An Empty In-box is a Strategic Habit to Maintain

The Paper Problem

Have the paper piles on your desk reached a critical mass? Perhaps now you look across your tabletop and notice just how many projects you have “in motion.” How does that happen? More importantly, what can be done about it?

Working a few more hours into the evening is not a sustainable solution. Knowledge workers are like athletes, looking for principles and practices to get more done with less effort. The good news is that the increasing volume of incoming paper, e-mail, phone calls and interruptions, can be managed effectively.

Effective organization is not about which planner you choose to use. It is about how you think about your work before you write anything down. The following tips, though deceptively simple, will have a major impact on how well you manage your time, how much you get done, and can lower your stress level dramatically.

Separate the Collection of Work from the Processing of Next Actions

Many people attempt to collect, process and even organize all at the same time. It is very important that you have the tools and behaviors to collect potentially useful information all day long, without having to think about it during that time. At other times, it’s important to process the work you’ve collected into actions and projects without having to DO the work in that very moment. Following are some tips on how you can create an inventory, or list, of your actions about the work you’ve collected.

Throughout a typical day, knowledge workers go to meetings, receive e-mails, collect phone calls and faxes, and have new, creative, developmental ideas about current and future projects. In all of that, it’s important to respond appropriately to new input as it arrives on the desk. Here’s how:

  • Dedicate one part of your workspace the IN-BASKET. Collect notes, memos, random messages, or anything that can fit into a plastic, wire or wood in-tray. From now on, recognize this place as a “temporary” collection and processing station.Resist the urge to leave things here for extended periods of time by processing this pile regularly! You or anybody else should be able to put something in that collection bin and know that you will see it within a day or less.
  • Process each item into a physical, visible next action step. It is not necessary to FINISH everything in your in-basket before you can get it to empty. There are moves you can practice to empty that collection area.Ask and answer just two questions about each item therein. Begin by taking ONE item out of your in-basket and holding that item until you have an answer to the first question.
    1. What is the next action? It is necessary to actually decide (and write down) the very next, physical, visible action step the item in your hand represents, even if you can’t DO the action immediately. For example, if you pull out a receipt for an expense you want to submit, ask yourself what the next action is. Without a few moments of focused thinking, you might write “reimbursement check” on your to-do list. However, if you continue processing to the very next action, you might capture “Fill out paperwork to submit receipts.” Although it may seem like a small difference, this subtle shift in defining your work could have very profound effects. Try it by identifying the very next step on any item in your in-basket. Do you have to draft an e-mail? Look up a phone number? Review the current status of Project XYZ?Keeping a list of next actions, explicitly defined and written tasks you can easily review, will make it easier to get things done. One way to relax your mind and stop some of your internal chatter (what you tell yourself about your work) and stress is to simply define and write down the very next step.
    2. What is the successful end result? Next define the project that that action represents. A project is any outcome that will take more than one action step to complete. This question is designed to get your mind very clear about your agreement all of your “coulds, shoulds and have tos.” Once you have defined the very next action (for example: “call supply department to order more files — 802-555-1237”), ask yourself if that next action will lead to another one, which will lead to another one, which eventually will lead to some project outcome (a goal, a deliverable, etc).It could be that you are working on a project to “Finalize reorganizing office.” If so, the suggestion is to capture THAT outcome, stated in those terms, somewhere out of your head, onto a “project list” that you can review on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to ensure you have “moving parts” on all your projects in motion.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Managing the Action List

After completing the steps above, you now have an explicit list of next actions, rather than a ambiguous or vague, “to-do” list. The purpose of this action list is to give you a snapshot inventory of your current agreements. You can then easily review and check your status on each one of your moving targets. Also, this list can serve as a “reminder list.”

It is important to review these lists at least once a week, searching for “Next Actions” to ensure that you are moving forward on all the things that you have in motion. Most people have between 50-100 of these “projects.” For many people, that is too many to hold in psychic RAM. The project inventory list gives your mind a place to look to check on and negotiate your commitments to all you work.

Although many people are at first surprised at the apparent simplicity of this process, those we have coached have found tremendous value in applying these ideas to increase their workplace productivity. Look out at your desk, pick up one piece of paper or one project file, and try it out! Chances are you’ll be surprised at just how “easy” the next action is. Prepare to get things done as you define the actual steps of doing your work!

Jason W. Womack, M.Ed. is a senior staff consultant with David Allen & Co. Just like an athletic coach, he shares practices to make knowledge workers faster, stronger and better at their work. He teaches people how to implement systems to ensure that they can quickly and consistently accomplish the things that they need to do so that they will have the time and freedom to do the things that they want to do.

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