A couple of weeks ago, Geoff from Gearfire.net tagged me for an interesting discussion on writing everything down.

As a GTDer, I write a lot of things down, but even long before practicing GTD I was widely known for my extensive note-taking. I believe it is important and sometimes essential to write things down, but it’s equally important to determine for yourself what to write down and what NOT to write down. Always keep in mind WHY you are writing things down and WHAT you are going to do with it later.

In the rest of this post I will give you my proverbial 2 cents in this GTD debate.

As long as I can remember I have been writing many things down, starting way back in school and still continuing to do so in every job I’ve had so far. Many times I have written down too much. Even now, after finding a more or less effective balance for what (not) to write down, I still tend to “overwrite”. GTD has provided the much needed system to make sense and keep track of the essential elements in everything I write down.

Over the years I’ve been struggling to find this effective balance when it comes to writing things down or not. Looking back I can distinguish at least 3 major stages in this evolution:

Stage 1: writing down a lot of stuff, but without a real system
For years I have been jotting down notes from conversations, internet sites, books, thoughts, courses, seminars and so on. However, they were very detailed and all over the place: notebooks, digital files, binders, stacks, drawers, et cetera. I’ve lost many notes (digital and on paper) like this, because I didn’t do anything with them. They tend to wind up in boxes, closets or backups on CDs. I didn’t extract the essential elements (like projects and actions) from them and I didn’t store them in a consistent reference system for easy retrieval. In other words, I didn’t have a system to cope with all the stuff I was writing down.

Stage 2: using a new system (GTD), but writing down too much
In the Fall of 2006 I started using GTD and I was pretty excited to have found a methodology that seemed to be exactly what I was missing all this time. I started practicing the principles of GTD religiously and spent a lot of time getting all of my open loops into my new GTD setup. This went pretty well until I realized I was spending more time doing brain dumps, creating next action lists, adding items to my project and someday/maybe lists and generally tweaking and tuning my GTD system than actually doing anything useful with all this stuff I was writing down and keeping track of. Moreover, I found myself overanalyzing and overplanning each and every situation in my personal and professional life, meticulously extracting projects and next actions. In other words, I had found a system but I was writing down and keeping track of too many (even the small and simple) things.

Stage 3: getting used to the system and finding the balance
I gave myself plenty of time to get accustomed to GTD and finding the right way to incorporate this methodology into my personal and professional life. After all, I was installing a new habit, which takes time, patience and persistence. Slowly but surely, with practice, I found the right granularity for projects and next actions. I learned how to use my digital and physical reference systems consistently. Every piece of information found its way into my GTD system. Getting used to the principles of GTD and a lot of practice has made me more aware of what to write down and what not. Knowing the GTD workflow by heart allows me to make better decisions about this in advance. In other words, I found the right balance!

Benefits of writing things down
I believe that writing things down is never useless, even in stage 1 described above. Obviously stage 3 is more effective because writing things down becomes meaningful and effective.
Regardless of the stage you are currently in, writing things down has the following major benefits:
* combining writing with (other) visual and auditory techniques improves learning and remembering
* writing everything down purges your mind and clears it for (more) creative thinking
* writing things down helps you track your progress in various areas of your life
* writing things down is a great way to visualize goals and create plans
* writing things down is useful for reference purposes

Do you recognize one or more of the stages I described above? How much do you write down and why?