Allen's Input Processing Technique
Managing Your Workflow Effectively
Many of us sort through a huge amount of incoming information every day. For example, you probably receive dozens of emails, telephone calls, voicemails, meeting requests, invoices, and other documents.
This is in addition to work that you need to do to achieve your goals and objectives. So, how can you process this incoming information effectively, while still staying productive?
Allen's Input Processing Technique is a commonsense approach that helps you to do this. In this article, we look at this tool, and we explore how you can use it to manage incoming information.
You may already be using some of the steps in this process to manage your workflow. However, it's still helpful to revisit the process, and check that you're using it – and your time – in the most effective way.
About the Tool
David Allen, a productivity expert, developed the Input Processing Technique and published it in his influential 2003 book, "Getting Things Done."
The tool, shown in figure 1, is a simple process that helps you manage your "inputs", so that you stay on top of everything that you need to do.
Figure 1: Allen's Input Processing Technique
From "Getting Things Done" by David Allen. Published by Penguin Books, 2002.
An input is something that you need to take action on. Allen defines it as, "anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn't belong where it is, but for which you haven't determined the desired outcome and next action step."
These inputs can be anything from thoughts that you've had about a new project, to emails and documents that you've received, to an invoice that you need to pay.
The main benefit of the tool is that it helps you quickly take action on all of the inputs that come your way. This means that you can focus on your objectives, instead of worrying about something that you might have missed.
There are three main stages in using the technique:
- Reviewing (not shown on the diagram).
Let's look at each of these three stages in greater detail, and discuss how you can apply this process to manage your workflow.
Applying the Tool
Allen's Input Processing Technique may appear complex, but it's actually very simple to use.
Step 1: Collecting
You receive information each day in a number of formats, such as email, letters, texts, voicemail, and paper notes, as well as from thoughts and ideas.
The "collecting" process involves gathering all of the different types of incoming information that you have to think about. It consolidates everything that you need to take action on, and defines how and where you store that information until you can process it.
The key to collecting this incoming information is to make sure that you have an appropriate place to store it – Allen calls these places "buckets." Some good examples of buckets are your email inbox, the in-tray on your desk, your to-do list, the notepad where you jot down new ideas and take meeting notes, and your voicemail – you're likely to be using many of these already.
If you haven't set up a bucket for each type of information that you have coming in, organize your workspace so that your buckets are in appropriate places – at home and at work.
Your thoughts and ideas represent a more intangible type of input, and these can easily get lost! Write them down, and store them in the appropriate bucket. You can use an app like Evernote for this, or email ideas to your inbox. You'll sort through and organize these thoughts in later steps.
You should aim to have as few collection buckets as possible. Since email likely represents the bucket that you'll use most, make sure that you know how to manage email effectively . Check your email at appropriate times during the day, and deal quickly with requests that won't take long (we cover this in more detail in Step 2.)
Remember, you don't need to take action on anything that isn't urgent during this step. This can sometimes take a great deal of self-discipline, but it's important to stick with the system as you collect your inputs.
Step 2: Processing
Once you have appropriate collection buckets for all of your incoming material, you then need to process it. Processing your inputs makes up the main part of figure 1.
Rather than processing your inputs as soon as they come in, schedule regular slots to do this. Depending on how you like to work, this could be every day at a certain time, or during any gaps in your schedule.
Our article Is This a Morning Task? shows you how to schedule activities for the right time of day. (In some roles, this may not be an appropriate approach, so use your best judgment and let people know how to get hold of you if they have an urgent request.)
As you process your inputs, you should decide what each item is, and determine what you need to do about it. To do this, you should first identify whether an item is "actionable" or "non-actionable."
Non-actionable items are inputs that you don't need to do anything with. Either file these in the appropriate place, or delete them if you don't need to keep a record of them.
Actionable items are inputs that need some action from you, or from someone else. For example, these might be emails asking if you can attend a meeting, or project ideas that you want to develop further.
If you need to take action on things that will take only a brief time to complete (say, less than two minutes), then it often makes sense to do them on the spot rather than schedule them for later. This will likely be the case with emails that need a simple response, or with routine tasks that you can delegate to others.
You should defer actionable items that will take longer than two minutes to complete. If you need to complete an item on a particular date, then schedule this appropriately (in your calendar software or diary, for example), and file it. You may need to complete some items by a specific deadline, while you may need to deal with others at a precise time on a certain day.
Actionable items that don't have a specific deadline or time frame can go into your Action Program or To-Do List. Prioritize these items accordingly, and delegate projects and tasks to other people as necessary.
Step 3: Reviewing
The first two steps make up the largest part of this process, but it's also important to review the inputs that you've collected and processed. So, go through your lists and calendar each week to remind yourself of what you've done, to update your lists, and to review upcoming commitments.
This weekly review is also useful for looking over your short- and long-term goals and projects. You can put action items related to these goals into your calendar, alongside other tasks and responsibilities. This is important because, unless you break down these goals into actionable steps (the key concept in Action Planning), they might seem too big to accomplish!
Use goal-setting techniques such as Backward Goal Setting to turn big goals into steps that you can accomplish each day or week.
David Allen, a renowned productivity expert, developed the Input Processing Technique and published it in his 2003 book, "Getting Things Done." The tool helps you organize incoming material, so that you can do the right things with it.
There are three key steps in our version of Allen's tool:
Stage 2 is the most important part of this tool, as it's where you decide to take action on, or defer, your inputs. This stage of the tool is valuable because it ensures that you process all of your incoming information effectively.