Getting Things Done – Filling the Buckets

Buckets, photo by Niels Linneberg

This post is a follow-up to the previous one, part of a planned series on my experiences with implementing David Allen’s Getting Things Done or GTD system. If you missed that one, it might make sense to take a few minutes to read it now, because it sets up the problem I’m trying to solve, one that I’m pretty sure you face as well.

Most of us have “buckets” for things that need our attention, even though we might not think of them in this way. These can be to-do lists on scraps of paper, to-do apps, grocery lists, e-mail inboxes, horizontal surfaces in our offices and even real mailboxes. Some of these buckets are filled by us, and some are filled by others, but they all contain potential calls for our attention. None of us asked for the 20 or 30 new emails sitting in our inboxes, but there they are. We might have a number of externally imposed tasks on one of our other to-do lists as well, but hopefully we also have some things on there that we want to do — aspirational things that are good for our well-being or to advance our careers. How to decide what to do with all the things in those various buckets will be the subject of a future post, but for now, I’d like to concentrate on the buckets themselves.

Open Loops

All of the buckets that we use are collectors of what David Allen refers to as “open loops”. I can’t think of a better description than that so I’m going to go with it too. Open loops are simply things that have come onto your radar screen that you need to take action on in some way, and haven’t quite decided what. In some cases they’re simple tasks that you’re reminding yourself just need to be done, in others they may be placeholders for a whole series of actions in a small or big project.

These open loops can be tremendously corrosive to our mental well-being. They spin around our minds almost as if in orbit of our consciousness, popping into our thoughts at the most inopportune moments. GTD seeks to close these open loops as quickly as possible after they arise, to avoid the useless distraction created by suddenly “remembering” that you need to buy batteries for the smoke detector while you’re in the middle of an important client meeting. But to get to a state where you can start to get your open loops under control, you need to first have a way to collect them all in one place, to get them out of your mind.

There are three main problems with the buckets that most of us are currently using to collect all our stuff that needs doing:

– there are too many of them
– we don’t put every open loop into them
– we don’t empty them often enough or fully enough

Too Many Buckets

The foundation of implementing GTD is maintaining what David Allen calls a “trusted external system” to store all the stuff that you’ve been carrying around in your head. Ideally that system will have as few buckets as practical, otherwise you’re introducing a new level of complexity in trying to assess which bucket any particular item goes into.

I like the idea of a Trusted System — it’s actually tremendously freeing to have one. Previously I had various lists written on pieces of letter-sized paper folded in half, these were relatively manageable when things weren’t too busy, but became very unwieldy and unintelligible as the number of tasks grew. Every few days I would have to prune the lists and rewrite. This “system” resided on my desk at work, and was not available to me in other contexts. I would use a notebook to jot things down when out, or email myself notes from my phone. This resulted in having multiple buckets that needed to be reconciled manually, the totality available only in the context of being at my desk. This, or some variation on it, is a pretty common set-up for many people. It’s a hard system to trust because it has so many buckets, all with potentially leaky bottoms. I didn’t trust my system, and if I’m honest, I probably used it more as an aide memoire than anything as I struggled to remember everything I lived in fear of forgetting.

The ideal system would use two main buckets – a general inbox to consolidate all of your “stuff” that needs doing, regardless of origin, and a mobile calendar app to capture all your time/date related commitments. Yes, an e-mail inbox is a modern reality, but it’s filled up by others. I believe that you should not leave any sort of to-do sitting in your email inbox. You should go through it as many times a day as you think you need to, hopefully the minimum number, and trash what you don’t need, file what is only for info, and place any to-dos arising from email into your trusted system, filing the related email to get it out of your inbox.

Collecting All the Loops

There’s a good chance that any or all of your existing buckets are either just about as full as you could imagine them being, or else hopelessly overflowing. It must then sound a bit counter-intuitive for me to advocate finding even more stuff to put in them, but that is in fact exactly what I’d suggest. If you don’t round up every single task, thing or niggle that is circling around in your sub-conscious, awaiting its moment to star in the drama of your day, you are setting yourself up to deal with that particular thing again and again. You know as well as I do that you’ll remember that crucial email you need to send to a supplier while in the shower in the morning, while stuck in traffic in the evening, and at two in the morning awoken in a cold sweat. None of those contexts are particularly useful to you or your sanity. You need to remove these things from your brain and get them into an external bucket that you can trust to hold them safely until you can deal with them, when the context makes sense. If you allow them to remain in your brain, they will invariably hide, inaccessible to you when you need them most, all the while creating subtle stresses and phantom draws on your energy. The trickiest part about this is having this magical bucket, this super inbox, available and easily accessed at any time, so that once these items surface in your consciousness, they can be effortlessly banished into it.

The best bucket that I’ve found, the one that suits me best so far, is Omnifocus. This is an app that was created specifically for use with the GTD system, so unsurprisingly, it works very well with it. There certainly are others that are popular, but this is the one I use. It’s available as both a desktop Mac app and iphone app, with robust syncing abilities. Entering a new inbox item is about as close to effortless as you could imagine, and since I always have my iphone with me, no matter when something pops into my head, I’m able to capture it before it disappears.

David Allen advocates setting aside a chunk of time (a day or more) to do a mental dump into your chosen container system when you first set up your GTD system, and provides some helpful lists of prompts for doing this that span across all areas of your life. I tried to do this, but honestly did not find the uninterrupted time to do it to the extent that he suggests. What I’ve done afterwards, is to try to be pretty rigorous about capturing any stray items that subsequently pop into mind. I think it gets you to the same place, just not as fast.

Emptying the Buckets

It’s great to throw all your open loop tasks and reminders into your trusted bucket, out of sight and out of mind, but has that really gotten you any closer to taming all that stuff? Yes it has, but the problem is only half solved. We’ve gotten everything out of our minds, creating mental space for focus and creativity, and captured everything in a place where it won’t be forgotten. We then need to sift through all of it and determine two main things about everything that’s in there: what’s the next incremental physical step that I can take to move this toward completion, and what’s the context in which I can do that? That in itself is a big topic, and since this post is already too long, I think we’ll have to save how to do that for the next post.

I’m interested in hearing your experiences with GTD or any other productivity system — let’s connect via Twitter (@intudes).

Image by Flickr user Niels Linneberg

Comments (12)

  • Hello Stewart,

    Thanks for the great article – it’s helpful to read and re-read this article as it reminds me why I started with GTD. Because we’re busy, we often forget the basics of GTD and the “bucket” is the most elementary part of the GTD process. All too often my buckets pile up and I wonder why I’m stressed!

    I’ve subscribed to your RSS feed and looking forward to more from you on these subjects! Thanks again – Michael

      Hi Michael, thanks very much for the kind encouragement. I’d like to do some more posting on this topic, but my buckets are overflowing at the moment! Soon.


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