Organize Yourself in 2015–How to Improve Your Information Collecting System

For those who have followed my posts on Brian Tracy’s method of organization as described in his book “Goals” and “Eat That Frog”, you will find your organizational skills greatly improved if you follow even some of the practices outlined in those books and described in the posts.

However, if you want to really take your organizational skills to the next level, you need to develop a system that is not a traditional time management system, but a more “agile” time management system that can cope with the fact that your workplace, your home life, and everything in between is in a constant state of flux.   You need a system that is robust enough to withstand the changes that modern life can throw at you.   For that reason, I recommend the book Getting Things Done by David Allen.

His core concept of the book is that you need to develop a system to manage your workflow with the following five stages.

  1. Collect pieces of information that commands your attention
  2. Process what these mean and decide what action to take about them.
  3. Organize the results efficiently.
  4. Review your options
  5. Decide what to do

David Allen says you can analyze where your weakness is in the above “chain” of stages.   He recommends that you do the phases separately during the day, and NOT try to do all five phases at the same time.   In the first chapter of his book, he explains WHY you should organize yourself better, but I’m sure that if you are reading this post, you already know why you need to do it, and want some help in HOW to do it.   This first post out of five covers the first step of his organization system, that of improving your information collecting system.

1.   Your Information Collecting System

You collect information with various physical and electronic means, such as

  • the mailbox outside your house or apartment
  • the (physical) in-basket on your desk (mail, magazines, memos, notes, receipts)
  • auditory capture (answering machines, voice-mail, dictating equipment, digital recorders)
  • e-mails (on your computer, telephone, or pager)
  • paper-based note-taking devices (loose-leaf notebooks, spiral binders, legal pads)
  • electronic note-taking devices (PDAs, tablets)

David Allen refers to all of these collectively as “collection buckets”, whether physical or electronic.

2,   Three Requirements for Your Information Collecting System

  1. Every open loop (i.e., any piece of information which requires an action) must be contained in your collection system and not in your head.
  2. You must have as few collection buckets as you can get by wish.
  3. You must empty them regularly.

Let’s discuss these three requirements in detail.

3.  Requirement #1–Get It All Out of Your Head

Working memory is widely thought by psychologists to be one of the most important mental faculties, critical for cognitive abilities such as planning, problem solving, and reasoning.   The more pieces of information you try to store in your head rather than in your Information Collecting System (hereafter referred to as your ICS), the less working memory you will have available to work on problem solving or other tasks at work or at home.

Many of us have in-baskets of the kind listed above on our desks at home or at work, but it is also important to be able to capture the serendipitous or “aha!” moments when you get a good idea.    These come at times when the conscious mind may be unfocused, like when you are in the shower, or they may occur upon waking from a sleep.   So keep a pad of paper by your bed, or take your iPhone into the bathroom (not the shower itself, of course) so that you can capture anything that comes to you while showering or shaving.

4.  Requirement #2–Minimize the Number of Collection Buckets

The reason for this is simple:   if you have to many collection buckets, you won’t be able to process the information in them easily or consistently.

This may seem to contradict the message in the last paragraph, where I suggest adding collection buckets (pad of paper by your bed, iPhone in the bathroom), but the idea is that the information in one collection bucket needs to be funneled into others so that you really have only a few information streams.   So, if you keep a notebook by your bed, you need to take those notes and put them in your planning document whether that is a physical notebook or a computer program.

Likewise, if you have voice-mail messages, you can write down those that need to be attended to on your daily calendar.   As long as you don’t leave a lot of pieces of information lying down that remain unattended, then you are doing your best to reduce the number of information streams, which in my opinion is even MORE important than the idea of minimizing the number of collection buckets that contain such information.

5.  Empty the Buckets Regularly

Have you watched any of those reality shows on hoarders where objects go in to a house, but they never come out?   Collecting information in your collection buckets is only important if you go on to the NEXT stage, which means that these pieces of information will be processed, and your collection bucket will become EMPTY.

Just because you pass a piece of information on to the next stage, of course, doesn’t mean that you have completely handled the information.   Think of the pieces of information as patients in a waiting room of a doctor’s office or, better yet, the emergency room of a hospital.    A patient in the waiting room needs to be seen by a doctor, who will then decide whether to take care of the patient right then and there, or whether the illness is serious enough that it will require a longer term of treatment that can only reasonably be done by a hospital stay.

Your job if you are managing the emergency room is NOT to cure everyone who comes in the door.   It is only to make sure that person is seen as soon as possible, and that the doctor makes a correct diagnosis as to the treatment of the patient.

Similarly, your job is to empty the collection buckets regularly and to send them on to the right place for further processing. In fact, you will find that having an empty in-box is a great feeling.   Yes, it won’t last for long, but it’s nice to know that the first stage of your information collecting and processing system is COMPLETE.

In the next post, I will discuss the next step, where you take those items in your collection buckets and PROCESS them so that they can then be ORGANIZED properly.


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