Scanner Productivity: The Gather Sheet

After last time telling you how I got my inbox from overflowing to empty, it seems only natural that I also share another of my little time-saving tricks: my handy-dandy Gather Sheet.

Really, The Gather Sheet is just one part of how I manage my time as as scanner. So, I’ll focus on that for right now — but if you all are interested, in a future post, I can explain how I combine it with things like TimeBoxing and the Scanner Daybook.

Why I’ve Hated To-Do Lists

I actually really hated writing to-do lists growing up as a kid. It probably didn’t help that most of them consisted of such enjoyable tasks as “clean your room” or “vacuum the living room”.

And then there’s that scanner part of me. You know, the part that finds to-do lists constraining and confining. The moment something went onto my list, it would haunt me: “Do me… do me! Even if you’re on a completely different scanner track, I must be done!”

Why I’ve Loved To-Do Lists

On the other hand, I’ve found that — especially when I’m extremely busy — I get stressed if I try to just keep all of my “to-do” items in my head. In some ways, writing things down was my security blanket: I didn’t have to worry about forgetting things, because I knew I could just go back to my list and all would be fine.

This “clicked” for me when I read David Allen’s fantastic Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. As much as I hated them, I consistently found that to-do lists (especially the way that Allen proposed using them) tended to keep me a little more sane.  It was immensely freeing to not keep everything in my head.

The Gather Sheet

It’s taken me a while, but I think I’ve finally found a solution that works for the scanner in me (that’s the part that craves flexibility in when I do things) and the sanity part of me (that’s the part that needs the peace of mind that comes from writing things down). I call it The Gather Sheet.

The gather sheet is what you used to call a to-do list. But it’s not a list of all the things you must get done at a certain date or else lightning will strike you down and locusts will swarm and the plague will hit and the world will end (whew!).

It’s simply a collection of projects that will be tackled sooner or later. What I’ve found phenomenal is how just that simple mind shift can relax the inner scanner!

Understanding the Gather Sheet

Here’s a PDF version of my Gather Sheet; feel free to download it and use it as you so desire. Here’s what all those various fields mean to me:

1) The Date

At the top goes the date. I create a new Gather Sheet every day, because it doubles as my work to-do list.

2) The Requests

Next to get filled in is everything that I want or need to get done. These might be things from my daybook, they might be things that my boss says I have to do, or whatever. I call them “requests” because really, that’s all they are: requests for my time.

In the order they come in, I write these “requests” under (surprise!) the requests heading. It’s really important to include these in the order that they arrived, rather than some ‘priority’ system. If you try to prioritize things, you’ll basically have created just another to-do list, complete with outside pressure and timelines.

I also try to keep my requests as detailed as possible. In Getting Things Done terminology, I include only my “next actions” — the very next actionable thing I could take on any one project. So, instead of “Write Novel” it might be “Create a character sketch for my novel protagonist”. Basically, you want the task to be actionable.

Every time you get another request for your time, it goes on the request list. (The one exception I have here is for appointments — I put those on a calendar because I need the visual reinforcement of timelines.)

3) The Carry-Forward Flags

Now, for each request, go through and fill in the “CF” box. Basically, I use this as an indication of how long a certain request has been sitting on my list.

  • A number represents how many days it’s been carried forward.
  • A “W” means that I’m waiting on someone else before I can do anything with the request
  • An “N” means that the project is brand-new and hasn’t been carried forward at all yet

I’m sure there are other flags that you could come up with, but really those are the only ones I’ve found useful for me.

4) The MIT, APPTS and LHF Fields

MIT means “Most Important Task(s)” and APPTS is short for “Appointments”. This is where any non-negotiable stuff goes. Things that I could get fired for not doing, for example 😉

The MIT box is where I put the one most important thingon the requests list that I must get done on that day. It’s my “keep self honest” box. If there’s something that I would procrastinate on but which I really must do, it goes in this box and is completely non-negotiable.

I typically keep my appointments separate, in a calendar, but you could put them down as requests if you found it more useful.

LHF is shorthand for “Low Hanging Fruit”. What goes in this box is any request that I can get done, fast — generally 30 minutes or less. I love the feeling of accomplishment that comes from getting things done, so I usually try to have at least 2-3 LHF every day.

5) The “Notes” Field (Blank Column on the Left)

This one’s like my mini-daybook, notepad, and call log all in one. It’s place where I can jot ideas as they come to me, phone numbers of people I need to call, details of upcoming projects, sketches of upcoming designs, etc.

Basically, it’s free space that allows me to use my Gather Sheet as my primary collection device in meetings, on the phone, or just when daydreaming.

Getting Stuff Done, Gather Sheet Style

Once you’ve got your gather sheet set up the first time, using it is pretty simple.

  • New requests for your time go at the bottom of the request list, with a CF flag of “N”
  • Every request that gets completed gets crossed off. If there’s a “next step” to a request (for example, after writing a character sketch for the protagonist, I might want to rite one for the antagonist), it gets its own line as a new item
  • MIT gets done first thing — no checking email, or the weather, or anything else until that’s done
  • LHF usually gets done next, since they’re things that I can get done quickly
  • When deciding what to do next, I usually look for items with the highest CF values and work at them. This helps me not procrastinate on things for too long, but gives me the flexibility to work on things as I feel like it

That’s pretty much it. Use it throughout the day as new requests come in, old ones get done, etc.

The last bit of the system is: before the end of the day (be it the work day or before you go to bed), review all that you go done the previous day!

  1. Look at everything you finished! Do any have follow-up items that you should write down as new requests? If so, do that first.
  2. For any request that didn’t get crossed out, ask yourself: do I still want to do this? (or, if it’s a work task, “does this still need to be done?”). If yes, it gets an arrow drawn in under the arrow column. If not, it gets an X.
  3. Flip to a new page, and write tomorrow’s date at the top.
  4. Copy, in the same order that they appear on today’s page, any request that you drew an arrow beside. Increment the CF by one (since it’s been carried forward an additional day).
  5. Look at your calendar and write down any appointments, including time and location.
  6. Decide what your MIT and LHF are for the next day. Write them down. Don’t be afraid to make your MIT something that you want to do, rather than something your boss or significant other wants you to do!

And that’s it. Put it somewhere you’ll see it, first thing — at the kitchen table if you’re using it at home, or maybe on top of your computer keyboard if at work.

The Benefits

Like I said before, the Gather Sheet is what’s worked for me — and I hate to-do lists! The reasons it works are many:

  • It gets stuff out of your head, and on to paper. Very de-stressing!
  • It respects your time, by allowing you to see everything that you’ve got going on at a glance
  • You have the flexibility to cancel items that no longer interest you, or that no longer need to be done
  • On a similar note, you can see at a glance you can see what you’ve been procrastinating on — and either get it done, or leave it behind
  • You can get things done quickly, because you’ve identified things like low hanging fruit and most important tasks
  • It allows you to do things when you want to, rather than based on a priority system that’s imposed on you or arbitrary

What about you? Do you have a time management tool that you like to use? Or maybe you’re trying the Gather Sheet for the first time — how’s it working for you? Feel free to share your insights and ideas for the rest of the readers!

Getting to Inbox Zero

Every so often, I’ll go to send an email and get an annoying little message box telling me that I’ve got way too much junk in my inbox — and until I clean up my act, it won’t let me send any more outgoing messages.

Phooey to that.

The benefit, though, is that I’ve managed to come up with a technique that allows me to go from inbox-overwhelmed to inbox-empty quickly and efficiently. Here’s how I do it.

(Before getting started, I recommend turning off your phone and IM, putting on some headphones and setting out a do-not-disturb sign. You want to get in the zone to move quickly through this process. The process will take anywhere from half an hour to a couple of days, depending on the volume of email you’ve got piled up.)

1. Turn on the Reading Pane

In order to get through my inbox as fast as possible, there are a few simple set-up things I like to do to get myself set up.

First up, I turn on the reading pane. The reading pane is a window that shows your message as soon as you select it, rather than having to double click the message heading to open. If  there is no reading pane option, I try to use as many keyboard shortcuts as possible so I can navigate quickly through messages without having to wait for them to open and load.

Optional: turn on threading for conversations. This helps when you need to keep only certain messages from a conversation — for example, when the most recent message includes all of the previous messages as quotes.

2. Get Ready for Initial Filing

Then, I’ll create three temporary folders (or labels/tags depending on your email package) that I use for my first pass through the messages. These folders are not the height of filing excellence, and you’ll want to do some proper filing later.

  1. Action
  2. Waiting
  3. Keep

Why three? The goal in the first pass through your inbox is to be making rapid fire decisions. Any more than three, and you start to spend time figuring out how to file, rather than just doing it.

Of course, the “trash can” or delete folder isn’t listed in those three — I assume that whatever you’re using will have one built in. But if for some reason it doesn’t, make one for that too.

Also, if your software supports it, turn on keyboard shortcuts so you can file your email with a click of a key, rather than dragging a message using your mouse.

3. Do the Initial Sort

Alright, the set-up is done. Now, it’s time to start clearing out that inbox. I view this step as a wind-sprint: I go as fast as I possibly can, looking at each message for as little time as possible (really, only a split second).

Start with the oldest emails. For each email, skim the subject, the first sentence or two of content. Scroll down to the end of the email and note if it’s got any quoted content. Ignore the sender and the rest of the content.

Now, based on only that scan, either file it into one of those three folders, or trash it. Remember to use those keyboard shortcuts, if you set them up!

Here’s what goes into each folder. The key is to go as fast as possible — it’s a race! (Setting up a little stopwatch to see how fast you can go is a great motivator!)

1) Action — anything that you need to take action on. This could be work to do, an email to respond to, an appointment to write in your daybook, or anything similar.

2) Waiting — anything that you’re waiting for someone else to take action on, before you can take action yourself. Maybe you’re waiting for an email back, or they need to bring you some documents. If you’re waiting on them before you can proceed, it goes here.

3) Keep — anything you will need to reference again in the next 3-6 months. Any longer than that, and you’ll have either forgotten about it (and thus will most likely end up requesting it again), or it will most likely be out of date.

4) Trash – everything else goes here. In other words, if it’s not actionable immediately, if it’s not actionable after you get the info you need, or if you won’t need to reference it within 6 months, it goes in the trash.

Processing Tips: 

  • Don’t take the time to actually read the e-mails. If you start reading, you’ll get bogged down, start thinking about responses or other stuff you need to do yet, and then boom. You’ve stopped processing.
  • Similarly, no matter how quickly you think you can get something done, do not stop processing to do it. Throw it into the action folder and move on.
  • Be ruthless. When in doubt, put it in the trash — 99% of the time, you’ll never need it again, anyway.
  • Keep only the most recent emails from a conversation, especially if old emails are quoted in newer ones.
  • In general, your Trash folder should get the most emails. Action and Waiting folders should be next. Your Keep folder should be smallest.

4. Do Half

It’s not always going to be practical to clear out your whole inbox in one sitting. If you have thousands (or tens of thousands!) of messages, even spending only fractions of a second on each can still take way too long.

Instead of forcing yourself to process your whole inbox at once, I like to clear it out by half. Again, start with the oldest, and simply move through half of the emails as quickly as possible.

Reward yourself with some time away from the inbox — go take a walk, get up and stretch your legs, and do something completely different. The other half of the inbox will still be there when you get back.

Each time you sit down to do more cleaning, keep doing half of your inbox until the pile of emails is small enough that you can knock it down all in one sitting.

5. Take a Break

Once you’ve got your inbox cleared out into your three main folders, take a break — preferably for a couple of days, but at least until the next morning. You need to completely clear your head of all the junk processing you’ve just done.

At the same time, don’t fall into the trap of thinking “oh, my inbox is clean, so I don’t have to go back to finish those little files.” To this point, you’ve just done some mass sorting — the real work of cleaning has yet to begin. You may want to set yourself a deadline, a date when you’ll get back to your processing.

6. Manage the Folders

Now it’s time to go into each of those three folders you created, and work through them. I recommend taking an afternoon to do this — Friday is good, because you want to get home for the weekend (and so won’t dilly-dally on any one email too long) and because it’s a nice way to wrap up the week.

In each folder, you’ll want to again go through each message, this time in a little more depth. I use a standard GTD methodology here: if the message is something I can take action on in two minutes or less, I do it right away (and then remember to trash the email once you’re done with it!). If not, it goes on my next actions list and I move on.

You can start using additional folders here, if you need to, but typically I don’t bother. I like to keep my Action, Waiting and Keep folders small and manageable. Too many folders (for me), keeps me from seeing what all I have on my plate — which makes it easier to procrastinate, etc.

Note: If you do decide to do filing (based on specific project, etc.) be careful with how you file things. If you had a previous filing system in place, don’t just throw messages into those pre-existing folders unless you are sure that they have been cleaned with the same rigour that you just put your inbox through. Create new folders if you have to.

7. Keep It Clean

This is where I admittedly tend to falter the most. I’m not necessarily the most terrible person when it comes to cleaning, but I can be downright awful at keeping things clean once they’ve been cleaned.

The trick I’ve found that works for me personally is to not over-complicate things. Like I hinted above, too many folders for me makes me less likely to file things properly (who can take the time!). For other people, I know that more folders can be better because then everything has its own particular place and home.

Whatever your technique, your inbox can quickly get back to overfull if you let it. Experiment with different systems of organization, play around with different systems, do whatever you have to. Just do your best to keep that inbox at zero and, if need be, schedule regular check-ins with your inbox, where every so often (I like every Friday afternoon), you burn that baby back down to empty.