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


This series of posts is designed to take the traditional time management system, best exemplified by Brian Tracy’s system in his books “Goals” and “Eat That Frog”, and to go to the next level by developing 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.   David Allen’s organizational and time management system as described in his book “Getting Things Done” is a great example of such an agile system.

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

The last post described how to improve your information collection system, the first stage of his system as outlined above.  This post covers the next step of his organization system, that of improving your information processing system.

1.   The Information Processing Workflow Diagram

The workflow diagram below is a a presentation of the five stages of managing your workflow.   Please refer to it in the following discussion.

The first stage, that of your information collection system, is represented by the irregular shape with the label “STUFF” and the arrow which takes it to the rectangular box marked “IN BOX”.   That should be the end state of the first stage.

Now, the first question you need to ask to process the information, is

2.  Is it Actionable?

Not in the sense of “legally actionable” of course, but is the e-mail, or letter, or whatever is in the in-box something you can act upon today?   The diamond shape means that you have to make a decision, and in this case there are only two possibilities, “YES” or “NO.”

3.  If Not Actionable, Then “Eliminate”, “Incubate”, or “File”

Let’s say the answer is “NO.”   Then you have one of three choices (leading from the right of the diamond) which are …

a.   Eliminate, as in throw in the trash.

b.   Incubate, which means put in an separate folder marked “Action Items” or some other file which David Allen calls a “tickler” file if the date you will get around to it uncertain, or put in your “Calendar” if it is something that has a definite date some time in the future.

c.  File, meaning that it is useful information that needs to go into a folder that has a specific category attached to it so you can easily find it later.

4.  If Actionable, Then “Next Action” or “Projects”

If on the other hand, the piece of information in your in-box IS something you can act upon today, then there are two choices (leading from the bottom and the left of the diamond, respectively) which are …

a.  What’s the Next Action

Decide what the next action should be, which means either you i) do it now, ii) have someone ELSE do it, or iii) you do it later on that day.   These are represented by the choices leading from the bottom of the “What’s the Next Action” diamond, the left, or the bottom right, respectively.

i.  Do it now

Once you have gone through all of the items in your inbox, you will see that it is smaller than the original list because you have already ELIMINATED many of them, or put them in an “Action Items” file if they cannot be done today.

Now, with your smaller list, see which of them can be done in 2 minutes or less.   Then … DO THEM NOW!   These are the ones listed ASAP in the chart above.

ii.  Delegate it

For those pieces of information which need to be processed by someone else in your team, then do so by forwarding them to the right person in 2 minutes of less.    Another possibility is that, in order to take action on the item, you may need information from someone.   Then send that request for information from someone and put the item in a “Waiting For” or “Pending Action Items” file.

iii.  Next Action Lists

For those items which will take more time than 2 minutes, but which you want to start working on today, you need to put in the “Action Items” list (called “Next Action” in the diagram).   For action items that refer to a specific date, you may want to put those in the calendar.

If the piece of information requires more than one action step, then it is by definition a project, and needs to go in the “Project” folder rather than the “Action Items” list, which is for single-step items.

Now what have you accomplished by processing the information in this way?   Number one, your goal should be an EMPTY INBOX.    Most people have inboxes where the stuff towards the bottom is irrelevant, because it’s either trash or the item has been taken care of, or the information in it is no longer relevant.   In any case, it has no value to it and should not be there.

All of the urgent items (i.e., can be done in 2 minutes or less) will be taken care of.   All of the action items that weren’t handled this way will be either in the “Action Items” list or the “Projects” list, depending on whether they are simple (one-step) or complex (multiple steps).

Also, any references to future dates where you will be required to produce information or actually be physically present will be captured in your calendar.

Any action items which need you to get information from others will be in the “Pending Action Items” or “Waiting For” file.

This essentially puts every piece of information in the proper place for organizing, which is the subject of the next post.

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