GTD: Processing Whilst Collecting – Is It a Problem?

Once you’ve been doing GTD for a while (however half-assed your implementation), you start to find yourself thinking in GTD terms. You spot something that needs doing in the living room, and your mind jumps straight to “Hmm – tidy side table needs to go on @Home.” The problem is that this isn’t how GTD is supposed to work. You’re supposed to just capture the fact that the side table is a mess, and process that note later. Once you get used to doing it, though, you shortcut through the steps and just find yourself wanting to stick the item straight on the appropriate list.

The Theory

In theory, the way it should work is this…

  • You spot the messy table.
  • You make a quick note, “Living room side table messy”, and put it in your inbox. In practice, this could be a category in your Palm, a page in your notebook, or a real sheet of paper in a real in tray. The David has always said that the implementation doesn’t really matter.
  • Later, when processing, you pick up the note, and decide what to do with it…
    • What is it? A note of something that needs doing.
    • What’s the next action? Tidying the table.
    • Will that action complete the loop? Yes. It’s a single action, not a project.
    • Can it be done now? I’m at home, upstairs, but yes, I could go and do it now.
    • Will it take less than two minutes? No. It’s really quite a mess.
    • Defer It: Add it to the appropriate context list – in this case, probably @Home.

The Practice

Once you’ve got the idea of GTD, what you’ll probably do is cut through most of that…

  • You spot the messy table.
  • You add Tidy side table in living room to your @Home list.

No Problem

You got the same result, and all that really happened is that you jumped instantly from spotting the situation, to the end result (well, before actually doing it, anyway). There isn’t a problem. You saved a bunch of time, and saved yourself a chunk of work.


Where it Might be a Problem

There are a couple of situations I can see where this sort of shortcut can be a problem…

  • Avoiding Thinking: You’re just pretending to make the shortcut, but you’re really avoiding thinking about something, and you end up cutting out the middle steps, and putting something on your list that’s still stuff. It’s not really a single action, so you can’t do it. Using the sortcut is ok, but you need to take care that you are skipping the thinking parts because they’re really obvious, not because you just don’t want to do them.
  • Your System Requires It: I found recently that I’d set up a system for myself that involved me making a checkbox or a dash before things as I captured them. Anything with a checkbox needed something doing about it; dashes were just there for information. The problem was that I had to decide which things were actionable before I’d written them down. Don’t do this. It’s important that your collection tool allows you to just make notes, and work out later if they’re actionable or not. Otherwise, you’ll either rush the decision so you can start writing, and get it wrong, or you’ll end up not making a note of some things at all, because you’re not sure how to start.


Generally, processing whilst collecting is ok, as long as you’re doing it because it’s become so obvious to you. Beware of the traps, though. Don’t let stuff end up on your action lists, don’t sidestep the thinking process when it is needed, and make sure you’re set up for noting down anything, anytime, without worrying about what it actually is until later.

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