The Emotional Inbox

Fans of Getting Things Done (aff.) know that the inbox is the all-important first step in the art of stress-free productivity. By this I mean, whenever a potentially actionable thought crosses your mind (“Do something about the junk in the spare bedroom.” “Ask Bob if he wants to go skiing next weekend.” “Fax  the TPS reports by Thursday.”), unless you can act on that thought immediately, you should capture it on paper, your PDA, a voice recorder, what-have-you and dump it into your inbox for later processing.

This is a great system. Once you grasp the whole process, you quickly find yourself capturing all kinds of random thoughts and actually acting on them when you get a free moment instead of forgetting about them, which was my modus operandi for the first 35 years of my life. When it comes to “stuff,” the random ideas, to-dos, phone calls, emails etc. that float into our lives every day, GTD is the best system going for getting a grip.

But instead of thoughts, what about emotions? What if you find yourself thinking negatively about something like your financial situation, a difficult period you’re having with your spouse, or even Big Things like the state of world affairs? What then?

I’m a big believer in the power of positive thinking, and over the last few years I’ve gotten pretty good at banishing negative thoughts. Most of the time they’re just irrational fears of the unknown, or regrets about the past. As The Power of Now (aff.) teaches (and not to mention many spiritual belief systems), the past and future are only illusions. While they can help us better understand ourselves and give us hope for the future, the past and the future are not reality. The only thing that truly matters in your day-to-day life is what’s happening at the present moment.

Nonetheless, sometimes negative thoughts appear that are legitimate and need to be addressed. But the tendency many of us have is to worry and/or procrastinate on them. This happened to me a few weeks ago. I won’t go into the details, but I found myself feeling very negative about a situation, and I couldn’t seem to shake it.

Then I thought about the Getting Things Done method of processing your inbox. In a nutshell, GTD teaches that when you receive something in your inbox, you need only ask yourself “what’s the next action I can take on this item?” There are a number of possible answers, but the critical thing is that you ask the “what’s the next action” question before you necessarily start doing  the task at hand. This is the difference between processing your inbox vs. doing the things in your inbox.

So, keeping that in mind, I asked myself, “what’s the next action I can take on this emotion to make it go from negative to positive (or at least neutral)?” And it turns out the answer was very simple. There were a couple of things I could do to bring some clarity to the situation. And once I had clarity, I realized that my situation wasn’t so bad after all. It went from being an amorphous, scary black cloud to a problem that could be dealt with rationally. I wrote down these actions on a piece of paper, then banished the thoughts from my mind.

When I came across them again a few days later (I was on vacation when I had these thoughts), I was much more prepared to deal with the situation rationally, which is exactly what I did. The best part is that I was able to get the negative feelings out of my head and actually enjoy my vacation.

Will this work in every situation? I’m not sure. I suspect that sometimes the only solution to a negative feeling is time (as in the case of the death of a loved one). But once again GTD has come to my rescue, and I continue to be grateful to it every day.

Further reading:

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  • http://www.essencecoaching.com Gayle Scroggs

    Hi, Derek….saw a post of yours on a GTD blog…saw your last name, almost-cousins! Great post here, and your concept of an “emotional in-box” is brilliant! I do try “to take action” myself with negativity. . . and find that positive psychology has lots to offer. Have you read Barbara Fredrickson’s book, Positivity? Well, best wishes from Buenos Aires!