This article originally appeared as “What’s in Your Head Space?” in the January/February 2013 print issue.
You’ve just attended an offsite brainstorming session for work. You came away with an idea for a new and meaningful project. You even generated a list of action steps, so you’re not only energized, you’re all geared up to make steady progress toward your vision.
Fast forward to the next morning. You’ve got 150 unopened emails in your inbox, four meetings on the afternoon calendar and a to-do list with 16 things that have to get checked off before lunch. So you set yesterday’s action list aside and make a mental note to tackle it tomorrow.
Tomorrow is just as busy, though, as is the next day and the next. So you keep hitting the pause button on your plan. Fast-forward another six weeks and your big project is a distant, increasingly hazy memory.
Organizational guru and author David Allen has seen this vicious cycle play out many times — at great cost to individuals and companies alike. When he first started out as a management consultant for a large research and development company in the 1980s, he would take executives through a big-picture goal-setting process, but he could never get them to maintain focus on their long-term visions because of the ever-mounting stack of small things that needed their attention in the short term.
“I tried to help them build forward motion and direction,” says the 67-year-old author and coach. “But with all those hounds nipping at their feet, they couldn’t concentrate on the new and challenging horizons I was asking them to pay attention to.”
The creative process requires focus and freedom from distraction. Whether you want to launch a new work initiative or write a novel in your free time, you need to tame chaotic thinking (ideally, achieving a state Allen calls “mind like water”) and carve out enough mental space and focus to do high-level thinking. And in order to do that, Allen realized, you need a trusted organizational system for handling all the random things that are vying for your attention.
With this in mind, Allen created Getting Things Done (GTD), an acclaimed organizational system that helps people collect, process and organize the details of their lives so they can experience more freedom of focus.
Allen has outlined his GTD system in a series of books and CDs — including Getting Things Done (Penguin, 2002) and Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and the Business of Life (Penguin, 2009) — that explain the system in detail. His firm also offers workshops and coaching for groups and individuals.
This article introduces a five-part series that explores the core principles of GTD and how you can leverage it to more effectively manage your time, energy and attention. In this installment, we’ll concentrate on the first of Allen’s five stages: gathering all the to-dos, ideas and bits of information that are currently rambling around inside your cluttered brain.
Phase 1: Collect
The goal of the first phase of GTD, known as “collecting,” is to catalog everything in your life that requires some action or consideration on your part. “It’s not about deciding where to put attention,” explains Allen. “[It’s] about acknowledging what is pulling or pushing on it.”
Everything counts, Allen notes. If it’s taking up space in your brain, it’s significant — whether it’s the broken zipper on your winter coat, a major presentation you have to give at work or the fact that you may eventually need to arrange care for an aging parent.
“If it’s on your mind, write it down or record it somehow in a concrete way,” Allen advises. You can use a notebook, computer or voice recorder; just be sure to create a physical reminder for each item. The goal here is to clear out the parts of your brain currently being used as random-access memory (RAM), which Allen sees as a terrible waste of high-functioning human gray matter.
“Our minds have a seductive way of convincing us that what we’re thinking about, while we’re thinking it, is so clear and obvious, that we’ll never forget it and we’ll have easy access to it exactly when we need it,” says Allen. “Of course, two minutes later, when we’re thinking about the next obvious thing we’re sure we won’t forget, we’ve forgotten the first one.”
Meanwhile, all those “gotta remember” thoughts are taking up valuable brain space, fracturing our focus, adding to our stress, and robbing us of mental capacity that could be put to far better, more creative use.
Allen offers the following strategies for getting that pesky pile of brain detritus out where you can deal with it.
The Mind Sweep. This, in Allen’s view, is one of the simplest and most powerful ways of capturing anything and everything that is currently competing for mental space. Doing a mind sweep simply involves jotting down, stream-of-consciousness style, everything you can think of that requires action or attention or further thinking on your part.
Allen has his clients start this process by having them survey their physical environments. What’s on their desks? What’s in the desk drawers? What’s in the filing cabinets? What’s in the bottom of their workbags? What’s hidden in those teetering piles of unopened mail?
“Anything that isn’t supplies, decoration, reference material or equipment is an item they need to address,” says Allen. He cautions people not to editorialize or judge as they add things to their lists.
When clients finish this process, Allen asks them to think hard about other, less tangible to-do items (like future possibilities or nagging personal challenges) that might have a claim on their attention. Anything that turns up gets written down and added to the Mind Sweep stack.
Space Clearing. When our work or living environments get too messy, they cease to be conducive to mental clarity, says Allen. You can’t see past the clutter to get a sense of what needs to be done.
Declutter virtually any space — your desk, drawer, glove compartment, counter or closet — and you will experience an almost immediate uptick in focus and sense of control, Allen promises: “You never know how much of your attention is being held captive by a physical space until you do a thorough job of purging it and notice how different you then feel.”
Everyone’s standard for orderliness is different. What matters is that you can recognize when your mess is messing with your mind. Then you can begin to rein in the chaos and regain a sense of clarity and control.
As you declutter, you’ll inevitably uncover more items for your mind-sweep list: projects that need starting, commitments crying out for completion or renegotiation, ideas that require more creativity and mental focus than you’ve been able to spare.
If you are keeping the archeological evidence of these loose ends stacked on your desk or other high-value surfaces as visual reminders (or simply because you like to “keep everything where you can see it”), asserts Allen, it’s probably costing you time, focus and productivity.
Brainstorming turns random thoughts about a particular topic into fodder for further discovery. This can be as simple as writing random notes on a napkin or as structured as using a brainstorming tool like mind mapping, to visually group and diagram related ideas. (For more on mind mapping, see “Map Your Mind.”)
Essentially, says Allen, “brainstorming is mind sweeping on a particular theme, grabbing everything that you notice has your attention when you focus your thinking in that particular area.”
Like mind sweeping, brainstorming can free up a considerable amount of mental energy. “If your focus on any project or situation seems scattered and disjointed,” Allen says, brainstorming can help you get your thinking under control.
In part two of this series, we will examine the processing phase, which helps organize your thinking about the things you collected in phase one.
Meanwhile, says Allen: “As you build awareness and practices that support this first and very critical phase . . . you will [acquire] a master key for reducing stress and increasing creative, intelligent thinking.”
David Allen is the bestselling author of Getting Things Done and Ready for Anything. He is a leading authority in developing productivity-improvement programs.