Getting Things Done - Mind Like Water

David Allen's, Getting Things Done methodology focuses on actions to help us become more productive with our day. But he also stresses that success isn't measured by how much you get done but rather your state of mind when getting things done.

Before reading GTD some years ago, my impression of David Allen was as a hyper driven, hyper organzed productivity machine.  The reality is quite different. His goal wasn't to be more productive but rather to clear his mind or mental space with the ultimate goal of being more happy.  David Allen credits Zen Buddhism and Karate as influences in developing the GTD framework.  

"Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn't overreact or underreact."
- David Allen -

This mind like water state, where you respond appropriately without overreacting or underreacting, is the productive state where you are in control, not stressed and highly focused.  Allen's GTD's main purpose is to keep you in that state or at least get you closer to it when you feel out of control, highly stressed and out of focus - having an unclear mind. 

The Book

Getting Things Done: the art of stress-free productivity, is a great resource to help one getgettingthingsdonecover_271152801.jpg
control of their life or a parts of it, such as work, school or even something personal.  Make sure you get the latest 2015 published version as it is rewritten for the digital, 24/7, global life we live today. First published in 2001, the book has remained very popular for so long the fad label that many self improvement philosophies get does not apply. I really like GTD because you can apply it incrementally with success, rather than having to change your whole life, like other self improvement methodologies seem to require. I will just briefly cover the major components of the GTD framework and perhaps you will read it yourself.

5 Step Method for Managing Your Workflow

The heart of GTD is to manage our workflow - our life and work is constantly giving us experiences as inputs and changes and we turn those into experiences as output.  How we approach this is the key to GTD.

Capture - this is the in tray for your life.  In order to clear your mind you need to use some tools to capture all of the incomplete items or changes you want to make from your head and the many other places you may keep this information.  Which tools (capture system) you use are not as critical as meeting the following three requirements as explained in the GTD book:
  1. Every open item must be in your capture system and out of your head.
  2. You must have as few capture systems as possible.
  3. You must empty the capture system regularly.

Clarify - for each captured item you determine what it is, is it actionable and if so what is the next action.  This is the processing step of clearing your capture system or inbox.  It's not necessarily doing the task but it's making the quick decision on - if, when and who to do it.  For non-actionalble items you decide to trash it, place it into a someday category or a reference file if its useful information.

For actionable items - if it would take you less than two minutes to complete then you just complete it.  Anything longer, you decide to delegate to someone else (waiting for) or defer for later time (calendar or next actions).  As a result you will have trashed some items, filed it away, completed the quick ones and have a pending group of defered and delegated items.  These are the ones you deal with in the next step.

Organize -  having an effective physical organizational system is what allows you to clear your mind.  This system simply matches what it means to you based on the clarify step preceding this one. If you decided something is a reference then you need a physical location (digial or analog) to place it in.  The basic cateGTD_flow.jpggories that Allen's GTD methods require are:

  1. A Projects list
  2. Projects support material
  3. Calendar actions and information
  4. Next Actions list
  5. A Waiting For list
  6. Reference material
  7. A Someday/Maybe list

The above just need to be lists and/or folders.

Reflecting - as with any system or process it's essential to have a periodic point to step back and review both the daily process of committments and also from the big picture.  This step is what allows you to see if you may be missing something or if you are really heading in the direction you desire.  

"If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster."
- Stephen R. Covey - 

Allen recommends a weekly review of your calendar actions, projects, next actions, waiting for and someday/maybe lists and folders. It's very easy to get out of control so cleaning house and refreshing content once a week provides the confidence and the control that helps keep stress and anxiety at bay.  The review for the big picture, which is described in the next step, can be done with less frequency but based on how often you feel you need to do this to feel in control.  

Engage - this step is really about making the right decions in the previous steps.  Allen provides three frameworks or models to help make the decisions or better think through the decison of what do to do and when.  

The Four Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment

  • Context - some actions can be done anywhere but some require a specific location such as at your computer, requiring a phone, being out in your car, etc.  This will be a constraint and limit your decisions.
  • Time Available - if you have a meeting in 1/2 hour than only items that take less time can be done.
  • Energy Available - the first two are fairly obvious but this one is one that most people tend to disregard. Matching the activity to energy level is critical for motivation and getting it done.  Starting something that take a fresh energy at 4 pm may not be productive for most people.
  • Priority - usually this is the first level of decision but in reality the three before these are constraints so it makes more sense to decide on priority at this level.

The Threefold Model for Identifying Daily Work

There are three different types of activities you would be working on:

  • Doing predefined work - this is doing the work as defined in your calendar and your next actions list.
  • Doing work as it shows up - these are the sudden emails, phone calls or people walking into your office with requests.
  • Defining your work - this is the work of the GTD process outlined - capture, clarify, organize, etc.  It's the decisions and organzation allowing you to work smarter.

It's easy to spend too much time on the second one - work as it shows up.  It happens so much and we get into the routine of letting that lead our daily activities.  It's critical to find ways to either minimize that or pull it into the defining work category rather than just doing it.

The Six Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work

Our daily work is connected to the big picture of our lives.  Allen describes six levels (horizons) that look at our work, both personal and professional from six perspectives:

  • Horizon 5: Purpose and principles - what is the purpose of our work or of our lives.  What really matters and what doesn't.
  • Horizon 4: Vision - projecting 3 to 5 years into the future think about categories like career transitions, lifestyle transision, company strategies, financial strategies, external factors.
  • Horizon 3: Goals - over the next 1 to 2 years what are goals in both work and life you want to achieve.
  • Horizon 2: Areas of focus - these are defined by roles, interest and responsibilities such as staff development, market research, parenting, recreation, etc.  
  • Horizon 1: Current projects 
  • Ground: Current activities

It's not critical to have 6 levels or match these exactly.  The main point is that you should periodically check to see all levels regardless how many are in some alignment.  Allen suggest a ground up approach rather than the conventional top down.  He stresses this becasue we all have committments at the ground level and we can't put them on hold.  The ability to process them effectively is what will allow us to spend more time and think through the higher levels.


Most of us have more to do (more in our inbox) than we can output.  This may not even include some of the things we really want to do.  GTD may not necessarily help us get everything done but that is not the goal.  The goal is to help reduce or eliminate the stress and anxiety we feel when we are not in control.  It turns out human motivation and even happiness is highly corelated with our ability to be in control of our selves.  Achieving the state of mind like water and trying to keep getting back to it is a good way to keep in control.

If you found this post interesting, you may like some of our others on productivity or IT management


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