Organization seems to be at the top of every fitness business pro’s to-do list. While this is an admirable goal, there are three important steps you need to take prior to getting organized. Once you’ve moved past wearing “busy” as a badge of honor, determined the major roles you play, and learned what needs to get done, it’s time for the more practical elements of time management.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Penguin 2015) is the best resource I’ve found for getting organized and creating a sustainable system for effortless productivity. Let’s examine some foundational elements—based in part on Allen’s book—that will help take you from sinking to swimming.

Data Dump

According to Allen, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them®.” This statement sums up the mindset you must have in order to commit to a productivity system.

Your brain is like a computer. Only so many programs can be open and running before it starts to slow down. While many items are stored and filed away for later access, the working memory—or short-term memory—processes immediate cognitive, perceptual and linguistic input, keeping that information front and center to be accessed as needed (McLeod 2012). Your to-do list—or thoughts about what needs to be done—occupies this space if it’s used as your central storage unit. Thus, when it gets clogged, we begin to slow down cognitively.

Instead of keeping these “programs” open in your brain, regularly “pluck” them and get them down on paper. This helps to clear your mind and keep it functioning at full speed. Here’s what you do:

1. Choose how you’ll capture information. Whether it’s pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, choose a favored method for capturing all the loose, floating ideas. I prefer using a legal pad for the initial data dump; there’s something cathartic about putting pen to paper. Then, I reorganize with electronic solutions, which we’ll discuss in part two.

2. Dump the data. Set aside an hour or two of uninterrupted time, and write down every action item that’s on your mind. Whether it’s an immediate need or a notion regarding a future project, get it down on paper. Consider all of these: work-related items, household tasks, family needs, anything related to health and fitness, plans with friends and colleagues, shopping (big or small), bills, books or articles you’ve been meaning to review, hobbies, entertainment, and any other activities or tasks you can think of. Do not filter, do not hold back, and when you’ve finished do not count the number of lines you filled. Suffice it to say, it should be an exhaustive list. (Don’t be surprised if you have 100 lines or more!)

3. Examine the list. Take another look at the list, and be sure it includes everything. Can you believe how much was in your head? Look around the house, your office and your computer. Uncover every lurking need-to, want-to or might-do. Keep in mind that the list doesn’t represent what you need to do tomorrow or even next week! Systemization comes next. The immediate goal is to capture everything that needs processing, so you free your brain from the clutter.

Control the Chaos

As mentioned above, you can’t work from this gigantic list until you organize it. Here’s how:

1. Role-play the items. Divide your items into “bigger picture” buckets. Identify all the roles you play, and think beyond your traditional paid positions. Include any role that requires you to allocate time. For example, are you a mom? A volunteer soccer coach? A student? A personal trainer? Begin a new sheet for each role, and move all action items associated with that role to the corresponding page.

2. Recognize any projects. Next, beneath each role organize the tasks into projects. Gather similar tasks under a heading. For example, if you’ve written “Search for a local caterer,” “Find staff to team-teach class sneak peek” and “Decide on date to launch full group ex schedule,” group these tasks under your “New location grand opening” project.

Then, scour your list further for complex tasks that are projects in disguise. For example, maybe you wrote “Revamp group exercise schedule.” This is a multitask project that’s more easily accomplished if you list the smaller steps needed to complete it, such as getting feedback from members, doing equipment inventory and reviewing staff availability.

3. Determine the next actions. Finally, to avoid feeling overwhelmed, determine if tasks within projects have dependencies, and order them accordingly. For example, in planning a grand opening, you need to order the tasks, because the completion of one task affects another (e.g., first choose the date, then brainstorm ideas, next choose action items and so forth). Other projects will be concurrent, where multiple tasks happen simultaneously or the order doesn’t matter. Nevertheless, prioritize the tasks so that you’ll know which should (or could) occur next. Your daily to-do list will come from this work.

Make Your Move

Now it’s time to get to work! Move projects forward as time, context and energy permit. To create a plan, grab your list and a calendar.

1. Update your calendar. Each week, double-check your calendar to ensure that you’ve noted all time-sensitive appointments. Add buffer time for driving and transition (an extra 15–30 minutes postappointment to wrap up and make notes or in case you run over the allotted time). If there’s anything that must get done daily, schedule it into your calendar before tackling a to-do list.

2. Look for windows of opportunity. At the start of the week, search for (or create) longer periods of uninterrupted time in which to get work done. Then, protect those blocks of time—mark them as “busy” on your calendar so you’re not tempted to schedule anything during them.

3. Prioritize. Review your project list and next actions daily and weekly. Determine what activities to slot into your available windows of opportunity. During those times, turn off email and other communication tools, and focus exclusively on the items you need to complete. When assuming what you’ll get done, be sensitive to the amount of time and energy you’ll have. It’s better to project that you’ll accomplish less than to fall short. Your goal is to chip away at important, but not urgent, tasks as time and energy allow.

4. Layer in the gravel. Look at the remaining daily tasks that are less timely or urgent, and layer in additional items based on context. For example, if you’re waiting for your child to finish baseball practice and you have your cell phone with you, knock out a few phone calls. Or if you have your computer with you but you’re not in a place (or space) where you can think creatively, answer a few easy emails. We’ll explore a few additional steps to tackling your inbox in part two.

If you want to build on your initial organization, dump data each day. Create one inbox for your to-dos rather than using notifications as alarms. Work from one list—transfer actionable items to the list from emails, voicemails and other sources. Each morning or evening, sift through the inputs, file them under a project and assign an order. As actions get crossed off your list, identify the next step that will move you closer to project completion.

In part two, we’ll look at how to use technology to your advantage and how to build up your trust in the system you create.