Cultivating Mind Like Water with GTD

David Allen, the creator of Getting Things Done (GTD), has a unique a personality that I would describe as “Businessman Zen.” On the one hand, the GTD system and Allen himself is very “businessy,” GTD is a quintessential business book and yet he also is a martial artist who talks of striving for “Mind Like Water” – I love that juxtaposition and obviously see a lot of myself in that combination of productivity and Zen. Like Allen, I do not see these two things as mutually exclusive just because they came from such different backgrounds. I found GTD when my oldest child was a small baby and it was exactly what I needed to help me manage the stress of being a new parent with a full time job. I learned the concepts of GTD and adapted them to my life with the goal of maintaining “Mind Like Water:” the ability to respond to my life rather than react out of stress and anxiety.

Photo by Evelyn

The general idea behind “Mind Like Water” is to have a mental state that is calm and clear like the surface of a mountain lake. When you drop something: a task or idea or appointment into the lake of your mind, the practice helps you respond appropriately. Just as a small stone tossed into a lake does not cause a massive tidal wave, cultivating mind like water allows us to deal with the challenges of our lives in a calm and appropriate manner.

For me, cultivating my own sense of “mind like water” is like a mental martial art. I learned the GTD basic techniques and now I practice and develop my own style built on those basics. The GTD system can seem intimidating and complicated at first but I’ve found that I was able to take its concepts and adapt them to my life. My tips for any beginner: don’t get bogged down by the details of the system and the idea that you need to get it “right” – focus instead on your goals with using the system and remember that it is meant to support you and your goals. For me, it was about cultivating that Mind Like Water, an ability to meet the responsibilities of my life with less overwhelm and stress. With that as my goal and intention, I could avoid getting distracted by the specifics of the system and focus on what works for me.

The GTD system has five basic stages or steps:

1. Collect

2. Process

3. Organize

4. Review

5. Do

I have simplified this down to:

1. Capture

2. Process/Organize

3. Engage!

Capture

Learning GTD taught me the power of the “inbox:” a simple list for capturing basically every idea or task that comes across my mind. This may sound hyperbolic but learning to trust my inbox basically changed my life.

My iPhone is my primary device for managing daily tasks and over the years, I’ve used various task management apps… you name it, I’ve probably tried it (I’m currently using Goodtask for iOS and I’m loving it). Whatever task manager I’m using, I always set up an “inbox” list meant to be a catch all for basically everything. Just remembered that I have to schedule a doctor’s appointment? Stick it in the inbox. Got an email asking for school paperwork? Stick it in the inbox.

Collecting tasks and reminders in the inbox and trusting that your future self will address those items does take a bit of practice and getting used to, but this habit of simply capturing ideas and tasks as they arise is crucial in helping to minimize that sense of overwhelm that can creep in when you know you have a lot on your plate. The human mind likes to close a thought loop and even the act of capturing the task or idea that’s on your mind can be enough to close that mental thought loop and get you back to peace of mind.

I found that I had to learn to trust the next step (Processing) before my brain could truly let go of the thought loop and reduce that background mental stress. Without that trust, I would find myself ruminating and even worrying about tasks that I knew were in my inbox but not yet being worked.

Process

This next step is where things can get complicated, if you let them. Taking a quick Google search on “GTD Workflow” is enough to send anyone into an anxiety panic attack. You’ll find flow charts and infographics and beautifully decorated bullet journal spreads that can make you feel like 1) everyone is doing more than you and 2) everyone has better artistic ability than you. Or, like many of us, you’ll just throw up your hands and decide that’s too much upfront work for just managing your to-do list, let alone actually doing the things on your list.

In the spirit of cultivating Mind Like Water, I keep the processing step simple. This step is the time to triage all of the things I’ve collected in the Capture step. The power of GTD isn’t in simply getting things done (despite the name) but in getting things done at the right time and place. In GTD-speak, this is called the “context” and that context is clarified in the processing step. In some cases, the context is pretty straight forward: make this phone call to this person by this day. In other cases, the context is more complicated and/or less clear. Setting aside a bit of time dedicated to processing and organizing your tasks can go a long way to cultivating peace of mind. Even the most intimidating projects and tasks can be broken down to more basic steps. You don’t add “buy a house” to your task list, you add and schedule each step, one at a time.

I tend to do a mix of processing as I go and taking dedicated time to organize and schedule my tasks. If I can, I will schedule my tasks as I put them in the inbox but if it will take more than a minute or so to schedule an item, I’ll simply drop it in the inbox undated. I do this often with ideas that randomly pop into my head. Rather than ignore the idea or hope to remember it later, I’ll simply add an undated item to my inbox. Now here’s the trick: you’ll need some sort of habit routine of looking at your inbox items and organizing them appropriately. Some people do this as part of their weekly review but I actually have a daily reminder that points me to my undated tasks every morning as I take time to review and plan my day. I schedule the tasks that need scheduling, taking my time to choose the right due dates based on the item in question. Once you’ve established your processing routine, you’re more able to go through your days with Mind Like Water, capturing these tasks and ideas that come your way with the faith that they will be organized and completed when the time is right.

Engage!

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I found my “GTD way” about five years ago and so nowadays I’m pretty well settled in my routine and style. I capture ideas and tasks as I go through my day, I process & organize them as a part of my daily routine and then I complete my tasks as they come due.

Like so many things, I’ve come to see my system more as a practice and less as some sort of burden or race or “challenge” to scratch things off my to-do list. At times, “busy-ness” can feel like a competition, a game to see who can spend the longest hours, getting the most done. I don’t want to live my life that way. I’d rather flow through my days, quietly taking care of myself and my responsibilities. I love my job, my kids and my side-projects but nothing in this life is “free” and so these things do come with a lot of responsibilities. I don’t want the tasks of my life to overwhelm me and increase my stress.

It does take a bit of self-training to set up and use a productivity system that works for you. You may set up a system that is effective but you’ll still need to train yourself to actually use that system and that can take a bit of time. For example, I have trained myself that when a task comes due, I will do it. That may seem basic but it can be easy to ignore a reminder notification when it displays on your device. There’s a certain amount of personal discipline that needs to be developed to actually engage when the time is right. One way that I helped myself develop this habit was to set “no kidding” due dates for my tasks. I capture my tasks as they come up in my day then take the time to really process and understand when something really needs to be done. I set the due date based on when the task is truly required and then my mind is free to ignore it… until it’s due. When it’s due, I seriously need to get it done or face the consequences of a ball dropped.

As a working mom of two, my life naturally has a lot of pressures and challenges that I need to face day-to-day. There are medical appointments to keep, school paperwork that needs to be turned in on time, bills to pay and on and on. My father taught me that running a family is like having a small business and I’ve found that to be so very true. My husband and I need to be able to share and hand-off tasks efficiently between the two of us. Having my own task management routine “locked in” helps me to cultivate Mind Like Water and allows me to be a calmer, more present mother, partner and leader in my life.

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