I strive to be as efficient as possible; as thorough as possible. I never want to let anything slip by me, and I don’t let the things I have to take action on stew around in my brain. I’m often asked how I do it and people comment that they wish they too could be as “in control.” It really isn’t that difficult. Anyone can do it. There are only a few key principles that must be adhered to.
Define the System
David Allen, author of Getting Things Done (GTD), uses the term “trusted system” to define a collection of process that act as a safety net to capture and organise anything and everything. My trusted system consists of four subsystems.
- A system of capture
- A system of reference
- A system of action
- A system of time
The most important aspect of these subsystems is that they each have a clearly defined purpose and responsibility. I make sure that each subsystem knows exactly what it needs to do, that it does it extremely well, and that it knows when it should step back and let another subsystem take over. There is a flow that connects each of these subsystems that allows for the natural evolution of a “note” to become a “task”, if needed. So what do each of these subsystems actually do?
Here I will cover the first subsystem: capture. Look out for future posts covering each other subsystem. Subscribe to receive updates in your inbox.
The “Capture” Subsystem
Capturing ideas and actions is critical to the success of any method of getting things done. If the right ideas are not captured somehow, they are missed, forever lost with only torn remnants left scattered in your brain. There are many tools that I use to capture, and each is used as frequently as the next.
The Basic Capture
I use a simple notebook when in meetings. I find that taking notes with pen and paper affords a level of engagement that digital note taking cannot – for example, in a meeting you can’t hide behind a screen and be distracted when everything you have is plainly exposed on the page before you. Pen and paper provides a level of freedom and flexibility that is not so easily available in the digital realm. For example, if I need to expand upon a note from earlier in the conversation I can do so without having to worry about fonts, or bullet indentation or that annoying misspelled world glaring at you with its little evil red underline. The context of the conversation has a spatial property that imprints itself in my mind better than text next to a bullet point and using pen and paper allows that awareness to be represented on the page.
The Digital Capture
Having said that, when I am making notes in my own time, I will often use a digital system. I have more time to get things right and the luxury of linking to other notes and documents. My system of choice for this is Evernote.
My paper-based notes do not stay analog for long. Nor do the whiteboards I create remain merely ink. Immediately after the conversions ends and before the notebook closes (or perhaps as soon as possible thereafter) I use my phone to snap a photo of each page of my notebook, or each whiteboard. Again, I use Evernote as the capture device here. Utilising the Document Camera option, snapping a page of my notebook or a whiteboard will automatically enhance the image, crop it based on contrasting edges, and adjust any perspective distortion. This results in a clear image of my notes and diagrams that are in the same place as my other notes. Additionally, those images are indexed meaning that when I need to find them again I can search for the words I have hand written and Evernote will find exactly what I am looking for (though it helps if my writing is somewhat legible).
Ready for Anything
To completely utilise all these methods of capturing ideas and actions all I need to have with me is a notebook, a pen, and my phone. With just these three things I can quickly and easily capture anything… except maybe a butterfly, that might be tough with a pen. That’s not to say that these are the only tools that work for capturing things. You may prefer to use Post-It’s, or Wunderlist, or Penultimate, or pretty much anything else (except Angry Birds, that won’t work). The one thing that must be adhered to when capturing ideas and actions is consistency. As long as you have a consistent and methodical approach to capturing content you can use any tool, even stone and chisel.
The Capture Inbox
Irrespective of how things are being captured, it is important that they flow through to a common repository; an “inbox” that spans everything on your radar. If you’re a “paper” person, your inbox could be a tray on your desk. A primarily digital person, such as myself, may use a tool such as Evernote as that inbox. Depending on the combination of tools being used, there may be multiple inboxes. For example, when using a notebook to capture meeting notes, and a whiteboard to collaborate on ideas, this may constitute multiple inboxes – one being the notebook and the other the photos on your phone or camera after snapping a photo of the whiteboard.
As long as the location of each inbox is known, and that there are a small and manageable number of them, your system is primed for action. I have two inboxes that I manage, the first is my email. This inbox acts a cursory inbox whereby I will review each email and make a decision as to what I need to do with it; if I’m certain I don’t need it further it will be deleted; if it’s not important, but might be worth holding on to it will be moved to an folder called “Archive”; or, if it’s important and I need to keep it handy it will be forward to Evermote.
Evernote acts as my ultimate inbox. Whether it’s an email, a photo of a whiteboard, notes from a meeting or even a screenshot with annotations, it all ends up in Evernote. I have a special notebook setup called “.Inbox”. The . at the start helps to keep that notebook as the first one in my list of notebooks, making it quick and easy to get to. This notebook (.Inbox) is set as the default notebook in Evernote’s preferences area.
Processing Rules and Frequency
Once everything being captured is flowing through to one or more inboxes that you have a handle on, they must be reviewed and process regularly. One simple but groundbreaking revelation for me was that an inbox should never collect dust. By that I mean that anything that enters an inbox should leave it within a relatively short timeframe. As soon as things begin to linger and stack up there the inbox becomes nothing more than clutter. An inbox may contain various things, such as that million dollar idea, a note to call the vet, the latest gas bill, or perhaps the structure of a blog post you wish to write. In any case, when these items get left unattended important things in your life begin to slip by, unnoticed, plotting to cause chaos. For some things it may not matter, yet for others (likely the vast majority) it can lead to a snowball of events that can be difficult to recover from – remember that time when you forgot to pay your credit card bill on time?
The key to keeping your inbox free from parasitic dust is to process it regularly. But what does it mean to “process an inbox”?
Processing an Inbox
Everything in an inbox should be transitioning from one state or location to another. An inbox will continue to collect anything and everything it receives and will quickly grow into an unwieldy beast if left unchecked. Processing an inbox is not a daunting task and doing so on a frequent and regular basis alleviates any undue stress over unknown or uncommitted actions.
Essentially, processing an inbox comes down to making a decision.
“Do I need this?”
That’s the first question that should be asked of any item encountered in an inbox. The answer to that can only be a simple “yes” or “no.” Obviously, if the answer is “no” whatever that item is can be discarded, deleted. This frees up space in your inbox for new items and also frees up brainspace. Like it or not, your brain knew about that item. Somewhere in the dark recesses of your mind was a little bug continually poking around trying to get you to do something about that thing. With that item now removed from your radar, that area of your brain becomes free and the bugs move on to other tasty things.
But what if the answer is “yes”?
“Yes” will often lead to additional questions, each of which can be asked in a certain sequence. This method creates a systematic and reliable approach to processing any inbox, resulting in a truly trusted system of capture.
The feeling of being in control that comes with a completely empty and processed inbox is truly extraordinary. The brain feels less scattered, shoulders more relaxed and a lighter and more energetic feeling will radiate from you. This is the feeling that comes with knowing that everything that has come your way has been captured and filed in such a way that when you need it you know exactly where it is and how to get to it.
Further reading: The 4 Systems of Ultimate Productivity: 2. Reference.