This 5 part series covers the 5 stages of Getting Things Done or GTD, a personal organization system developed by David Allen and released as a book in 2001. In our first part we discussed the philosophy of GTD and stage 1: Collecting. Now lets get into stage 2.
Processing is the act of evaluating everything in your inboxes and asking “What does this mean to me?” Is the item reference material to be filed, is it trash, or does it represent a commitment you have made to yourself or someone else? If it represents a commitment then it goes into your system. This starts with deciding if each item is actionable, and if so, what the outcome looks like. These outcomes then can be recorded, usually as projects. If it’s not immediately actionable, but is something you want to eventually accomplish, then it needs to be recorded for later. Finally some things are important but not actionable they can be filed as Reference Material or Project support material as appropriate.
Anything that takes more than 1 step to do is a project. Sometimes it will be obvious that something is a project like “build a new deck”. Other outcomes that are smaller still count as projects, such as “repair broken window on car”. But what about things like “Buy a new hand-mixer”? That might be a task if the next action is opening your browser to Amazon.com and clicking buy. It also might be a project. For example, the next action may be “Research hand-mixer reviews” or “Decide on hand-mixer brand”. It even may be as simple as “Call aunt Ellen to ask what brand of hand-mixer she has”. If the next physical action doesn’t complete the outcome, then it’s a project.
Once you have these projects you have to decide a few things about them. First you have to decide what the outcome is. One way to ask this is “What does wild success look like?” Capturing projects in terms of the successful completion is important. It helps you focus on the next steps to drive the project to completion and not the problem or situation you are trying to change. “Replace broken window” focuses on the current problem and not the solution. “Install new window” may be a better way to phrase it but the real key to focusing on the outcome is to speak of it in the past tense. “New window has been installed” helps you to visualize the goal and determine what steps must be taken to achieve it. Projects should always answer the question: What will be true when I’m finished that isn’t true now.
Next you decide what action, or series of actions, will advance the project to this outcome. It is important to focus on the next action, or more directly, the next physical act that will move the project forward. These actions should be doable without any preparation or additional planning. If any is needed, then that preparation is the next action. A good way to find the next action is to ask: If someone was watching me work on this, what is the first thing they would see me doing. When you capture these, they should be as specific as possible to remove any remembering or deciding that may keep you from acting on them. A next action may be “Get the book” but is better written as “Get book on medieval pottery from shelf in dining room.” Another few examples could be “Call Bob about the green shirt for next week’s party - (122) 555-1234”, “Research warranty on broken toaster for Aunt Bessie.”, and “Decide about Birthday present for Mom”. In the last example I know I can’t move forward until I make a decision, so that is the next action.
Anything that isn’t immediately actionable is either reference material, something that might be actionable in future, or trash. Each of these find their own place in the organization system. In our next part we’ll cover stage 3, Organization. If you would like to dive in you can pick up a copy of Getting Things Done on Amazon.