I have reaped enormous gains in the almost three months I’ve been using GTD. But I have been blocked in my attempt to implement the program fully. I have stubbornly refused to empty my collection buckets completely. I have stubbornly refused to process my collected items from top to bottom. And I have put items back into “in.”
Despite the significant benefits I have received from GTD, I have felt guilty and inadequate because of my seemingly insurmountable recalcitrance to process correctly.
This morning, however, I brought my in-box to empty. I feel good and I want others to feel as good or better than I.
I am sure most of you are way smarter and more efficient than I, so you can stop reading now. You didn’t make the mistakes I made so you won’t need to rectify them. But there just may be a few of you who were in the same boat I was in.
I had two major sources of confusion. Please note, I blame no one but myself for the confusion. The point of this posting is to get my ideas down in writing as an aid to me in clarifying my understanding. I also hope thereby that I may help a few others who may have been in the same boat I was in.
My major sources of confusion were: (1) the distinction between the initialization and utilization of GTD; and (2) the importance of “pending” files.
DISTINGUISHING INITIALIZATION FROM UTILIZATION
I see frequent references on this discussion forum to the separation of the five stages of workflow. I think that this is wrong. I think that this is wrong because there is a fundamental ambiguity between the stages of initializing GTD and the stages of using GTD.
Conflate initialization with utilization at your peril. It caused me untold pain and suffering (although I still suffered less than I did pre-GTD). But, I’ve seen the light and now I want to share the good news with any and all who will listen.
Please open your GTD book to page 119, the first page of Chapter 6, entitled “Processing: Getting ‘In’ to Empty”. There, David tells you that, “When you’ve finished processing ‘in,’ you will have . . . sorted into your own organizing system reminders of actions that require more than two minutes . . .”
What is the significance of this quotation? Well it demonstrates that, when using GTD, the organizing system has already been set up. In fact, the definition of “organizing”, according to the title of Chapter 7, is “Setting Up the Right Buckets.” Organizing is part of setup or initialization. During typical utilization of GTD, organizing is not a distinct stage. Processing presupposes organizing. When you process, you put the items into your already existing organized system.
So, what do you do when you process? You remove the item from “in.” You ask whether it is actionable. If it is, you ask what the next action is. If you don’t do the action then and there, you put a reminder into your already existing organized system. There is no distinct “organizing” step, when using GTD.
When initializing you must “set up the buckets.” This is a distinct stage called “organizing.” You will want to process your items initially to get a sense of how you are going to set up your buckets. During this initializing processing stage, processing will not involve “sorting” or “organizing.” But, only during initialization will processing and organizing be distinct.
Conclusion: You will do organizing only during initialization. During utilization you will collect, process, review, and do.
Addendum: During your weekly review you may decide to tinker with your organizing buckets. But be clear. Buckets are buckets because they are relatively fixed compared to the items that flow through them which are, therefore, relatively fluid. Certainly, if I were starting a new business, I would reorganize. If I were migrating from a paper-based to a Palm-based system, I might also reorganize. The point is not that you never organize after the initialization. The point is that using the GTD system, as opposed to setting it up or tinkering with it, presupposes that the organizing fixtures are already established.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PENDING
My failure to set up and use pending was my fatal error. I am not blaming anyone but myself, I will say again. It was all there in the book. I have diagnosed my problem and solved it by using the resources that were there in the book all along.
I do have a suggestion for further printings of GTD. Please add page 127 to the index under the heading “pending items.” The footnote at the bottom of page 127 explains it all. That footnote distinguishes initialization from utilization. That footnote also screams out (as loud as a footnote can scream) that you must have a file “to hold pending work-in-progress papers and physical reminders of next actions.”
My problem is that I wanted a formula to tell me how to live the good life. The ethicist Aristotle explained to me that this is not possible. No system will eliminate the need for good judgement. But I let my wishes cloud my better judgement. So I didn’t set up a pending file because David didn’t tell me to when he made his workflow diagram and when he listed the kinds of categories he favors for next actions. Yes, I did buy extra stackable trays when I set up my in-box. Yes I bought a hanging file holder for the top of my desk when I initialized the system. Yes, I read the footnote at the bottom of page 127 when I read and reread and reread the book. But no one ever told me exactly how to handle pending. And I got even more confused because the references to pending on pages 136 and 142 discussed pending as an initialization step and not as a utilization step. My problem was not initialization. My problem was utilization. I was lost.
But today I am found. I no longer feel I am cheating when I take an item out of my in-box, process it, and throw it in my cabinet. Prior to today, I thought that I must have a folder for the item. Today I understand that it’s nice to have a folder but it’s not necessary. As long as the item is captured in my system, and as long as I know that the item is with the pending stuff, then I need no longer fear that it is “an amorphous blob of undoability” (17).
And that was my fear. I was paralyzed into inaction because I knew that there were items in my in-box for which I had not established a place and for which I did not want to create a unique folder in my filing system. I am not averse to creating new folders. I do it all the time. But I view the folders as semi-permanent. And there are too many items in my in-box that are here today and gone tomorrow.
So I now have a pile of items in my cabinet. It’s not pretty. But it works for me.
By the way, I haven’t yet purchased David’s new book. It’s on my list of things to do. Maybe all this is in there.