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Back to GTD: Do a fast "mind-sweep"

This post is part of the periodic “Back to GTD” series, designed to help you improve your implementation of David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

Whether you learned GTD from the book or heard it from The David himself (via one of his excellent seminars), you know that the vital first stage of Getting Things Done is Collection.

As laid out in Chapter 5:

Basically, everything is already being collected, in the larger sense. If it's not being directly managed in a trusted external system of yours, then it's resident somewhere in your psyche. The fact that you haven't put an item in your in-basket doesn't mean you haven't got it. But we're talking here about making sure that everything you need is collected somewhere other than in your head.

And, as David succinctly states elsewhere in the book, if you don't use a dedicated inbox in the context of a healthy collection habit, your whole house or office turns into your inbox. And that just doesn't scale. Failing to do so in recent weeks may be why you've fallen off the GTD wagon.

So, just as you learned Collection as the first step in implementing GTD (and to subsequently maintain your system), it's precisely the place to start when you're trying to properly get back into it.

And for the errant GTDer, I feel like the most powerful collection exercise is what DA calls "the mind-sweep."

Why the Sweep?

The idea behind the mind-sweep is to identify and gather everything that is making claims on your attention or is likely to affect the larger areas of responsibility in your life -- everything that's quietly burning cycles, stealing focus, and whittling away at your attention -- so that you can then decide what (if anything) must be done about each of those things.

By and large, you'll discover, your head is flooded with this stuff that you aren't or haven't been doing anything about. Not coincidentally, this is almost always stuff that represents some kind of incompletion, functional fuzziness, or procrastination on your part. And as long as you let that stuff accumulate as chunky deposits on the edges of your perception, it's very unlikely it'll get done since -- well -- they won't get done until they're been captured and properly started, right?

I mean, you don't sit around all day obsessing over chores and errands you finished two years ago, do you? No. Duh. They're done. And that's where you want to eventually re-locate all that you're not doing now: "done." That all starts with an exhaustive mind-sweep.

Get it on paper

As I tell my coaching peeps, anxiety unexpectedly becomes your best friend once you start to make a list, so try starting with a single sheet of printer paper and a pencil, set a timer for 10 minutes, and just begin scraping every conceivable anxiety and "open loop" from the corners of your brainpan.

Definitely begin with the hopelessly-behind project that's making you insane right now (don't front; you know that's why you're here), then proceed methodically (and eventually stream-of-consciousness-ly) through every flash of thought that makes you cringe, groan, pause, ponder, or exclaim; these are the runaway processes that are (at least partly) responsible for your brain's current CPU issues. You need them out.

Work the anxiety

Remember, this is your big chance to reward that overly sensitive constitution of yours by converting the fuel for flopsweat into items that can later be made actionable (or deferred or delegated or killed etc). But you can't do anything about it until it's been captured and evaluated in some location that has better lighting than the inside of your pointy little head. So, be courageous, loosen your brain's sphincter, and let 'er rip.

It's very useful here to employ the "Incompletion Triggers List" that David Allen provides in Getting Things Done (look in Chapter 5). If you can read phrases like "Cash flow," "Upcoming Events: Birthdays," and "Areas to Clean" and not feel some cringe of nagging incompletion -- well, you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din. Reading that list sends my own head into paroxysms.

Relentless, exhaustive, and focused

For the sweep to really do its best work, you must call upon extraordinary willpower to stay in collection mode. Remember the day you finally "got" how GTD worked by firewalling your planning time from your doing time? Same idea here. No straying.

Don't go tearing ass toward beginning every task you capture the second it occurs to you. If you're really behind in collection and suffer from distraction, I would (non-canonically) suggest even a sparing use of the two-minute rule. Don't afford yourself opportunities to break concentration if you're really on a roll. Staying focused on, as DA says, quantity of items captured is paramount. Be slavish about constantly returning to capture and follow every mental rabbit hole as far as it goes. Relief is at the other end.

Remember, your brain is smarter than you, and it can't be tricked into thinking that things are taken care of when they actually aren't. It's kind of a dick like that.

So, if the ten minute timer dings, and you've still got stuff on your mind, just keep on plowing away. It might take ten minutes just for you to sufficiently loosen up, and it's important that you gather as much as you can -- particularly if it's been a while since you've done this.

So, now what?

Well, if you've read GTD, you know what to do next; you process.

But, for the purposes of seeing this particular collection strictly in terms of getting back into GTD, I'd suggest also asking yourself a few questions as you read through your list:

  • Are there items on this list I now realize might have been aggravating my recent GTD slack?
  • Did anxiety or a feeling of being overwhelmed contribute to avoiding proper planning and execution of these items?
  • Might there be holes in my system that have made it easy for some of these items to escape and resist subsequent capture?
  • Has my work, home life, or general focus changed in subtle ways that might make me want to rethink best use of my planning time?
  • Are there interesting clusters within these projects that suggest opportunities and imminent change?
  • What sorts of tasks and projects are causing the biggest pain for me now? And how can I evolve a system that helps to compensate for that?

See if you aren't feeling a little better about getting back into things. Do you need more collection or can you proceed to processing? Cool. Onward!

Better collection habits

Remember, now, this doesn't all just happen once; ubiquitous capture is a process that means staying mindful, always having the collection tools you need nearby, and then using them. No, it doesn't have to be a Hipster PDA -- it could be a Treo, a whiteboard, or the side of your freshly shorn cat. The point is, capture the first time you think of it and you can rededicate that mental processing cycle to more interesting creative work.

Have you had good luck using Collection and mind-sweeps to get back into Getting Things Done? Got an inspiring tip to help other folks get back in the swing via smart Collection?

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




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