GTD for Kids: Inbox Processing

Date: Monday, March 14, 2011 by GTD Times Staff

This is a Community Contribution from Meghan Wilker.

In an earlier GTD Times post, I talked about some of the basic ways I use the principles of GTD with my kids. That post focused on Capturing, Clarifying, Organizing and Reflecting at a high level.

This week, I spent the better part of an evening on a Clarifying mission with my kids, and it struck me that the act of processing an inbox with kids is vastly different from how we do it as adults.

If you are a parent who works outside the home, your kids probably generate a lot of artwork during the day. And by “a lot” I mean levels that will wake you up at night with hoarders’ nightmares of having to dig tunnels through the piles of coloring sheets and construction paper stacked floor-to-ceiling in your house. Or maybe that’s just me.

At any rate, Capturing & Clarifying can be particularly helpful in dealing with kids’ art projects. Here’s how I handle it.

– The kids’ artwork comes into the house via a delivery device known as a “backpack.”

– Each night, we empty the backpack and look at all of the papers while we eat dinner. This is not so much processing as just enjoying and observing and talking.

– Things that are particularly awesome might get immediately hung on the fridge, placed in the baby book, or tacked up on one of the kids’ bulletin boards. (They have one in their room, and one over their play table.)

– Any remaining papers are placed in an orange plastic box. (Seen on top of the wooden toy shelf in this photo.)

When the orange plastic box gets full, we go through it to decide what we should keep, and what we can let go. There are two advantages to this delayed processing.

First, papers that seem unimportant at first sometimes feel meaningful after a few weeks (or months) and it can be fun to look at them together and marvel over them. “Wow, look at how much better you can write your name now than you could then!”

Second, it gives the kids some emotional distance from their work. I mean, think about it: what if you brought an awesome spreadsheet home and your spouse looked at it for 2 minutes and then tossed it in the trash? Okay, fine — I’ll admit that I sometimes recycle their papers on the sly. But, it’s rare, because I would be crushed if someone looked at what I did all day and immediately decided it should be tossed out. But if I looked at it months later, I might agree, “That thing? Oh yeah, toss it. It’s a metrics report that’s out-of-date.”

It’s the same with kids: given some space, they’ll look at old work with more of an ability to recognize what’s really special, and what they’re willing to part with.

That being said, kids usually need more processing time than adults. As adults, we can — and should — push ourselves to make decisions about “stuff” and not re-process the same materials over and over. With kids, I find at least two rounds of processing are necessary.

Round 1 involves going through everything in the inbox item-by-item and setting aside things that should obviously be saved or recycled.

This is where patience comes in: what’s “obvious” to me, isn’t always obvious to them. So, in addition to “Trash” and “Treasure”, have an “Undecided” pile. Give them their space; if they’re not ready to part with it, allow it to go in Undecided. Tip: I keep the Treasure box visible. It helps them understand and visualize the small amount of space for the things we are keeping.

By the same token, it may help to keep the Trash bag out of site. The idea of your things being tossed out is less harsh than actually seeing them get tossed out. In the photo below, our Trash bag is visible — in the past, the “let’s say goodbye to this one” pile gets thrown out after they’re in bed.

Round 2 is going through the Undecided pile. I’ve noticed that decisions are easier and faster this second time through. Usually, they’ve let go of a few things during Round 1 and have noticed it hasn’t killed them. We’ve also referred to the Treasure box — and how full it’s getting — so they know not everything can be saved.

So, how does all this look in real life? The photo above shows us in action.

Clockwise, from left to right:

Brown Paper Bag: Trash.

Orange Archive Box: Treasure. Only a very small number of things make it to this box — this is the forever box and space is limited!

Kids, 5 and 2. In the act of processing.

Orange Plastic Box: The kids’ art “inbox”.

Truck. It’s just helpful to have a large dump truck nearby. You never know.

Pile of papers: Undecided. See how big that pile is? We’re early in Round 1 at this point. Even though it’s been weeks since the kids made this stuff, it’s hard for them to part with.

So, if I had to summarize my tips for successfully processing “stuff” with kids it’d be this:

Define a process that works for your family. Yours may be different from mine, but I think it’s good to have a process so kids know where to put their art, where they can find it later, and so that they feel like they’re a part of deciding what to keep (vs. feeling like their stuff disappears mysteriously!). It also prevents the awkward, “Mom, why is my precious artwork in the garbage?!” discussion.

Have lots of patience. Remember that their brains are processing differently from yours. Encourage them to talk through their thought process and try to help guide them when they get stuck. Ask lots of questions about how they feel about their art. Let them know it’s sometimes hard for you to get rid of stuff, too — or to make decisions.

Try to make it fun. Seriously, when the Trash pile is literally a dump truck…throwing stuff out is way easier!

Meghan Wilker is a regular community contributor to GTD Times.  She’s also been featured in David Allen’s In Conversation series on GTD Connect, spotlighting some of the most fascinating people in our network of GTDers around the world.

8 Responses to “GTD for Kids: Inbox Processing”

  1. Bob C says:

    Wow, this is awesome! You’ve made GTD contextualized for little kids, terminology and all!

    The only way I’ve pass on GTD to our little ones is when they need to clean their room. They look at the big mess and either get distracted or immobilized with what to do. I treat the whole room as the In Box. I routinely tell them, “Pick up something right next to you, and decide where you want to put it.” (trash is definitely included in their choices) As soon as they put something away, I say, “Stop. Pick up the next thing closest to you.” They are getting the hang of it now.

    But, you’ve giving us some great ideas! Thanks.

  2. OogieM says:

    One suggestion, I’m currently sorting stuff from 50+ years and I wish now my mother had remembered to put a date including year on everything that was kept! I make scrapbooks and knowing the year would make it all so much easier to sort and decide what is going into the scrapbook and what is not. She’s been gone for 12 years so I can’t even ask what year the various pictures, papers and other items she kept were from.

  3. G. says:

    I used to stack up all artwork and school work for the one school year and then sort it, very fast in the next summer. Then you have some perspective on what art is best to keep and what connects to what.

    Also, as your kid(s) gets older, that same box can turn into a homework/school work/art pile and every bit of paper goes in that one big box. That elimates the “did you throw out the notes for my Spanish test?” anxiety. Becasue it is in the box.

  4. Renaud says:

    Great idea to put the date indeed. I take photos of some of the work that we don’t keep or scan it whenever possible (A4 size max, and no paint job)

  5. Lynn Haag says:

    Being a DAC employee and mom to a 5 year old I’m loving these suggestions! I especially like the idea of saving all of that “backpack paper” and going thru it 6mos-1 year later and realizing how her writing skills and artwork have advanced. I also scrapbook and note the date on the back of the artwork for future reference. Lily’s bedroom has shoebox size bins with labels marked “crayons”, “Polly Pockets”, etc which makes clean-up time easy (or there’s always the threat of “whatever is left on the ground in 5 minutes becomes MINE”! :-) Works like a charm!

  6. Meghan Wilker says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    @Lynn Haag: I am working on another post about “Filing with Kids” – I have a feeling our kids’ bedrooms look eerily similar. :)

  7. Shannon says:

    My process for my 5 year old’s artwork is nightly emptying of backpack onto her (child size) art table. Any artwork done at home during the week is stacked there also.
    Every Sunday nite before bed we go through the pile for “treasures” and these are tacked up on the fridge and/or small kitchen bulletin board for display after being marked with date and year on the back. We only keep an amount that will fit that space- the rest is recycled/purged.She is okay at this age with purging them- we have a tiny house and she understands we don’t have room for things that aren’t VERY VERY special.
    To make room for the new treasures, we review what’s currently on the fridge/bulletin board – very few are kept “forever” in a large underbed storage box. Some larger, colorful ones taken off the fridge/board I save for reuse as wrapping paper (go directly my gift wrap bin)and a few others might be placed in addressed envelopes I keep for regular mailings to close family members. Evrybody wins!

  8. Marcus Goodyear says:

    What a wonderful system! We have one big box in the garage for both kids, but it begins to feel like a micro-hoarders space sometimes.

    We do something similar with toys leading up to every holiday. For example, in October, we go through all their toys and sort by toys to keep, toys to trash, and toys to donate. We like making the donations prior to Christmas because it allows others to purchase our toys resell, but it also creates a period of time when the kids simply have fewer toys.

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