Now we get started. You are about to embark on a journey of improvement and personal management that has the potential to radically transform your productivity, reduce your levels of stress, and enhance your life in ways you would not think possible.

We have already outlined what the GTD process is, and looked at the main elements. We have also discussed what some of the benefits are, and looked at getting ready to implement it. Now it’s time to actually take the plunge. You should already have what’s needed to get going, and have identified the list of areas you’re going to tackle. Just pick one – I recommend an important one (work or home) as you’ll see the biggest benefit quickly (I will discuss doing this process with your e-mail inbox in a separate post).

Make sure you set aside some quality time to do this initial step. If it’s at work, you may want to make it a day that you know will be quite (a holiday or a weekend). Regardless, you want to make it a time that you are fairly confident you will be able to minimise the interruptions.

Get your bin bag open and beside you on the floor, your selected inbox (folder, box, clear space on desk etc) in front of you, a pile of sheets of paper, and a pen/pencil. Having these will make the process go a lot quicker.

Roughly gather up everything that is in the space you are working at. I mean literally pile all the bits of paper, bills, letters, receipts, and any other random stuff that may be in the area, and put it in a big pile at your side. Depending on how busy this space is, you may need to do this a pile at a time. I advise starting with the visible space first, then move to drawers (one at a time), then on to cupboards and finally physical space around your desk.

The most important aspect of this initial process is that you stick to the following process

  • Pick up the thing on the top of the pile
  • Look at it (briefly reading it if need be)
  • Dump it, if it’s trash
  • Put it in the in-tray, if it’s not
  • Pick up the next thing….. and repeat

There are some very important points to this process. Remember the point is to clear the physical clutter in your life, and the mental clutter in your brain. Part of the process of implementing GTD is about training yourself not to get distracted. Ask yourself this question: “How often am I in the middle of doing one thing, when my mind intervenes, and takes me off in a completely different direction?”. This may be because you hear the ping of an email arriving, or a text message; it may be because you are reading a document that has something that reminds you of something else. This ‘butterfly brain’ way of doing things is not only ineffective at getting things done, it also adds clutter to your brain. So, pick up what’s on the top of the pile, deal with it, pick up the next thing. As you go through the process, you’ll find yourself relaxing into it, and it will get easier, quicker and more cathartic as you go.

When you pick up something it is important to know that, at this stage, you are only making one decision “can I dump this?”. A lot of what you have will be obviously trash, but some will be less clear. You may have to read whatever it is. Do not read it the level of detail needed to deal with it; only glance through it, to see if you can dump it. It is possible that you may find something and find yourself thinking “I forgot about that, I need to do something about this now!”. Really? If it were that urgent, would it be lying on your desk. Whatever goes in this in-tray will be dealt with – that’s the whole point. Resist the urge to deal with it right now. However, if you really can’t resist, then do it – quickly, and get back to the next thing on the top of the pile. As a stop-gap, because it is likely at this stage you do not trust the process yet, create a separate pile of things that have to be done urgently.

If you can, dump it. I found this step the most cathartic part of the process. Each thing I could dump, I vigorously ripped up and stuffed in my bin bag. Everything that you put in here will be like a little weight coming off your shoulders; relish it; enjoy it. The more you do, the better the process, and the better you’ll feel going into the next step.

There are some things that you don’t want to dump, but you won’t put in the in-tray. For example, if you find something that you need to do something with or about, put it in, but on a sheet of paper, write the date, and what you want to do. If you think of something that is not related to the stuff on your desk, but is something you need to do, write it on a bit of paper and put that in the tray. If something is too big to go into your in-tray (if it’s a box, or a piece of equipment for example), write what it is, what you need to do and where you’re putting it temporarily, on a piece of paper, and put that in your inbox.

Once the pile is finished, move on to the next pile, or drawer or cupboard. If your tray is full, start another one.

When you finish this stage you will have a pile of things or sheets of paper, all of which you know you need to do something with or about. You will also have a clear (or certainly clearer) desk. Most importantly, you will have one or many bulging bin bags of clutter that you have removed from your office, your head and your life.

The last step in this initial collection is to do a mental sweep of things that you have in your head. What do you know you need to (or want to) do. What actions do you have from meetings you have had, or meetings you have planned. What did you say you would do for people. Spend a good few minutes going through every aspect of your life and work, and when you think of anything, write it on a piece of paper and put it in your in-tray.

If your experience doing this, is anything like mine was, you will now have a large pile of stuff you need to address, but will feel significantly more in control. A feeling of stress or being out of control, rarely comes from having too many things to do, it comes from not having a clear idea of what those things are. You have taken your first step in eradicating this problem from your life for ever: your first step in implementing a trusted, robust, system for Getting Things Done.

In part 5 we will look at the Processing stage, in relation to initial implementation of the system.

Let me know how you get on, or your experiences of doing this in the past. Use the comments below.

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