In GTD the vital first stage is Collection. Whenever we loose steam in our GTD flow, I feel like the most powerful collection 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 everything that is making claims on your attention or is likely to affect the larger areas of responsibility 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. David says “put your attention on what has your attention.”
If it’s not being directly managed in a trusted external 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. So, just as you learned Collection as the first step in implementing GTD (and to subsequently maintain your system), it’s precisely the place to start when you’re trying to properly get back into it.
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.
If you are just starting GTD (as opposed to falling off the bandwagon) then you need to do an Initial Capture like I described in a blog post here otherwise, you need to do a mind-sweep to get back on the bandwagon. It is really simple. Start with a single sheet of printer paper and a pencil, set a timer for 10 minutes, and just begin scraping 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. Remember, your brain is smarter than you, and it can’t be tricked into thinking that things are taken care of when they actually aren’t. 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.