“Getting Things Done”: Capturing

In our last post we gave you a summary of the whole GTD process.  Now let’s talk about what might be the most important step, the first one: capturing.  If you get good at just capturing, even if you’re not great at organizing what you’ve captured … you’ll be ahead of lots of people.  (But don’t settle for that!)

Warning: This is going to be one of the longest posts in the series.  From here it actually gets easier to chunk into bite-sized bits, but capturing is a big monster, so, deep breaths, we’ll get through it.


Capture is theoretically simple.  This is what a traditional to-do list is for; when you realize that you need (or want) to do something, you add it to the list.  Simple, right?  Yes, capturing is theoretically that simple.  The devil is in the details of how you actually make a to-do list or collect items to go on it.

“External brain”: The in-tray

To capture, you need something that is not your brain, that we will call the in-tray.  The in-tray can be an actual, physical, office in-tray sitting on your desk.  Or it could be a specific page in your favorite paper notebook, or a list in an app on your smartphone.  Into the in-tray goes everything you need to process.

A note about using an actual physical tray, instead of an app or a page in a notebook: Write down each item that you want to process, each “thing to do”, on a separate piece of paper.  If you feel bad about wasting trees, cut or neatly tear standard sheets into smaller pieces so you get more per tree, but you definitely want each incoming item to be on a discrete piece so you can pick them up one at a time.

With a paper notebook, one page will be your in-tray and other pages will be your other lists (Projects, Waiting For, Someday/Maybe, Next Actions), so you can just checkmark or strikethrough the item on your in-tray page when you have copied it to the correct other page(s).

Writing it down

Suppose the following things impinge upon your consciousness:

  • Your spouse wanted you to get tangerines at the grocery store.
  • You noticed that the dog is shedding an awful lot lately and you’re worried about him.
  • Your boss asked you to write a plan for training new hires.
  • You’ve been thinking about taking up oil painting.
  • Someone gave you a gift: a book of ancient Chinese poetry.
  • “Jeez, the kitchen sure is a mess.”

If you’re making a list in an app or a page in your notebook, it would say something like:

“– Buy tangerines
– The dog is shedding a lot more than usual
– Write new hire training plan
– Oil painting?
– Chinese poetry book from Dave
– Clean kitchen”

If you’re making a physical in-tray, you would have six pieces of paper, each with one of those written on it.

Congratulations! You just captured everything in your life that needs to be done!  (If you’re a typical American or European with a steady job, friends, and a social life, you’re gonna have a lot more than six of these things.  If you also have kids and are a responsible parent … you’re gonna have many more.)

Note that there’s lots of places from which you will capture items.  You email inbox is a big one.  Just about any “meeting” — with your boss, your spouse, your best friend, your kids — can generate them. “Timmy says he wants a Bob The Budget Guy doll; see about getting him one.” “My BFF said I really need to see Black Panther.” “My wife says I need to get into shape.”

Importantly, your own brain will generate them as you go about your day.  Particularly when you get rolling with the GTD methodology, you may find your mind opening up a bit more and going “Oh yeah, what about that book I keep meaning to write?”  David Allen notes that it’s as if your brain says “Now that you’re writing things down and have the capacity to cope with more ideas, here you go.”  The truth is you’re already having these ideas, but by getting them out of your head and into physical storage, you will lose much fewer of them — ideally none.

Shawn’s in-trays

I work in IT.  People spend annoying amounts of time, during meetings, playing with smartphones or looking at their laptops, when they should be paying attention to the other people.  Now sometimes you need to look something up during a meeting to answer a question, but devices are so distracting.  And I know I’ve been guilty as hell of this myself.

So now I take an actual paper notebook to meetings with me, and I open the laptop only if I need to use it to answer a specific question.  Every day I put the date at the top of a new page.  If I’m having a meeting with someone (whether it’s a formal meeting on the calendar, or just someone pops by my office to have a quick conversation), I write down anything that is going to be an action item for me, or something that I am going to have to think about or otherwise deal with in any way.  In front of the thing, I put a short blank line.  So:

____  Ask Bill which computers need to be upgraded

When the meeting is over and it won’t be rude to stop paying attention to the person, I go down the list of items which were generated in that conversation.  If I can do an item quickly (like the above example), I do it right away (e.g. send a quick piece of email), and I put a checkmark in the blank line.

If I cannot do the item quickly, because it’s a project rather than a single task, or if I’ve got another meeting in a few minutes, or whatever, then I transfer the item to the app I’m using for organization, which stores things in the cloud (so I can refer to it from anywhere), then I put a cents sign “¢” in the blank.  Why a cents sign?  Because it contains the letter “c” for “cloud” but also looks like it’s been crossed off.  So I know at a glance that, as far as the paper notebook is concerned, that thing has been handled and put somewhere else safe where it won’t get lost.

Now I don’t take that notebook home with me.  It stays on my desk at work.  Why? If I took it home with me, I might forget to bring it back to work, and then when I need to capture something the next day I’d be fumbling for a piece of paper on which to do it.  Remember, I only use that notebook as an in-tray, not as my full organizational system.  Once stuff is in the cloud-based organizational system, I don’t care about the notebook for that thing anymore.  So if I decide to work from home that evening, or the next day, I can still get things done without that notebook coming home with me.  This is only a problem if there are things in the notebook that didn’t make it to the cloud (or get done) by the time I leave work.

If I’m at home, and something occurs to me, if I can’t do it quickly, I do pull out the smartphone and put it in the app.  (Before you tell me that this is being rude to my wife, I’ll defend myself by noting that when I’m at home, I’m more relaxed and don’t usually have so many things coming to me that I need to capture.)

The single most important point about capturing

The really, really important thing is to have some form of capture device, paper or electronic, convenient at all times.  You need it to be ready to use, and pleasant to use, or else you will immediately face the temptation “Oh, it’s a pain to jot that down right now; I’ll just remember it.” Good luck with that.

That’s why leaving my work notebook at home would be bad the next morning.  The paper notebook is not my organizational system; that lives in the cloud, and I could look at it from any computer at work.  But it is my in-tray.  Nothing should stay in it much longer than the meeting in which I capture it, but it’s really important to have it around for that first step.

The next steps in the workflow are the clarification steps: dealing with trash, reference material, and “someday/maybe”.  We’ll go into those in the next post.  Don’t worry; put together, they’re not as involved as capturing is.