As mentioned in my previously blog post, the first thing you need to do when implementing GTD is to perform a mind dump.

What does this mean? And why is it necessary? Well, it means that you need to write down all the things that you have banging around in your head.

All the work and personal tasks that you would like to do or that have been assigned to you by a boss, colleague or significant other need to be written down.

This is the brain dump, and it’s important because our brain has not evolved to be a reminders app, a calendar or a todo list. It has evolved to be a creative tool that can come up with creative and novel solutions to problems if we allow it to do its work.

If we don’t write down the things that we need to do, our brain will attempt to take the role of a reminders app, and, thus, will be in a constant state of stress, sending us the signal “we need to get a lot of things done” at the most inappropriate times.

Since the brain has not evolved to be a todo list or a calendar, it can remind you of things at the most inconvenient times and places.

For example, it can remind you to buy milk while you are in a board meeting, or that you need to write one more paper to get promoted when you wake up to get a glass of water at 3AM.

Clearly, neither of the previous scenarios are going to be helpful. By dumping everything in the mind onto paper, your brain can begin to relax because it no longer needs to play the role of a reminders app, a calendar or a todo list.

But that’s not the end of the story, if you do this dump and then don’t engage with what you’ve written, your brain will not trust this new “external memory”.

Therefore, you need to write down all you are considering in your work and personal life in a trusted repository that you will regularly review and process.

Once your brain knows that you will regularly review and process what you have written down, it will stop worrying that you will forget something. And when it stops worrying about that, it will be free for its natural task — coming up with creative solutions to problems.

Of course, this brain dump only needs to be done once when you are starting on GTD, because it’s then that you have all these commitments and tasks stored in your head.

Once you do the initial brain dump, you need to maintain the system by immediately writing down any new commitments you receive instead of trying to store them in your mind like before. This is to avoid the accumulation of stuff in your brain which would require another brain dump later on.

Your need to master the art of writing down anything that you need to do. For example, if you’re in your office and a colleague pops in to tell you about a new task you need to work on, write it down immediately and put it into your trusted repository.

That way you have a known place where you collect all your input and you can rest assured that you will find it when you need to. A natural question at this point is what is this trust repository?

Personally, I have three collection points. One is a physical in-tray in my office where I put all handwritten notes, letters from the dean, student complaints that I haven’t processed yet and anything else that physically comes into my office that needs my attention.

I also have another collection point in the inbox of my todo list app. Here I write any task that comes up while I’m on the go. My app is integrated with the voice Assitant on my phone, so I can actually speak to it while driving to add stuff to my inbox. I can also use it while I’m on a run, or putting the baby to sleep. I just need to speak my thoughts to it and have them added to my inbox.

My last collection point is Evernote. I have two Evernote notebooks configured to collect stuff. One is the department council meeting minutes notebook and the other is the college council meeting minutes notebook. In these two notebooks, I take notes during department council and college council meetings for later processing.

I’ve made it a habit to always put any input into these collection points until I can process them. This habit allows my brain to relax knowing that it will always be able to find the material it wants in three known locations and removes the stress that would otherwise result from holding all this information in my brain.

At this point I need to clarify an important point. When I say process input in the context of this blog, I mean decide what I am going to do with the input. Process does not mean resolving the issue brought up by the input, but rather deciding what to do with it.

For example, assume that a student pops into my office while I’m working on a research paper and complains to me that there is an error in his section grades.

What I would do is give that student a piece of paper and ask him/her to write down the name of the teaching assistant giving him/her the section, the name of the professor teaching the course and an explanation of why he/she believes the grade is incorrect.

I would the tell the student to come back to me at a certain date — usually in a day or two. I would then put this paper into my in-tray and try to wrap up, as soon as possible, the section of research I was working on in order to process the request.

Of course, if the student’s request is time sensitive — for example it’s the day before the final and he/she needs to decide whether to withdraw the course or not, I handle it immediately. But usually I put it into my in-tray.

Once I’ve finished the section of research I’m working on, or at any other time I’ve decided is the most suitable for processing my in-tray, I go through all the items it contains.

When I reach this student complaint, I begin to decide what I need to do about it. Typically, this involves setting up a project in my todo list to handle the issue. This includes adding several action items to my todo list, including, but not limited to

  • Ask the department’s administrative assistant to print out the grades of the student
  • Make a call to the TA about the issue and receive feedback
  • Make a call to the professor of the course and get feedback on the issue
  • Make a final decision and announce it to the student

Articulating these steps and adding them to my todo list is what I mean by processing the input. Once I’ve done that, the item is removed from my in-tray and placed in my processing tray until it’s done. Once it’s done, I either file it for record keeping or throw it away.

This is the first step of GTD. Capture everything that comes your way in a trusted system, and keep it there until you process it. Of course, if any item is time sensitive, I place a reminder to review it on time in my reminders app and place a sticky note on the item in the in-tray containing its due date so that I can refer to it in a timely manner.

That’s it ladies and gents, step one of GTD. More posts to follow.

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