Understanding Emptying – The Story

typewriter.jpgFor some time, I have played around with two ideas.

One is I to teach the 2Time principles in the form of a story (or stories) rather than a set of abstract theories and principles, such as the ones I have used in this blog.  The first business book I ever read written in this format was “The Goal” by Eli Goldratt in 1989 or so, and its impact on me as a young professional was profound.

The other idea that I have had is that I should write a book as a way of reading a wider audience.

Putting the two ideas together yields the obvious — a book on Time Management 2.0 principles that describes one person’s journey as they learn the 11 fundamentals, the latest habit changing technologies and some of the basics of the approach I lay out in the MyTimeDesign and NewHabits-NewGoals programs.

I decided to spend some time drafting a single chapter, to see what the results would be like.  As a result, the first draft here online, with the hope that I’ll learn that if I’m making a huge mistake that I might find out earlier than later!

The truth is, I learned a lot from writing this chapter on Emptying.

In it, I tried to chronicle the process I went through as I learned this fundamental practice that is probably the most difficult one to master out of the 11 practices described in the 2Time approach.

At the end, I discovered that it revealed a few aspects of Emptying that I doubt that I would have discovered if I hadn’t tried to use this approach.

The chapter is still in need of a good editor, but I’d like to hear what readers are able to learn from reading it, even in its current form.Click here to access the chapter:

Emptying Chapter(v4)


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 Emptying

emptying-checklist.jpgI have been looking at the way in which I have been doing the practice of Emptying more closely, and I am still convinced that it’s one of the most difficult practices. (For details on the practice of Emptying, see the list of Categories at the left, and click on — “Emptying.”)

It’s a big hump I encountered once I started capturing with a frenzy.

Over the years, I have changed my approach in order to try to empty more frequently and more smoothly.

I started out Emptying whenever I felt like it. The result was predictable: pages and pages of items that were filling up my capture pad, email inboxes that would extend for several screens…. I saw Emptying as a painful practice that I would put off as long as I could.

And no, these thoughts haven’t changed a whole lot as I still have these feelings from time to time.

What I have been able to do, however, is to become much better at emptying frequently. I think that what’s happened is that I have learned that the pain of not emptying is FAR greater than any feelings of drudgery.

I have found that when I don’t empty well, I end up in fear that someplace in my captured time demands, there is something important that is buried someplace between the other non-important stuff. Of course, there are consequences for not dealing with it that I suffer, at which point I kick myself for not emptying sooner.

This all sounds like common-sense but I assure you this habit has been one that has changed VERY slowly for me.

Beyond the drudgery, however, there is a greater fear. Emptying involves confronting a certain reality with decision that we must make in the moment.

David Allen of GTD® fame talks about making a choice to Do/ Delegate / Defer. These are just some of the choices that one must make at that critical moment in time when we, and we alone, must make a call about what to do next when: — we get an email from a friend telling us that they want to “talk over their problems”
— a voicemail advises us that our cousin wants to borrow some (more) money
— that question we asked our S.O. still has not been answered by them
— the instructions from the guy in tech support are impossible to figure out

These are just example of what makes Emptying difficult — it involves making hard decisions about what to do next, and often that includes confronting our fears, doubts, upsets and anxiety. This is really what makes Emptying difficult… not the drudgery, but all the feelings that we have about our friend, our cousin, our S.O and the guy in tech support that we must deal with in order to figure out what action to take next.

Having determined the “truth” about Emptying, and what makes it tough, it has actually become easier to do.

As I mentioned, I used to empty whenever I felt like it, which resulted in major backlogs in my capture points.

Then I changed my timing and decided that to do it as the first thing in the morning. This was an improvement, as I was now regularly
emptying on a schedule, as opposed to doing it whenever I felt like it.

In the past couple of years or so, I have changed that practice, mostly in response to my growing commitment to leave my mornings closed to
everything but exercise and my most creative work. I happen to be a morning person, and a triathlete, so this fits in well with my already existing habits. As a result, I decided to schedule my emptying in the afternoon, as a part of scheduling the next three days.

I started off by emptying in the late afternoon as the last act I would take before ending work in the office. I soon learned that
it wouldn’t work — I happen to love my work, and I often work until I literally am falling asleep at the keyboard… the keyboard and
computer are my paintbrush and canvas…

So, I changed the timing of the practice to take place at 4:00pm each day, and at that point I empty out all my different capture points.

This has been working much better for me so far.

Based on the belt system that I have developed, I have determined that I am at a Green Belt level, but only at a grade of 2 out of 3. I think that there is a higher level of green belt for me to attain, in other words. At that level, a I would be much more reliable at emptying than I currently am, and rarely ever miss a 4:00 pm session of emptying and next-day planning, except in the case of emergencies.

I am still looking to try to understand how a Black Belt would operate, given that their specific expertise is working with people who don’t use the fundamentals. How would a Black Belt work with someone who never empties? I had a colleague once who kept notebook upon notebook of copious notes. He appeared to be always in the process of writing his memoirs (while in his 30’s.)

The problem was that the he never, ever emptied, and items would be placed in the notebook but rarely ever leave the page. I could not work with that, and found it irritating, definitely not demonstrating the Zen-like state of peaceful calm that I imagine a black Belt to have! A Black Belt would know how to work with someone like that, it’s just that I cannot recall ever meeting anyone with that level of skill in this discipline.

Please, let me know if you have any suggestions — I am open to hearing them.