Episode #35 – The Case for Capturing

Listen to an engaging presentation David Allen gave on the case for capturing. In it, David explores the concepts of psychic RAM, society’s move into knowledge work, and the freedom we feel as we begin to implement the GTD methodology.


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David Allen on The Case for Capturing

ANDREW J. MASON: You’re listening to Getting Things Done, the official podcast of the David Allen Company with our featured talk from David Allen, presenting The Case for Capturing.
Welcome everyone to Getting Things Done, GTD for shorthand. My name’s Andrew J. Mason and this podcast is all about helping you on your journey practicing the art of stress-free productivity. Today, we are so excited to offer you a rare glimpse at a presentation David’s done on The Case for Capturing. In it, David explores with the audience, the concepts of psychic ram, society’s move to knowledge work, as well as the freedom we feel when we begin to implement the GTD methodology. Like always, this content is just a preview of the type of content you can find regularly on GTD Connect and our online store and you can get to both of those destinations by heading to GettingThingsDone.com.
And now, from the archives, here’s David on The Case for Capturing.
DAVID ALLEN: Come on, have some fun with me. Everybody take the next 60 seconds, take the next 60 seconds – would you please look right now in your wallets, purses, satchels, whatever you’ve got with you, see if you can find one thing that does not belong there permanently that has been there longer than a few hours, besides money; just one thing. See if you can find one thing in your wallets, purses, handbags, pockets, briefcases, satchels – find one thing that does not belong there permanently, that’s been there longer than a few hours, besides money.
Ah, there are things crawling out from under rocks here.
Okay, how many of you found at least one thing? I will suggest that those of you who found at least one thing, you found a source of stress in your life that’s not required right now. You found a source of stress in your life that’s not required. Why? Because, what that thing is, where is it, does not map to what it means to you. There’s cognitive dissonance yelling at your right now, because where it is doesn’t match what the thing means to you. There’s disagreement right here.
How many of you have found trash? Unless this is your trash bucket, there – there is cognitive dissonance here. Do you understand? It’s yelling at you, “Throw me away! Throw me away!”
You got noise in your life, subliminally, ‘cause the thing is not where it needs to be based upon your meaning of what it is. How many of you found stuff that belongs somewhere but not where it is?
Alright. You found supplies and reference material that’s not where support and reference material goes. This is not supporting or referencing anything where it is. Cognitive dissonance again, until that gets to where it maps to what it means to you.
How many of you found stuff that you actually need to take an action about? Well I doubt seriously this has been an effective action trigger. Actually this has probably been a numbing trigger, because this is not in the place that has triggered the action this thing is about i.e. what it means to you.
Now you folks who just found one tiny little thing, how much of that do you have in your life? And if what I’m saying is true, what’s that doing to stress an energy in your life that is not requited right now and nobody can make that decision but you. What does this mean to you? Therefore, what do you do with it? And until that has been defined, and parked appropriately there’s a part of you because it’s such a good servant that won’t leave you alone. The problem is it has no sense of past or future. So it’s beating you up subliminally about all of this, all the time. That’s why people feel so overwhelmed. When your external world is bad enough, but your internal one is even worse: Take the care to the mechanic; call Joe about that check; lunch with Jesse. Now look, is this a high performance frame of mind? No, this is a space cadet and I’m sure none of you ever felt that way, but did you ever notice your boss staring off into space from time to time?
Oh come on, let’s find out. How many of you, honestly, in here, while I’ve been talking have had your brain go somewhere that your brain had nothing to do with what was going on in here? Yeah, come on! I’ll bet where your head went – something just reared it’s head out of ram and you know – some open loop you got out there and it just yelled at you. And you didn’t even make significant progress on it while you were staring at me.
Oh, I see. So what did you do with it? Oh you worried. Well, how effective of you. Great! Let’s go there, waste time, make no progress whatsoever, just dump a few more toxins into your blood stream from the stress that that threw you into. ‘Cause when you go there in your head, there’s a part of you that says, “I should be out there doing that.” And another part of you, “Yeah, but I’m stuck in here with this jerk!” Uh-oh! Now you have unresolved inner conflict. Still there. If it’s happened once, it may have happened several hundred times. It may happen several thousand by five o’clock and so you may be kind of wasted this afternoon. We’ll see.
Well most people actually don’t realize how much of their personal energy is being exhausted and drained off by sitting there trying to get resolution over that little internal conflict and not having a lot of progress made there too. And man that stuff leaks out and mounts up and leaks out and mounts up. Then you look around and go, “How did I get here?” The wasted, burned out, spaced out, need a martini, oh God, Monday feeling.
The problem is you can’t find the enemy. Wouldn’t it be great if you could find a single source for that stress. A lot of people try to make it a single source, but it ain’t. It kind of – why? ‘Cause it’s not one thing that creates this. This is an accumulated event.
You folks catch this?
Voices: Uh huh.
DAVID: Can you relate to this?
Voices: Uh huh.
DAVID: From my experience most people feel a lot more of this than they realize. Most people have been in this so long, so consistently, they didn’t even know they’re in it.
Frankly, the only time you’re going to know how much of this stress you have, is like gravity – get rid of it, and see how different you feel. You have no idea how heavy gravity is unless you were weightless. I had an astronaut in one of my seminars not long ago, he said, “Boy is that true!” Wait until you’re weightless and then you’re realize how heavy gravity is.
So wait until having none of this is an experience and then you’re realize how much you had. Then of course, the big question is: Can you get rid of this? Yes you can! Can I hear it?
Amen! Halleluiah brothers and sisters! You can get rid of this!
Now let me give you one option for getting rid of this that’s a viable option that most of you won’t choose, the simple – the hey – come on folks. The viable option most of you won’t choose that’ll get rid of the stress – simplify your life. Just turn the dials down. Just ratchet it back, it’s time for the big shop in the Berkshires. Go! Go! Catch a fair wind. Make hats for the tourists. Leave. Sell it all. Put it all up on ebay: house, spouse, kids – best price.
You’ve met them. Folks fallen off the end of that peer. I was doing work for one of the big pharmaceuticals several years ago. They made off one big drug. The drug was about to go generic, nothing else in the pipeline, so Wall Street’s going, “Hmm – cashing and burn”. They had to cut back, lay people off, had an attractive early retirement program that thinned the executive ranks. I was doing a version of this seminar for a senior management group and I swear to you folks, swear – scout honor, there was a senior vice-president in that group that was about to take the early retirement package to go become a duck in Disney World.
Man this guy’s horizons were about to shorten considerably. Come on, think for a moment what was now gonna constitute a good day? “Hey dear, I made six kids laugh today. None of them threw up on me. What a win! Let’s eat!” Compare that to replace lost revenue stream on your list. That’s one way to do it, just ratchet it back folks. Turn the dials.
I’ve done a lot of work for the Navy at the Pentagon with this material. I met an Admiral – an Admiral was going through the seminar. He said, best example he knew, he had a good friend who was a Three Star General in the Army who retired fairly young as a Three Star and then taken a very high level executive post at UPS. Now I understand, and this is still true at UPS, no matter what level you come in there, you’ve got to do a stent through every job so you know how it all ties together.
And sure enough, one day this Admiral, he’s out driving around Arlington, Virginia suburb. He sees this big brown truck stop. Sees the guy get out with the cap, with the clipboard, and the boxes, and it’s this Three Star General. He had to go stop and ask this guy. He said, “Hey, how is this for you?”
The guy said, “Listen, every day I show up, I get in my truck, with my boxes which I deliver along my route. I pick up my boxes. At the end of the day I turn in my boxes, I turn in my truck, I’m done. I love it!”
He said this guy was happier than he had seen him in years. So that is a solution folks. Just go simplify your life. But most of you aren’t gonna pick that choice. You know why? Oh, ‘cause you probably discovered as I have that in order to graduate in life, personally, professionally, particularly financially, it’s been based upon your demonstrated ability to handle greater and greater levels of ambiguity and incompletion and stay safe. It doesn’t get easier, does it?
Don’t you love these college grads, get their first entry level job and they’re sitting there bitching. “Ah, I can’t wait until I get promoted. It’ll be a lot easier than this!”
Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Sure kid! Come on up where the air is really thin.
People say, “Gee David, do you have any advice about becoming an executive?”
I say, “Don’t.”
Did any of you ever have a summer job when all you did was crank widgets? Did you ever have a crank widget job? I had tons of those. Bored stupid but man they were the most psychologically healthy jobs in the world. Why? I showed up, big pile of uncranked widgets – widget cranking machine. Wasn’t confusing. How to spend my day. Not only that, what did I get to experience psychologically all day long? Progress – winning, success, completion, widget, ka-chum – widget, ka-chum. Five o’clock, out of here.
I mean come on, how many thoughts of widgets or widget cranking do you figure I had until the next morning? Zero. Right? How much energy did I have that night to boogie and other stuff? Tons! ‘Cause I was young? No! It’s ‘cause I was cranking widgets.
Now the crank widget jobs are still available folks. Not nearly as many. I’m sorry how much do your shoes cost? What’s that purse, that’s real leather? Oh, how many computers at home? Oh. Send your kinds where? Driving a what? Mortages, boats? You got a problem. You now, like me, have gotten addicted to a lifestyle for which the value added of a cranked widget ain’t gonna pay. You’re gonna be paid to manage widget crankers. You’re gonna be paid to design systems for widget cranking but you have computers that will talk to each other. You’re gonna be paid to train senior people how to think strategically about whether widgets are what you need to be cranking three years from now or not. Uh oh. Not so easy any more.
As a matter of fact, welcome to the silent trauma that’s hit the whole work force and the whole work culture in the last fifty years. No edges to your work. When are you done? When do you win? When do you complete? Do you know you can take any one of my 59 projects or any one of yours, none of us have time the rest of our life to do any one of them perfectly. How good could your hiring decision be? How good could the plan be? How good the staff morale improvement be? How good could your training program be? How good could the … oh my God! How good a manager could you be? How good a parent could you be, by the way? And by the way, how much data is available virtually for free out there that could keep adding value to what you think you feel responsible for? Huh – oh my God! When are you done? So is there some way out of that, amidst all of this? Yes there is. Ready? Get your life back to widgets again. Get your life back to widgets again. People go, “Gee David, You’re gonna be 60 next year, you got pretty good energy.” I got in a way, I have the same energy I had when I had a crank widget job. Why? I have a crank widget job? Only difference? I define the widget.
Have any of you folks seen my list of widgets? My whole life is down to: Pick up phone, hit number – beep. Boot computer – hit key; whoop. Open mouth – say word; Hey. Get in car – turn on; go to store.
I’m sorry, your whole life comes down to beep, boo, ha, ceek.
It does. And guess what? Beep’s easy to do. Not only that – I did a beep. Look at that! That’s when my lists say draft instead of write articles. ‘Cause drafting – do it in five minutes and have it be crappy and still win. You folks getting this? I just got my life to widgets! The difference is – nobody’s giving me that widget. I have to define that.
See I think about once a week. Ha, ha, ha. Yeah, you’re looking at relatively dumb and happy up here – at this moment. Why? Well thinking’s been highly overrated.
Well what’s been overrated is how much time you think you need to think. If you actually finished it, you’d be surprised how little you need to do.
See when you watch me think, hey you sit down next to me – you should have sat down next to me on the plane yesterday. Right? From Orlando. And now I’m sitting there – schroom – chu – chu – schroom. I got about two hours. I’m going through every single open loop and commitment in my life. Where am I about that? What’s – oh that remind me. Cachoom, cachoom, cachoom. End results of that two hours of thinking? Punch list. Do you know what a punch list is? You just everything – you know – let me go fill in this order. Just get the list. Let me go fill in the order. That’s what a punch list is. That’s what I work off of – punch lists. ‘Cause the end result of that are actions/waiting for – stuff to do, then during the week, 95% of that time, I don’t have the energy to think, I have the energy to do. So the doing had better already been defined.
You folks catching this? There’s a little bit of a hyperbole, but to some degree it’s really true. I am not thinking about my projects right now ‘cause I thought about them and I know I’m gonna think about them again and I have a system that makes that happen. That’s why I’m not worried about my projects, not even thinking about them. I don’t even know what they are. Don’t need to.
See most of you are thinking about how you should be thinking about what you should be thinking about, how you should be thinking about what you should be thinking about how you should be thinking about what you should be thinking about – and you never actually finish the exercise, so you life in a unfinished weekly review – angst. Okay. If you actually did it, you’d be surprised how little you have to do.
People often say, “Gee David, what do you do when you have thoughts in the shower?”
“I don’t have thoughts in the shower. Seldom.”
“What do you do when you have thoughts when you’re out for a run?”
“I don’t have thoughts when I go out for a run. Not many – ever.” Why? If you actually captured all your thoughts the first time you had them, you’d be surprised how few you have. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.
And the thoughts that occur in your shower and on your jog is not the first time they happen. Right? So you actually capture all the good thoughts the first time you have them, you’d be surprised how few you have and you’d also be surprised how few you need to put you in the fast lane out there. As long as you know how to responsibly manage the creative thinking that happens when it happens and park it into your system and get it processed. Does that make sense?
So, you can say, “Well you can test this out.”
Say, “Okay David, enough talk, how would I go implement this?”
“Well you actually want to go implement this?” I say, “Well okay. Let me give you a model of how we assist people in dealing with this and I’ll share with you what our coaching model is.”
Now if we go in – if you said, “David, let’s go handle this.”
And I go, “Great, you and me are gonna go back to your desk, your work station. Okay. And the first question we’re gonna ask you is, “What does not belong here permanently? What’s not supplies, reference material, decoration or equipment?”
And we start at the most mundane level by gathering together physically, the things that aren’t nailed down, that represent some commitment you’ve got and use those as the initial trigger to begin to gather the inventory of stuff that are open loops. In other words, the first thing we do is make sure we collect all the stuff you have your attention on. So we physically gather it together. That’s why we speak knowingly of center drawers. We’ve been in thousands. We don’t tell people what’s incomplete. We just ask, and say, “You got any attention on this?”
“Oh yeah, I need to …” Pop, and we throw it in your in-basket or a note that represents is. So we create some pretty big piles from pretty small spaces.
I love it. We go in, people always clean for the maid, you know and we go in and everything’s neat and clean. Right?
“Okay, I’m ready.”
“Okay, what’s in that drawer?”
“Oh that drawer? Oh nothing!”
Ha, ha, ha, ha.
That’s why this is challenging to do it for yourself, ‘cause there’s always a drawer you don’t want to open. We don’t make people do it, but you know we pay us the money we’re gonna charge you to pay us, you’ll open that drawer.
Anyway, so gather it all physically. Then we do what I call a mind sweep or a core dump, call anything else that you might have attention on that may not be represented by this physical stuff in a pile. Literally, what do you have attention on? Anything you may have attention on. Anything – little, big, personal, professional, we just grab it all.
“Oh, I got to get in touch with Fred Smith.” We write that down and throw it in the pile.
“Oh, you know, my plumbing leaks at home.” We write that.
“My 9-iron needs a new grip.” We get it all.
Usually it takes one to six hours, just to collect the initial inventory of open loops for most people. I had to take 16 hours for a guy one time. Finally, I just told him, “Look you get the idea.” He wasn’t stupid. I mean this guy was the chairman of two companies. Uh, but he was just out of control. He worked out of his house and his sailboat. The stuff was just everywhere. It was everywhere. The problem was he was semi – sort of semi-retired and you know, he was one of these crazy maker visionaries. You all know them. They get half-way through something, get inspired about something else and go start – leave the old one, unfinished. The problem was this guy used to have 15 assistants. Now he doesn’t have any. So now he’s still creating all the balls in the air, just nobody’s picking them up, so now he’s tied himself in his own knickers and fallen right down the stairs. By the way, that’s one of the highest stress populations right now, the semi-retired executives that are now on nine boards and running not-for-profits, but they don’t have 15 staff and they can’t type. They’re turning to toast. No – they are. They haven’t developed their own personal productivity skills to be able to keep that executive functioning going ‘cause their trusted system is now them, not the people around them. Anyway … but anyway, you may have caught the idea anyway about this. You may have followed along with me conceptually. What I’m gonna challenge all of you to do is catch up with me experientially right now, at least a little bit.
So I’m gonna challenge you to take the next five or six minutes and get your heads as empty as you can, as completely as you can, as rapidly as you can. There’s only one way to do that. Anything pops into your head that you have any attention on, little, big, personal, professional, write it down, one per line.
This is not – now – now – this is not a to-do list. It may look like it but the purpose of this is merely to empty ram, so you’re better off just to do stream of consciousness here. Don’t organize or analyze. You do yourself a disservice. You just want it done. Pops in – write it down. You can always scratch it out. This is not a commitment to do these things. So little, big, personal, professional – doesn’t matter.
It may happen like this: First one is, “Oh, I got to – I got to fix the mirror in our bedroom. Ah – and we need – that reminds me, we need a new dining room chair. Ah – you know we need to re-do the garden. I want to buy the company. If I don’t get cat food Felix will die.” I mean, they sit in weird little strings so don’t try to organize or analyze, just dump.
Now many of you may have these things written already in other systems, in other places. Go ahead and write it here if it pops into your head here. You’re better off to just over-do this in here for now. You can always throw this away later on. So better not to miss something, so you’re better just to go for volume right now.
So how was that? Why have you even do that drill? Well I suggest you never stop. If you want to get to what we mean by Mind Like Water, as a matter of fact, we’ve discovered an absolute prerequisite is that you never let anything ever crawl back up and stay in that space that was holding this list for you a few minutes ago – nothing, nada, nixt. Why? It’s mechanical, it’s subtle, but it’s just mechanical ‘cause your brain is not a place to hold these things.
Part of my dream is that 25 years from now, every 12 year-old on this planet will go, “God, why’d you ever keep stuff in your head? What a dumb idea!” Because once you catch this, you’ll go, “God, what a dumb idea, to keep it up there.”
See let’s think about, first of all, approach this from this viewpoint: How did this feel? What were some of the feelings that showed up when you did this exercise? Let me make an educated guess. How many would say that some – at least some small portion of you felt on the negative side of this equation, some version of overwhelm, anxiety, pressure, guilt, depression, yuck – some version of grief? Yeah, this is – most people have quite a negative emotional spin around this list. I didn’t see a lot of you going, “Oh this is such fun! I love this!”
But how many of you’d say, almost simultaneously there was at least another tiny little part of you that felt a sense of release or relief in writing this down? Excuse me – 180 degree opposite emotional states experienced almost simultaneously doing the same exercise. What’s going on?
And actually when I figured out where the grief came from, you can see how you can get rid of it pretty fast. Somebody actually started to. Where does the grief come from? Really – I mean, too much to do? Oh come on, if that was true you’d never get out of it. Is it new data to any of you that there’s always more to do than you can do? That’s not the source of the negativity by the way. There actually is a very real source – you know, what’s that?
Well let’s suppose I said, “Hey Nick, listen. I’m gonna meet you on Thursday. Before I meet, I’m gonna send this …” I don’t send, show up, meet, call – nothing. How do you think he feels about that broken agreement?
Oh come on, you folks have been around the block long enough to know that there’s an automatic price you pay when you break an agreement in a relationship. You disintegrate the trust to some degree. Automatic price. But every single thing you just wrote down on that list is an agreement you have made with whom and have not kept yet? Ah – Grasshopper, think there’s any difference between you and your own inner committee and the outside stuff? Not at all. And from my experience, and I don’t have time to prove this one to you, you just have to test this out with your own experience, but from my experience where the grief comes from is not from too much to do, it’s the automatic price you pay for breaking an agreement with yourself. Automatic price. You can fool all the people all the time except yourself. You can’t get away for a micro-second. You tell yourself to re-think the strategic plan and you’re avoiding it – welcome to grief. You tell yourself to get organized and you’re not getting going, welcome to grief. Tell yourself to spend more time with your kids than you do, welcome to grief. It’s the automatic price. The disintegration of trust and the symptoms thereof.
Now how many of you would like to get rid of those yucky feelings for all eternity? Yeah, me too. Then we got three options, ‘cause they come from breaking agreements with ourselves. One way you can feel a lot better is to don’t make the agreements. I mean you folks would lighten up a ton if you just lower your standards. So there are a few bugs in the software – what the hell. Somebody find them.
So we never call our clients – they have our number. So I never do my homework, I can always do it again. Ha, ha, ha.
You parents maybe it’s time to go home and have that serious conversation with your kids. “Listen kids, we’ve been discussing it and we’ve decided from now on, we’re just gonna be mediocre parents. Grow yourselves.” The slack you parents could cut yourselves if you didn’t care so much about what your kids were gonna do with their lives.
And by the way, it’s been a very popular concept out there, especially in the business world, that you’re gonna simplify your life by focusing on your values. Ha! Who are you kidding? Where do you think your big overwhelming lists come from? You care. You don’t want to be so overwhelmed? Don’t care so much.
Now I’m not telling you not to care or have meaning or values – come on they give you meaning and direction, but don’t kid yourself for a microsecond that’s gonna simplify your life. Yeah, at 40,000 feet is sure will, but on the runway – gird your loins. You start focusing on your values, you’re gonna have to join committees you didn’t even know exist yet. You’re gonna have to coach soccer – recycle, actually take staff to lunch, be nice to them – stuff like that. Yeah, more to do.
Well gee, that doesn’t seem to be a permanent solution ‘cause I doubt if most of you are going to lower your standards. No, but let me give you the gold in these hills. If you actually know how much you’re committed to, you’ll commit to less. I mentioned that earlier.
If you take the responsibility as I do to capture, define, keep track of, every single project I actually commit to and put them in front of my face and stare at them and the attendant actions as often as I do, guess what words started to come to me easier? It’s an executive concept. You may not have learned it yet. Starts with an “n”, made up of two letters. Wow! That’s a great idea! Sorry, don’t have the bandwidth to commit. But do you know that if you actually don’t know exactly how many projects you have and what they are, you have to take every project anybody of authority asks you to do out of your integrity ‘cause you think you might be able to. Do you know that as soon as you know how many you actually have, you will have to say no out of same integrity because you know you won’t be able to fulfill the agreement. It’s not about getting any more integrity, it’s about getting your inventory clear. You’re self-regulating mechanism has just gone wild in there. It’s not functioning ‘cause you haven’t fed back to it what you’ve actually committed to.
Come on, I can prove this one. How many of you have let reading material just ooze all over your life? Stuff you told yourself to read. Yeah! Okay, do yourself a favor. Get yourself one stack basket like this and go through your whole environment and find every single thing you told yourself you want to read. Articles, magazines, books, whatever, and put it one pile. I guarantee you, as soon as you see that pile you’ll commit to reading less.
Most of you just don’t realize what you’ve done to yourself and how many commitments you have because you haven’t given yourself a backstop to feedback how much you’ve committed to. Trust me – prove me wrong on that one. Just gather them all together. Put them in one place and see what happens.
By the way, the less you give yourself to read, the more you’ll read. A lot of you are not reading any books because you told yourself to read 45. Give yourself two, one on your nightstand and one in your briefcase. That’s it – max. I got a bunch of books to reads, but they’re lined up in queue one at a time. And so – anyway, so just managing the inventory.
And again, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve never seen an exception. When I get an executive to sit down after two days of coaching they wind up staring at their 75 projects, every one of them changes their mind about what they commit to at that point, ‘cause most people haven’t fed themselves back what they’re committing to.
Andrew J. Mason: I think it’s so beneficial that the entire methodology gets boiled down to systematizing our personal integrity. It’s difficult to follow through on all of your commitments if you can’t remember what they are and like we mentioned at the beginning, this content is just a preview of the type of content you can find regularly on GTD Connect and our online store and you can get to both of those destinations by heading to GettingThingsDone.com.
That’s it for this week and until next time, I’m Andrew J. Mason asking you, now that you’ve listened to this podcast, what’s your next action?

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  1. I stumbled on your site because I am looking to get things done. There is a lot of noise in my life.

    1. Hi Rhonda,

      Thanks for asking. We have included a written transcript with some of the podcasts. I will check into the possibility of getting a transcript for this one.

  2. Thank you for transcribing! As Hard of Hearing that really is a treat that opens up the GTD world even better;)

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