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Living ZTD Month 1 Part 1: Collecting

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Last January I did (what should have been) a short review of Leo Babuta’s Zen To Done methodology to supplement (or replace) the popular Getting Things Done system by David Allen. I thought, since it was simple enough, or at least deceptively simple, why not try and live it out? Ten habits in 10 months doesn’t sound that bad. Less than 10 months even, as I’ll explain later. So I set out to embark on a ZTD journey that should have started already last week. But MWC 2017 made it almost impossible to whip up a system together, much less write this blog post, so I reluctantly had to postpone. I plan to write two blog posts each month, one at the start detailing how I go about setting up that month’s habits, and another at the end to give a postmortem. Without further ado, here’s ZTD Month 1.

Collecting and Processing together

One of Babuta’s criticisms about the GTD system is that it is actually made up of multiple habits all lumped together and implemented in almost one go. And so ZTD splits up those into 10 or so habits, each to be developed over a span of 30 days or so (as is usually the advice). While there’s wisdom to this observation, I do have some problems with Habit 1 Collecting and Habit 2 Processing being two distinct habits.

The collection habit encourages you to regular dump anything and everything that comes into your mind and life into a fixed amount of “inboxes”, whether physical or digital. Given how much information bombards us these days, be it from work or personal life, those buckets can quickly pile up. Imagine if you kept on adding and adding to them for 30 days without actually doing anything about them. Processing keeps your inboxes from becoming a huge mess that you wouldn’t even want to touch once you come to Habit #2. You don’t necessarily have to actually do the actions associated with them, you just need to decide what to do with them. If you decide to put it off for next month’s habit(s), so be it.

I personally think Collecting and Processing are two sides of the same coin that cannot work properly without the other. In the GTD system, that’s not exactly an issue since these are steps in a process rather than distinct habits to develop. Fortunately, Babuta does concede that you can try two to three habits at the same time but probably not much more. If there were ever two habits that must be developed simultaneously, these two would be it. This first post goes into detail about Collecting while the next one dives into Processing.

The physical world

Despite living in an age of computers, smartphones, and the Internet, our lives still happen mostly in the analog world. And that’s not just for old-school mail or letters. Bills, scraps of paper, magazines, books, etc. Even ideas or notes haphazardly written on sticky notes, back of envelopes, or even napkins aren’t uncommon. That is why there’s still a need for a physical inbox. The GTD recommendation applies here: have as many as you need but as few as you can get by with. Ideally, you should probably only have one inbox at home and at work. Since for me both are the same, I really have only one literal bucket. Those who routinely deal with paperwork in the office will probably have a separate inbox for personal matters.

The key point to the inbox is to have a single, trusted place to dump everything physical that comes into your life. Having it in one place saves you time and energy gathering those items for processing later. Having it in a single place builds trust that you know it’s going to be there when and where you need it. In that same vein, you should probably also have a separate single dumping ground for wallets and keys. They shouldn’t be in the inbox, though.

Physical Inboxes

The physical inboxes deal with physical objects, but not everything that comes into our lives are either physical or digital only. I’m referring to the incorporeal thoughts that can clog up our brains faster than physical clutter can. The common advice is “write everything down”. Where you write those down is where the biggest debates in productivity take place. Both GTD and ZTD advocate using physical notebooks over gadgets, at least when starting out. Their point is simplicity, ease of use, and ubiquity. There’s also much to be said about the psychological aspects of writing things down. I have no arguments there and I actually believe those to some extent. My only beef with this kind of advice is that it presumes that it is faster to jot things down on paper than it is to do so on your phone. I think today that’s only half true. If you’re at your desk, it is probably indeed easier to reach out for pen and paper, but that still depends on the context. When you’re out and about, you might be better at quick draw with your phone than digging into your bag for those analog writing tools.

So my setup is this: pen and paper when they’re actually easier, digital when they’re faster. I have one notepad in my “stations” (basically my desk) and it is also a good idea to keep a smaller one in your bag or purse (if it has room).

The digital realm

For us geeks, translating those productivity tips into their software and hardware equivalents is perhaps the most exciting part of the endeavor. Ironically, it is also the most unproductive, given how we can get paralyzed by the choices available. I’m not getting into an Evernote vs. OneNote vs. Insert Favorite Program/Service debate (though I admit I prefer OneNote at the moment). These tools are almost all equally great at being the endpoint for your “stuff”. They might not be the best for actually collecting them fast. Doing that on mobile devices might depend on the type of device and operating system.

iOS

Getting information quickly into an iPhone or iPad is simple. And by that I mean there’s really only one way to do it, unlike on Android where there are tons of options, depending on what you have. The best way to do this is to add a Widget for your favorite note-taking app on the Today panel. This has the advantage of being available from any screen or app, including the Lock Screen. For the latter, however, there’s no escaping the fact that you have to first unlock the phone with your fingerprint or passcode before you can input anything. This is where some Android devices have an edge over iOS.

Almost every note-taking app or text editor has a widget that lets you add a new page or note instantly. While that does include Evernote and OneNote, these apps don’t always open instantly. Your mileage may vary depending on your device but if you don’t mind using a different app for you Inbox, you could opt for something that starts up faster, like Google Keep.

iOS Today

Android

Things can get a bit messier on Android but also more powerful at times. It partly depends on the device you have. If you have a recent Samsung Galaxy Note phone, you can instantly start scribbling notes the moment you pull out the S Pen. On the LG V20, you can repurpose the Quick Capture action to give you a blank white screen to write or draw on, unfortunately with your fingers or some capacitive stylus.

While Android doesn’t have an always accessible Today drawer, it does have home screen widgets. And those same widgets can be used to emulate something like iOS’ Today page, if that floats your boat, with apps like Snap and similar. Unlike iOS, Android widgets are a bit more flexible and more talented and it might be easy to go overboard. Remember, simple and quick.

Android Inboxes

Collect Everything!

Whatever app or method you eventually choose, it has to be one that will let you instantly note things down with minimal fuss. If you have to wait more than 3 to 5 seconds before you can start typing, you’ve lost the window of opportunity and you’re brain will tell you next time to hold off until you get to your preferred note-taking software. And that time never really comes for most of us. Fortunately, most of the popular note-taking software for desktops also have shortcuts for quickly creating new notes. If Evernote or OneNote might feel too heavy for this process of collecting, something lighter, like Google Keep might be more preferable. Or sometimes even plain text, if you have a way of quickly launching and saving a text editor,

Habit 1 is actually made up of two deeply intertwined ideas:

  1. Collecting everything
  2. Putting them inside dedicated, easy to access “buckets”

One doesn’t function without the other. If you do collect everything but place them in a different place every time, your brain will overload in trying to figure out where to fetch things from when it’s time to process them. If you do have inboxes but aren’t easy and quick to use, your brain will put of stashing stuff into them, which increases the likelihood you’ll forget them or misplace them.

The collection habit doesn’t discriminate. No piece of paper is too small or too big for your inbox. No idea is too narrow or too ambitious for your notebook or app. And no time is too sacred to be exempt from this action, unless, of course, you are in a sacred or off limits place or are sleeping. Now is not that time to decide that thing’s unworthiness. That’s what Habit 2, Processing, is for.

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