August 13, 2010

David Allen's Getting Things Done - Incomplete Item Collection Process & Tool

The book Getting Things Done by David Allen is a terrific personal and productivity instruction manual, and ideal for those of us with Adult ADHD. While the whole process appears rather daunting to me, the first stage of his five-stage method for managing your personal and professional life (or 'workflow' as he calls it) is very useful for me. This is called the collection process - gathering all of the 'incompletes' of our lives into a centralized collection list of some sort.

Below I quote David Allen describing a brief summary of his overall system, plus a more detailed explanation of the collection process. I also have included an extremely useful tool (here is a link to the PDF file) which will methodically lead you through a collection process covering many aspects of your entire life. I found this tool created by Kathy Paauw, a professional organizer and certified business & personal coach on her website This tool will help you to develop a big list of items written down - and therefore (as David Allen's theory goes) a big list of items no longer floating around in your head, taking up memory and distracting you for the necessary priorities.

Note: Make sure that you devote at least a couple of hours in a place where you can control or minimize your distractions - and recognize that the very act of thinking deeply and comprehensively about items you have not attended to can be anxiety-inducing. So give yourself breaks, and go easy on yourself if you feel guilty. Guilt was a necessary guiding force when you were young, so as not to violate the unassailable, implicit and explicit rules of authority figures around you. But now that you're all grown up, you may wish to allow yourself to question your feelings of guilt and perhaps allow yourself to behave in self-serving ways, counter to the messages of authority - towards the goal of reclaiming your lost agency and parts of your self, i.e. to reconnect with who you are.

David Allen's summary of the process behind Getting Things Done:
"THE CORE PROCESS I teach for mastering the art of relaxed and controlled knowledge work is a five-stage method for managing work flow. No matter what the setting, there are five discrete stages that we go through as we deal with our work. We (1) collect things that command our attention; (2) process what they mean and what to do about them; and (3) organize the results, which we (4) review as options for what we choose to (5) do. This constitutes the management of the "horizontal" aspect of our lives—incorporating everything that has our attention at any time."
Collection process details:
"Gathering 100 Percent of the "Incompletes"

In order to eliminate "holes in the bucket," you need to collect and gather together placeholders for or representations of all the things you consider incomplete in your world—that is, anything personal or professional, big or little, of urgent or minor importance, that you think ought to be different than it currently is and that you have any level of internal commitment to changing.

Many of the things you have to do are being collected for you as you read this. Mail is coming into your mailbox, memos are being routed to your in-basket, e-mail is being funneled into your computer, and messages are accumulating on your voice-mail. But at the same time, you've been "collecting" things in your environment and in your psyche that don't belong where they are, the way they are, for all eternity. Even though it may not be as obviously "in your face" as your e-mail, this "stuff" still requires some kind of resolution—a loop to be closed, something to be done. Strategy ideas loitering on a legal pad in a stack on your credenza, "dead" gadgets in your desk drawers that need to be fixed or thrown away, and out-of-date magazines on your coffee table all fall into this category of "stuff."
As soon as you attach a "should," "need to," or "ought to" to an item, it becomes an incomplete. Decisions you still need to make about whether or not you are going to do something, for example, are already incompletes. This includes all of your "I'm going to"s, where you've decided to do something but haven't started moving on it yet. And it certainly includes all pending and in-progress items, as well as those things on which you've done everything you're ever going to do except acknowledge that you're finished with them.

In order to manage this inventory of open loops appropriately, you need to capture it into "containers" that hold items in abeyance until you have a few moments to decide what they are and what, if anything, you're going to do about them. Then you must empty these containers regularly to ensure that they remain viable collection tools.

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."

Here are Kathy Paauw's instructions for downloading the incompletes in your life. You may wish to adapt it to include 'trigger questions' that are more appropriate to your own life:

"Begin the Download

Using the list of trigger questions below to get you started, write down things you’re storing in your memory that need your attention. This is not intended to become a “to-do” list, but rather a complete “download” of what your brain is holding on to at the conscious and subconscious level. Download all your incompletions here. (An Incompletion is anything you pay attention or give thought to that needs to be different than it is right now.)

At this point, don’t try to prioritize or decide whether or not you will do these things. After you’ve completed the “download” you can decide what to do with the items on your list. For now, don’t think about that…just list!

Go through this list of questions TWICE – once for your WORK activities and once for your PERSONAL activities. Write EVERYTHING down that comes to mind – the more the better! 100% download is important.

After you’ve gone through the entire list of Trigger Questions, review your list of action items needing your attention and ask yourself if any action items are part of a bigger project. For example, if you listed “purchase file folders,” is this part of a bigger project involving an office reorganization? If so, there may be other action items necessary to complete the whole project. Write it ALL down.

After the Download

Now that you have gone through a complete download, get in the habit of doing the following:
· Get all new ideas out of your head and written down somewhere so you don’t have to remember them all.
· Have a minimum number of places where you keep the ideas you write down (one at home, one in the office, one in your car). You can use pads of paper, electronic notes on your Palm or computer, or even a voice-activated recording device for when you’re driving – as long as you regularly transcribe recorded messages to paper or electronic notes.
· Do a weekly review of action items you write down, and incorporate them into the 4Ds –
· Do (this week -- calendar)
· Defer (another week -- Perhaps List)
· Delegate (review during weekly planning -- Delegation Log)
· Delete/Dump

Incompletions: Trigger List of Questions

1. List projects started & not completed:
· What’s on your desk?
· What’s in your drawers?
· What’s on your floor/under your desk?
· What’s behind your door?
· What’s in your briefcase or bags?
· What’s in storage boxes?
· What’s in the stacks of paper on your credenza or filing cabinet?
· What about the scraps of paper, business cards, receipts?
· What’s on your “to do” lists?
· What’s on your Post-it notes around your office or on the refrigerator?
· What’s on your “to do” lists on note pads, from meeting notes, in your calendar or journal?
· What’s in your e-mail box that needs your attention?
· What’s on your calendar from previous weeks that did not get handled (family calendar and appointment book)?

2. List projects not yet started:
· What’s on your desk?
· What’s in your drawers?
· What’s on your floor/under your desk?
· What’s behind your door?
· What’s in your briefcase or bags?
· What’s in storage boxes?
· What’s in the stacks of paper on your credenza or filing cabinet?
· What about the scraps of paper, business cards, receipts?
· What’s on your “to do” lists?
· What’s on your Post-it notes around your office or on the refrigerator?
· What’s on your “to do” lists on note pads, from meeting notes, in your calendar or journal?
· What’s in your e-mail box that needs your attention?
· What’s coming up on your calendar that needs to be handled (family calendar and appointment book)?

3. What projects are completed that need to be acknowledged as complete?

4. What commitments or promises have you made and not kept? Do you need to follow through or renegotiate? What do you need to clarify or resolve?

5. Are there people waiting for you to get back to them?

6. Are there people you are waiting to hear back from?

7. What do you need to research or look into?

8. Are there professionals or support staff waiting to hear back from you about anything?
· Lawyer
· Accountant
· Consultants
· Administrative assistant
· Other

9. What communications are incomplete?
· Phone calls
· Letters
· Cards (greeting, thank you, special event)
· Memos
· E-mails
· Faxes

10. Any important events coming up?
· Dinners
· Parties
· Receptions
· Graduations
· Weddings
· Birthdays
· Anniversaries
· Reunions (family, class, other)
· Holidays
· Cultural events
· Sporting events

11. Any writing you need to do?
· Drafts
· Reports
· Evaluations, reviews
· Proposals
· Articles
· Promotional/marketing material
· Instructions
· Summaries
· Charting (medical dictation, etc.)
· Minutes of meetings or events
· Rewrite or edit
· Status reports
· Tracking or logging of key communications or conversations
· Billing

12. Anything needing to be done around meetings?
· Anything need to be set or confirmed?
· Do you need to make reservations for transportation, meeting space, a place to stay?
· Do you need to request a meeting from someone?
· Do you need to prepare anything for meetings?
· Debrief of meetings already had?
· Actions or commitments agreed to?
· Any tracking or recording needed?

13. Any read and review needed?
· Documents
· Articles
· Books/publications
· Updates, memos
· Peer review

14. Anything needing attention with financial aspects?
· Accounts
· Cash/cash flow
· Budgets
· Balance sheets
· Assets
· Profit & loss
· Forecasting
· Credit/credit lines
· Loans/mortgages
· Taxes
· Insurance
· Payables
· Billing
· Receivables
· Petty cash
· Banks/bankers
· Investments
· Expense reimbursement or tracking expenses for tax deductions
· Allowance for kids
· College fund

15. Anything you need to do in the area of planning & organizing?
· Long-term goals
· Short-term goals
· Setting up an effective system for processing and managing paper flow
· Contact management
· Targets/objectives
· Business plans/business planning
· Marketing plans
· Financial planning
· Event planning
· Presentations, meetings
· Conferences
· Organizing space:
· Main living areas
· Main working areas
· On-site storage (garage, attic, storage rooms)
· Off-site storage (rented storage space)
· Organizing collections (videos, slides, photos, CDs, cassettes, records, etc.)
· Organizing paper (reference files and action/tickler files)

16. What about travel & vacation planning?
· Gathering ideas & information
· Making reservations
· Arranging for things to be handled while you’re away (coverage at work, house-sitter for pets, holding the mail and newspaper, etc.)
· Documents such as Passport or Visa up-to-date?

17. Anything needing attention about your organization or company?
· Organizational chart
· Lines of authority
· Job descriptions
· Restructuring the organization
· Anything about facilities
· New systems
· Change initiatives
· Leadership
· Succession planning
· Administrative things
· Legal issues
· Forms
· Procedures or instruction manual
· Insurance issues
· Personnel issues
· Staffing – hiring & firing
· Reviews
· Policies & procedures
· Training & education (self & others)
· Staff development
· Compensation -- salary & benefits
· Communication about or with staff
· Morale
· Feedback
· Evaluations
· Rewards/awards
· Acknowledgments
· Corrective action

18. Anything needing your attention with sales & marketing?
· Customers/clients/patients
· Prospective customers/clients/patients
· Lead generation
· Sales process
· Sales training
· Relationship-building
· Sales or status reporting
· Tracking
· Customer service
· Promotional campaigns
· Promotional materials
· Public relations
· Image of organization

19. Are you waiting for anything?
· Information you have requested
· Things you have delegated to others – projects, tasks
· Replies to communications, proposals
· Answers to questions
· Reimbursements or rebates you’ve submitted
· Orders you’ve placed but not received – tickets, products, supplies, equipment

20. Anything you want to do around professional development?
· Seminars/workshops
· Things to learn
· Skills you want to develop or improve on
· Books or journals you want to read
· Subscriptions – subscribe or unsubscribe
· Research on things you want to look into
· Certifications
· Formal education/degrees
· Courses
· Career planning
· Revise resume/CV
· Professional wardrobe
· Professional gear you need
· Organizational systems for your office
· Other
· Other
· Other

21. Any attention needed for volunteer/civic work, projects, or stewardship?
· Service clubs
· Church/synagogue
· Professional organizations/associations you belong to
· Community organizations/non-profits
· School programs
· Contributions
· Planned/Deferred Giving (wills, trusts, etc.)
· Care for the environment (recycling, etc.)
· Other
· Other
· Other

22. Any attention you want to pay to professional and personal relationships?
· Spouse/significant other
· Children
· Parents
· Other family
· Friends
· Pets
· Co-workers/peers
· Other professionals in your industry
· Professionals in other industries you want to connect with
· Counselors
· Consultants
· Coaches
· Other
· Other
· Other
· Other
· Other
· Other
· Other

23. Anything in your physical environment in need of repair, remodel/update, replacement?
· Computer software – upgrade, update downloads
· Computer hardware
· Printers
· Electronic equipment
· Office equipment
· Appliances
· Entertainment (TV, VCR, stereo, etc.)
· Tools
· Construction/remodeling/repairs
· Heating/air conditioning
· Air quality/ventilation
· Plumbing
· Electricity/wiring
· Landscaping
· Driveways, sidewalks
· Roofing
· Walls, flooring, ceilings
· D├ęcor/fixtures
· Furniture
· Lighting
· Signage
· Phones
· Databases
· Faxes
· Filing systems
· Archives/storage
· Supplies
· Business cards
· Letterhead/envelopes/stationery

24. Do any legal aspects of your life need attention?
· Will/Living Will
· Trusts
· Documents
· Contracts/deeds
· Agreements
· Power of Attorney
· Licenses (business, professional, sporting)

25. Have you loaned anything to anyone who has not returned it?
· Books/publications
· Tools
· Equipment
· Teaching materials (slides, overheads, etc.)

26. Do you need to return anything to anyone you have borrowed something from?
· Books/publications
· Tools
· Equipment
· Teaching materials (slides, overheads, etc.)

27. How about self-care activities?
· Exercise
· Health (doctor, dentist, optometrist, health practitioners, etc.)
· Recreation & sports
· Entertainment
· Hobbies (sewing, knitting, woodwork, building, etc.)
· Diet
· Creative expressions (art, music, photography, etc.)
· Counseling
· Coaching
· Spiritual renewal
· Rest & relaxation/stress reduction
· Books to read
· Music/videos to listen to/view
· Personal development (classes, workshops, seminars, education)

28. Any concerns about transportation (purchase, repair, renew lease, etc.)?
· Car/truck
· Bike/motorcycle
· Commuting
· Repair
· Purchase or lease options
· Insurance coverage

29. Does your wardrobe effectively support your activities in the comfort and style you desire? Does it fit? Is it in style? Does anything need repair?
· Work
· Leisure/loungewear
· Formal wear
· Hobbies
· Sports
· Accessories
· Luggage (purse, briefcase, suitcases, carry-on travel cases, etc.)

30. Any errands you want to run? Purchases you want to make? Shopping or Web surfing you want to do?
· Hardware store
· Pharmacy
· Grocery store
· Bank
· Cleaner
· Stationery/office supply
· Mall
· Gifts
· Software & hardware
· Health food store

31. As you walk around your home and work space, do you notice anything that you have attention on which needs to be different than it is right now?
I hope you've found this post useful. At the very least, read the David Allen summary of the collection process, and download and print out Kathy Paauw's PDF document of the instructions for downloading the incompletes in your life, and take some time to go through it, with a blank pad of paper and a pen beside you in a quiet room.



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  1. Wow Mungo I'm totally taking notes on this post! Thanks for this!! :)


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