Water through Forest

Personal productivity that sustains mind like water

This past week, I attended my second Getting Things Done (GTD) seminar on Mastering Workflow hosted by my current employer SunPower. I’m super passionate about productivity as a foundation of self-leadership so when the opportunity to take a course on GTD came up despite taking it already, I jumped at it. For those uninitiated, GTD is a world-renowned approach to personal and professional productivity that has taken the world by storm over the last few years. From whole companies adopting its approach to developers designing their apps around its philosophy, GTD is a systematic way to deal with all the “stuff” that gets thrown at us by advocating ways to collect, process, organize, review and actually do it. While GTD has many different facets that deal with both “horizontal” and “vertical” aspects of life, the primary aim of practitioners is to sustain an elusive state known as ‘mind like water’ which is basically synonymous with the notion of flow.

Prior to exploring ‘mind like water’ in greater depth, here’s a quick overview of the workflow which is a foundational piece of the GTD puzzle. To start out, GTD stresses that we need ways to effectively capture the things that catch our attention by way of thoughts, through email, over the phone, in person, etc. Once everything has been collected into trusted “buckets” (e.g. in-baskets, to do lists, etc.), the next step is to process these items by asking two questions: what is it? and is it actionable? If action can’t be taken, we essentially have three options to organize or deal with it: file it for reference later, incubate it for sometime down the road or simply trash it. On the other hand, if the item is actionable, we need to determine what the next action is and how long it will take. GTD suggests that for actions that take less than 2 minutes that we complete it right away. Otherwise, we should defer the task at hand (e.g. schedule on a calendar) or delegate it to someone else. For those items with multiple actions associated with them (known broadly as ‘projects’), the guidance of GTD is to determine the desired outcome and devise a plan that addresses each specific action required to manage the project to completion. Regularly reviewing the various components and subcomponents noted above in the process of getting things done becomes the glue to ensuring stress-free productivity.

GTD

With a quick and dirty description of some key concepts behind us, we can turn to the desired end state as the rationale for implementing an approach like GTD. I’ve been implementing GTD in my own life over the last two years with much success and can attest to how developing a structured approach to personal productivity can truly create the conditions to get into flow more frequently. By having a trusted system in place, I have freed much of my mind from having to store (or try to!) all of the ideas, to dos, dreams, goals, etc. that come into my consciousness. With greater mental freedom and clarity about what I need to do (or not do!), I’m able to be more present in the moment while simultaneously maintaining confidence that things are relatively in control. David Allen, the founder of GTD, described the value of his methodology in his latest book Making it All Work in line with this sentiment as follows: “Sophisticated without being confining, the subtle effectiveness of GTD lies in its radically commonsense notion that with a complete and current inventory of all your commitments, organized and reviewed in a systemic way, you can focus clearly, view your world from optimal angles, and make trusted choices about what to do (and not do) at any moment. GTD embodies an easy, step-by-step, and highly efficient method for achieving this relaxed, productive state.”

In the GTD community, the idea of attaining a black belt gets thrown around a lot. I actually think the analogy of personal productivity and martial arts is very appropriate. As a second-degree black belt in Aikido, I can look back at my development over the years and see how my level of mastery has enabled me to increasingly let go of the structure that got me there. It’s clearly the same with an approach like GTD in the sense that, at first, getting into the habit of consistently executing and managing all sorts of complexity with a defined method can be rather rigid. However, as we feel into work and life after practicing an approach like GTD beyond the initial structure, I believe we can indeed enter into a state of mind that can exhibit some of the following qualities:

  • Sustained high performance
  • Being in a state of control
  • Getting into the “zone”
  • Increased relaxation
  • Greater alertness
  • Expanded awareness
  • More focus and clarity
  • Excitement and inspiration

As the instructor at the GTD seminar that I attended described, we should think about the productive state as analogous to a cat or tiger in terms of how efficiently they are able to move when maintaining a deep state of relaxation/alertness. Likewise, in thinking about the nature of water, you can get a sense how it responds in direct correlation to any activity that effects it. For example, when a rock is thrown into water, the rock makes waves that are directly proportional to its impact, no more, no less. In the same sense, GTD is dedicated to getting people to the point where they have a mind like water which is continuously emptied so that we can always engage in the most appropriate way. In that spirit, I echo the renowned martial artist Bruce Lee by advising to “be water my friend!”

For those interested in next steps to GTD, here are a few good resources to check out:


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