Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2003)
The Power of the Key Principles
The Path of GTD Mastery
GTD IS ACTUALLY a lifelong practice with multiple levels of mastery. It is very similar to playing an instrument like the violin, a sport like tennis, or a game like chess. It’s like mathematics, pottery, art history, or even parenting. All of these endeavors involve learning and applying a particular set of moves and techniques, and there’s no end to how good you can become at them, or how many subtleties there are to explore.
GTD is the art of dealing with the stream of life’s work and engagements, which itself is constantly evolving for all of us, at any age or station. It’s about identifying and navigating your commitments and interests from a state of confidence and flow. Your work and focus will change, often dramatically, over time. But engaging with all of it masterfully is a defined practice that can be learned and refined over a lifetime.
Mastery does not refer to some final end state of a Zen-like peacefulness and enlightenment on a mountaintop (though that could be an optional nice expression of it). Rather, it’s the demonstrated ability to consistently engage in productive behaviors as a means to achieve clarity, stability, and focus when it’s desired or required—no matter what the challenge.
How well you have developed that ability will be tested when you’re confronted with things that are unclear, unstable, and distracting, which are natural and normal symptoms of any change in your world. The idea of “mind like water” doesn’t assume that water is always undisturbed. On the contrary, water engages appropriately with disturbance, instead of fighting against it. Over the course of life such disturbances can range from dealing with your homework in the sixth grade to the demands of your new job to the vague sense of uneasiness about what to do when you retire.
GTD mastery involves learning and incorporating its various best practices, and then integrating them in a holistic manner, which results in a much more dynamic experience than simply the sum of its parts. When you learn to play tennis, you focus on specific components of its moves, like the backhand, the forehand, the lob, and the serve. When you actually play a game of tennis, you then put them all together. As you increase your mastery, your focus matures to encompass an overall strategy. Similarly, mastering GTD involves an initial mastery of its segments, techniques, and tools and then incorporating them as you play your whole life and work game. Your expertise will be reflected in your using an optimally integrated system and approach, without thinking about it.
The Three Tiers of Mastery
Over the many years of engaging with people who have adopted the GTD methodology, I have noticed generally three stages of maturity they have demonstrated in using the model:
1 | Employing the fundamentals of managing workflow;
2 | Implementing a more elevated and integrated total life management system; and
3 | Leveraging skills to create clear space and get things done for an ever-expansive expression and manifestation.
A good analogy here is the experience of learning to drive a car. The first stage is getting the basics under control, so that you can handle the machine without hurting yourself or anyone else. The moves feel awkward and often counterintuitive. But once you’re good enough to get your license, your world changes dramatically for the better, because now you can go places and do things that you couldn’t previously. Then there comes a time when you are able to drive down a road without actually thinking about the act of driving—it’s become an almost automatic part of your life. And finally, you decide to graduate to a really high-performance vehicle, in which the prime challenge and opportunity is how well you can focus ahead, making yourself essentially one with your vehicle, experiencing elevated levels of satisfaction and fulfillment with driving.
Each of those stages is represented by the horizons of your focus and the application of specific techniques. At first you’re making what look like small, jerky movements but what are actually very smooth movements focused on very short horizons. Then, as you gain comfort and familiarity with the process, you extend your focus to the next street corner or freeway exit. Then you can graduate to a more conscious and directed focus at multiple horizons, driving across town with total situational awareness. Similarly, as the techniques of Getting Things Done become increasingly second nature, you shift your attention from the mechanics of your system to the results it produces.
Mastering the Basics
As simple as they may seem at first, building proficiency with the fundamental components of Getting Things Done—the basics—can take a while. Though it’s easy to understand and agree with its concepts and principles, putting them fully into practice is not necessarily a smooth or automatic process. It’s the same as with any sophisticated practice—driving a car, throwing a karate punch, or playing the flute—the beginning moves are not familiar or comfortable. Once you’ve done them a thousand times, however, you can manifest elegance, power, and fluidity that would be inaccessible any other way. The same may be true for you about learning GTD.
For example, capturing everything potentially meaningful into trusted external buckets, so that nothing remains rattling around in your head, is a behavior that can be as daunting to employ as learning to manually shift easily in a car. As with most aspects of the GTD model, writing things down is itself not a new skill, but rather a practice that can easily seem unworthy of the effort, if not downright counterintuitive. (“If it’s not immediately important, why should I bother?”) Becoming sensitized to the need to externalize those kinds of thoughts as well as building the habit to actually carry out the necessary actions with a ubiquitous tool at hand, without exception, is the real challenge.
Other basic practices, which, even if implemented initially, easily regress into incomplete, out-of-date, and therefore dysfunctional usage, include:
· Avoiding next-action decision making on “stuff to do”
· Fully utilizing the “Waiting For” category, such that every expected deliverable from others is inventoried and reviewed for follow-up in adequate timing
· Using Agenda lists to capture and manage communications with others
· Keeping a simple, easily accessible filing and reference system
· Keeping the calendar as pure “hard landscape” without undermining its trustworthiness with extraneous inputs
· Doing Weekly Reviews to keep one’s system functional and current
It’s Easy to Get Off Track …
If you are sincere about implementing Getting Things Done, it’s actually not that difficult to get started, as I’ve tried to assure you with the instructions given in the earlier sections of the book. At some point, though, the rest of your reality will inevitably come flooding at you full force, and if the new practices haven’t yet had time to root themselves in your behavior patterns, it’s relatively easy to get blown off course.
Most people are so used to keeping things in their heads that it’s very easy to slip back into that familiar pattern. Deciding next actions requires a thrust of cognitive effort that seductively can be avoided if a particular situation is not in some critical mode. Making time for the Weekly Review, if it’s not been instituted as a habit, can be a daunting challenge. All of that begins to result in a personal system that is incomplete and out of date—you’ll no longer be able to trust your lists to give you the whole picture, and because the system is not really relieving pressure, you’ll conclude it’s not worth keeping up with anymore, and you might as well take it back into your head. In those circumstances it’s not uncommon for someone to wander off the track exponentially quickly.
… and Easy to Get Back On
The good news is that it’s as easy to get back into your productive groove as it may have been to get knocked out of it. It simply requires revisiting the basics: get a pen and paper and empty your head again; clean up your lists of actions and projects; identify and add new projects and next actions to bring your lists current; clean up what’s leaked outside your system.
This cycle of getting off track and getting back on again happens to almost everyone—particularly during this first level of mastering the basics of the game. In my experience it can easily take as long as two years to finally get this stage of practice fully integrated into one’s life and work style, and consistently maintained.
Another piece of good news is that even if a person has gleaned only a few concepts from this material, or has not implemented the system regularly, it can bring marked improvement. If you “get” nothing more than the two-minute rule, it will be worth its weight in gold. If you just write down a few more things on your mind than you would have previously, you’ll sleep better. If you clean up e-mail to zero at least every once in a while, you will have great cause for celebration. And if you simply ask, “What’s the next action?” of yourself or anyone else when you might not have otherwise, it will add to your stress-free productivity.
Of course, the more those techniques begin to work together as a whole, systematically and consistently, the more dramatic will be the increase in the experience of relaxed, focused control. Mastering the basics is transformative for most everyone who achieves it. If you reach that stage, you will be getting many more things done, more quickly and more easily, and operating with greatly increased confidence in how you’re dealing with the operational details of life. At this first tier of GTD mastery you will be generally keeping yourself under control and focused on an hour-by-hour, day-by-day basis.
Graduate Level—Integrated Life Management
At this point, you are ready to graduate to the next level—having your hand on the helm of your life on a week-to-week, month-to-month (and even longer) basis. This requires a more subtle level of awareness and practice. As I mentioned earlier, as you get better at driving a car, you are able to extend your horizon, which creates smoother moves, and you can focus more on where you’re going than on the mechanism that’s getting you there. Similarly, when you reach a certain level of maturity with the GTD process, you won’t be as focused on the system itself or how you’re working it, but will utilize it in more flexible, customized ways, as your trusted tool to facilitate control and focus over longer and larger spans.
Whereas the first level of mastery involves in-trays, meetings, e-mail, phone calls, agendas, waiting-fors, reference systems, list management, getting the right tools, etc., this next tier is concerned with getting rigorous with the bigger issues that are driving the contents of the basic level. These specific actions and information exist because of their relevance to things larger than themselves—the projects we have to complete, the problems we need to solve, the areas of focus and interest we have in our complex lives. Why are you getting that e-mail? What’s the purpose of that meeting, and why do you have to attend? What’s coming up next quarter that you need to start dealing with now? What “projects” need to become “someday/maybes,” and vice versa, because of some of the larger changes going on?
Mastery of the fundamentals, which provides the basics of effective and efficient execution, also provides the ability and room to address a higher level of control and focus—projects, and how they are identified, managed, and understood in relation to one another and to the larger frameworks within which we operate. Developing comfort with an external mind frees up and leverages one’s cognitive abilities, paving the way for many more creative and productive uses of an integrated self-management system.
The hallmarks of this next level of maturity with Getting Things Done are:
· a complete, current, and clear inventory of projects;
· a working map of one’s roles, accountabilities, and interests—personally and professionally;
· an integrated total life management system, custom tailored to one’s current needs and direction and utilized to dynamically steer out beyond the day-to-day; and
· challenges and surprises trigger your utilization of this methodology instead of throwing you out of it.
When Projects Become the Heartbeat of Your Operational System
Further down the path of mastering this methodology you will reach a stage at which your Projects list becomes more the driver, rather than a reflection, of your Next Action lists, and your projects themselves will become a truer reflection of your roles, areas of focus, and interests. At this point the center of gravity of your self-management system will have moved from the Ground-level horizon to somewhere between Horizon 1 and Horizon 2 (refer to page 55 in chapter 2).
Though it is central to an ongoing experience of stress-free productivity, very few people—even among those who have been engaged with Getting Things Done for years—actually walk around with a complete inventory of their projects, objectively and regularly reviewed. Those who do reach this level, however, and come to realize its power, make that the principle list from which they navigate.
Given my broad definition of project (any outcome requiring more than one step that you’re committed to achieve within a year), it might be challenging enough for you to delineate all of those, even if they are clear (“Get new tires,” “Fix the printer,” “Find a new babysitter,” etc.). But the real expression of maturity here is the inclusion of the more subtle desired outcomes definable as doable events (“Clarify Frank’s new role on the team,” “Research options for improving Bettina’s math grades,” “Resolve property boundary issue with neighbor,” etc.). A signpost of GTD mastery at this stage—and, indeed, life mastery!—is when one recognizes anything that has his or her attention (concerns, worries, problems, issues, tensions) and translates them into achievable outcomes (projects), to be executed with concrete next actions. Most people resist acknowledging issues and opportunities until they know they can be handled successfully, not realizing that exploring, looking into, or in some way accepting or putting something to bed because there is no solution is an appropriate outcome (project) itself. The ability to create appropriate engagement with your neighbor’s boundary issue, your daughter’s math grades, or the role of a new team member—no matter how ambiguous or unclear the actual path for achieving each may be—by identifying the inherent project and taking steps to resolve it is quite an extraordinary and mature self-management practice.
Assessing and Populating Your Projects List from Your Areas of Focus
Everything we do is serving some aspect of the roles and accountabilities we have taken on or an area of interest and engagement in our lives. I call my brother just to check in and say hello because “family relationships” has meaning for me. I buy groceries because I consider “health and vitality” important. I produce an agenda for a board meeting because I need to maintain “corporate oversight” in my role in my company.
Whenever people actually produce a checklist for this horizon—the areas of professional and personal focus they can identify—they invariably realize that there are more projects they need to add. They will also usually realize that they have not been paying appropriate attention to some aspect of either their work or their personal life, or both, and they are motivated to bring more balance and wholeness to their Projects list.
An Integrated Total Life-Management System
The third aspect of this stage of mastery is that your system will have become not just a conglomeration of various lists, information, applications, and tools but rather a cohesive “control room” with all its components working together to engage effectively with whatever circumstance arises. You will have attained the ability to customize your lists and categories, and how you use them, in response to changes in your world and your own increasing sophistication with the possibilities.
This is a reflection of a functional awareness of GTD. You understand the essence and recognize the value of the various parts of the model and therefore have the freedom to tailor how they are implemented to best serve your needs. You could build your own application of the GTD system from scratch, if need be, with your own tools at hand. You are guided by the principle of creating and engaging with the necessary orientation “maps” to ensure you are appropriately focused as required for a given situation.
You’re not at a loss about what to do with anything—a business card you collected at a lunch meeting, a harebrained idea you woke up with this morning about a project you might want to launch, an unexpected private invitation to a major gala event, or your blood panel report from your last medical checkup. You can create the right placeholder for any type of potentially meaningful data. You can also easily get a sense of your priorities for an upcoming trip; you have everything you need at hand for the next webinar you’re conducting; it would take minimal effort to pull together a company overview for your bank; and you can quickly create a rich context for a family conversation about plans for the next two years. You have a dynamic, working dashboard that serves your orientation for virtually any context, whether at home, at the office, or in transit, seamlessly.
Pressure Produces Greater Rather Than Reduced Utilization of These Practices
One of the most common observations I hear from people who have at some point bought into the GTD process but have not progressed particularly far with it is that they fell away from it because they had an intense series of back-to-back business trips, or an extended bout of the flu, or an unexpected crisis occur with a major client, or were asked to run a major project in addition to their regular job, or … and so on.
And one of the most common things I hear from people who have matured with their application of and experience with the methodology is that applying Getting Things Done is the very thing that enabled them to negotiate these kinds of tense situations with much more effectiveness and much less stress.
So, a significant hallmark of progress in the path of mastery at this stage is that very transition point when issues and opportunities galvanize GTD practices instead of causing its users to abandon them. When a new problem explodes at work, you can get back in control quickly with a new mind sweep instead of taking everything back up into your head. You identify desired outcomes, projects, and next actions about this circumstance as soon as you can, as opposed to simply worrying about what’s happened. You actually do a Weekly Review in the middle of the week because you need that kind of elevated focus to recalibrate your work, instead of reverting back to latest-and-loudest as your priority criterion.
Operating at this level of GTD mastery is achievable and truly elegant. The experience, for those who do achieve it, is one of establishing the conditions to flourish. What flourish means and looks like for a twenty-four-year-old rock musician will likely be very different than for a fifty-four-year-old attorney with three kids, but the expanded experience and the process of how they got there with GTD are identical.
Postgraduate: Focus, Direction, and Creativity
Once you have incorporated the basic elements of Getting Things Done and integrated the more elevated aspects of your commitments of life and work into a trusted and customized systemic approach, the next frontier opens: using clear internal space to optimize your experience, ad infinitum.
This mastery level involves two key aspects:
· Utilizing your freed-up focus for exploring the more elevated aspects of your commitments and values
· Leveraging your external mind to produce novel value
Freedom to Engage in the Most Meaningful Things
Once you really know and trust you can and will execute effectively anything that lands in your in-tray, you will have the freedom to toss anything into your own in-tray, whether it’s your next crazy idea, a possible new technology to research, a book you might want to write, or an NGO Web site that almost brought you to tears that you’d like to support. The power to produce produces powerful possibilities.*
And, as I hope I’ve made clear throughout this book, the ability to put your attention on the more subtle and elevated levels of your life and work to a large degree depends on your being able to “put to bed” the inevitably necessary more operational and mundane aspects that, without your appropriate engagement, can easily distract and exhaust your creative focus.
I applaud the people who can sufficiently compartmentalize their consciousness to be able to draft a movie script, craft a vision statement for their NGO, or write the perfect poem for their wedding vows, with all the stuff of unanswered e-mails, crashed computer, taxes to be filed, mother-in-law’s complaints about the wedding program, and needed bank credit line extension still impinging on their psyches. I do know that if all of those issues were quieted with appropriate engagement from a GTD perspective, the space and inspiration for the more creative activities would be tremendously enhanced. The negative effect on focus and performance of the cognitive load of these kinds of open loops has now been documented. Many people attest to their ability to leave work at work and drop everything to focus on the creative pursuits that interest them, but in my experience that’s only because they don’t have a reference point of what their lives would be like without that pressure to begin with.
The lack of pervasive angst about the details of your daily life also makes it much easier to shift your attention to the direction and qualities of experience that really matter. As I indicated in chapter 2, the upper Horizons of Focus—goals, vision, purpose, and principles—are the defining criteria for your priorities. But most people find the ability to concentrate on and execute them effectively elusive at best and avoided (and guilt producing!) at worst. A distraction-free mind won’t by itself get you to think about wild success scenarios five years in the future—you still have to consciously direct your attention to those matters—but it does make it infinitely easier to engage in such an exercise productively.
Leveraging Your External Mind
Once you are regularly functioning at this level of mastery, the creative thrust of your “GTD-ing” shifts from implementing the most effective way of dealing with the inputs and inherent demands of your day-to-day world to optimally taking advantage of self-created contexts and triggers to produce creative ideas, perspectives, and actions that wouldn’t normally occur.
Wouldn’t it be great not to have to think too hard about what you need to think about?
For instance, if you have ever needed to purge and bring up-to-date a contact manager, as you’ve reviewed old and potentially out-of-date entries of people and businesses, you’ve invariably come across items that caused you to tell yourself, “You know, I really ought to get in touch with her again, given what I’m now doing in my business.” If that kind of catalyzed thought has ever turned into something in any way valuable, then you’ve tasted at least a tiny bit of what could be infinitely more utilized. How many more ideas could any of us have had today that would have potentially added value to some aspect of our relationships, work, and creative expressions, had we only brought the right things into our conscious focus with the ability to capture what might show up?
This highly creative and productive reflection activity automatically occurs in something like the Weekly Review, when you are glancing at past and future calendar items (“Oh, that reminds me … !”) and updating your Projects and Next Actions lists (“Ah … now I need to … !”). Regularly reassessing your Someday/ Maybe contents offers an even more expansive berth (“You know, I think I really am going to take a painting class!”). But how many other aspects of your experience and relationships could be enhanced with the same kind of triggers for reflection? What other contents, reviewed with some consistency, might reveal valuable ideas? It’s challenging enough to build in regular catch-up behaviors, but the possibilities of going beyond them are endless.
This is the stage of maturity along the GTD path of mastery in which the simple idea of checklists takes on sublime significance. As cognitive scientists have validated, your mind is terrible at recalling things out of the blue, but it is fantastic at doing creative thinking about what it has directly in front of it to evaluate. When freed from the remembering function, the mind is a fabulous mechanism to put in play by putting things “in front of the door” so you don’t have to think too hard about what to think about.
How often would you like to be reminded to think about your significant family members? What, specifically, would be good to remind yourself to think about when you think about your partner, your son, your sister? Whom would you consider to be on your A-list in your professional network (the people whose influence and interactions with you are most valuable)? How often should you review that list? What affirmations and inspirational writings would serve you to reconnect with, and at what intervals?
There are obviously an infinite number of opportunities any of us could take advantage of to add value to our world, with the right kind of structure established to relieve our psyche of the jobs it does not do well and to leverage what it does wonderfully. But that will not happen by itself. It is a hallmark of this advanced level of GTD mastery that you recognize that dynamic and use your intelligence to leverage itself. It’s having the freedom to generate and develop ideas, without constraint, and then utilizing the practice of processing and organizing those notes and thoughts appropriately. It’s the smartest individuals who realize they are only randomly in their “smarts” and inspired. They’re the ones who intelligently build in systems and processes to take advantage of the brilliance that often simply lies sleeping behind the dullness required to deal with the brutish world we inhabit.
This path of GTD mastery—incorporating the fundamentals, utilizing an elevated and integrated system, and leveraging creative directional focus—is not actually as limited sequentially as I have laid it out. Most everyone manifests aspects and portions of all of these levels in his or her own practices, and I have often met novices in some field who had some extraordinarily advanced moves. But in my experience, when the whole gestalt of stress-free productivity is taken into consideration, it requires a solid progression that does not have shortcuts. You can’t really maintain a sense of week-to-week control if your e-mail is in chaos. You won’t really be free to engage with your long-range planning or vision if you don’t have a grip on the current reality of the actual inventory of your seventy-five projects.
You are continually involved in all of these levels, consciously or unconsciously, explicitly or implicitly. You have appointments, projects, actions, goals, and values, and as a professional you will find that your work has its own set of commitments within which you must operate. Your mastery of Getting Things Done will simply reflect the elegant equanimity with which you are engaged with all of them. The unexpected e-mail with the major problem that just appeared, your aunt Martha’s birthday this week, the potential change in strategy for your company, and the new piece of cookware you realize you want—each is dealt with quickly, smoothly, and in an appropriate context, leaving nothing on your mind other than what’s present in the moment.