In the GTD methodology, processing is the act of deciding what to do with each item that has been captured. It's fairly straightforward: take each item, and decide whether to do it, defer it, delegate it or dump it.

Most importantly - nothing goes back in the in tray.

Processing steps

Take each item from the capture pile, and ask yourself "is this item actionable?". In GTD, an item is actionable if you need to do something about it.

If the item is actionable

Decide on what action (or actions) are required. Depending on the item this can take some time. Once there's a clear picture on what to do:

  • If it will take <= 2 minutes, do it immediately
  • If it can be delegated, delegate it to someone and track it on a "waiting" list
  • If it will take more than one action to complete, add it to the "projects" list and add the first action to this project
  • If it takes a single action, add a single and well-defined item to the "next actions" list and attach an approriate context where the action can be done (e.g. "at store" or "at work")
  • Otherwise, defer it:
    • If it HAS to be done on a specific date, put it on the calendar
    • Otherwise put it on a context-appropriate todo list

If the item is NOT actionable

  • If it is something to possibly be worked on in the future, add it to the "someday/maybe" list
  • If it is reference information, file it
  • Otherwise, discard it

Processing an item should take around 30 seconds.

Initial processing

I had so much stuff during my initial processing phase that I decided to do a fast triage to make it a little easier. It's not an approach I recommend, but I didn't want to miss any tasks that due in the next few days.

I ended up with three separate piles:

  1. Items I knew were going to be filed. This included things like utility bills, tax forms, insurance documents, receipts older than the current tax year etc
  2. Items for current or recent projects went back into the in tray (I know I broke the most important rule)
  3. Items that belonged to other projects or didn't really have a set place went to a third pile

Anything that would take under a minute got done during triage. This was mostly small things like "I need to this address in my address book" or "I need to put this receipt in my 2019 my tax folder".

Everything else went straight into the recyle bin.

During normal processing I would not take this approach, but after my initial capture I had over a year's worth of items and it was quite overwhelming. It made sense to batch things up to me, as I'm usually in a creative mood when I'm filing items.

One surprising thing was just how much ended up getting discarded. Around half of the items I processed were either already done, or were things I didn't want any more.

Other things I noticed:

  • The two minute rule is a huge help. There were so many things I'd put off that could be done quickly, and getting them all out of the way was a relief.
  • It's worth putting time into thoroughly deciding what to do. Sometimes I'll get lazy and add a next action that isn't well-defined. This means I have to spend extra time when going through my actions list because I'm having to process items twice. I always end up procrastinating on tasks that aren't well defined.

I was expecting a huge list of next actions after processing, but ended up with around 50 projects and maybe 200 next items. A good chunk of items also went on my "someday/maybe" list, but I think if I was being realistic I could ditch 50% of them.