Mental Triggers and the Art of Capturing Your Ideas

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Getting Things Done" by David Allen. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What are mental triggers? How can they help you stay organized?

In Getting Things Done, mental triggers are a skill you can teach yourself to help stay organized. Mental triggers are a way to associate stimuli with a task, and they can help you stay on track.

How Mental Triggers Can Help Capturing

The first step in GTD is to capture every idea, reminder, and piece of information and get it out of your head. Capture everything—big and small, short-term and long-term, anything in your life that you feel should be different and that you have some motivation or commitment to change (anything from career strategy ideas to a reminder to fix that gadget in your junk drawer).

When you make a habit of capturing everything, you can trust that nothing will fall through the cracks. Other people will see your diligence and their trust in you will grow; furthermore, your trust in yourself and your confidence to accomplish things will grow. 

Go through your desk, kitchen table, briefcase, and every other nook and cranny that could hold a note or reminder you need to process. Then wrack your brain for every other idea and loose end that’s nagging at you—whether it’s about a meeting you just had or a gift for your mom’s birthday next week. 

Put everything in your in-tray. Don’t stop to work on anything else—just focus on capturing absolutely everything as quickly as possible. When you’re done, you’ll take time to assess every item. This helps you develop mental triggers to make associations later.

Capture Physical Items

Capturing is more all-encompassing than simply jotting down a list off the top of your head. For your initial capturing, go through physical holders of notes and reminders, including: 

  • Bulletin boards 
  • Cabinets 
  • Countertops 
  • Desktop
  • Desk drawers
  • Floors 
  • Office (or second office space)
  • Shelves

If you can’t get to every spot right now, make a placeholder note (e.g. “Clean out hall closet”) and put it in your in-tray to remind you to do it later. You can create memory triggers based on the objects.

Gather anything that doesn’t belong where it is the way it is, and put it all into your in-tray. This includes: 

  • Binders 
  • Business cards
  • Catalogs 
  • Mail
  • Manuals
  • Notes
  • Reading material 
  • Receipts 
  • Reference materials 
  • Reports

By the nature of this process, you’ll end up with a lot of memory triggers that aren’t that important—that’s why you probably put them off in the first place. But you need to capture them nonetheless so that you have no open loops.

Follow these guidelines for capturing: 

  • Scan your entire physical surroundings for anything that is incomplete (for example, gadgets that need to be repaired and furniture you’ve been meaning to move). 
  • Generally, you can leave supplies (such as stationery, batteries, and paper clips), reference material (such as software manuals and contact lists), decorations (such as photos and artwork), and equipment (such as a computer and printer) where they are unless there’s something about them you need to move, fix, update, or otherwise alter. 
  • This isn’t about throwing everything away. This system is designed to allow you to keep everything you want to keep, as long as it’s either the way you want and in the place you want it or it has been captured.

Capture Mental Items

After sweeping through your office, home, and anywhere else you’ve stored tasks and reminders, wrack your brain for anything else that’s still pulling at your attention. Just like with the physical capturing process, capture everything—big and small, urgent and aspirational—that’s taking up any space in your brain. 

Write each thought, idea, project, and reminder on a separate sheet of paper. This might seem inefficient, and you’ll probably end up with a lot of papers, but this makes the clarifying stage much easier, and will help you develop memory triggers.

Random thoughts may remind you of certain tasks, so review these lists of “Incompletion Mental Triggers” to see if it reminds you of something you need to capture. (Shortform note: The book includes more exhaustive lists. We encourage reading the original book for a complete guide to setting up your GTD system.)

Professional Incompletion Mental Triggers

  • Projects to be researched, started, or completed
  • Phone calls, voicemails, and emails 
  • Reports and evaluations
  • Meetings to be scheduled
  • Marketing plans
  • Upcoming events
  • Presentations
  • Professional development
  • Skills to learn or practice
  • Staffing
  • Sales and customer service

Personal Incompletion Mental Triggers

  • Family commitments and communications
  • Friend commitments and communications 
  • Community commitments
  • Spiritual organization 
  • Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, weddings, and other events 
  • Travel 
  • Financial (e.g. bills, debts, investments, loans, and taxes)
  • Repairs
  • Home/household maintenance and tasks
  • Shopping and errands

Most digital items should be converted to some kind of paper version and added to the in-tray: Jot down voicemails on a piece of paper and print out digital to-do lists. The exception is emails, which should stay where they are because there are probably many and you can organize them within your email server. 

Beware of Pitfalls: When Mental Triggers Fail

Capturing is a big job, and it’s easy to get tripped up along the way. There are several common capturing issues that you can avoid. 

First, if an item is too big to physically fit in your in-tray, simply write a note on a piece of paper to represent it (it’s good practice to date it, too) and put that in your in-tray. If your pile of papers is too big to fit in your in-tray, make stacks around the in-tray and just be careful that it’s clear that they’re “in” and they don’t get mixed up with other documents. 

Second, when you come across things that you immediately know you won’t need, trash it on the spot. However, if you have any doubt, just put it in your in-tray and rest assured that you’ll have time to assess it during the clarifying stage; clarifying requires a different mindset, and you don’t want to let yourself get caught up in that right now. For now, just focus on capturing everything as quickly as possible. 

Similarly, don’t fall into a rabbit hole of purging and organizing as you go through your house, office, and other physical spaces. If you have the time to do it, then go for it, but capturing is your priority. To keep things moving, add papers to your in-tray that remind you to “purge kitchen cabinet” or “organize desk” later. 

Third, if you already have certain items on lists or in organizers, simply treat them as items to be processed. You want everything in a single, uniform system, so unless your current organization fits the GTD model, you need to reorganize it. 

Fourth, if you come across something that you forgot about but is fairly urgent, you can: 

  1. Do it now. It’s best to avoid interrupting the capturing process, but if it’s absolutely urgent, you’re better off getting it done and off your mind. 
  2. Put it in the in-tray. Don’t worry about losing it in the ever-growing stack in your in-tray because you’ll be sorting through that pile next so you’ll come across this reminder within the next couple of hours or days. 
  3. Put it in an emergency stack. Ideally, you want everything in a single in-tray pile, but if this solution puts your mind at ease you’ll be better able to finish capturing. 

You may already have some natural mental triggers, or you can train yourself to use them. Mental triggers are a way to associate outside things with things on your to-do list, and they can help you get things done.

Mental Triggers and the Art of Capturing Your Ideas

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Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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