Don't Flag Your Pigeons - Next Action Associates

Those of us who work with our email inboxes regularly ‘at zero’ are aware of the many benefits this brings. It is therefore a surprise, when trying to encourage others to do the same, that their first response is often along the lines of “I don’t care that I have 10,000 unread emails” or “keeping everything in my inbox works well for me”.

When anyone is subjected to stress and pain for long enough, they stop noticing the discomfort and their feelings become unreliable. It is rarely effective to tackle these faulty feelings head on. Email is an emotional issue for most people and trying to change their embedded fixed bad habits is one of the toughest parts of helping someone to start using GTD® properly.

So let’s consider a different message delivery system: that of the carrier pigeon. This was one of the best methods of distance communication for 2,000 years and was used by the military right up until the beginning of the First World War. It helped Julius Caesar conquer lands and even early stockbrokers make and lose money.

A pigeon arrives and lands safely in my pigeon ‘inbox’, or to use the correct terminology, the pigeon lands in a trap which is connected to the pigeon loft or coop. I take the little note from off its leg and read it. It is a message from my wife, asking me to pick something up from the shops on the way home. A brief clarification tells me I need to add this to my shopping list.

IMPORTANT: I no longer need to keep the pigeon in the coop. I would set it free. (In fact, if I were actually using pigeons, I’d take it home with me so that my wife could send me future messages – carrier pigeons only fly one-way, so you can’t ‘reply’ to someone with the same pigeon!!)

Another pigeon arrives, again I open the note from around the bird’s leg. This time, it is a message from my boss, passing a large project onto my team: to upgrade the company’s communication systems! This time, after asking the GTD clarifying questions, I realise that I have a project to track on my projects list of “Launch new internal communication system” and a next action to “Speak to my boss about their initial ideas and budget parameters”, which I put on my agenda list for the next time I see them. If I decide to keep the note from the pigeon, then I would create and put it in an appropriate project support folder.

IMPORTANT: I don’t decide the best reminder would be to put the message back around the pigeon’s leg, stick a flag to the pigeon and then put the pigeon in with all the other pigeons in the coop. If I did this, the pigeon would be pushed further out of view with every new pigeon arriving until it was squashed at the back or the bottom and soon forgotten. I would need to go looking for all the pigeons with flags on again, catch them again, and read all the messages again and decide again what I need to do about all the things. This is a waste of time and energy and risks me not finding this particular pigeon again before my boss chases me for a progress report – with another pigeon in my inbox/trap!!

The only pigeons I want in my ‘inbox’ are the ones that have just arrived with new messages on their leg which I still need to clarify. They are in the right place. I don’t even need them to have signs on saying they are ‘unread’; I know they are unread because they are in my ‘inbox’. Once they are ‘read’ and clarified, the reminders of any projects and next actions should be organised in my GTD system and the pigeons moved appropriately.

Don’t flag your carrier pigeons and please don’t keep old pigeons in your inbox.

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