GTD Anchor #2: One idea, one piece of paper

Source: Zing-Man Origami


In addition to Evernote giving me an anchor to keep me in GTD, I have found that one idea, one piece of paper is another anchor.  After 3 years of GTD, I find it hard to believe how valuable “one idea, one piece of paper” has been.


  • Cutting apart the genes in my mental DNA: That each individual idea is cut loose from a spaghetti tangle of many other ideas.  
    • For example, before GTD I used to carry a lab notebook to write down all the important information that came scrolling through my life. These notebooks are a boiling stew of next actions, un-needed information, unrelated information all on one page, diagrams from projects long dead (dissertation), and children’s drawings.
    • Instead of the book, I now carry 3″x5″ cards and pens (see Man-Purse Desk)
  • Organizing the separated mental genes into their respective “pre-projects.” I struggled for a couple years on whether to do projects on paper or projects in the computer.  What I realized is that what is natural for me, is neither.  
    • Or rather both, but not at the same time.  I keep a project on paper while it is “winding up, but not yet rolling.”
    • Then, once the project gets going, cut it over to project folders in DropBox. Having each idea on it’s own 3″x5″ card enables pre-project, organization.  I have a lot of ideas that are not next actions, but they are valuable to me because the 3″x5″ captured ideas in a manilla folder, prevent me from forgetting project issues and assumptions, once I’ve thought of them.
  • Identifying and dumping mental “junk DNA.” I know that junk DNA isn’t junk, but the term gets the idea across. 
    • Story: When I get back to the office and process my 3″x5″ cards, I find that a fair number of them, go right into the recycle bin.  Maybe 10% to 15%.
    • I don’t know why my brain wants me to write down stuff that it does not want to use later.  Maybe it is testing the trusted system and timing the duration between capture and processing.  I wouldn’t put it past my subconscious!
  • Opening up many opportunities to work on projects while doing the mundane. For example, I recently refactored my syllabus for the remainder of the semester while sitting in a faculty meeting.  This was the impetus for the recent “how to get going” post.  
    • I was procrastinating the refactoring project.  I just didn’t feel right sitting down at the desk and cutting into the work.  One idea, one piece of paper, enabled me to cut the baby into pieces, overcoming my internal resistance.
    • When I’m riding, waiting, thinking, or just killing 10 minutes of time, I can capture the value of that time by jotting ideas down on cards. When a card has it’s quota of one idea, it goes into my official David Allen red inbox folder, for processing at one of my desks.
  • Gives me the opportunity to help people, and thus a lead in to telling them about GTD. *Note* The first rule of viral marketing is “Look like the host, not the parasite.”  I am always loaning people cards and/or pens, which by the principle of reciprocity buys me exactly one chance to talk about GTD without being “obnoxious.”

Restarting GTD angle:

Because one idea, one piece of paper is such a portable principle of GTD, it helps me crawl back on the wagon when I’m slammed and can’t take a day to do a full mind dump, merge into existing projects, and then subsequent weekly review to get mind cleared.   Go 3″x5″ cards and you can make progress, even though you can’t be 100% channeling David Allen while doing so.


It seems that one idea, one piece of paper would increase efficiency more than anything. After three years, it has increased my efficiency some, but surprisingly, it increases EFFECTIVENESS way more.  Let me explain…

Hypothesized Mechanism:

I began to make the effectiveness connection about one idea, one piece of paper, when I observed that in three years I have never copied an idea to put it in multiple projects.  I have rarely moved ideas between project folders.  I *think* what is going on is that my brain is finicky.  I think it has been working out how it wants it’s extertnal memory organized.  The past three years have been a long sequence of experiments where I made a change to GTD components, then lived with them, then came to a keep/kill decision based on how the component “felt” when I used it.

I think that my brain has figured out:

  • Bill’s trusted system can REALLY be trusted.
  • There is a twilight zone during the pre-project time where many ideas come quickly. I think my brain really likes having ideas pre-project.  I have that same feeling of God’s pleasure when I’m capturing ideas, as when I’m increasing organizing.
    • When I organize, I feel His pleasure.
    • When I capture ideas, I feel His pleasure.
  • That because the trusted system can be trusted, the brain can employ the trusted system to organize work in new ways.  This is REALLY COOL.

Go forth, and capture ideas, one at a time.  You’ll love yourself for it!

bill meade


8 thoughts on “GTD Anchor #2: One idea, one piece of paper

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  6. Great post and opened up some new thinking for me in the use of a legal pad to capture ideas at my desk along with evernote on my phone for on the go…..Love the phrase, “when I capture ideas, I feel His Pleasure”….awesome stuff. Would love to see a post about how you go about planning projects and where to draw the line on what projects actually need planning and how much planning….just food for thought.

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