.
Article provided by the business insurance team.