In this episode of Change Your Game with GTD®, Todd Brown and Robert Peake talk about how to focus on the places GTD can benefit you most, being led by “what has your attention” to make strides with your productivity practice.
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00:04 Todd: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another Change Your Game with GTD podcast. I’m Todd Brown, and I’m here as always with Robert Peake.
00:11 Robert: Hello.
00:13 Todd: And our purpose in putting this podcast out is to give you the chance to explore ways that you can get more out of the Getting Things Done methodology, how you can implement stress-free productivity, get more of the right things done in less time with less stress. And Robert, as we were kicking things off or getting prepared to hit record here this morning, one of the things that we were talking about was this idea of focusing on whatever has your attention where you sort of feel the most tension. And you and I were saying that that resonated with us as something that might be quite helpful at the beginning of the new year to remind people about. It’s this idea that ultimately getting things done, I think, provides us with frameworks for focus, for thinking sort of regardless of where we feel tension in our productive lives. Have you got some sort of framing thoughts about that, how that’s worked for you in your own systems and your own thinking?
01:15 Robert: Yeah, definitely. I think 20 years in… This is now my 20-year anniversary of GTD. January’s when I first picked up GTD, January 2000, which doesn’t feel that long ago, but I think over the course of that journey for me personally, one of the side effects, side benefits of GTD has been a greater self-awareness or atunement to what bothers me, [chuckle] what annoys me. That doesn’t mean I’ve become a more grumpy person. Maybe I have, but it means that really understanding what has my attention and what I need to do about it in order to free up my attention has really become, to me, the higher-level practice of GTD itself. And so, what I attempt to do with people that I’m coaching and in seminars, those that we work with, is to really focus on and use that kind of fundamental question, “What has your attention,” to help guide us and to help lead us through not only taking in the intellectual educational content of what GTD is, but helping them to get relief and to get benefit from GTD in a practical way, starting with, first, the thing that is most in their face.
02:46 Robert: So I think really guiding yourself that way as a GTD practitioner or someone new to this, really focusing on, “Well, what has my attention where? What is keeping me from being as present as I could be?” And tackling that first using the tools of the methodology can be a great way to go because we all just need wins, we all need success with this. We all need to see this, I think, working in order to be encouraged and to be riding, as I say, riding momentum rather than battling inertia in our journey. I don’t know what… How do you take that?
03:26 Todd: Yeah, I’m with you there. I think, as I think about how we introduce people to GTD, we talk about the power of something that we call a mind sweep, which is where we get down all of the open loops, as we call them, that are bouncing around in our heads, the things we need to do. And when most people do a mind sweep, they come up with some tactical things, “I need to call her, I need to email him, I need to buy that at the store.” And then they also come up with some things which are a bit more fuzzy, maybe more kind of what we would call the project level, the higher-outcome level. And that’s what’s on most people’s minds when they walk into a seminar or into a coaching. But I think one of the ideas that underlies what you’ve been talking about is that sometimes what’s on your mind is something that’s going on, as it were, in your GTD system, right? So what could have my attention is, “My lists, my reminder lists are getting quite long.” Or what can have my attention is, “I feel like I’m a bit disconnected from my longer-term outcomes.” Or what could be on my mind is, “I’m feeling like I haven’t checked up on my waiting-for list for a while.”
04:46 Todd: And so I think, again, one of my “aha” moments over the last years has been to realize that that tension can be, as it were, it might be something that’s not directly related to my GTD system, but what’s going on in my system could very well be what’s on my mind, right? So my inbox has got a few hundred emails in it. That could be the thing that’s on my mind. Or I felt like I really haven’t spent enough time with my contacts list or my action list recently. And I think the thing that’s quite interesting about GTD is that, when those kinds of things are on our minds, it gives us a good opportunity or it gives us some good structures for interacting with those things that have our attention.
05:32 Robert: Definitely. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And I’ve never found something on my mind that didn’t have a place in the model, and I’ve been doing it for a while and had a lot of different life circumstances and changes and things come my way in a couple of decades. So there is a way to handle everything that’s on your mind in the GTD methodology, which I think is one of the beauties of it. And I’ve never thrown anything at it that there isn’t a way to deal with it that makes sense in a practical way. And that actually helps me move the thing on. Practically speaking, where do you find people get the most benefit getting started with this? Where do people tend to gravitate, in your experience, first? What has most people’s attention, maybe these days?
06:26 Todd: Do you know, it’s a very individual thing, it probably goes without saying. But when people come out of, let’s just call it, an introductory experience with GTD, whether they’ve been coached or whether they’ve come along to a seminar, different people resonate with different things. That said, I think there are some things that are fairly calm. And one thing, I think, is very powerful for people is this idea of a waiting-for list and just having an inventory of all of the things that I’m waiting for other people in the world to do things for me and having that documented and being able to review that list and being able to use it as a reminder for things that I might need to chase people about. That, I think, can be very, very powerful. I had someone that I bumped into in an airport years ago who’d been along to one of my seminars, and he was telling me that that was the thing that he really felt like was the biggest upgrade in terms of his behavior. So I think the waiting-for list is a biggie.
07:32 Todd: I think, as well, this core idea that getting things out of your mind is a good idea, is a big one for a lot of people. It certainly was for me when I first got engaged with GTD. That was the thing that really hit me as, “Wow, that makes perfect sense and, really, I’m gonna do my best just to start to try to implement that straight away.” So generating the mental clarity by implementing a good capture practice, by doing mind sweeps, by being in a position to, as we say, to execute ubiquitous capture no matter where you are, be in a position to capture ideas. That, I think, has a lot of resonance with a lot of people. How about you? What have you run into that people seem to sort of take to?
08:23 Robert: Well, finding ways to get through the email inbox effectively, I think, has been a big win for a lot of people that I work with. And it’s funny because I think there’s a lot of, I call it, tool shaming going on right now in that people see email as the inherent problem. And emails, it’s blameless, it’s neutral. And I think as we see a lot of people transitioning to other systems and approaches and ways of receiving inbound communication, eventually those systems too, they’re gonna say, “Ah, oh, I hate whatever messaging or groupware thing that’s in my world now,” just as much as they’re now saying, “I hate email.” But it’s not about email. It’s about what’s in there that has your attention or what could be in there that you’re not really sure about. That’s the big one. I think we’re afraid of the unknown way more than we’re afraid of the known, right? So finding ways, giving people just even simple practical tools like the two-minute rule, like saying, “Look, if it’s not actionable before a certain date, or unlikely to be actionable before a certain date, move all of that out of there.”
09:35 Robert: People have success with that, and it gives them a sense of hope and a sense of being able to start to get on top of the sheer volume of input they’re receiving. So helping people out. So many of them just say, “Email is the problem.” It’s not in itself, but it is the place where the problem is showing up. So, to me, so much of this “what has your attention” question is really about where’s the place where your problem is showing up the most? Where is the place where you’re most insecure about really understanding and having to find your commitments in a way that you know you can move them forward and you’re not gonna miss anything? So to me that’s the underlying purpose, really, of this whole question of, “What has your attention? What’s on your mind?”
10:26 Todd: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. And I’m reminded of an article I read this last weekend about… It was a bit of a cautionary tale about one organization’s use of Slack, as it happens, although both Slack and Microsoft Teams, I suppose, are the products that we’re tending to see amongst our clients in this new sort of social productivity space, let’s call it. And it was really interesting. They were saying that the same kinds of stresses that were showing up in email, or have shown up an email for decades now, were starting to show up there in this organization. So the way they describe the journey, the initial impact of the installation of Slack in the organization was… It was met with enthusiasm. To your point, “No more email, I can avoid the place where I’m perceiving the problem.” And then what they really recognized that it’s the contents of whatever you see in Slack or whatever you see in your email inbox, ultimately, it just boils down to, “Are there any potential commitments for me here?” Right?
11:41 Todd: The tool is different, and of course, in tools like Slack and in like Teams, you’ve got a lot more chat-like features, so you’re more likely to be pinged than you would be pinged in a way that pops up on your desktop, as it were, as opposed to just pinged because something just dropped in your inbox. There are different access mechanisms, if you will. But at the end of the day, it’s ultimately just a potential commitment. Is there something in that Microsoft Team post that you’re looking at which implies a new commitment for you? No different question, really, than if you were considering a new email that’s dropped into your inbox.
12:24 Robert: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. So in a weird way, it sounds like the tool never has your attention, it’s what the tool’s conveying that actually has your attention. And always, what has your attention is what you’re committed to that you don’t quite feel you have a full handle on. I think this is the beauty of the mind sweep. I’ve had a lot of clients have success with just doing a daily morning mind sweep. I say to them, “Just, I want you every day to sit down with a piece of paper and write down the top three things on your mind. It doesn’t have to be a full comprehensive mind sweep, but write three things down on your mind and get them into your system.” It’s amazing how fast that will start to organically build out someone’s system and project list and so forth. Particularly if they’re just drowning in email and they can’t get through the 200,000 emails, necessarily, to feel comprehensive about that. It is, to some extent, stuck up in their head. And so, that “what has your attention” question, you and a piece of paper, can be just an absolute pressure relief valve, I think, for a lot of people. What else have you found in terms of… If someone were getting started and saying, “Well, I really don’t know where to put my focus first.” What would you ask them, or how would you coach them through that?
13:41 Todd: Well, again, I think there’s an interesting kind of pressure that some people feel coming out of, let’s call it, a fundamental seminar, the entry-level seminar that we do, that they need to implement everything. And we paint a very, very comprehensive picture in the seminar of, “What are the elements of the five-phase model? What does best practice look like?” Everybody gets a chance to put all of that to work for examples out of their own lives, so everybody gets a chance to sort of try GTD out for themselves. And as I say, it’s a comprehensive picture; we’re introducing everything. And I think one of the things that some people, and especially people who have perfectionist tendencies, and I have to put my hand up and say, “That’s me too, or certainly was me,” those people come out of the seminar and say, “I’ve gotta do all of this, otherwise I will have failed.” And the truth is, if you pick five things that came out of the seminar and implement those, and implement them in a consistent way, that’s gonna make a huge difference.
14:51 Todd: And then what I would recommend is just keep the materials from the seminar around, right? So keep the workbook. We give folks an A3 overview, A3-format overview of the whole methodology that they can use as an aid memoir in the future to remind themselves about what are the various elements, what are the various models that we use. Have that to hand. And then maybe in three months’ time, in six months’ time, all of a sudden it’ll be time for you to implement that someday-maybe list that you didn’t implement, or to be a little bit more consistent about the review of your projects list, whatever it is. So I guess, overall what I’d say is don’t have the expectation that straight away you’re gonna implement the whole thing. That said, I guess beyond what I said earlier about the waiting-for list and the things that tend to be greatest hits that I hear about, the other thing I guess I would say is, an interesting way to look at the whole methodology is, “What would I look at? Which of the models would I use to relieve a particular kind of stress that I’m feeling?”
16:07 Todd: So just to pick one. So the three-fold nature of work model that we introduce basically says that work only comes in three types, right? We have unplanned work, stuff that just shows up and we choose to engage with. We have planned work, which is all the stuff on your lists and all the entries in your calendar, basically. And then we have defining your work or the planning. And so that model might be really helpful if you feel like you’ve got the balance wrong there. You feel like you’re spending too much time just reacting to stuff that’s dropping into your inbox, well, that’s a reminder. That model is a reminder that there are these two other types of work that you could choose to engage with. And let’s say you decided, “One of the things I’m observing in my system is that my lists are getting long.” Well, what that probably means is you’re not spending enough time on your planned work. So what you might wanna do is just block some time in your calendar and call that time… Block 45 minutes a day for the next week and call that time “do work off my lists.”
17:13 Todd: So that’s just one example, but again, it sort of puts GTD on its head, at least in terms of how I initially understood it, and encourages me to ask the question… It gets away from, “I should do all of this,” and gets toward and encourages me to ask the question, “Okay, this particular model of getting things done, is it the horizons of focus, is it the filtering criteria, all these various models, what would they help me… What stress or what tension would they help me to relieve?” And that, I think… What you do if you take that perspective is you get away from this perspective that I think a lot of people take away from the introductory level seminar, which is, “Well, this is a methodology that millions of people have gotten a lot out out. It’s been presented by somebody in a compelling way, and I’m just gonna implement it all, basically, ’cause they said there would be good stuff that would happen if I did.” Again, put that a little bit on its head and say, “Okay, well, let’s encourage you to be a bit more sensitive to the tension you’re feeling and then the choose the elements of GTD to implement that would help you to deal with that tension.”
18:33 Robert: Absolutely, yeah, and I think I like the term “tension.” One of the great tips a friend once gave me long, long ago, is he said something, “Jealousy is a good thing. Jealousy is a good thing because it tells you, potentially, about something that you want. And if you’re willing to go to the lengths that whatever that person or people your jealous of went to to get that, that there’s a good chance you could have that. You could have whatever that is if you’re willing to, you know, pay the maintenance on the car, or earn the money to get the car, whatever it is.” And I just thought that was a really interesting approach because, a la GTD, that’s just another tension. The things you’re jealous of, they point out stuff you want. Things that you’ve considered to be a big problem in your life points out, “Well, I would like something to be different in this circumstance.” And almost always when I ask people, “Well, what does it look like to be on the other side of this, what does it look like when this is no longer a problem?”
19:43 Robert: They can tell me what that looks like, even if it’s a little hard to believe or see from here. They definitely know what they want to be different. And if it is within your control and if it is reasonable and feasible, which a great majority of these things are, that’s a project statement. If you’re committed to it. Or if you just kinda go, “Well, yeah, I would like that thing, but I’m not really sure I’m willing to commit the resources and time and energy to that right now. It’s kind of more of a whim or an idea,” that’s a “somebody-maybe” item. So there are ways to get even these really subtle things, these little subtle urges or desires or impulses or whatever, or the big things that you go, “Wow, this is a big problem in my life,” to get those off your mind as well. But again, as you said, it requires an awareness of what is creating a sense of tension or what is creating a sense of imbalance or disturbance or just a differential between where you are where you wanna be.
20:47 Robert: And to me that’s the beauty of GTD is it just handles all of those. All those differentials. Just show you, potentially, something you may want to commit to or at least get captured as a good idea you don’t wanna lose. To me, the “someday-maybe” list has been an enormous pressure relief valve in my life just because it gives me the opportunity to have good ideas even in times of overwhelm and not lose those for times when I do have the resources to commit to that.
21:16 Todd: Yeah, yeah. So as we wrap up here, let’s just say, “Here we are in January. A lot of people might have made some New Year’s resolutions. Some of them might relate to GTD.” What kind of advice would you give somebody as the new year begins in the frame we’ve been talking about? In this frame of sort of GTD, the things that are most resonant for a lot of people in GTD. What recommendations would you make?
21:51 Robert: Well, even though we’ve been saying the tool is just a messenger and don’t shoot the tool, very often that’s where the most tension shows up. So I would say get real about, even if it’s just one area where you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed or like… When you engage with that, your heart sinks, and potentially consider going after that. And it may not be email or it may not be an inbox per se, it may be your filing cabinet. Or it may be a part of your life or your office or home that you’re frequently in, that has a lot of visual distraction and is bothering you and annoying you. But even just taking one manageable area and committing to dealing with that a la GTD, can give you a lot of relief and hope rather than doing a little bit in a lot of areas until it’s all finally done. I think what you were talking about with the seminar where it’s like, “I won’t be happy until I’m comprehensive.” Hone it in, just get one area and just go, “Yeah, you know what? I’m just really gonna wanna get that filing under control. I’m gonna get that email inbox and I’m just gonna archive a ton of it, do two-minute rule on other stuff. I’m gonna get it back into a manageable state.” We all need wins, we all need successes, and showing yourself that this can work in one area that has, maybe, the most attention for you, I think, kind of proves to yourself that you can then take this and apply it to another area and get the same relief and hope. What about you, Todd?
23:32 Todd: Yeah, I think that’s great stuff. On top of what we’ve said, I think my advice would be that there is, I think, a message of self-forgiveness here. Be ready for your implementation of GTD not to be perfect. We’ve been applying that here in the podcast this whole time, but let’s be clear about that. I would never hold up my GTD practice as perfect, but it’s… I think I said in a podcast many years ago, I said, “Look, it’s not perfect, but I wouldn’t give it up for the world.” I recognize the benefit that it gives me. And as well, it’s funny, what I was reflecting on as you were talking was the attractiveness for a lot of people of the good old daily to-do list. “Here are the things I need to get done today.” And I completely get the attraction of a daily to-do list. It sort of boils down all of the ambiguity in my life to, “Okay, here are the three things I need to get done today.” And by the way, there are times in my life where a daily to-do list is absolutely the thing I need to have to support me to make my way through my day.
24:47 Todd: There are days when, with deadlines looming or whatever, where, yeah, this is the day that I really do need to get the daily to-do list created and make sure that that’s kind of driving my attention. But I think there is a… We can recognize that the multifaceted nature of GTD and the various models, back to your point, these are all things that might have some potential impact on our productive lives. And so the answer is in there somewhere. So don’t put the pressure on yourself to implement it perfectly, but be open to the possibility that, yeah, whatever the tension is that I’m feeling, GTD’s gonna provide a solution for that.
25:36 Robert: Yep. That’s been my experience.
25:40 Todd: Thank you all for joining us this week for the Change Your Game with GTD podcast. As always, if you have any suggestions for topics, we do very, very, very gladly take requests. Robert and I will talk to you next time. And in the meantime, we wish you all the best with the implementation of this. A very happy New Year to everybody, and we’ll see you for the next podcast. Bye for now.