How to Get Workflow Under Control – From Inbox to Done

Published in the Learning Exchange Newsletter – December 2019

Do you have more to do than you do time in the day?  Have you ever forgotten something important?  Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed and don’t know what to do next?

If you are like most library employees, the number of projects and actions that are possible to do at any given time is more than work schedules allow.  With so many competing factors on our time we need a system that allows us to prioritize the important over the trivial.  Library staff, like all knowledge workers, make inefficient use of their time when they fail to have in place an organized system to handle the volume of new information and ideas.  In simple terms, we all need to master our workflow. 

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Workflow is a concept that simply refers to how we move things from ideas to actions.  One of the simplest workflow systems available is known as GTD, short for Getting Things Done.  David Allen, a former management consultant, devised the system over twenty years ago and it has developed into one of the most heavily used approaches to handling knowledge work.  Implementing the system requires very little set up time and can be done in any office situation.   The system is immortalized in his famous book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

According to David Allen there are five stages of workflow:

  • Capture: Information is coming our way all day in various forms, such as emails, phone messages, or notes from a meeting.  Successful capture involves taking good notes and caring out mindful inbox management.  Holding items only in your head is problematic and a recipe for disastrous forgetting.
  • Clarify: After we capture items, we have to clarify what they mean to us.  Is it a question from the boss, an advertisement for the new pizza place, or a monthly report to review?  Once we understand the importance, or lack-thereof, of that item that the next step is to determine whether it is actionable.  If no action is needed, it becomes trash or reference.  If actionable, figuring out the next physical action to move it forward is vital to get to completion.
  • Organize: If not completed immediately, the note or reminder of the actionable item must be stored in a simple system so that it can be found later.  One approach is to create a series of functional file folders along with a timed reminder system.  This way, items can be easily found hours or days later with the context intact.  Messy desks and file folders led to inefficient work.
  • Review: No system survives without regular maintenance.  Once a week it is suggested to review all folders and project lists to ensure that everything is up to date.  Don’t let inertia drag down your productivity.
  • Engage: Finally, when we have discretionary time, we must engage with our system to get things done.  Taking into account time and energy, look through your lists of actionable items to see what would provide the best bang for the buck.  Break down your next actions to their smallest components to reduce resistance.  Just focus on the next email, or phone call, or draft to keep projects moving.

I have been using GTD for the past nine years and it has transformed my work.  I found it so important that I began to teach seminars and webinars on the topic under the title, The Efficient Librarian.  For me, mastering workflow and creating systems that were tight, clean, and quick was the key to accomplishing more, keeping my head clear, and having more fun at work.  I believe that the application of these principles saves me weeks of time every year to focus on creative and exciting work that takes me along new innovate paths.  

To learn more, please visit David Allen’s site,  Also, my blog, provides weekly insights at the point of intersection between librarianship and productivity. 

Happy work-flowing!