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!