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Initialization versus Utilization (Very Long!)

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  • Initialization versus Utilization (Very Long!)

    INTRODUCTION

    I have reaped enormous gains in the almost three months I’ve been using GTD. But I have been blocked in my attempt to implement the program fully. I have stubbornly refused to empty my collection buckets completely. I have stubbornly refused to process my collected items from top to bottom. And I have put items back into “in.”

    Despite the significant benefits I have received from GTD, I have felt guilty and inadequate because of my seemingly insurmountable recalcitrance to process correctly.

    This morning, however, I brought my in-box to empty. I feel good and I want others to feel as good or better than I.

    I am sure most of you are way smarter and more efficient than I, so you can stop reading now. You didn’t make the mistakes I made so you won’t need to rectify them. But there just may be a few of you who were in the same boat I was in.

    I had two major sources of confusion. Please note, I blame no one but myself for the confusion. The point of this posting is to get my ideas down in writing as an aid to me in clarifying my understanding. I also hope thereby that I may help a few others who may have been in the same boat I was in.

    My major sources of confusion were: (1) the distinction between the initialization and utilization of GTD; and (2) the importance of “pending” files.

    DISTINGUISHING INITIALIZATION FROM UTILIZATION

    I see frequent references on this discussion forum to the separation of the five stages of workflow. I think that this is wrong. I think that this is wrong because there is a fundamental ambiguity between the stages of initializing GTD and the stages of using GTD.

    Conflate initialization with utilization at your peril. It caused me untold pain and suffering (although I still suffered less than I did pre-GTD). But, I’ve seen the light and now I want to share the good news with any and all who will listen.

    Please open your GTD book to page 119, the first page of Chapter 6, entitled “Processing: Getting ‘In’ to Empty”. There, David tells you that, “When you’ve finished processing ‘in,’ you will have . . . sorted into your own organizing system reminders of actions that require more than two minutes . . .”

    What is the significance of this quotation? Well it demonstrates that, when using GTD, the organizing system has already been set up. In fact, the definition of “organizing”, according to the title of Chapter 7, is “Setting Up the Right Buckets.” Organizing is part of setup or initialization. During typical utilization of GTD, organizing is not a distinct stage. Processing presupposes organizing. When you process, you put the items into your already existing organized system.

    So, what do you do when you process? You remove the item from “in.” You ask whether it is actionable. If it is, you ask what the next action is. If you don’t do the action then and there, you put a reminder into your already existing organized system. There is no distinct “organizing” step, when using GTD.

    When initializing you must “set up the buckets.” This is a distinct stage called “organizing.” You will want to process your items initially to get a sense of how you are going to set up your buckets. During this initializing processing stage, processing will not involve “sorting” or “organizing.” But, only during initialization will processing and organizing be distinct.

    Conclusion: You will do organizing only during initialization. During utilization you will collect, process, review, and do.

    Addendum: During your weekly review you may decide to tinker with your organizing buckets. But be clear. Buckets are buckets because they are relatively fixed compared to the items that flow through them which are, therefore, relatively fluid. Certainly, if I were starting a new business, I would reorganize. If I were migrating from a paper-based to a Palm-based system, I might also reorganize. The point is not that you never organize after the initialization. The point is that using the GTD system, as opposed to setting it up or tinkering with it, presupposes that the organizing fixtures are already established.

    THE IMPORTANCE OF PENDING

    My failure to set up and use pending was my fatal error. I am not blaming anyone but myself, I will say again. It was all there in the book. I have diagnosed my problem and solved it by using the resources that were there in the book all along.

    I do have a suggestion for further printings of GTD. Please add page 127 to the index under the heading “pending items.” The footnote at the bottom of page 127 explains it all. That footnote distinguishes initialization from utilization. That footnote also screams out (as loud as a footnote can scream) that you must have a file “to hold pending work-in-progress papers and physical reminders of next actions.”

    My problem is that I wanted a formula to tell me how to live the good life. The ethicist Aristotle explained to me that this is not possible. No system will eliminate the need for good judgement. But I let my wishes cloud my better judgement. So I didn’t set up a pending file because David didn’t tell me to when he made his workflow diagram and when he listed the kinds of categories he favors for next actions. Yes, I did buy extra stackable trays when I set up my in-box. Yes I bought a hanging file holder for the top of my desk when I initialized the system. Yes, I read the footnote at the bottom of page 127 when I read and reread and reread the book. But no one ever told me exactly how to handle pending. And I got even more confused because the references to pending on pages 136 and 142 discussed pending as an initialization step and not as a utilization step. My problem was not initialization. My problem was utilization. I was lost.

    But today I am found. I no longer feel I am cheating when I take an item out of my in-box, process it, and throw it in my cabinet. Prior to today, I thought that I must have a folder for the item. Today I understand that it’s nice to have a folder but it’s not necessary. As long as the item is captured in my system, and as long as I know that the item is with the pending stuff, then I need no longer fear that it is “an amorphous blob of undoability” (17).

    And that was my fear. I was paralyzed into inaction because I knew that there were items in my in-box for which I had not established a place and for which I did not want to create a unique folder in my filing system. I am not averse to creating new folders. I do it all the time. But I view the folders as semi-permanent. And there are too many items in my in-box that are here today and gone tomorrow.

    So I now have a pile of items in my cabinet. It’s not pretty. But it works for me.

    By the way, I haven’t yet purchased David’s new book. It’s on my list of things to do. Maybe all this is in there.

  • #2
    Re: Initialization versus Utilization (Very Long!)

    I take the distinction between processing and organizing literally. So when I'm processing my inbox, I do no organizing. I do the two minute actions (mostly filing) and no more. I don't enter the action items into the appropriate list. I wait until I've plowed through the inbox to the bottom before I organize the action items that are represented by the stuff in the inbox.

    I don't think there's an explicit instruction to put the action item stuff into a little pile and organize it afterwards, but that's what I do.

    Anyway it's probably a good thing that you were skeptical and put stuff back in the inbox at first, because I heard David Allen say that the people who do things like this end up sticking with it, whereas people like me who embraced the system from day one end up dropping out (I am trying to disprove this observation).

    Cris

    Comment


    • #3
      I need examples.

      I apologize but I need more clarity. Could you give at least two detailed examples starting from your inbox to it making it to one of your lists or folders?

      Thanks in advance!

      Bryant

      Comment


      • #4
        Re: I need examples.

        Originally posted by BryantSmith
        I apologize but I need more clarity. Could you give at least two detailed examples starting from your inbox to it making it to one of your lists or folders?

        Thanks in advance!

        Bryant
        Since you thanked me in advance, I guess I am obligated to give you anything you ask.

        I could give you an example of how I trash things. But, somehow, I don't think you would find that enlightening. But, example number one is I received a newsletter from AAA (American Automobile Association). It was placed in my in-box. I took it out. Glanced through the first 3-4 pages, saw that it was mostly worthless (to me) advertisements and trashed it.

        Example #2. On Friday one of my employees placed some new price sheets in my in-box. This morning I bravely went through each item in my in-box one at a time. I came to the price sheets. I asked myself are they actionable. The answer is yes. I asked myself what is the next action. The answer is put them in my price book. But this is a task that would take more than two minutes and I just am not ready to right now since there are some very pressing matters that face me this morning. In fact it might just take about 2 minutes. But, in my current context, I have a lot bigger fish to fry.

        Technically, I could make "putting the price list in the price book" a project. But I am not. It involves hole-punching, taking my price book apart and setting it up again. But I choose to describe it as a single action that might take 5, plus or minus 2, minutes.

        So I write "031103 [my date stamp] put new price sheets in price book" in my @Office category of my next actions list. So, point #1 is that for me the heavy lifting comes in deciding if an item is actionable and what the next action is. Putting it into a category like @Office is a piece of cake. I would never consider deciding what the next action is and then putting it in a pile with other items the category of which is to be decided later. That would make me less productive. It takes a second to add the date stamp. I don't go in later and add date stamps. I do it when I process. Likewise it takes a second to decide if this belongs in @Office or @Errand or whatever. So, using David Allen's parlance, when I process I sort the item into my organizing system.

        Now here's the kicker for me. Last week I would have let those two blasted price sheets sit in my in-box because I was afraid of them. I was afraid because I wasn't ready to Do the action now. But I felt that if I couldn't do the action I couldn't process it because I didn't know where to put the physical price sheets. I don't want to create a folder for them in my file cabinets. They are way too evanescent. I could have stuck them in one of the unused in-box stackable trays. That's what David recommends and I am sure it works. What I have chosen to do is to designate one of the shelves in one of my cabinets as my Pending shelf. I put the 2 price sheets on the shelf along with other items which have been processed and have no stable home. These are my pendings.

        So, Bryant, I do appreciate your asking. I will be glad to give another example, but if I knew specifically what you're looking for that would help.

        Comment


        • #5
          The question then, Moises, is how often are you getting to the bottom of your Pending pile? It seems to me that as long as you've captured the item on the appropriate list, and that you're getting to the bottom of your inbox, then the only thing left is to be sure that you're getting your pending pile turned-over at least weekly. Its on my weekly review, but I don't really have much of a running Pending pile to deal with. Maybe I, too, am not using it appropriately...

          When you come to an item on your list which requires, say, the price list, you would have to check two places (presuming that you don't remember where you put those darned things): in your files and in your Pending pile. If that's all you have to deal with (ie, no piles on your desk), that's not a bad situation at all.

          Comment


          • #6
            Hard and Soft Items

            Terceiro:

            David Allen asks the question, "What Is the Weekly Review?" on page 185. He answers that question by giving a list of actions that are taken during weekly review. One of them is "Review 'Pending' and Support Files" (187). His description is: "Browse through all work-in-progress support material to trigger new actions, completions, and waiting-fors."

            Personally, I do not see how GTD can be done without pending files. It is, of course, logically possible to get everything done as you process it. But logistically, it's highly improbable. We all have physical reminders of actions that will take more than 2 minutes. We have to put these reminders somewhere. And most of them don't belong in our General Reference Files. So we must add the item to our Next Actions list and put the physical reminder someplace.

            My big problem has always been to use physical reminders instead of lists. If something was real important, I would leave out on my desk to remind me. As I understand the discipline of GTD, my lists must take precedence over my desk space. That's why I try to avoid using my extra stackable tray for pending. I fear that I will rely on its physical presence and visibility to remind me. Once I do that, I fall down the slippery slope of relying on physical presence rather than list presence to determine what I am going to do.

            Today my highest priority is to take a contract, pull out all the deadline dates, and add them to my project plan. Last week I would have left that contract out on my desk since it is so important. Today, it sits in my shuttered cabinet in the pending stack. There might be some other papers on top of it. That's trouble if I rely on visibility. It's fine if I rely on my lists.


            Bryant,

            Sorry if I came off sounding cheeky. I am pretty excited by this stuff and sometimes my excitement gets the better of me. While driving to work this morning I realized that my example #1 had at least as many lessons to demonstrate as my example #2. When I take my AAA newsletter out of my in-box and skim it for less than 2 minutes I ask myself the questions, "Is it actionable?" and "What is the next action?" In the particular example I gave, it was not actionable.

            Now here's the important part. Deciding it is not actionable is processing. Throwing it in the trash is organizing. I do not write "Trash" on a post-it and put it on the newsletter and add the newsletter to a pending pile which I process later.

            Note, if processing and organizing must be distinct steps, like collecting and processing are, I would put processed items in a separate pile awaiting organizing. But I do not do that and (here I argue by reference to authority) David does not tell me to do that. David tells me that after I've processsed I've sorted all my stuff into buckets.

            Here we must distinguish the listed item from the physical reminder of the item. I will call the former the soft item and the latter the hard item. For example, I have the printout of the contract I referred to above. That is the physical reminder of the next action "Put contract dates into project plan" in my @Real Estate category of my next actions list.

            Before I put "Put contract dates into project plan" into my next actions list I had placed the contract in my in-box. I then processed my in-box. As I was processing I picked up the contract. I asked myself if it was actionable. Yes. I asked myself what the next action was. Put contract dates into project plan. I immediately organized the soft item by placing it in my @Real Estate category of my next actions list. So, I organized virtually simultaneous with processing. But I did not organize the hard item. I continued processing my in-box. At the end of processing I had all of my next actions organized into lists. So I organized as I processed. But I had a stack of hard items sitting on my desk.

            I now had to physically place the physical hard items some physical place. I put my contract in my pending pile hidden behind the doors of my cabinet.

            Conclusion: in GTD, soft items take precedence over hard items when figuring out how to do your work. The fact that the giant report sits on your desk in front of you and the thin contract sits out of sight in a file cabinet behind you should play no role in deciding which has greater priority right now. Look at your lists to determine priorities, not your desktop.

            Comment


            • #7
              Action Support Files

              Moises,

              No harm done. I have a number of questions but no time in sorting my thoughts. One question I can ask immediately is where do Action Support files play in this?

              Comment


              • #8
                Re: Action Support Files

                Originally posted by BryantSmith
                Moises,

                No harm done. I have a number of questions but no time in sorting my thoughts. One question I can ask immediately is where do Action Support files play in this?
                I think that, in the general sense, the Action Support file is the same as the "pending" file. Basically, any physical material that stands on it's own (i.e. not part of a project) would go in the Action Support/Pending file.

                Pysical support that is part of a project would go in that project's support file.

                Jim

                Comment


                • #9
                  "Pending?" or "Action Support?"

                  All -

                  In my personal practice I concur with the above.

                  One of the first things that I quickly latched onto from David's Tips & Tools were the "5 Travelling Folders." Being a mass transit commuter (some days with longer commutes than others) it allowed me to keep work moving while I was on the move.

                  To recap - they are:

                  "In"
                  "Action Support"
                  "Read & Review"
                  "Data Entry" (computer or Palm)
                  "Return to Office"

                  I added a sixth (inspired because there are 6 colors that come in the "IronHide" package) - "Return to Home."

                  These get opened on my desk every morning. Some get left out on top of the desk if they are "hot" (usually Action Support or In), or in an inexpensive standing rack to my right. They do duplicate some of the "trays" that David discusses in his "setting up your workspace" topic.

                  For me, anything that is "loose" that needs an action goes in the "Action Support" folder.

                  This may be "tomat-OH" or "tom-AH-to" though...

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Conclusion: in GTD, soft items take precedence over hard items when figuring out how to do your work. The fact that the giant report sits on your desk in front of you and the thin contract sits out of sight in a file cabinet behind you should play no role in deciding which has greater priority right now. Look at your lists to determine priorities, not your desktop.
                    Moises,
                    how long will these pending papers stay on that shelf behind that door?
                    I ask because for me it's still "out of sight, out of mind".

                    Regards
                    Rainer

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      In the deep desk drawer on the left-hand side of my desk, which I can access by simply reaching down, I have A-Z divider tabs, followed by my 1-31 Tickler tabs. If my project is to write a reply brief in the Jones case, and the brief, the brief to which I'm responding would go in this action support/pending file under "J".

                      However, DA makes very clear that we ought not use "files and piles" as reminders of the projects/actions we have. Therefore, I make sure to enter "complete Jones reply brief" on my Project list, and the next discreet action (i.e. legal research, file review, etc.) on my @Office Next Action list, followed by ("J") or ("Jones") to tell me to look in the Pending Files under J for the support material.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        However, DA makes very clear that we ought not use "files and piles" as reminders of the projects/actions we have.
                        But isn't a tickler just that: files as reminders of the projects/actions we have?

                        Regards
                        Rainer

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by Rainer Burmeister

                          But isn't a tickler just that: files as reminders of the projects/actions we have?
                          Not as I understand it.

                          A tickler file doesn't usually contain information about your active projects and actions. Instead, it contains decisions you've deferred. In my world at least

                          If I don't know whether I want to go to X event on Y date, I stick that in the tickler file to decide later. If however, I've already decided that I'll probably do something, but I'm not ready to act on it now, it goes on the Someday/Maybe list. A tickler is a type of reminder, or memory jogger, but projects and actions aren't.

                          Projects are those things you've alread committed time/attention/activity to. Actions are those next steps that must be taken to move forward the projects you've committed to.

                          Supporting materials for actions and/or projects go into an action or project support folder. Ticklers do not mix with those.

                          If you were to put all projects, actions, ticklers and other materials into files or piles, without any organization or lists, then you'd be using those materials to remind yourself of what needs to be done. And you'd expend more energy constantly shuffling through to remember what's what and what has to be done next.

                          Hope that makes a bit of sense
                          Kathy

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            pending files

                            I do the same thing --tried to do without it but a "pending tray" doesn't work for me for some reason. Much faster this way.

                            Ymmv. Paul

                            [quote="Esquire"]In the deep desk drawer on the left-hand side of my desk, which I can access by simply reaching down, I have A-Z divider tabs, followed by my 1-31 Tickler tabs. If my project is to write a reply brief in the Jones case, and the brief, the brief to which I'm responding would go in this action support/pending file under "J".

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Hard and Soft Reminders

                              Moises:

                              I understand that the first time that the Inbox is empty and the desk is clean creates a new high, but I'm having a difficult time understanding the distinctions that are being made.

                              I would suggest that the main reason that we are advised to separate Processing from Organizing is simply to make sure that we complete Processing as a defined exercise. Processing doesn't put things in lists; Organizing does that. Processing involves "getting from Inbox to Empty" and deals with decisions; Organizing puts the result of these decisions into Reviewable form. Organizing should always follow Processing, whether immediately or at some later time. The segregation of Processing and Organizing guards against the danger that Organizing without fully Processing will produce meaningless lists, as was my initial experience, echoed in other posts I have read.

                              If you prefer physical reminders, then your pending file is the list. This is quite acceptable under DA's definition of a list. In that case, writing a summary of each pending item on a separate list is not necessary unless you have it in mind that you are going to prioritize the list, which is something that DA advises against. It is only a matter of personal preference whether you are more comfortable with a list (and prepared to do the extra work to compile the list) or with a pending file of hard-copy papers (and take the time to flip through the items one by one). The idea that the list takes precedence over the pending file seems moot - they are simply 2 versions of the same thing.

                              The essence of the list (or the sum of the sub-lists) is that it must be complete. This means that if you prefer a paper pending file, you have to write out your ideas and print your emails and instant messages that need action. If it is more convenient to link or copy your emails and instant messages to an electronc list, then you will have to make that list complete by summarizing your paper items. It doesn't matter which medium you choose as long as there is one list and it is complete.

                              The idea that a pending file inside a cabinet is better than a pending file on top of a desk seems abstract. It doesn't matter where the pending file (or, for that matter, the list) is physically located, as long as it doesn't distract you fom the task at hand.

                              Andrew

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