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Clean Up Your Mind!

2010 April 30
tags: Getting Things Done, GTD, Self-Care
by Andrew   

Unless you regularly make an effort to capture everything nagging away at you in your head and get it out, your mind is cluttered with myriad things that need doing – regardless of whether you’re consciously thinking about them.

That perpetual nagging robs you of your productivity, saps your strength, wastes your energy, and dramatically increases the amount of effort it takes to stay focused on tasks.  It’s caused by all of the “stuff” that hasn’t been properly organized as introduced in last week’s post.  This week, I’ll focus on getting the “stuff” into a manageable system in more detail.  I’m introducing this step before it appears in “Getting Things Done” (affiliate link) because I have found that most people are made less productive when the things in their heads keep nagging them while they try to process all of the physical items on their desk and in their physical inbox(es).

Get “stuff” out of your mind and into a manageable system…it doesn’t matter what the system is.  If it’s in your head, then it’s distracting you from working on what you need to be working on at that time.

If you’re using paper, get a box big enough to hold a couple hundred note cards neatly.  If you’re using a word processor, memorize the keyboard shortcut for save now.  Get in the habit of hitting it no less frequently than every three minutes, unless your word processor is already set to autosave that frequently (most aren’t).


Review your action list

Start with last week’s sheet of paper/note cards/electronic file, and review it.  For this part of the process, don’t begin performing actions on your list yet. Reviewing last week’s work will help shift your mind into thinking about all of the undone, nagging items in your conscious and subconscious.  You’ll miss some, but they’ll come later.  There’s a great list in “Getting Things Done” on pages 114 – 117.  David Allen calls it an “incompletion triggers list.”   Try to devote thirty minutes to an hour to this, and then stop unless you’re writing furiously.  If you start wracking your brain for items to identify, you’ve reached a point where it’s worth taking a break and focusing on something else.  The following list includes major items from GTD and some of my own that I’ve found useful over time:

  • Incomplete projects
  • Projects that need starting
  • Commitments made to others (boss, partners, coworkers, staff, external contacts)
  • Send or respond to:  phone calls, voicemail, email, faxes, and letters/memos
  • Reviews, assessments, appraisals, evaluations
  • Articles, advertising, brochures, etc.
  • Decisions or actions that need to be communicated to others
  • “Read Now” items
  • Formal planning (measures, goals, objectives, targets)
  • Organizational planning
  • Administrative requirements (policy drafts/revisions, personnel actions, mandatory training, management controls/audits)
  • Professional development (courses, seminars, conferences, degrees)
  • “Waiting for” items (responses to correspondence, decisions/completed efforts/status reports from items delegated upward, laterally, or to direct reports, or responses to information requests)


Get it out of your head

Again, regardless of the physical system you use (paper notes or an electronic calendar and task list, or both), get each item of “stuff” out of your head and written down so your mind stops pestering you about the fact that it isn’t done.  Because your mind will most definitely pester you about undone things, or things not properly documented elsewhere.  Once you establish a system that you can rely on to remind you when you need to be reminded, even if it’s the result of daily serial processing through the paper notes for the time being, then your mind will begin to stop interrupting your productivity with reminders about things you can’t do anything about at that moment.



Stream-of-consciousness writing can be very productive if you allow yourself to move into “flow” and avoid resisting the stream.  Write down what comes to you, don’t prioritize it, and don’t make value judgements about its usefulness or importance.  Write it down and keep going.  The benefit of note cards over a single list is each one is dedicated to the item on it, enabling it to be filed in the appropriate place and moved around as necessary such as between your “Next Actions” folder and “Waiting For” when you’ve completed a step and handed it off to someone else.  The benefit of an integrated list, especially an electronic one, is you can copy/cut and paste the text of the item into whichever place it needs to go:  email subject, task name, or calendar entry without having to retype it.  If you’re already using a system with some degree of success, then I recommend continuing to use it with some increased discipline as discussed above and in the coming weeks.  If you have a system that isn’t working, there’s little harm in trying the alternative and the change itself could easily make the process more inviting.


2 Responses Post a comment
  1. March 31, 2011

    Andrew, you are exactly right! I use "Things" on the Mac & iPad to do what you are describing and it is great for capturing all those random items that would otherwise clutter the mind. But now, here's an admission: I have a hard time looking at this MASSIVE list — so I'm adding to the list much more often than I'm working from it. Any suggestions?

    • Andrew permalink
      March 31, 2011

      Hi, Bill! It's great to hear from you! I know well the challenge you describe…consistently capturing "stuff" from our heads, email, regular mail, reminders from friends and family, etc., combines to create a huge list.

      The key to keeping that list from controlling you – and making you more stressed than if you actually didn't have it – is to keep it under control. The weekly review is essential to ensuring items move from the @Pending or unprocessed lists onto @Action, the calendar, or another context that will enable you to process it effectively.

      Without the weekly review, and in some cases, I advocate a 20-minute daily review, the lists grow too large and result in the frustration you describe. I'm a strong advocate of blocking time off on your schedule to do the weekly review. If you find that items are staying in @Pending or @Action too long, it's likely time to consider whether they should move to @Deferred, @Someday, or @Waiting For (and get delegated appropriately).

      Good luck, and give me a yell if you'd like me to take a more specific look for you.

      Enjoy life,


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