Balancing Collection and Execution

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Conquering present problems and taking on new challenges are two hallmarks of a life well-lived. But trouble lurks when these two processes get out of balance.

“Stuff” Happens

Productivity guru David Allen defined a concept he calls “stuff.” Simply stated, “stuff” is anything that has your attention at any given moment. Mixed into this torrent of perception and thought, are items that we actually want to do something about, simple things like “buy milk” or “call Mom,” and larger things like “start company” or “earn Ph.D.”.

Quickly we see that there will always be more stuff than there is time to address it. My interest in this article is to reflect on how we make decisions about which stuff is allowed to become part of our lives, and what is left behind. When stuff outstrips time and energy, the results are never pretty. A common reaction is overwhelm: the sense that we are behind and can never catch up.

Some people respond to an excess of stuff by becoming ‘scatterbrained.’ It is as if the excess stuff simply leaks out of their brains, resulting in missed appointments, incomplete projects, and broken commitments. From one perspective, ‘flakey’ people have solved their excess of stuff by forgetting what they can’t handle.

Breaking down under a mountain of stuff or forgetting things at random rarely satisfies people’s needs to cope with the complexities of life. Stuff that matters needs to be kept, and stuff that doesn’t matter needs to be dropped. Any process that accomplishes this task in a useful way can be called “collection.”


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The process of collection is simple, yet there are lots of different ways to do it. The object is to simply notice what you’re noticing, and somehow record what you have the slightest inkling might be useful later, letting the rest fall away.

I realized that sorting my paper-mail is a good model for collection. What shows up in the mailbox is my stuff. Some of it is so obviously junk mail that it never gets inside my home. I’ll pitch it into the trash on the way back to the door. Whatever is left in my hands after that point has been collected. Chances are there are still plenty of items that will ultimately go in the trash, but I’m not confident in trashing them without at least opening them.

The upside to collection is that I’ve taken a big box of mail (or experience) and whittled it down into a concentrated pile of things I’m likely to care about. Already I’ve started closing the gap between the amount of things I can think of to do, and what I’m actually capable of doing.

Change Your Filter

Underneath the act of collection is some sort of policy. Whether conscious or unconscious, there’s a logic that separates keepers from discards. Should you find yourself collecting more than you can deal with, the first place to look is at this policy. A little decisiveness can go a long way towards cutting your collection pile down to size. What whole categories of stuff could you decide to ignore for a while?

Another question to ask when setting policy is, who is driving this stuff? Are you setting your own priorities, or is pressure coming from: your parents, your teacher, your boss, advertisers, or the culture at large? Which of these factions deserve to influence your priorities, and which do you choose to disregard?

Having a clear and easy policy for collection makes the process all the more powerful. With attention and reflection, collection of all the stuff that comes into your head becomes as quick and natural as sorting knives, forks and spoons into the appropriate kitchen drawer.

Perhaps Later

Even after recognizing that the collection process exists, and then setting up some good filtering policies, there can still be more left than we are ready to tackle. Lately, I’ve found myself saying to clients, “Look, unless you’re working in emergency medicine, almost everything can wait a while.”

My point is twofold. First, many people, who we would call “anxious,” live with the perception that they need to finish their stuff right now and that unfinished stuff is a Bad Thing. I do not agree. The pressure of this “must do it now” feeling steals our peace of mind and muddys our decision-making, for no benefit whatsoever.

Second, while procrastination is a big problem for some, for others, putting off stuff that isn’t of primary importance leaves room for what matters, which sometimes includes just catching one’s breath. Unless you’re extremely aged or terminally ill, you’ll most likely have many years to deal with this stuff.

So stuff, even important stuff, can be delayed, put on the back burner, sent to the parking lot. There are many metaphors, but the point remains the same: this stuff is gone (for now), but not forgotten.

The Power of Positive Apathy

Emotion as well as reason can guide your collection process. Like Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, sometimes we “just don’t give a damn.” Sometimes, overwhelm in the face of too much stuff comes with a sense of numbness. Like many disturbing emotions, I’ve come to see apathy as having appropriate uses. If there’s too much stuff and some of it just fails to pull you at an emotional level, perhaps it is time to let that stuff go, either to a “parking lot” for future review, or out of your life entirely.

A final test to reduce the amount of stuff you have to manage: what stuff has languished on your figurative or literal desk for an extended period of time. Sometimes apathy is detected not by feeling, but by lack of action. If something hasn’t been done for a long time, and you’re still not doing it, chances are it doesn’t need to be done at all and you can let it go without major consequences. In the end, the only way to balance stuff with our ability to complete it is to provide enough ‘exits’ for stuff that isn’t important enough to warrant our time.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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