Getting Things Done -- Part 2

Another excerpt from David Allen's book of practical tips and philosophical guidance on the art of stress-free productivity

Sometimes the sheer weight of the "In" basket -- whether it is one with paper in it or electronic messages -- is enough to keep us from starting anything. David Allen outlines ways to process the "In" box efficiently, cranking through all the items one at a time in order to keep the jobs from piling out and drowning you.

Who couldn't use some help in finding ways to organize? Most anyone -- and probably almost all people running a small business. This book is a compilation of thoughts about and practical ways to achieve personal productivity. Allen has gathered these ideas during his 20 years as a management consultant, executive coach and educator.

Chapter 6 -- Processing: Getting "In" to Empty

Getting "in" to empty doesn't mean actually doing all the actions and projects that you've collected. It just means identifying each item and deciding what it is, what it means, and what you're going to do with it.

When you've finished processing "in," you will have

1. trashed what you don't need;

2. completed any less-than-two-minute actions;

3. handed off to others anything that can be delegated;

4. sorted into your own organizing system reminders of actions that require more than two minutes; and

5. identified any larger commitments (projects) you now have, based on the input.

Processing Guidelines

The best way to learn this model is by doing. But there are a few basic rules to follow:

-- Process the top item first.

-- Process one item at a time.

-- Never put anything back into "in."

Top Item First

Process does not mean "spend time on."

Even if the second item down is a personal note to you from the President of your country, and the top item is a piece of junk mail, you've got to process the junk mail first! That's an exaggeration to make a point, but the principle is an important one: everything gets processed equally. The verb "process" does not mean "spend time on." It just means "decide what the thing is and what action is required, and then dispatch it accordingly." You're going to get to the bottom of the basket as soon as you can anyway, and you don't want to avoid dealing with anything in there.

Emergency Scanning Is not Processing Most people get to their in basket or e-mail and look for the most urgent, most fun, or most interesting stuff to deal with first. "Emergency scanning" is fine and necessary sometimes (I do it, too). Maybe you've just come back from an off-site meeting and have to be on a long conference call in fifteen minutes. So you check to make sure there are no land mines about to explode and to see if your client has e-mailed you back OK'ing the big proposal.

But that's not processing your in-basket -- it's emergency scanning. When you're in processing mode, you must get into the habit of starting at one end and just cranking through items one at a time, in order. As soon as you break that rule, and process only what you feel like processing, and 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.

Last In, First Out?

The in-basket is a processing station, not a storage bin.

Theoretically, you should flip your in basket upside down and process first the first thing that came in. As long as you go from one end clear through to the other within a reasonable period of time, though, it won't make much difference. You're going to see it all in short order anyway. And if you're going to attempt to clear up a big backlog of e-mails staged in "in," you'll actually discover it's more efficient to process the last-in first because of all the discussion threads that accumulate on top of one another.

One Item at a Time

You may find you have a tendency, while processing your in basket, to pick something up, not know exactly what you want to do about it, and then let your eyes wander onto another item farther down the stack and get engaged with it. That item may be more attractive to your psyche because you know right away what to do with it -- and you don't feel like thinking about what's in your hand. This is dangerous territory. What's in your hand is likely to land on a "hmppphhh" stack on the side of your desk because you become distracted by something easier, more important, or more interesting below it.

David Allen
David Allen

Most people also want to take a whole stack of things out of the in basket at once, put it right in front of them, and try to crank through it. Although I empathize with the desire to "deal with a big chunk," I constantly remind clients to put back everything but the one item on top. The focus on just one thing forces the requisite attention and decision-making to get through all your stuff. And if you get interrupted (which is likely), you won't have umpteen parts of "in" scattered around outside the tray and out of control again.

The Multitasking Exception

There's a subtle exception to the one-item-at-a-time rule. Some personality types really need to shift their focus away from something for at least a minute in order to make a decision about it. When I see this going on with someone, I let him take two or sometimes three things out at once as he's processing. It's then easier and faster for him to make a choice about the action required. Remember, multitasking is an exception-and it works only if you hold to the discipline of working through every item in short order, and never avoid any decision for longer than a minute or two.

Nothing Goes Back into "In"

There's a one-way path out of "in." This is actually what was meant by the old admonition to "handle things once," though handling things just once is in fact a bad idea. If you did that, you'd never have a list, because you would finish everything as soon as you saw it. You'd also be highly ineffective and inefficient, since most things you deal with are not to be acted upon the first time you become aware of them. Where the advice does hold is in eliminating the bad habit of continually picking things up out of "in," not deciding what they mean or what you're going to do about them, and then just leaving them there. A better admonition would be, "The first time you pick something up from your in-basket, decide what to do about it and where it goes. Never put it back in "in."

The Key Processing Question: "What's the Next Action?"

You've got the message. You're going to deal with one item at a time. And you're going to make a firm next-action decision about each one. This may sound easy -- and it is -- but it requires you to do some fast, hard thinking. Much of the time the action will not be self-evident; it will need to be determined.

I am rather like a mosquito in a nudist camp; Iknow what I want to do, but Idon't know where to begin. —Stephen Bayne

On that first item, for example, do you need to call someone? Fill something out? Get information from the Web? Buy something at the store? Talk to your secretary? E-mail your boss? What? If there's an action, its specific nature will determine the next set of options. But what if you say, "There's really nothing to do with this"?

What If There Is No Action?

It's likely that a portion of your in-basket will require no action. There will be three types of things in this category: -- Trash

-- Items to incubate

-- Reference material


If you've been following my suggestions, you'll no doubt already have tossed out a big pile of stuff. It's also likely that you will have put stacks of material into "in" that include things you don't need anymore. So don't be surprised if there's still a lot more to throw away as you process your stuff.

Until you know what the next physical action is, there's still more thinking required before anything can happen.

Processing all the things in your world will make you more conscious of what you are going to do and what you should not be doing. One director of a foundation I worked with discovered that he had allowed way too many e-mails (thousands!) to accumulate -- e-mails that in fact he wasn't ever going to respond to anyway. He told me that using my method forced him to "go on a healthy diet" about what he would allow to hang around his world as an incompletion.

It's likely that, at some point, you'll come up against the question of whether or not to keep something for future reference. I have two ways of dealing with that:

-- When in doubt, throw it out.

-- When in doubt, keep it.

Take your pick. I think either approach is fine. You just need to trust your intuition and be realistic about your space.


Determine what you need to do in order to decide.

There will probably be things in your in-basket about which you will say to yourself, "There's nothing to do on this now, but there might be later." Examples of this would be: -- A flier announcing a chamber of commerce breakfast with a guest speaker you might want to hear, but it's two weeks away, and you're not sure yet if you'll be at home then or out of town on a business trip.

-- An idea you had about something you might want to do for next year's annual sales meeting. There's nothing to do on this now, but you'd like to be reminded when the time comes to start planning for it.

-- A note to yourself about taking a watercolor class, which you have zero time for right now. What do you do with these kinds of things? There are two options that could work:

-- Write them on a "Someday/Maybe" list.

-- Put them on your calendar or in a "tickler" file.


Many of the things you will uncover in "in" will need no action but may have value as potentially useful information about projects and topics. Ideally, you have already set up a workable filing system for your reference and support information. As you come across material in your in-basket and e-mail that you'd like to keep for archival or support purposes, file it.

You'll probably discover that there are lots of miscellaneous kinds of things that you want to keep but have piled up in stacks or stuffed into drawers because your reference system was too formal or just plain nonexistent. Let me remind you here that a less-than-sixty-second, fun-to-use general-reference filing system within arm's reach of where you sit is a mission-critical component of full implementation of this methodology. In the "battle zone" of real life, if it's not easy, fast, and fun to file, you'll stack instead of organizing. And then it will become much more difficult to keep things processed.

If There Is an Action, What Is It?

This is the biggie. 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. "Next Actions" again, means the next physical, visible activity that would be required to move the situation toward closure. This is both easier and more difficult than it sounds.

The two-minute rule is magic.

The next action should be easy to figure out, but there are often some quick analyses and several planning steps that haven't occurred yet in your mind, and these have to happen before you can determine precisely what has to happen to complete the item, even if it's a fairly simple one.

The action step needs to be the absolute next physical thing to do. Remember that these are physical, visible activities. Many people think they've determined the "next action" when they get it down to "set meeting." But that's not the next action, because it's not descriptive of physical behavior. How do you set a meeting? Well, it could be with a phone call or an e-mail, but to whom? Decide. If you don't decide now, you'll still have to decide at some other point, and what this process is designed to do is actually get you to finish the thinking exercise about this item. 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.

When you get to a phone or to your computer, you want to have all your thinking completed so you can use the tools you have and the location you're in to more easily get things done, having already defined what there is to do.

You'll be surprised how many two-minute actions you can perform even on your most critical projects.

What if you say to yourself, "Well, the next thing I need to do is decide what to do about this?" That's a tricky one. Deciding isn't really an action, because actions take time, and deciding doesn't. There's always some physical activity that can be done to facilitate your decision-making. Ninety-nine percent of the time you just need more information before you can make a decision. That additional information can come from external sources ("Call Susan to get her input on the proposal") or from internal thinking ("Draft ideas about new reorganization"). Either way, there's still a next action to be determined in order to move the project forward.

Once You Decide What the Action Step Is

You have three options once you decide what the next action really is. -- Do it (if the action takes less than two minutes).

-- 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.

From Getting Things Done by David Allen. ( Copyright (c) David Allen, 2000. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.

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