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Scratch Pad Best Practice

One problem of having separate project plans and project files for each of your active projects is that, at times, it can be cumbersome to write down new thoughts, tasks, or ideas if you don’t have your project plan sitting right there in front of you.

You may not want to pull out the project file and find the project task list every time you have a thought about some project because it will distract you from what you are currently doing.

You may also be on the phone, in a meeting, or out of your office when the idea pops into your head and not have immediate access to your task list.

The best practice of the Scratch Pad can help you in these situations.

The scratch pad is a temporary system that allows you to capture new thoughts, ideas, tasks, or commitments quickly and easily. The scratch pad can be as simple as a pad of paper where you can jot down notes; an electronic organizer/PDA also works well as a scratch pad.

The goal of the scratch pad is to provide a way to easily capture new information in writing when it is not convenient to immediately store the information in the “right” place, like the task list for a project, so you don’t have to keep track of it using your memory (why is that a bad thing?)

Using Your Scratch Pad During Meetings

The scratch pad practice can be extremely useful during meetings, which are a typical source of new information, commitments, and work while you are away from your office.

Often, you will find out something during a meeting that you need to act upon; it could be a problem or issue you need to investigate further, an action item that was assigned to you, a commitment you have made during the meeting, or something else you need to do.

If you carry your scratch pad to all your meetings, you will have a natural place to write down anything you want to remember for later.

I personally found that the scratch pad (along with some of the other best practices described elsewhere) was sufficient to handle virtually all of the mobility challenges I faced during a typical day.

If you are mostly dealing with meetings and limited travel and do not have access to a laptop, you may find the scratch pad sufficient to meet your needs without having to resort to an expensive PDA or organizer.

Sometimes the low‑tech solution can be simpler and more effective than the equivalent high‑tech solution.

Using the Scratch Pad

I find myself using my scratch pad in three main ways.

Writing Down Your Thoughts While Working

The first occurs when I’m in my office working on something and a completely random thought about some other project pops into my head.

It could be a solution to a problem I’ve been struggling with, something that I may have overlooked, or some other type of creative idea.

In the past, whenever something like this happened, my first instinct was to acknowledge the insight, but try to focus back on my task at hand as quickly as possible to avoid losing my concentration.

However, the thought usually kept percolating in the back of my mind, often preventing me from focusing fully on my current work.

Over the years, I’ve found that writing down such thoughts the moment I have them is the best solution. It’s almost like my mind “knows” that I won’t forget about my insight, so it can release the thought and allow me to completely focus on my present task without distraction.

If I have easy access to my time management software on my desktop, I use it to write down my thoughts. If I happen to be logged out of my computer or using some other application, I often use my scratch pad to capture these thoughts instead.

During Meetings and While Away from Your Desk

The second way I use my scratch pad occurs when I’m out of my office. I take my scratch pad with me to all my meetings and use it to capture information during the meeting.

These are not meeting notes per se, instead they are action items that I find out or think about during the meeting. Make it a regular practice to carry your scratch pad with you to all your meetings—even meetings in a colleague’s office—and use it to write down anything that comes up that you need to remember.

There are times that I’m out of my office when I don’t have my scratch pad with me and I find out something new that I need to do.

An impromptu hallway conversation with a colleague on my way to lunch could be a good example. If I’ll be away from my office for a long period of time, I often choose to go back and write down the item before continuing.

At the very least, I always try to write it down in my scratch pad as soon as I return to my office. Some people even carry a small portable notebook that easily fits in their pocket and use it as their mobile scratch pad available everywhere they go.

Writing Things Down at Home

The third way I use my scratch pad is at home. I keep a scratch pad near the couch that I can use to write down any thoughts that come to me while relaxing or watching television.

Once you get in the practice of writing down your thoughts about your projects as you have them, you’ll notice that you have them more often than you think!

Purging the Scratch Pad

Remember that the scratch pad is supposed to be a temporary system for capturing information when it’s inconvenient to store it in the right place.

The practice of regularly purging the scratch pad is critical for making sure that the items in your scratch pad get added to your time management system. If you use multiple scratch pads, remember to purge all of them periodically.

I typically clean out my scratch pads two to three times a day as part of my regular Inflow Management practice. Once in the morning, once after lunch, and once about two hours before the end of the day.

I’ve found that these times are practical, allow me to continue my work without too much distraction, and are frequent enough to update my plans effectively.

Obviously, if I have a top‑priority item in my scratch pad (I usually distinguish such items from other ones by placing an asterisk on them) I can take action on it immediately without having to wait for one of these times.

The best practice of Inflow Management will walk you though the process of transferring items from your scratch pad to your time management system.

Example of a Scratch Pad with a few entries

Keys to Success

The keys to success while using the Scratch Pad best practice are:

  • Keep your scratch pad handy while at your desk. You may get ideas while working on something else or while talking on the phone.
  • Take your scratch pad with you to meetings, including small meetings in someone’s office. Use it to write down any new information, commitments, action items, or assignments that require you to do something or that you need to remember. For example, if you find out that Joe Smith is working on a memo that you may need for your proposal but that won’t be ready until next week, write it down.
  • Take your scratch pad with you whenever you meet with your boss. You want to have a place to write down any new information or assignments in detail without having to rely on your memory alone.
  • Write down thoughts as you have them, even if you are working on something else. Once your thoughts are down on paper, your mind can release them allowing you to focus and concentrate better than if you try to remember these thoughts until after you’re done.
  • Remember that the scratch pad is only meant to be a temporary storage place for your action items, thoughts, and ideas. Use the best practice of Inflow Management to regularly clean out your scratch pad and transfer any necessary information to your time management system.
  • Use only a single sheet of your scratch pad at a time. If you find yourself having to start using a new sheet, it may be a good time to transfer your information out of the scratch pad. Avoid using the back side of the topmost sheet in your scratch pad because it becomes cumbersome to add new information.
  • Cross out any entries that have already been transferred to your time management system and throw away sheets of paper when they are full (after you’ve transferred the information of course.)
  • Keep extra scratch pads available wherever thoughts pop into your head on a regular basis. For me, this turns out to be the living room and while trying to go to sleep.
  • If you frequently get ideas while out and about, an option for capturing them is to carry around a small notebook to serve as your scratch pad. Another option is to carry a small dictation tape recorder; this can be especially useful if you get lots of ideas while in your car.
  • If you don’t have a notebook or dictation recorder and happen to get an idea while in your car, during dinner, or while at a movie, get in the habit of writing your ideas down as soon as you get home or back to the office.

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