Processing to Zero

One of the most important concepts of GTD is processing and when you are processing it is critical you process to zero. What do I mean by processing to zero? It simply means you completely clean out the input queue. There are huge psychological benefits to getting to zero that are not realized if you leave even a few things in your input queue.

What are input queues? The most obvious examples are your email inbox and an inbox that sits on your desk. They are collection areas for inputs that you do not control. People email you and you have little control over how much email you get, how often people email you or what they email you about. I will have a future post dedicated to email and how to most effectively deal with this modern day time sync but for now it is just one of many input queues that you need to process to zero.

Some examples of other input queues are RSS feeds, Twitter Feeds, SMS texts, phone calls or possibly some kind of online system like Helpdesk Tickets or ERP approvals that you are responsible for dealing with or approving. It really does not matter what kind of input queue it is if you are responsible for it then you need to process it to zero.

There is a good body of science that shows multitasking is very inefficient. The reason for this is depending on what type of job you are doing once you context switch from one context to another it can take anywhere from a few minutes up to 15 minutes for the brain to fully context switch back to the original activity. This is one of the worst effects of the always on, always connected world we live in.

The worst offender of this time suck is the pop-up “toast” or audible chime alerting you to a new email. We can’t help ourselves and we feel compelled to check the email just to see if it is important – after all it will only take a second.

Immediately turn off “email toast” to stop sucking away your productivity!

The best practice for dealing with input queues is to schedule uninterrupted time several times a day to process your queues. I schedule four half hour blocks of time on my calendar to process the three main queues in my life – inbox on my desk, my email inbox and the phone calls I need to make. I put “process email/inbox/calls” on my calendar early in the morning, in the late morning before lunch, immediately after lunch, and then again in the late afternoon before I leave for the day.

I use RSS feeds in order to keep up on all the things I need to know and I use the combination of Google Reader and Feedler Pro on my iPad at the gym to process my RSS feeds to zero. When doing cardio, I listen to up tempo music on my iPhone to motivate me to keep my heart rate up in the fat burning zone and process all my feeds to zero. It is a wonderful way to keep up with all the changes in the world and workout at the same time.

This will be difficult thing for you to do if you are not accustomed to processing your input queues in uninterrupted batches of time. I have heard all the objections to this approach but trust me there is real science to this as the optimal way to be productive and you will have higher quality outputs in less time. Pretty hard to argue with if you’re really objective.

About Michael Keithley

3 Responses to Processing to Zero

  1. Pingback: Fall of the GTD Bandwagon? Do a “Mind Sweep” « GTD for CIOs

  2. Justin – Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I plan on posting a detailed discussion on the use of the calendar in the near future to “schedule” tasks like email. You mention if you don’t put your to-dos on the calendar, a client or employee will take the time away from you. I couldn’t agree more! In corporate environments that use Exchange and Outlook, the Free/Busy information that lets others look at your calendar to facilitate scheduling had the same effect. Anyone who could see a “free” block of time assumed you were doing nothing and they had the right to it. This had the effect of losing control of my time. I consider time my most valuable asset and I need to be the one managing it not employees or peers. Scheduling tasks on my calendar has allowed me to take back my calendar.

    I’m also going to have a detailed post on email. Have you checked out Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero presentation at Google? Definitely worth a watch.

    Loved your U of Michigan link – very valuable.

    As for multitasking, developers and multiple monitors it is ironic that I just made a decision that was unpopular. As you are aware, Developers seem to think it is a requirement to have multiple monitors to be efficient. I think this stems more from ego and “because we can” than from any real or perceived productivity gains. While I do conced you could have some multiple process situations where you would benefit, in reality I never see those play out. Instead, what I see is productivity draining multitasking situations in the rreal world whenever I walk up to a Dev doing real “work.” So, I took away all the multiple (2 or 3) monitor workstations and have standardized on a single 30″ monitor. The large size seemed to be a compromise that all could live with. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

    Thanks again!


  3. I couldn’t agree with you more. I stopped using a “to-do” list earlier this year, instead I add calendar events to allocate time to my tasks, rather than a laundry list of tasks. Taking down a task without allocating time proved unreliable.

    Turning off my email alert (we use google apps) was the best thing I ever did. Now I don’t feel like a dog on a leash. I block off two hours on my calendar daily marked “correspondence” – this is the time I use for emails, voicemail-to-text, etc. To keep me disciplined, I give my clients access to my calendar (just a simple google calendar – They can see my schedule and even scroll to the bottom to book an appointment. This is check-and-balance; because I know if I don’t put my “to-do’s” on my calendar, a client or employee will take that time away from me.

    I work very hard to maintain a 0 email inbox at the end of every day. If an email response requires research, I book the next available 30 minutes on my calendar to researching and responding and archive the email until that time – even if the next available time is several days in the future.

    On multi-tasking; my in-house developers pride themselves on working on many things at once, yet they never seem to finish projects without outside assistance from their respective project manager. Working on a project and finishing a project are two different things. I encourage them daily to focus on one task at a time – I’ve asked them to reduce their desktop space to two monitors or less to help reduce distractions.

    I’ve found this website by a U of Michigan student useful in the past, listing 16 articles/resources on the topic:

    I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts are on multiple monitor workstations and employee efficiency, as this is an issue I’ve talked about in my own workplace. With regard to my developers (, what do you feel is the most efficient number of displays and/or computing desktop space? And at what point would you enforce this number on a developer working billable hours on multiple client projects?

%d bloggers like this: