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Special User Sections > The Getting Organized Experiment of 2009

Hypothesis on Productivity: Why bother with Parking Lot Tools

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Paul Keith:
Note: Sorry for posting this old post. I've since decided to change my presentation of the articles but it requires knowing some programming.

This is probably my last attempt at formatting these topics although I am not posting all of them yet. Just this one because I need to refer to it as a link in a different forum.  

Btw warning: incomplete text so this doesn't reach far enough to explain what I mean by the general usage of a parking lot tool.

                                                                                  -credit goes to tomos for pming me about how Mark Forster linked to this comic in the past.

Who is this recommended for?For those who aren't becoming productive enough from applying Mark Forster's Autofocus or what David Allen calls the in-basket roulette or in-basket carousel syndrome.

Reference:In-basket roulette and carousel:
02-05.mp3 of the "Getting Things Done Fast Audio Book" torrent.
(Download it all for a better longer definition of brain dumping assuming most free articles on brain dump aren't explaining the concept well enough for you.)

(url not included for obvious reasons)

Autofocus system:[/center]

Brain dumping as far as I know is something David Allen made popular.

Theoretically, it's nothing more than jotting down everything and then putting them in a single area. Where it really starts to differ from jotting down everything is really because of the inherent structure of Allen's GTD system.

Analogically, David Allen's GTD system could be said as the tactical aspect of the Swiss Cheese strategy.

The Swiss Cheese strategy is basically about cutting every task down to even more minor pieces until you can feel comfortable in doing all the minor pieces with the idea that quantity beats simplicity if it can get you working.

Where it stays as a strategy is because the method doesn't really expand on how to delay and work on the "cutting down" part in such a manner that you're actually "doing" things rather than constantly editing your list.

This is where Allen's system becomes tactical because it creates a distinct separation between input -> thought -> output.

In brain dumping, you specifically collect all these notes and tasks you jotted down from several places and put them all into an area you trust. This trains your mind to worry less about the contents of those notes and more towards the containment of those notes in one area until it's time for the second stage of the system which is what Allen officially calls processing.

Parking lot tools is just a word I made up. I don't know if there's an official word for it. (although guys like Allen tend to say the words "parking" but what they're really referring to are the separate places you took your notes prior to putting them all in one place.)


The trick may be to harness what happens when you’re there. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in my quasi-scientific approach to sustained laziness is the value of storing thoughts in appropriate places, as soon as I have them. That means parking them where I will later evaluate their merit (or lack thereof) and dispose of them accordingly. Having a thought once is what the mind is for; having the same thought twice, in the same way, for the same reason, is a waste of time and energy. I also found out that having a place for good ideas produced more of them, and more often.

The 2 main flaws of setting up a brain dump are:

a) It MUST be part of your productivity system when you implement it. (Otherwise the actual act often degenerate into jotting down everything)

b) No one gives enough respect to the definition so what you see mostly spread around the net is an inferior/software mode version of jotting or collecting everything. Coincidentally it's no surprise that many core parts of the GTD system breaks down when other programs try to implement it often leaving those people who only need the motivation boost of having a productivity system be able to use it well. (The rest who use it well are pretty much productive people playing around with the system.)

Parking lot tools addresses the first issue by separating itself from any productivity system. It does this by not suggesting that you put everything into one place before filtering it out but rather it represents a place where you put everything not to be part of a brain dump into it. Implemented with GTD, you can even consider parking lot tools as a double filter. The result being that it makes your brain dump stack even smaller even before you process it.

The second issue is addressed by requiring parking lot tools to be ambiguous thus fitting what people often mis-assume or misrepresent as a brain dump. The problem with the internet stream of brain dumping is that they often misrepresent and make you think it's about "collecting all items in one place first" then following the next steps of GTD.

Theoretically this is true but the thing is that it's often an oversimplification of the method. The often understated fact is that putting everything into one place is only as good if it is organized in such a way that it is better for you than when it was separated in a million places.

Think about it: If you put every important item in your house but your house is disorganized then would you really feel like your house was a brain dump? If that's the case then how is it different if it's on paper or somewhere else?

The truth is when people put everything into a paper or a software, they often under-estimate the ordering they take for granted. Even OneNote has formatting and most quality text editors have auto-save, tab indent, etc. etc.

The understated fact is that GTD isn't often an effective system when you create an inbox/brain dump, process it and turn it into a to-do list.  

Yet while few people don't say it this way, you'll rarely notice them act like they know it is this way. Time and time again if you're a casual surfer who happens to browse through an application that "supports" GTD or have people talk about their GTD system, you'll be given the impression that GTD is about doing some complicated stuff so that you end up with a "better" to-do list.

Even the ones like Remember the Milk who address the fact that an "inbox" is necessary often underperform on the processing part because they make you think that the end-product of GTD is a big list of to-do list (where you move an item from the inbox to another category) when often times the end product of GTD is a "Swiss Cheesed" to-do list and it is made possible this way because often times a brain dump or an inbox is already a to-do list. (It's not a should but think about it: If you're going to make one big list of all your tasks for processing, is it really so much trouble to turn all those items into a to-do list? After all, you're just going to add a bullet point or a checkbox beside most of those words.)

This is why a brain dump separated from a productivity system similar to GTD is often not a brain dump at all. Why? Because the idea behind a brain dump is to put everything into one organized effective list so that you can leave it alone (without worrying about it like you would with a decent to-do list), review it in a set timeline where you can actually focus working on it and then make the tasks even more organized (with the ideal goal that all items are designed as Next Actions) so that instead of the traditional Swiss Cheese method of working on the list, you're actually akin more to polishing a presentation for the final edit so that when the week starts all you really need is to "present" the finished product instead of constantly worrying about it. In the case of the GTD'd to-do list, the sequence transforms it from a "to-do list" into a "quota machine" that just scrolls down optimal tasks meant for you to do in order, or in context but let's not get to that other confusing term.

(Notice that one of the flaw of this method is that it assumes by following the method, you can at the very most organize a well structured quota of tasks for that week to the point that you shouldn't feel the stress of the list you make and just constantly follow the steps you've put into it and do it as much to that order but I only mainly focused on what I perceived as the foundational flaws of brain dumping and less on minor details such as this. Also the reason I use the word "quota" instead of "steps" is that unlike a to-do list, the tasks underneath the finished GTD "list" should be so Swiss Cheese'd that it's almost a standard for the system that at no point should you think of how've you've written the tasks and it should just be constant series of micro actions that even if you don't follow the list, once you set your eyes on it, your mind should just instantly go "I can do this" hence the word "Next Action" as opposed to To-do list "item". If it still seems like a pedantic issue, just think back to how differently your mind worked when you were given a quiz paper in class as opposed to that of a homework. GTD's final product would be the quiz paper, To-do lists would be homework and Forster's Autofocus would be Homework management via doing the task you want first but let's get back to the flaws of brain dumping first.)

Because flaw b) is rarely mentioned or valued, it also becomes rarely considered and the after effect is that many people's systems (even non-GTD ones) end up either treating the creation of the to-do list as the endform of the productivity system or they consider brain dumping as equivalent to jotting down everything and putting it all in one place.

...only Allen's GTD system is more like taking three steps forward where as others are more like taking half a step forward with a concept and half a step more with their improvements thus very few other productivity systems end up fulfilling the needs of the unproductive quite like his.

Not that it means GTD is superior by default to those other systems but productivity blog marketing aside, my guess as to why GTD popularized this idea of "Finally! A Practical Productivity Guide" is because Allen didn't try to simplify or complexify his version of productivity advise but he simply respected the structure of what a system is about and when the book came out instead of one advise milked to dry with anecdotes or theories or a set of random advises put together, Allen published something that is literally a "system", not a "system because some guy put it all in one book and became notable so let's stretch our definition of a system and just buy into the idea that it's actually a system".

That is also why the book can seem complex and boring because in hindsight, Allen really catered more towards a system based on addressing unproductive people's needs where the majority of people fitting the unproductive category were more "self-help" addicts who didn't want a quick and dry solution but a set of advises. It's just that a set of advises can't possibly match the efficiency of a system but a system, before Allen's just didn't seem like it can be productive if it didn't take over your life in theory (and probably in real world scenarios which is why no productivity book based on a system really transformed the landscape of the productivity world prior to GTD even though there were many notable productivity books prior to his and many also claiming to have a system), but that's just my wild guess since I haven't read the book and a good deal of my impression wasn't due to research but from looking at the titles of the books notable prior to GTD. (Covey's "7" habits comes to the forefront where "7" implies a set of advises wrapped around a book instead of a system represented by a book)

Of course my impression alone of the book isn't really notable but what it comes down to is that I used this impression as my rationalization as to why I think people who implement brain dumping without factoring GTD similar systems will end up just applying the method of jotting down everything.

It all goes back to this group confusion of trying to get a bunch of advises while also wanting the effectiveness of a "system". Because some of this is rejection of a system due to work while others is because well written criticism of a system requires doing alot of test work on the system and then doing alot of work on figuring out what's wrong with it... there arises a conflict of supply and demand. People want to eat their productivity cake and claim they have it to.

Then there's of course the fact that the group is also littered with quickfixers, "feel good"-ers, productive people wanting to address unproductive people's concerns... the system is being squeezed and people want to use the pulp as proof that they mastered the system, even as a motivational boost that they're a productivity master and of course if things fall apart, the rebels want to have their pulp too. They want to be the "anti-experts" and the "common" people who mastered the system.

All this when in fact there hasn't really been a true system vs. system comparison but really just GTD lighting up a paradigm shift of what productivity "systems" should entail by extending the steps during a time when people thought half a step was a step. Yet of course many of these people didn't want to admit that they were all arguing about just one thing and that their general productivity debate was really just about "one" aspect of it. Hypocrisy was causing demand to implode and supply quality to rot. (although it also brings into light whether the rise of the productivity-improving business was littered with the same hypocrisy only it got hidden behind the veil of criticisms of all self-help products)

Because GTD was having this issue, it's only natural to assume that part of GTD was also under pressure and brain dumping was under pressure of being squeezed into either the "simplified" definition or the "article" definition. Neither really with the aim of giving it's audience an understanding of what it's supposed to solve. Just what it's supposed to do. Hence the need to efficiently apply brain dumping gets diluted because the why for brain dumping isn't as important as the what of brain dumping if you were to look it up in the dictionary.

But the act alone isn't the problem, it's the after-effect. Because brain dumping gets diluted, interest for the why also dissolves (at least within the general productivity movement) and so even if you do figure out that you need why because you're unproductive, you still have to figure out how to separate that part of the system from GTD because majority of productivity lovers in the internet aren't going to bother to help you reverse-engineer what they feel is a perfectly simple and valid way of describing brain dumping: If the definition is good enough for the dictionary, why do we have to go to the trouble of re-vamping it just because it's making you unproductive? Hire a coach if you need help. That's what they're there for. It's not like there are poor people in the world that are unproductive.

The foundation of brain dumping as being a necessary component for a productivity system, had become it's flaw. The catch-22 of the concept is now about you needing to stick with GTD to implement it and hope that as you get better with GTD, you also get better with that idea or discover a new concept. One that not only fulfills it's functionality without the baggage of a system, but one that can stand on it's own so that you can connect it with other productivity methods.

This is why the idea that parking lot tools aren't part of a system is a feature, rather than a flawed implementation of a system if you look at the methods based on it through a spotlight.

A math idiot-based formulaic way of analogizing this:
(jotting everything down into one place + structured well = David Allen's brain dump/x*) + processing divided by weekly review x Swiss Cheesing = GTD'd To-do list (where the ideal form would be that all tasks are written like Next Actions.)

Where x = the modifications made to improve upon the brain dump (barring the fact of an effective brain dump needing to be a to-do list to be effective) (although because I'm not really trying to explain my entire perspective of how GTD works, it doesn't matter if you agree with me or not as long as you understand the formula. You'll see why below.)

* then represents an exponent where the higher the exponent the more a system aims to improve upon the brain dump which you could interpret as being made to stand-alone from the system by the / symbol or you can treat it as meaning that any brain dump separated from GTD often becomes divided because of the manipulations made to it. Either way, you could consider the brain dump as needing to be a to-do list or whatever list you want to treat it, (I mention this because some authors like Mark Forster give special distinction to lists almost to the point of specifics. Ex. will-do list, to-do list, check on and so forth.) or you could treat a to-do list as the x factor that divides a brain dump into a system that can stand on it's own. Either way, all this rely that you'd at least see some sense in why brain dumps are made more efficent if they're to-do lists. I also use the word "aim" because often times the productivity system makers only intend to improve on the list form but really they just end up with another alternate form or add-on form to the core parts of a list. Some of them don't even take this step. They just often skip to mentioning the repackaged form.

Note: If my usage here of exponent is wrong, I apologize. I just searched google with the keywords "n to the third power" and found the words exponentiation on wikipedia.

The to-do list is why I refered to Mark Forster's Autofocus system because the Autofocus system's treatment of to-do list and productive role is related to how parking lot tools in effect treats it's own role in making someone productive (but more on that later)

For now the important thing is to factor how and why Autofocus' endproduct remains that of a to-do list and why it does that.

Remember that earlier on, I said that an effective brain dump = often a to-do list. In the mock formula, I mentioned that often times, those x's with exponents only "aim" to improve the list idea but rarely improve them but instead change them.

In this case, Autofocus' endproduct as a to-do list allows it to differ from other common systems I'm familiar of. It means where those other systems because of the creator's attempt to improve them, change them and add extra steps and features to them they often don't retain being to-do lists but they neither improve upon the structure of to-do lists, simply "change" it.

Here are some examples:
a. Set specific goals (i.e. make a list of goals instead of tasks)
b. Visualize your task (i.e. follow the list but do something different in doing the item)
c. Ask yourself questions (i.e. make a list of answers)
d. Write a journal (i.e. make a list of articles about your life)
e. Write only the first 3 items in your to-do list (i.e. to-do list lite)
f. Make a list of circles to shade to serve as your habit tracker (i.e. list with percentage)
g. Make a list of tasks that you want to do (i.e. list where you change the intention of the phrasing even if many of those list are really no different than a to-do except for the rationale behind the items even if often times they all aim to "do" the items inside the list anyway.)
All these examples are lists that instead of improving on the actual structure of the list, tries to repackage and reform the idea of a list to the point that they neither have been transformed nor upgraded. Simply polished to make it look different from what it really is.

(Not surprisingly, many of those forms are often adapted by David Allen to represent his "process" stage of GTD. Why? Because Allen's processing stage wouldn't sound very impressive at all if he says "just think on it". Also because Allen's third stage wouldn't make sense either because the weekly review is also about "thinking on it".)

In my opinion, Forster's Autofocus on the other hand, neither tries to change the goal or the form of the to-do list. Nor does it "improve" it.

I'm neither a GTD expert user nor can I say my understanding of Forster's Autofocus is right on though. (nor would I fit the bill of being a fan of either systems)

In fact when tomos first introduced me to Autofocus and I gave him my first impression of it, comparing it to Forster's Do it Tomorrow's "Will Do" list (even though I haven't read the book), tomos remarked that he found the two very different.

The reason it's necessary to establish both my viewpoint of these 2 systems first is because the concept of parking lot tools is a reactive counter-adjustment to brain dumping which I earlier said optimally if not a to-do list, really must go beyond "just collecting everything into one area".

The reason I also gave my view of AutoFocus is also because it and parking lot tools have similarities in their criticisms but where as AutoFocus rejects this criticism, parking lot tools is about having this criticism. (I'll get to that in just a while.)

First off though, the reason brain dumping needs to be counter-adjusted is because I've encountered core flaws with it that makes me unproductive. That statement could be considered obvious but still, in order to clarify these flaws, one must address "what is legit brain dumping?" and unfortunately I'm not sure everyone can all agree with my problems. Some who do might even consider it a consequence of me not "working to integrate" GTD long enough. (Something I would consider a flaw of GTD but many fans obviously don't feel so.)

So what is legit brain dumping for me?

Pardon me if this answer sounds like a rehash of a million productivity blogs:
a) Out of sight, out of mind = less stress
b) Take down notes as soon as idea comes up
c) Put down all notes into one area as soon as free time comes up (which is what basically what setting up a weekly review is all about)
d) Write down the notes as specific as possible especially during the processing stage

Here are the problems:

1) If you don't use GTD as a system, you need time to modify and integrate the brain dump to your system which if you're unproductive enough, turns that one place into a black hole. A place where things come in but don't come out.

2) If you don't have a system you can trust yet, it puts more pressure and stress on your mind to find something quickly so that you can start applying the brain dump process. Meanwhile your rushing and half-assing your way which also ruins your processing stage and ruins your weekly review and it's akin to having a delicious account gone amok. One day you realized that you're becoming more unproductive touching the single place than completely giving up on it and starting from scratch.

3) Same thing with not starting from scratch, suddenly your unproductivity can feel like it has been layered by a time bomb by which you need to move all those things into a "system you trust" and many people have trouble with e-mail already, think about delicious bookmarks, scrapbook++ contents, Evernote clips, etc. etc. and at least e-mail can be easily "contained" in it's black hole by rationalizing that the non-important parts get stuffed in a folder somewhere and only the important parts gets to the inbox. Also there's many suggestions of how to handle e-mail that are out there like the Inbox Zero method. The rest of your tasks? Closer to vague and unspecific.

4) Free time. Really it seems like the excuse of an unproductive person but few people can afford free time at a scheduled pace. Even those with too much free time, are more productive if they interact than when they feel like they're rote learning a productivity system and despite the end result claim of GTD, that is the problem that rears it's head up when you're just in the process of integrating GTD into your life and worse, if you fail to integrate it, it is not only one big waste of time but now you have another messy stack of tasks some in a partial GTD state while others in other place. Suddenly you're more unproductive than ever because your area becomes messier and less motivating to work on.

All these problems exist for many different reasons for many different people but at their core, in my opinion, it's because brain dumping is linked to the system. If you remove/half-ass brain dumping, the entire GTD system suffers. Your processing becomes incomplete. You lose the out of sight, out of mind feel. Your weekly habits is halfed between managing your brain dump from managing your Swiss Cheese to-do list. Sometimes, it can seem like the only things that need to be done are the ones that get done but for most people that's the state they were in already before they tried GTD and for the people who fail that, it's even worse, the system has now even made their unproductive lives even more stressful.

That's my suspicion of why some people find GTD to be complex while something like Forster's Autofocus seem simple.

(Of course I have my criticisms of Autofocus too but like I said, I never really did finish this article. Basic flaw though can easily be simulated by doing some job and stopping mid-way to do another one. Yes, it's simple, functional and easy enough to understand but imagine if you leave that stack off and let it stagnate. Autofocus relies on improving the to-do list so it needs the to-do list.

Most unproductive people don't even value to-do lists. Many of them don't even realize you can fill an entire page with to-do lists to make yourself productive. This is an over-simplification of the criticism but I'm just adding it here in case some of you guys thought this was an Autofocus > GTD post.

As for the simple definition of parking lot tools, take your brain dump and move the stuff you don't need out of the system and the ones you need a system for, into the system. Not really impressive or useful since I haven't really explained the problems of GTD context to emphasize why it's not just setting up a 2nd brain dump or overlapping two GTD systems together.)


This is a completely meta critique, but let me PLEAD with you to try to make (much) smaller posts, boiling down your thoughts into pieces that you can make multiple posts from.  I'm just dying to read and comment on this stuff but it's just too much at a time to get a firm hold on and post a cogent reply about.

If you aim for a post that is like a half page long, with just one major point -- then we can all jump in and participate, and you can elaborate in follow ups.

Instead of viewing them as posts, they could be viewed as articles, not meant so much for discussion but for a thoughtful structured presentation.  If that's to be the case, then what would help is a hierarchical organization of your points in small manageable chunked sections no more than half a page each.

No matter how you look at it, speaking as one who has committed this sin myself innumerable times -- there just has to be a way to organize and post these really thoughtful and valuable writings in a much more concise way.

Paul Keith:
Thanks mouser. Yeah, I'm moving to a different format. I just needed to refer to something I've written in this post for context as stated in the beginning.

My main post is still defining the value of what a "parking lot tool" is. The problem though is that it doesn't really sound anything special unless you've applied some form of brain dump before and see it's flaws and benefits and apply them too to most other systems.

Even then I can't be 100% sure that people get my definition and problems with brain dumping (and GTD in general) so I have to try and define them from my perspective either. It's just not something I know how to cut down.

The chunks were already supposed to be in topics written like this as a way of focusing primarily on which programs I used and these topics were supposed to "glue" it all together as a theoretical idea for those interested in the core definition.

Paul Keith:
...btw mouser, something about this sentence confuses me:

Instead of viewing them as posts, they could be viewed as articles, not meant so much for discussion but for a thoughtful structured presentation.
--- End quote ---

Do you mean to say that articles and posts are different? I was under the impression that both were the same.

i just meant that if you intend to think of them as well-edited, thoughtful, complete articles, then the requirements might be different, and you might aim not for short concise things, but very well organized and structured presentation that only a few people will really read, and less will comment on, but could be a more permanent resource for people who are super serious about the material.  but that's like writing an academic paper and is a lot more work.


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