Have you ever played a chess game while pondering about this task at work you didn’t manage to finish in due time? Or being interrupted in the middle of a critical calculation wondering if you finally did what your partner asked you to prepare, among the never-ending list of to-do’s you have?
Often annoying, isn’t it?
David Allen, famous author of the Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity method, refers to these situations as open loops; which represent all the “incomplete” things in your life.
If you’re always worrying about every task you haven’t done or that you ought to do later, it might ruin your chess focus and even make you lose track of the game, which could be hard to recover from.
Wanting to meet every expectation is normal behavior but fairly impossible if you don’t have a strong organizational system in place.
Defining yours will undoubtedly boost your productivity at work, but also help you regain control of your whole life. And as a bonus, you won’t be disturbed anymore in the middle of your chess game.
GTD: a quick introduction
For those who haven’t heard of it, GTD is probably one of the best, if not the best productivity method to help you sort and organize your life on a daily basis. David Allen argues that it is often difficult for individuals to focus on big picture goals if they cannot sufficiently control the day-to-day tasks that they must frequently face. By developing and using the trusted system that deals with day-to-day inputs, an individual can free up mental space and move up to the next horizon.[i]
You will find here under the big 5 horizons advocated by David Allen.
- Horizon 5: Life
- Horizon 4: Long-term visions
- Horizon 3: 1-2 year goals
- Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountability
- Horizon 1: Current projects
- Ground: Current actions
First published in 2001, the book managed to spread these ideas successfully for years. And there is a simple reason to that: once you have understood the key points and the process behind the method, you start to structure your brain in that specific way and thus getting organizing yourself more naturally.
I invite you to have a look at this interesting video which summarizes quite well the whole GTD concept.
Note that I will explain here how I personally approached GTD and how I developed my own system, which stems from it. If your interest lies in the productivity system, rather than simply freeing your mind, I strongly recommend you read the adapted version of 2015 and analyze it on your own.
So now, are you ready to take action to get your mind free? Here is the process step by step.
Opening: list and capture everything
One piece of advice before starting, make sure to take 2 days off for the whole process in order to stay focused. Using the week end is perfectly fine as long as you are making sure not to let any emergency distract you from your goal.
During this opening phase, you will have to regroup everything which occupies your mind in a way or another. Basically, you can achieve this in 2 ways, first by regrouping all the physical items.
Regroup all your items
You might not know – I personally didn’t – but ignoring clutter around you (noise, distractions) often drains your energy as much as focusing. The brain has a limited amount of functions it can perform at a given time and I suppose we all agree clutter isn’t worth our attention.
I invite you now to simply regroup all your physical items in the central piece, including any type of papers. The only exception goes for too heavy items considered as storage such as fridges, racks or any cabinet.
I know what you think, am I really creating more mess than what I have now? And the answer is yes, temporarily of course.
By regrouping all your physical items in one piece, you will have a more global view on what makes part of your daily life and most probably realize you don’t need that much. You got it; you will have to prepare trash bags to remove any unnecessary surplus but I’ll talk about this step later.
If you want to gain time, you can proceed to sorting first by creating piles arranged by category and not by location. This idea comes from Marie Kondo, organizing consultant and author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (2011) which has been published in more than 30 countries.
As she mentions in her book: “One reason so many of us never succeed at tidying is because we have too much stuff. This excess is caused by our ignorance of how much we actually own. When we disperse storage of a particular item throughout the house and tidy one place at a time, we can never grasp the overall volume and therefore can never finish. To escape this negative spiral, tidy by category, not by place.”
If everything went well, you have a magnificent amount of piles stacked in your living room and are amazed at how much a person can possess. You can leave it for later and go sit down in front of a computer.
Next step is to identify and capture all the open loops that you’ve been briefly introduced to here above. Let me remind you these are the exact sources of your stress and constant interruptions during the game so let’s see how you can eliminate them from your mind.
Step 1: prepare your collecting tools
To regroup your thoughts, you will need to have a trusted collecting tool. I personally suggest opting for an application such as Evernote, but any other note application, to-do app or even your agenda is totally fine as long as you feel comfortable with it. You could also opt for a manual notepad but I do think it is a pity nowadays not to benefit from such great digital organizing tools. As you will see afterwards, it will largely facilitate the way you can organize all your information.
Step 2: Capture everything
Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be collected in what we will call henceforth your inbox (the tool you choose). More concretely, we are talking about each thought, idea or any project that has your attention. Don’t waste your time trying to sort as this will be done later. You will capture raw information, which crosses your mind until it is written so you won’t have to think about it. Don’t set yourself any time limit here, even things you could consider insignificant or unimportant must be captured.
Step 3: clear your digital world
You will finally clear all your digital items: voice mail, e-mails, calendar items, to-do applications, and eventually files folders (dropbox, hard disc…) which must also be regrouped in your inbox.
Middlegame: Start discarding and then sorting to clear your head
At this point, your brain will probably need a break, so why not a bit of decluttering? Don’t you remember all your piles?
Declutter your space
The following question is: What will you keep, and what will you discard? (Except for papers that must be treated separately)
To answer this question, Marie Kondo affirms you need to take each item in your hand and ask yourself: Does this spark joy? If it does, keep it. If not, throw it out.
Although this reasoning seems weird to me, I must admit it deserves praise as it relatively easy to apply. And from my personal experiment, I already threw away more than enough things to feel more relaxed inside my apartment.
As a personal recommendation, I suggest you force yourself to throw away more. By thinking seriously about the real use of each item, you will sooner or later realize you don’t need as much stuff as what you initially thought.
What about the rest? Well you can sort what you decided to keep by category if you didn’t do it initially (remember not by location) and start tidying up everything afterwards. For storing, I personally followed the suggestion of Marie Kondo which advises to use shoe boxes. In a few words, it really is a cheap solution (especially if you and/or your partner like buying shoes), practical (you free up some extra space) and solid (I couldn’t have imagined how solid they are).
By the way, don’t forget to get to recycling center right after and also take the opportunity to clean deeply your place to enjoy this fresh start even more.
Create your organizational system and stick to it
Your place must look really clean and well organized now. Let’s be honest, don’t you feel proud of this accomplishment?
What remains is your pile of papers as well as a full inbox of miscellaneous information.
Before dealing with this last part, a crucial stage is to create your own organizational system. You’ll see why I choose Evernote.
What’s amazing with this note application are the tags which allow you to integrate the whole GTD ideology into it. With a bit of technique and a video tutorial, you will learn in less than an hour (at least it is the time I needed) how to easily create an efficient system.
I would add three remarks here (You will need to check the videos first to understand what I’m talking about next).
It might appear a bit complicated at first sight. I invite you in this case to finish reading the article before coming back to creating your system.
Second, using the 3 notebooks (Inbox, GTD and Reference material) is really easy and efficient so I think you don’t need to change anything there. Concerning the tags however, I personally modified them as follows which I think, suits better the method.
Third, I’ve been using this system for over 2 years now and I can tell you using the WHERE and WHO tags is often unnecessary, except maybe for pending things (Waiting) and articles that I need to review (Read/Review). If your only purpose is to maintain a clear head, I do think the WHAT and WHEN tags, combined with a calendar and reference materials (both physical and digital) can do the job well.
That said, maybe you will come up with interesting new tagging ideas?
Emptying your inbox
Ok now we cannot delay anymore, let’s take action by tackling the inbox once and for all. (I know by next day it will probably be filled again but don’t despair, David Allen has thought about everything)
More than words, I found this video which will explain how exactly you will process all the stuff you have collected in your inbox. Combined with the summarized and detailed workflow here under, you should have sufficient tools to treat every note adequately and thus make sure everything is under control in your system, and no longer in your head anymore.
Sorting the papers
Let’s not forget your pile of papers. While sorting them, chances are it will remind yourself some action you need to do or any other valuable information (bill payment, trip to consider, important date to put in your calendar…) That is the exact reason why they need to be treated separately. Now that you have understood how the process works, you can put this new information right into the inbox system and act on it it properly.
Ending: daily and weekly maintenance
The whole point of these 2 days has been to actively track and collect every task, responsibility, or concern (aka “Open Loop”) that comes your way as well as declutter and organize your space. But if 48 hours are sufficient to clear your head, this will not put an end to new ideas popping up, other responsibilities emerging or more clutter manifesting itself again.
That’s why a bit of maintenance on a regular basis is essential.
Everyone does it so I’m not teaching you anything new. I try to do everything at once to get rid of theses chores more rapidly. Here is my own list:
- Grocery shopping
- Clean house and office
- Create a meal and workout plan
- Trim beard and shave
- Do laundry
- Prepare lunches in Tupperware containers for the week (This one I admit I rarely do even if I should!)
Constant brain dump
Each night, when you are done for the day, try taking 5 or ideally 10 minutes to note whatever comes to your mind into your inbox. By taking this habit, you will progressively engage your mind to do it automatically and make sure you don’t forget anything important. En passant, here is some advice for building and maintaining a habit.
Depending on the number of obligations and ideas you might have, you will need to sort out your inbox more or less regularly (I try to do it every 2 or 3 days maximum)
If you have failed to plan, you’re destined to fail. Everybody is confronted with unexpected situations. If for a reason or another you haven’t accomplish what you intended to, a quick review of your day as well as the planning of your next day should get you back on track swiftly.
The weekly review is roughly 2 hours of your time every week (preferably either on Friday or Monday to plan the week ahead) during which you make sure that you progress well towards your main and important goals, not letting the urgencies take over.
Concretely, here are all the points I personally review each week:
- Sorting through all my papers from my physical inbox
- Putting manual notes into my digital inbox for treatment (As ideas can show up everywhere, I have left notebooks virtually everywhere in my apartment)
- Clearing my Evernote inbox (Trash? Actionable? Next action?…). Note that I also clear my mail inboxes and my Any do application (a ‘to do app’ that I use for really important reminders at precise moments and which complements the use of my agenda)
- Reviewing the last 2 weeks of my calendar, and checking if anything important is plan ahead, linked to any event during the next 2 weeks (Birthday presents to buy for instance)
- Reviewing my waiting for list and ensuring the follow up
- Reviewing my projects: making sure the next step of each project is defined and scheduled. For habits of chess success for instance, I determine 15 tasks for the week that will be my priorities (3 tasks a day), estimate the time I think I will need to accomplish these tasks, cut this time by 2 and draw up the list. I then choose every week day during my planning session which 3 I will do the next day.
- Planning fun activities: I think about cool activities to do with family or with friends for instance. I also plan my hobbies. (I often check out my someday/maybe list for that purpose if I lack inspiration)
- Reading articles I saved throughout the week (my read/review list or pocket application)
- Planning the errands: buying bread, getting to the post office… Errands are all the things you need to do outside of your house. Here again, grouping everything is good to gain some time and gas.
This is exactly the same principle as the weekly review, with the only exception that some things can be done once a month.
My monthly review includes backups, a review of my someday/maybe list and some chores like changing the water filter or sponges for instance. I also use my monthly review to check my annual goals and make sure I stay focused on them.
Did you enjoy your 2 days? If you are not convinced to start, I will give you my personal insights on how valuable I have found the process and the 10 things I learned along the way in my next article.
One thing is for sure, if you’re that type of person constantly telling yourself, “I need to remember this or that”, you may need a system like GTD more than you think.
And if you’re not, maybe it is finally the occasion to push your productivity system to a new level.
In any case, I suggest you close all these open loops and finally get your mind free for better clarity during your next game.
[i] Allen, David (2015). Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2 ed.). Penguin Books.