How to get back in control

Mind-SweepWhenever we lose steam in our GTD practice, I feel like the most powerful exercise is what David Allen calls “the mind-sweep.”  Whenever I feel “out of control” with everything going on in my life, I try to step back and do a mind-sweep to regain control.

The idea behind the mind-sweep is to identify and gather a complete inventory of everything that is making claims on your attention or is likely to affect the larger areas of responsibility in your life. You need to capture all of the “open loops” in your life – everything that’s quietly burning cycles, stealing focus, and whittling away at your attention – so that you can then decide what (if anything) must be done about each of those things.

If it’s not being directly managed in an external trusted system, then it’s resident somewhere in your psyche and that is a bad thing. The point is you need to make sure that everything you need is collected somewhere other than in your head.

By doing a mind-sweep you’ll discover your head is flooded with stuff that you aren’t or haven’t been doing anything about. Not coincidentally, this is almost always stuff that represents some kind of incompletion, functional fuzziness, or procrastination on your part.

The Mind-Sweep

The mind-sweep is really simple. I break it down into two parts.

First, I take my phone and literally walk around my house and office and use Fast Ever Snap to take pictures of things that I want/need to do something about. It is important not to  judge the items or think about them in any way, just get them captured. Many items will be in the someday/maybe category that I may not actually get to doing for a long time. That’s okay. The critical part is to capture everything.

Literally, start in your front yard and take pictures of everything that you might want to do something about. Maybe it’s trimming the trees or weeding the planter or changing the driveway to bricks. Just start capturing everything. Then go to the side of the house, then the backyard, the garage, and every room in your house. Don’t skip closets of drawers as they can easily be a source of subconscious stress. Do I need to go thru the file drawer to find those important papers? How about that junk drawer in the kitchen?

Once you have completed this physical inventory of all your stuff, move on the second phase of the mind-sweep. Start with a single sheet of printer paper and a pencil, set a timer for 10 minutes, and just begin to inventory every conceivable anxiety and “open loop” from the corners of your brain.

Begin with the hopelessly-behind project that’s making you insane right now, then proceed methodically through every flash of thought that makes you cringe, groan, pause, ponder, or exclaim; these are the runaway background processes that are responsible for subconscious stress and you need them out.

Think about it like brainstorming. Don’t judge the items or think about them in any way, just get them on paper. Remember, this is your opportunity to convert the fuel for subconscious stress into items that can later be made actionable (or deferred or delegated or killed etc). But you can’t do anything about it until it’s been captured and evaluated in your trusted system.

For the sweep to really do its best work, you must call upon extraordinary willpower to stay in collection mode. Remember the day you finally “got” how GTD worked by firewalling your planning time (Weekly Review) from your doing (Processing) time? Same idea here. No straying or switching back and forth between the two.  I would even suggest eliminating use of the two-minute rule during your mid-sweep.

Now that your 10 minutes is up, look at the list and process it.  Most of the items on it will be projects of some sort. Get them into your trusted system and you will immediately feel the joy of getting them out of your head – guaranteed.

About Michael Keithley
CIO at Creative Artists Agency

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