Zen & the Art of Work – review part 7 – “addressing thoughts”

This is the seventh part of my review of Kourosh Dini's video product which consists of 16 "sessions", video chapters, on how to get to beter work. You can find more about it here. It guides the users through the first steps in the build and the acquisition of a new or improved toolset which should help you to produce better work.

The key underlying ideas link to key concepts of Taoism and David Allen's Getting Things Done (aka GTD) methodology.

What is this chapter all about

In the prior video chapter, Kourosh explained the use of an inbox as a tool for capturing ideas and stray thoughts during a work session. The tool aims at protecting the sanctimony of the work session without losing interesting inputs that may be relevant later and can, if not captured, lead to significant distractions.

This chapter focuses on the practice of processing the inbox. Processing is an essential part of working with an inbox, because in order to be part of a trusted system, inputs in an inbox need to be processed in a timely manner. The processing activity is a required complement to the capturing activity.

Processing your inbox

Why do we need to process the inbox in a timely manner?

Information captured in an inbox consists of a list of ideas, thoughts and questions generated during a session, but not necessarily only linked to the subject matter of the session. This means that the information in the inbox will be wide ranging and unstructured. It is also more than likely that the information captured is adequate as a first anchor for the idea but is, like an anchor can, likely to slip over time which will cloud your memory. Many have been the times that a quick note which appeared completely clear and sensible to me at the time, turned out to become completely unintelligible later.

For Westworld fans, that's called "trace decay", the title of S1E8, but I digress. When I was working on this text, the idea hit me and I wrote it down. I integrated it during session closing. See how it works?

Inbox items need to be processed, which does not mean we are supposed to "do them all right then and there". We often even don't need to do them all. What we need to do is to look at each of them, determine what they are all about and if relevant, get them into our system.

Kourosh explicitly mentions that the inbox should not be used as a to do list, because it is fundamentally just a capture tool for in-session thoughts.

Lots of people treat their inbox as a to do list. Not a good idea, because ideas or questions or thoughts in an inbox have not yet been processed. They have not yet been considered.

Let's examine what Kourosh says about processing.

What is processing and why is it so relevant?

Processing is a fundamental practice of keeping your tools clean for future use. It cements your tool in place as a usable, trusted part of your system. It's a practice comparable to the care my grandfather took when cleaning off his woodworking tools. It's you brushing your teeth twice or three times a day. You don't want anything festering in your inbox. Timely maintenance of your tools makes them live longer, keeps them relevant and allows you to trust your use of them.

Practically, I invite you to listen to Kourosh describing his approach. He sticks close to the two minute rule that David Allen introduced in GTD. I've explained my reservations to using the 2 minute rule too much in the context of a session, because it may interfere with properly closing out the session. That said, nothing prevents you, as Kourosh states, from opening a separate session to perform the two minute actions in your inbox.

One remark which I feel needs to be made is that even for two minute rule tasks, one consideration comes first: does this action, or idea, or task, or question merit my attention? If it does not, it is trash. A key risk of using GTD without an adequately critical review of what is in your inbox, without adequate processing even for 2 minute rule tasks, is busy-ness. Being busy on completely irrelevant tasks just because they found their way into your inbox. You really want to avoid that.

The main purpose of processing is to transfer everything else that you deem relevant into the right location in your trusted system.

The trusted system

Kourosh explains the elements he considers key for a trusted system in which tasks or activities he deems relevant will not get lost nor go to waste in unprocessed inboxes.

His basic system consists of:

  • the inbox, discussed in detail during this and the previous chapter
  • a task list in which contains the tasks that have been processed out of the inbox, with the exception of tasks that go to the calendar or the action lists;
  • a calendar, where tasks with start and/or due dates are kept, and transferred to the task list when they start;
  • action lists, for GTD-ers the well-known ampersand (@) lists, which are organized either by project or by "context", which I'm equate to a specific toolset for the time being.

You could think of these elements as tools in your "calm, quality work" toolset. The appropriate use and maintenance of these tools will help you in getting to a point where you can perform quality work in a calm atmosphere.

A quick side note on action lists and contexts

I'm quite sure we will do a deep dive into action lists and contexts in a chapter still to come, but a quick word of warning here is in place: any extension of your toolset requires additional maintenance of the tool. Any new action list should be considered as a new tool that needs to be maintained. Maintenance takes time, which is time you will not have available to you to do the work.

A risk I am very much aware of is going down the personal productivity rabbit hole and coming out with a great conceptual system and a deadline that has whooshed by for what I should have been doing in the first place.

When do you process?

Kourosh explains what he considers to be the most hygienic practice, and I think he is right: use the buffer you put into your session in order to empty your inbox. Processing is done during the buffer period of your session.

But, and this is interesting, he takes it one step further: he invites you to let your mind settle on your processed inbox items, capturing anything that presents itself. You should only consider the session complete if your mind has settled. This is logical: the wide range of elements in your inbox and the process of processing may trigger new associations and new ideas. Avoid getting hung up on those by capturing them and processing them right away.

This is the most appropriate way of reaching the level of calm focus we are looking for.

What it means to me

This chapter builds on the prior chapter. While I was familiar with most of the concepts Kourosh offers here, concepts that are very close to the ideas in GTD, the use of the buffer really comes into play here. This is a key part of a system I had never considered but have happily integrated in may practice.

Within the GTD approach, the buffer really shows its value, and this is why: I've often struggled with finding an appropriate time for a weekly and daily review: such a review can become very time consuming if you want to do it right and I've often struggled against having to do the work.

On the other hand, I understand the lack of a settled mind if you let things fester in your inbox all too well. It creates a low level tension which eventually pushes you to review your inbox with great reluctance.

I've noted that adopting this practice of using the buffer for processing actually takes away a lot of that stress.