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Living ZTD Month 1 Part 2: Processing

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Developing a collecting habit is relatively easy once you get into the rhythm. As long as you have an “inbox” always at hand, be it paper or phone or physical box, your brain will offer little resistance to the act of getting it out of your brain and into some system. In fact, it will probably be thankful for it. In comparison, the habit of Processing is a bit harder to keep, which is probably why ZTD puts it in a separate habit. But if you don’t immediately follow Collecting with Processing, you will accumulate a growing mountain of physical objects, notes, and files that will burden your brain (not to mention your desk) rather than relieve it. And you definitely do not want to wait for 30 days to be over for that. The good news is that getting started with the Processing habit isn’t actually difficult to start and you can wait for some of the later habits to really flesh out the details.

The Process of Processing

The concept of processing our inboxes is actually rather simple. Or rather, most of it is. It’s really mostly made up a few rules rather than an actual complicated process. Actually it’s a combination of both, which makes it easy to illustrate as a flowchart (and which is why geeks, especially programmers, kind of have fun with it).

1. Set aside time

The key to developing a habit is consistency. Decide on a set time to do your processing. Once a day is the bare minimum, though twice is probably more advisable. Once before work hours end and another at the end of the day/before bed. Later on it can be expanded to shorter spurts, as long as it’s the same time each day.

2. Go through one item at a time

Pick one item from the inbox and process that and only that. It might be tempting to take out a whole bunch, especially when you know by heart what’s in there. But there will be times when you won’t, so it’s better to develop the habit of taking out things one at a time only.

3. Touch-move

Related to the above, once it’s out of the inbox, it never goes back in. When you take it out, you decide what to do with it. You don’t necessarily need to “do” it right then and there, but you’ll have to determine where it goes or what to do with it. It never goes back to in.

4. Decide

More on this later, but, as mentioned, you don’t exactly need to do the action associated with an item. What you need to do is make a quick upfront decision what to do with that item. Whether that’s do or don’t, it will depend on what that item is.

5. Process to empty

It’s like the Pringles slogan. Once you pop, you can’t stop. The amount of stuff you have in your inbox should probably tell you whether you need to allocate more time to processing or not. Never leave your inbox with something inside at the end of the day, unless it’s really absolutely necessary for you to rush out. It’s always a great feeling to start the next day with a blank slate rather than with leftover cruft.

Defining “Stuff”

Before we get into the actual decision making process of Processing, there is one other aspect that ZTD doesn’t exactly dwell on but is central to GTD: clarifying what “stuff” is. David Allen suggests that unless we are able to actually clarify what a thing is, whether it’s actionable or not, our brains will continue holding on to that “stuff”. Whether you agree with that psychological theory or not, it still pays to spend a few seconds trying to see if the item/thought can be turned into a verb, which means it’s potentially actionable, or not, which means it’s reference material. That will greatly help in the next step, which is the bulk of the Processing habit.

Four D’s and an F

At this point in GTD, you’d be presented with a flowchart and various buckets to put the processed “stuff” into. Those buckets can come later in other habits (though it’s always fun to have flowcharts!). For now, we can settle on 5 ways to tackle items from your inbox. It helps if you’ve determined whether that item has an action associated with it, because the first thing option is:

  1. DO – If and only if the action item will take less than 2 minutes to complete; otherwise,
  2. DEFER – Put off for another day. For now, it can simply be a mark on your calendar or an item in some list. It doesn’t mean putting it back in your inbox though.
  3. DELEGATE – If you’re not responsible for it, or if you can actually make someone else responsible for it. Probably my least used category.
  4. FILE – There’s no action associated with it but it’s still important to keep. Put it in some reference system, maybe a file, folder, or note, digital or otherwise. Like Defer, it doesn’t mean going back to the Inbox.
  5. DUMP – If there’s no action involved and it has no importance, throw it away. This might actually be the hardest thing to do for some people. If you can think of some other place or way you can get a hold of the same information in the future, then you can safely throw it away.

That’s pretty much all that’s involved in processing. Although the whole system involves a lot more cogs and wheels, there really isn’t much with the processing part. The real habit here is being able to clarify what a thing is and quickly make a decision where it goes. That last bit is what habits 3 (Plan) and 6 (Simple Trusted System) are for, but those are habits for another month.

Join the discussion


  1. andyson

    that item has an action associated with it, because the first thing option

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