Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

A Patttern Language for Productivity, Pattern #5: Processing

by Andre · 3 Comments

Some things that have our attention come from the outside world. The phone rings, and we discover that a great home just went on the market. Other things that have our attention come from within. Perhaps it’s time to look into going back to school as a grad student. In both cases, determining whether or not these opportunities are worth pursuing, and if so, what course of action is required to pursue them, requires processing.

Processing invokes Pattern #1, Outcome and Action, by taking each internal or external input, deciding what it means, and what should be done with it. Processing an intray involves taking each paper from the tray, one at a time, and applying a decision tree that begins with the following questions to ask and answwer:

  • What is this?
  • Is with actionable?

If the answer is yes:

  • What is the successful outcome?
  • What is the next action?

The next action gets put on a Next Actions list. If the successful outcome requires more than one action step to acheive it, the outcome is entered on a Project List. Since most outcomes require more than one action, at least two lists will need to be maintained: a Project list and a Next Action list (or just “Action list”). Optionally, next actions can be organized into a pattern to be introduced later, called Context Lists, in which each list represents the physical context required to take the action: a separate action list for all next actions requiring a computer, another list for actions that require being at home, and so on.

If the answer to “Is this actionable?” is no, we ask:

  • Do I need to keep this?

If the answer is no, we toss it in the trash. If the answer is yes, we ask:

  • Will this be actionable later, or is this reference?

If the item will be actionable at a later date, like an invoice, you two options. You can enter the actionable date on your calendar and file the original paper in your General Reference Filing system if it still needs to be kept to support the action. You can also defer the action by filing the paper in a Tickler File, a special set of folders organized by the date on which their contents will be processed. Both filing systems are patterns that will be covered later in this series.

If the item is not actionable, but may be of use later, create a file for it within your A-Z general refence files.

This decision tree gets applied to every single item in your intray, one item at a time, until you get to “zero base”: an empty intray. This assumes, of course, that every potentially actionable piece of paper in your environment has been properly collected into your intray in the first place. Ideally, the only paperwork on your desk (aside from the intray) is for the one project you’re actively working on at the moment. If you’re not working on it, the inactive paperwork should have been either filed or discarded after processing. A workspace thus organized firewalls your attention to keep your focus on the one thing you’re currently working on.

Processing also applies to all items in your internal environment. In the example of considering going to grad school, we decide in this case that we’re not yet committed to going back to school, but that we are committed to getting enough information about the graduate program to make a decision. This type of research objective is called a process project, which usually gets entered on a project list as Look into X, or R&D X.

The object of process projects is not open-ended information gathering, but to research an option just enough to make a decision on it. In this case, we want to get enough information to decide whether or not we want to commit to enrolling in graduate school. Since research is an actionable item, we decide what the next action is: in this case, we put, Google “Best graduate programs in Biology,” on our next actions list. Since this is only the very next action in our research, and others will follow, we put R&D Biology Masters degrees onto our project list. This clarifies our immediate goal, and the very next action step necessary to acheive it.

Internally generated items that require processing must first be externalized though a mind sweep, a list of everything that’s on you mind: errands to run, people to call, travel plans to make, and so on. You keep listing items until there’s nothing further to put down — until your head is empty. Once you have the list in front of you, each item on the list gets processed one at a time and crossed off. Once every item is crossed off, you should have and outcome and action corresponding to each item if that’s actionable. If you’ve decided that an item is not actionable, there’s nothing further to do beyond crossing it off.

If the item is something you’d like to consider to later action, like Vacation in Rome, put it on a separate list called “Someday/Maybe,” which is similar to the project list, except that Someday/Maybe only contains items that you’ve decided are not active projects.

Ultimately, processing to zero base takes every new item — physical or mental — that enters your world, and parks it somewhere in your external, trusted system.

Tags: A Pattern Language for Productivity


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