The Problem of Capturing (without Tossing)

I just read an article that describes the “problem” of capturing everything, in which I think, by the end, the solution turns out to be worse than the original issue.

The article can be found at Merlin Mann’s site — 43 folders —  under the title: The Problem of Ubiquitous Capture.

The author, Matt Wood,  makes the point that his capture points end up with a lot of crap in them.  Right alongside the important actions like “remember my wife’s birthday” are other unimportant ones like “build a server farm in my closet.”

His issue does not seem to be that these items don’t belong together in his capture points.  Instead, the problem is that some useless items end up making their way onto his todo lists, where he admits they don’t belong.  He says that “a lot of us do have issues dropping something once it’s reached that level of commitment. So we keep it on the list, taking up space and adding to the cumulative dread of a to-do list bloated with junk.”

Instead, he suggests that users not try to write everything down, and instead trust that good ideas will find their way back into the mind once again, if they are any good.  He reports that his to-do list has shortened considerably.

I think that his analysis is flawed, and it’s because he’s working on the wrong time management fundamental.  Here is how I would advise him if I were his coach (I know, that’s pretty presumptuous of me…!) Here, I am using 4 of the 11 fundamentals of time management.

It’s the Emptying, not the Capturing

If items are on lists that should not be there, and capture points are being carried around with too many dead items on them, then the problem is in the  fundamental — Emptying, not in Capturing.  Either one of two things is happening — he is not Emptying often enough, leading his capture points to overflow, OR he is not Emptying rigorously, and failing to make a decision about what should happen next with each time demand.  Instead of making a tough decision about how to dispose of a time demand, he is simply adding it to a list.

It’s an easier action to take, but when each item is added to a list, the integrity of his time management system is weakened by just a small amount.  These small amounts add up to the point where he eventually loses respect for his own system because he knows it’s full… of crap.

The problem is not that his mind came up with the bad idea to begin with, or that he captured it in the moment he believed it to be useful.  Instead, it’s his faulty Emptying that results in him putting it in a List, instead of Tossing it away.

My experience is that I have little or no control over the quality of my thoughts.  Instead, they have a life of their own, and the good ones flow just as fast as the bad ones do.

The problem is that they don’t come tagged with good and bad tags, and it’s often inconvenient to evaluate and weigh each thought in the moment it occurs, due to the fact that I am often otherwise occupied… thank God they don’t make waterproof PDA’s (or do they?)

The time to evaluate and process the thought/time demand comes later, when I am good and ready to Empty.  At that point, each and every time demand should be removed from all capture points.

Letting Ideas Flow and Flow

Furthermore, I have noticed that when I don’t capture ideas (of unknown quality,) they simply keep coming back again and again until I acknowledge their existence.  The author takes this to be a sign of idea quality, and suggests not writing them down, because the good ones are most likely to return.

I don’t have that particular experience,  especially when I can’t tell whether an idea is good or not because I haven’t actually spent the time to evaluate its value. I have found that thoughts keep coming back until they are recorded in a trustworthy place, and only then does my mind relax and open itself up to the next thought.

It’s like making a mental list of stuff to buy at the grocery store, and working hard to remember it for the next 30 minutes until one is walking  down the first aisle of the supermarket.  All of that work to remember the contents of the list could have been saved by making a list, and the mind could have devoted itself to doing something else more worthwhile during that same 30 minutes.

I have discovered that the throughput of good ideas in my mind increases when I treat each one with respect, and store it in a safe place even if it is to be Tossed upon future consideration.

The problem, once again, is not in the step of Capturing.

Upgrading Scheduling Means Better Listing

The biggest problem I think that the author faces, however, is one that is not mentioned directly.  The challenge that people who are White and Yellow Belts in Scheduling often have is that they add time demands to lists in a way that excuses them from having to account for the fact that each time demand requires time.

In other words, it’s all to easy for someone to make a list of items to be done in the next day/week/month/year that simply is impossible to do because the time required is not being accounted for.  This fact would be obvious to them if they were practicing Scheduling at a higher skill level, and were filling out an actual agenda of items to be completed. Many who do so for the first time are sobered to discover that they are simply not able to do as much as they thought they could, and it’s not because they are lazy.  It’s just that their  lack of skill at Scheduling has kept them in the dark.

By the same token, while the item is on a list, it’s “time commitment” is hidden, as it simply lacks any relationship to the reality of a schedule.

In this way, lists can become bottomless, timeless voids into which anything can be thrown, without consequences.  Their use needs to be carefully balanced with how the schedule is used, according  to the user’s particular needs.

I can’t say definitively whether the author’s situation has anything in common with what I am saying here, but I do know that it applied to me before I was forced to schedule with greater skill.

The benefit of knowing the fundamentals lies in the fact that a user can better target their analyses of their own time management systems.  Like a decent mechanic, they have an in-depth appreciation of how the system works, and can move quickly from symptoms to cure in a matter of minutes.


How I Do My Capturing

As a supplement to the work we are doing this week on Capturing, I thought that I’d share my personal approach to Capturing, and why I consider myself a Green Belt. I will also describe some of the challenges that I have when I capture, and my plans for changing my own practices in this area.

I use a paper pad, and my email in-box as my primary capture points.

hpim1683.JPGHere you can see a picture of my pad, which is inserted at all times into a slot in the wallet that carries my PDA (a Palm Tungsten T). This pad is actually a small notebook that costs about US$1, that I cut down to the right size with a pair of scissors. This is the best solution that I have discovered, as the right size pads have been impossible to find, but these notebooks are easy to source. Below is a picture of a notebook before it is cut down to size.

This combination of PDA and pad is what I carry around with me just about all the time, unless it’s impractical to do so.

I tried some other alternatives, none of which worked for me… At one point I tried using my PDA, but it was too clumsy a device for hpim1684.JPGfast data entry. The stylus was just too slow to use for capturing purposes. Plus, the battery has a an annoying way of running down when it gets too much use.

Built into my PDA is a digital voice recorder that I never use, because I find it annoying to have to listen to my own voice for much longer than I care to…

My Outlook in-box serves as my standard capture point for all email. I use it to collect 2 kinds of email, and I also have a Gmail account that I use as a backup for when something goes wrong with my primary email. I also have Hotmail, Yahoo and AOL accounts that I use for testing purposes, in addition to an email account I use when I am teaching that is assigned by the university.

hpim1685.JPGAt the moment, my in-box has 2 items in it — not quite empty, but almost.

My cell phone acts as my backup capture point when I don’t have my pad/PDA combination with me. I have found that I can enter a reminder to myself for a time when I’ll have my pad/PDA, or my computer handy. It has a nice audible alarm that interrupts me to let me know to do something with an item that I have captured beforehand.

At night, however, or very early in the morning, I am sometimes hit with a bright idea that I know I will lose if I don’t capture it immediately. This post is just such an example, having its genesis one night this past week.

hpim1686.JPGHere is a picture of the small book light, pad and pen that I use for capturing at my bedside without waking my wife. I use this capture point only once or twice a week, at most.

Of course, I also have voice mail on my cell phone and business lines. I have no voice mail on my homephone, as at some point in the past I decided that checking too many voice mail systems was killing my piece of mind. My business voice mail actually sends an email to my in-box telling me that I have a message, which means that I never have to check it myself.

As for memory, I do my best to not to have to use it, but there are times when I have had to use it in the past week.

In the shower, I had a great idea, but nothing to write it on. Some people have waterproof pads, and while I happen to have one (a remnant of scuba diving days), placing it in the bath would wreck havoc with my wife’s peace of mind, and therefore my own…I am sure. Instead, I do something else like moving my watch to my other hand, or a ring to another finger.

On a bike ride, while I have my cell phone with me, I haven’t tried to enter a reminder while flying down a hill at 30 mph. I probably shouldn’t try, either. This is one case where I am forced to use memory. Luckily for me, I don’t get too many time demands popping up on rides from Kingston to Ocho Rios.

Now and again, I’ll get lazy and use a stray Post-It note, or memory, or some other pseudo capture point. I usually get away with it because I do it quite infrequently.

Now and then, I forget to capture, and don’t write something down. The results are disastrous.

The other day, my plumber came by and I gave him a verbal list of items that needed to be fixed. This is a dangerous method, and prone to failure under the best of circumstances, especially when he wrote nothing down. Predictably, when he arrived a few days later he didn’t bring all the tools with him, as he forgot that there were so many things that he needed to do. It required another trip that he could make only a couple of weeks later.

This is one reason that I am not a Black Belt in this discipline. I am not yet reliable to work with people who are White Belts or Novices. I am not fully skilled at realizing when I need to be the one Capturing, if a task is to be completed successfully.