Reflecting on What Matters with GTD (Video Podcast) - Next Action Associates

In this episode of Change Your Game with GTD®, Todd Brown and Robert Peake talk about how to appropriately engage with many different kinds of “review” to help you feel aligned with your purpose and direction in life.

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00:03 Robert Peake: Hi everyone, welcome back to another Change Your Game with GTD Podcast. I’m Robert Peake, and I’m here with Todd Brown.

00:11 Todd Brown: Hello everyone.

00:12 RP: And once again, the purpose of this podcast series is to draw out some of the principles of the Getting Things Done, GTD methodology, that is an approach that helps you basically get more done with less stress, bring some ease and grace and fluidity into your work, and also into your day-to-day life by helping you get things off your mind and build a system becomes a kind of second brain, to help you do what you need to do without having to keep it all so much in your head. Todd, as we were talking just before we signed on here, pushed record, we were talking about Review, and you made a great point, that people sometimes fall into a bit of a trap of thinking that the weekly review, which is the one real component of the methodology that has the word “review” in it, is kind of it, is review, that review equals weekly review. And I think I’ve found, and I know you’ve found in your practice of GTD, that actually, there’s a lot of different kinds of more subtle types of review. So, thought we might talk a little bit about that. Do you wanna kick off on this topic?

01:26 TB: Sure. I think, as I said when we were talking about what to talk about, I think it resonates with a lot of people, and I think there are some misconceptions about it. We called it, in the old vocabulary, as it were, we called it Review. These days, in the new vocabulary, we tend to refer to it as Reflect, and it’s the fourth of the five phases in the Getting Things Done workflow model. I think ultimately, as you say, a lot of people come away from the seminar saying “Hey, yeah, I’ve understood reflect or review, that’s basically, ‘Am I doing my weekly reviews?'” But I think, as time’s gone by in my own GTD practice and my own deeper understanding of what’s going on in the methodology, it’s clearer to me that Reflect is really about, to what extent am I interacting helpfully with my external system, with my GTD system, whatever form that takes, whether it’s something I’m keeping in the Tasks in Outlook, or something that I’m keeping online in Todoist, or whatever, wherever my list, as it were, the elements of my system are kept, am I interacting with that in the most effective way?

02:42 TB: I sometimes say, in the work that I do, just to take extreme examples, if I said to you as a GTD coach, if I said to you, “Hey, what I think you ought to do is look at your calendar once every five minutes,” you’d quite rightly say, “Well, that’s too much, it’s not helpful. That’s giving that element of my system too much time and attention.” Whereas if I said to you, “Okay, well, here’s the plan, you look at your calendar at most once every three weeks,” you’d quite rightly say, “Well, that’s nowhere near often enough, because then I’m gonna miss things, I’ll be late for things, etcetera.” So what we’re trying to do is strike that happy medium in all of the elements of our GTD system, when it comes to Reflect. So Reflect, in a sense, is any time that you’re choosing to interact with your system, whether what you’re doing is updating your system and testing whether it’s fit for purpose, as is the case, of course, when we’re doing a weekly review, or if you’re just having a look at your calendar to see what it is that you might have on any given day. So I guess I’d encourage folks to think more broadly about what Reflect means. Which element of your system should you be looking at when, and are all of the elements of your system getting appropriate attention? I guess that’s kind of the overarching framework that I’ve got for it. What’s your experience, Robert?

04:10 RP: Well, that’s great, and I think I really like the point you made, that obviously, there is such a thing as too much as well as too little, and some of these extreme examples illustrate it. Looking at your life purpose every five minutes wouldn’t be terribly helpful, it would just become nonsense and just words. For me, one of the things that, I think, as I’ve been coaching and working with people, they found helpful is, when I just say “As a GTDer, here’s what I do.” One of the examples in that is my day-to-day Reflection practice. So what does my day-to-day reflection practice look like? It’s really pretty straightforward, it’s back and forth between lists and calendar, and then processing in the new inputs that come in to my day. That’s really what it comes down to.

05:02 RP: So the daily reflection involves looking at the calendar to see what’s scheduled, and then, in the white space, basically deciding, is it time to go to my lists to see what I need to do, or is it time to process in some new input so I have a comprehensive understanding of what there is that’s possible to do? And that’s a rhythm, that’s a process of reflecting, that’s a process of using components, particularly calendar, inboxes, whatever those are, and lists to help guide me. So I think one of the bigger principles out of all of that is that you wanna know what you’re trying to get out of a Reflection exercise. So in the weekly review, you’re trying to get clear, get current, and get creative. Those are the major overarching headlines that, if you feel that you’ve done those three things coming out of a review, it’s been an effective review. For the day-to-day, for me, the goal I have in my day-to-day is that I feel like I’m focused on the right things at the right point in time, that I trust my choices because they’re informed choices, they’re well-informed, because I’ve been looking at the components I use to help me manage my focus and my attention.

06:00 RP: But then there’s these higher horizons, right? There’s all these wonderful higher horizons that we can start to look at as your GTD practice becomes solid. It makes sense to look up into some of the bigger areas, knowing that you can handle what trickles down from those bigger areas. So that can be a lot of fun, to get an understanding of the rhythms of some of the higher horizons as well. I don’t know, how do you relate to the different horizons, in terms of Review, and is there any particular part of the horizons model you find particularly helpful, particularly challenging? I’d be interested to hear about your practice there, Todd.

07:03 TB: Well, I think, yeah, as I’m reflecting on what you were just talking about, I think, and this applies to the Horizons as well as to any element of my system, I think what’s interesting is that part of what really informs what I want to focus on, helps me to make those decisions about what I want to focus on, is what’s going on in my system and more broadly in my world. So in some ways, I feel like it’s my choices about how to interact with my system are driven by the tensions in a sense that I’m feeling, right?

07:42 TB: So have I not looked at my email inbox in a while? Well, that’s gonna create a bit of tension that says, “Hey, there may be some things there that you might wanna look at.” Are my lists getting really long? Well then, that’s some tension that might be indicating that, “Hey, you might wanna spend some more time on your list.” Or has it been quite a long time since I looked at any list, any single list in my system? Well, then that means either I need to be looking at that list or that might be an indication to me that a weekly review is overdue. So it’s a… I think for me, again, it’s a response in a way to, as I say, to what’s going on in my system. And as the inputs are arriving, whether it’s posts in Microsoft Teams or in Slack or emails arriving or text or whatever it is, that creates some tension as well and that then can help to inform what it is that I choose to focus on.

08:36 TB: But to come more specifically to the question you asked about the Higher Horizons, so again, just for those of you who are either not familiar or might not have thought about the Higher Horizons in a while, so the Higher Horizons, the Horizon model is a model of six levels, starts down at what we call the ground level, which is sort of the tactical things you do every day. It’s the emails you send and the things you buy at the store and the conversation topics you have with your boss. And then as we go up the six horizons, we get longer term and more strategic. So we go through projects at level one, the things you wanna get done by the end of the year, your ongoing commitments, your areas of focus as we call that at Horizon Two. And then as we go up, we go into longer-term goals, more strategic goals, and then ultimately at the top level, we’ve got your purpose and principles, right?

09:31 TB: So as I quite often say in the work that I do, up at this level, we’re talking about, why are you here? And I don’t mean, why are you in the room that you’re in right at the moment, or why are you in the meeting that you’re in, but rather, why are you on the planet? If you were going to live your life on purpose, what would that mean? So to come back to your question, Robert, I think that model has been incredibly helpful for me over the years in helping to, the word that comes to mind is validate the choices that I’m making about next actions. Right? So without the perspective that’s provided by doing a bit of thinking at those Higher Horizon levels, the next actions that I might choose to engage with at any given time seem a bit more of a soup. They seem sort of undifferentiated in a way. And so it’s only when I’ve thought about those, done a bit of homework as I see it, and thought about those Higher Horizons, it helps to inform… It helps me to prioritize what’s going on at the next action level, so I can make better choices day-to-day about what I choose to focus on. Because I’ve thought about, “Yeah, what am I trying to make happen in five years’ time? What does that outcome look like?”

10:55 TB: So I find it absolutely indispensable. And the other thing that I would say in fairness, is that it took me a long time in my own GTD practice to get to the point where I got it, where it made sense to me, what these… I sort of understood it conceptually, but the power of it was a little bit opaque until I started to really engage with it. And now it’s one of the elements of my GTD system that I would really, really struggle to get on without. How about you? What does that bring to mind for you?

11:29 RP: That’s great. Yeah. Yeah, it’s a rich and powerful model and there’s a lot of depth to it. And so I think it’s probably encouraging for some people out there earlier on in the journey to hear you say, “I didn’t quite get the reflection on Higher Horizons first time out of the gate.” I think a lot of people don’t, but there’s a real subtle power, I think, too, to all of that. And I’ve certainly found a lot of value over the years in what basically comes down to defining what’s true, ’cause what’s true, a lot of it already exists, you have values, in case you didn’t know they’re there, you just may not have articulated them, you have goals, you have lots of areas of focus. So getting it out is kind of the first part, getting it somewhere where you can look at it or you’ve even thought about it very consciously at once. And then as you said, engaging with it appropriately, not too much, not too little. Because I think one of the things at play here is that we all have a subconscious, right? We all have a part of us that we’re not absolutely aware of all the time, but that it is kind of mulling things over.

12:43 RP: I think that may be an Americanism, but that idea that things are kind of simmering along, and then ideas and things pop out at various times. So in a way, you’re sort of feeding or priming that part of you that’s not always thinking about every single value that you hold dear, but that if you look at that once a quarter or once a year or however often you need to to really feel more in touch with that, that’s gonna start to overshadow and positively affect what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis. And I really, with the Horizons model, I always think of this quote, it’s attributed to Einstein. I don’t know if it really, really is, I’m always dubious when people attribute things to Einstein, I feel like they’re kind of sometimes just trying to throw a bit of weight behind it. But for me it’s a principle that seems to just be pretty universally accepted in mathematics and life which is, you can’t solve the problem from the level of the problem. You gotta bump up, you gotta level up at least one to be able to look at the problem from a slightly higher perspective, or a more sophisticated or more elevated perspective. And I had a client recently who’s in a leadership position and she was just dealing with people resistant to change, it’s not uncommon being in leadership.

14:00 RP: And the projects were kinda solid, and she kinda knew where she was headed in a lot of these things. But the real challenge was kind of like, “Am I leading well? Am I doing this if people are so resistant, not only to the change, but to me as kind of the messenger of change?” And that one went right way up to the values level. Getting in touch with the values allowed her to see if people don’t react well to the information I’m delivering or don’t like what… They don’t like what I’m saying, they don’t like what’s going on is, “Am I still within my values? Have I still communicated clearly? Am I still being kind? Am I still holding true to a vision that I believe in? Am I still kind of in my integrity as a leader?”

14:45 RP: And so I think that was really helpful, because the answer was… The answer was yes. It’s like, “You’re doing fine, it’s just people don’t like that.” So I think it’s amazing how GTD can get to, and the response after coaching as you’re saying, “Well, I didn’t realize that GTD, I didn’t think of it as leadership coaching. It was not, but it is a framework that can help you shed light on your own life, whatever the challenge is.” It’s just as applicable to parenting, it’s just as applicable to a lot of these other areas that if you get in touch with a higher level, that often kind of prime the subconscious or whatever you wanna call it, it will help inform decisions thereafter as well as in the moment.

15:24 RP: For her, it was like, “Oh, yeah. You know what? These values. These are the things I hold dear, and I’m doing okay according to my scorecard of life.” So I think it can be really valuable as that, as a kind of scorecard that you are regularly in touch with like, “How am I doing?” So many people just wait ’till an annual review. Once a year go, “Oh, yeah. I kind of fell down on that one area.” Why not look at your areas of focus once a month and shore things up and continuously refine and improve what you’re doing? So I think there’s a lot of richness. I know you’ve experienced it for yourself, and I’m sure with lots of other clients too, Todd. Any tips for getting people getting started with Review who maybe haven’t ever done a higher level review before, haven’t really looked at the old areas of focus or really even spelled out some of the longer term goals or vision or these kind of things? Anything you found useful for yourself to kind of prime that, get that going, or you found useful for kinda newbies approaching the higher horizons and the reflection at that level?

16:36 TB: Yeah. Do you know? It’s funny. As you were talking earlier, what came to mind for me is that it’s attention that I feel in my own system from time to time, and I expect that a lot of people feel is, we talk a lot in GTD about the importance of having this external brain, this system which holds on to all of your commitments, all the information that’s helpful to you that you might wanna refer to in the future, and I find this tension in my own practice that there is a part of me that still believes, Oh, no, no, no. Not necessary. Of course, no, no, no. That’s not necessary, right? I’m an intelligent person, and this is… It’s a very small part of my consciousness or my subconsciousness at this point. But I think what’s interesting for me about that is it… I think the first thing I’d say to anybody is just every time you engage with your system, and you’re reminded about something that in that moment was something that was not on your mind, in a way that is proving the power of this kind of external brain in this review process, right?

17:43 TB: And so, first, be clear on why your external system is a valuable thing, why is it that we have it. And anybody who… I suppose that a fundamental, anybody who doubts that having an external system is a good thing should, and this is one of David Allen’s great examples. He says, “Well, if you don’t think you need an external system, throw your calendar away.” Why do you need a calendar? Well, I need a calendar ’cause I don’t wanna forget things I have committed to do on certain dates and times. That’s right. You have basically delegated the responsibility for holding on to all those commitments to this element of your system called a calendar, and we just broaden that idea in GTD, really. But I guess to come to your specific question, what I would say first is, don’t overwhelm yourself by saying, “Yeah, well, I… The first thing I gotta do is make sure that I’ve created all of these horizons of focus that I’ve got an absolutely air-tight, perfect representation of everything that I need to get done in three to five years and what all of my key principles and… I think what I’d say is start where you feel like there might be some value for you.

18:49 TB: If you don’t have a projects list, create yourself a projects list, and do it in total draft, brainstorm mode. It won’t be perfect first time. Just write down and say to yourself, “Hey, if by the end of the year, if you’re successful, what will be true?” And then each one of those outcomes becomes a project. So what I’m trying to get at there is my own experience of these higher horizons is that they have evolved over time in my own system and in my own thinking, and I think it’s because they have evolved over time that they’re much more… A much more accurate reflection of kind of my world, my world as I want it to be. So yeah, so if you are a perfectionist, or you have perfectionist tendencies, I’d say be open to just doing this on a brainstorm kind of have-a-go basis and expect that it will evolve over time and begin where you think there might be most value for you. Again, if that’s a projects level, great. If you feel drawn to the idea of sitting down and writing down your life purpose, what are the core values that you have? Then start there. Great. I don’t know what about you, Robert?

19:56 RP: No, I think that’s… I think that’s helpful advice. I think people do kind of get into, “Oh, it’s a model. I must fill out all of the model, I must do all of the model correctly.” Because of the model. And I’m just reflecting, there have been times in my life where I had lots of projects, lots of next actions, my areas of focus, I understood that my values had been pretty immutable for a long time, and have a lot of goals or visions, and have a lot of two to five-year perspective. I just moved country and all kinds of things were going on. And a friend of mine said, “Where are you headed? What are your goals? What are you excited about?” And I said, “I don’t have it right now. I don’t have it.” And that’s okay with me. What I do have is a model and some understanding that those things are gonna start to come in. And when I say, “Okay, well I’m in a new country, and maybe in the next three or four years, I wanna buy a house. Okay, we’ll put that in the vision area. I’ll let that trickle down and I’ll create a goal for the next couple year or two, and then a project, and then I have a next action, and etcetera.” But until that time, be real with what’s real for you in the stage and part of your life that you’re in.

21:10 RP: You may have tons of those goals and visions and high-level things, get them out, you may not have a lot of time to get those out. And we all have values and we all have a sense of purpose, some sense of that, and I think that’s a cool one to get to. I typically will say, “Look, you need your projects and next actions solid.” And then for a lot of people, the areas of focus comes naturally out of that. And then for some people, you have goals and vision, but for a lot of people, bumping right up then to that purpose and values can help kind of fill in between the areas of focus level and that top level where you wanna go kinda longer, longer term. It can be a really helpful guide to kinda jump from areas of focus up to… At least that was helpful for me because, as I said, sometimes there’s not a whole lot there and that’s okay. Just knowing there’s a model, knowing there’s an approach and a framework where some of this bigger, longer-term, more strategic stuff can go, I think in itself could be useful. It could be reassuring.

22:15 TB: I’m reminded we had a couple of years ago now, I think two or three years ago, we had David Allen along to the podcast, didn’t we, and one of David’s major themes that day was, we’re not saying you have to have a goals list, a kind of a, “What do I wanna get done by the end of next year” list. We’re not saying you gotta have three to five-year goals. We’re not saying you gotta spend a lot of time thinking about your purpose. We’re saying, to your point, if that is something that you’re drawn to, then great, we’ve got some really helpful framework, some really helpful ways of structuring that information that will enable for you, that you’ll keep your head clear, you’ll, over time, move toward those outcomes in the most efficient and effective ways.

22:57 TB: But if you don’t… If you’re not drawn to the idea of three to five-year goals, then don’t have three to five-year goals. Right? It’s not a must. And I think that’s another… I think that’s another really important point to emphasize. So thank you for the reminder. Helpful for me to be reminded about as well.

23:16 RP: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Let’s talk just briefly about time scale. What you typically find is… We talked about there’s too much and there’s too little in terms of reflecting on these external systems once you’ve got them out, and we’re talking about brainstorming different ways to get them out. What feels like too much, what feels like too little for you in terms of the different horizons, knowing that everyone’s gonna be different, everyone’s gonna have their own, what feels right to them kind of approach? What have you found, or how do you generally engage in your practice, or know? How do you know that you’re doing too much or too little?

23:51 TB: Yeah, I think for me, the… One is one that I’m sure pretty much everybody would agree with, which is that a calendar review is a very valuable thing. One of the things I’ve gotten a lot better at in GTD is that forward calendar look, looking out over the next couple of weeks, three weeks, four weeks, whatever is appropriate based on how much I’ve got coming at me, that is hugely valuable. And I remember when I was in my previous role in a very large corporate here in London, I would sometimes show up in the office and sort of go, “Oh, I’ve totally forgotten about that meeting or whatever,” and I had preparation yet to do for it. So that has kind of disappeared from my world. So, a calendar review, absolutely, and looking forward, I find, is very helpful.

24:40 TB: I won’t talk about absolutely everything that I do in terms of review, but I think speaking generally, there are… I can feel the tension in my own system if I haven’t looked at projects and projects in my world kept in two different places. One is sort of my sales-related project kept in a shared repository that we have, and then my other projects get kept somewhere else. And if a week goes by where those things have not been reviewed, I can feel the tension, I can feel the, “Am I really moving on these in a way that I need to? Do all of these projects have next actions? Am I appropriately engaged with them?” So I know we suggest that a week, once a week is a good time interval to look at your projects, and that seems to be true for me based on my own experience. And then the Higher Horizons, in a way, probably once every couple of months I’ll look at my areas of focus, once a quarter or so, maybe I’ll look at my, what do I wanna have done by the end of next year. As you’re up at three to five years, what we call vision level, generally speaking, I’m looking at those a couple of times a year in a structured way. Quite often, I’ll just flip through the list in a kind of a, “Oh, hey that would be cool to look at” kind of way, on a sort of an ad hoc basis.

26:05 TB: And then the purpose and principle stuff I tend to look at once a year. I tend to do it at the end of the year when things have slowed down quite a bit. And I have a conversation quite often with my wife about those things just to kinda make sure that we’re aligned as far as we can be about what’s important in life, and are the right things getting the right kind of attention? So that’s it in a very big ragged nutshell. How about you?

26:31 RP: Yeah, no, that’s great. Mine’s pretty similar. It’s pretty similar. So I think those are useful guidelines in terms of the people at least getting the feel for what’s appropriate in terms of intervals. And I think you’ll know if you’re kinda going numb to something. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Or it feels like a chore to review it. It’s probably too often. And then I think the big thing is to just remember, if you’re trying to solve a problem that maybe one pip up, one level up from that problem is gonna shed some light and clarity on it, maybe it’s time for that, that kind of level of review if you’ve got projects. Man, I really don’t feel like I understand which type of project is most important to focus on these days. Okay. Well, areas of focus are, in a sense, types of projects that you could bump up a level, have a look, have a conversation with the boss about is my sales responsibility or this admin thing or whatever, I’m trying to juggle and navigate, let’s talk.

27:29 RP: Kind of one level up just from the projects about where I should be spending my time with yourself, or whoever. These are very useful framework for conversations not only with yourself, but with others to say, “Hey, I’m juggling all of this. Help me out. Provide support. Provide input.” So yeah, just I think you’ll know if you’re just reviewing so often you’re going numb to something and you’ll know if you’re kind of craving more clarity, at a particular level. Just always remember, you could bump up, level up one, have a look down, see if that shades some light. Looks like we’re coming to the end of our typical time or amount of time for these. And this feels like a good place to start winding up. Todd any… What are your kind of main, main points or takeaways or what kind of support can you offer for people that maybe wanting to explore or haven’t even considered that there is something other than the weekly review that’s part of the whole reflection process that they can do if they wanna explore higher horizons or that kind of thing. What would you say by way of encouragement to them?

28:37 TB: Just as I’m sitting here, I think it’s boiling down to me for two questions, to two questions. The first question is, what do I feel that it would be helpful for me to be reflecting on reviewing here in this moment? Okay. So do I think I need as you were saying some more clarity about the bigger picture? Do I need to be looking sort of a project level? Am I getting ready for a meeting with the boss, and I need to be looking about, looking at the list of things I need to discuss with her? So, what, what in the moment, do you think that you should be reflecting on and let the tension as it were that you’re feeling help to inform those decisions. And I guess the other thing I would say is, if you say to yourself, “Yeah, I’m feeling some tension, I really wish I had some more perspective and it doesn’t feel like there’s an element in my system that would give me that perspective.” Then that might be an indication to you that, well, hey, maybe it is time for me to sit down with a piece of paper and just write down a draft project list, if that’s what you think you need.

29:37 TB: So yeah, what do you think you need to be looking at now? And do you have the elements of your system that provide the kind of ideal support that you’d like to have in moments like that? What about you?

29:49 RP: That’s great, yeah, yeah, I think just echoing that, that again, when you go to review a particular component, be clear about what you want out of the review. And as you say, you can be kind of tension-driven or driven by recognizing that the level that you’re at needs the clarity, the light that can be shed from above, from a higher horizon. The other thing I would just say in a real practical basis, is that obviously you can’t review stuff that you haven’t put out there yet. So a lousy draft, areas of focus lift is better than nothing. A quick sketch or a handful of goals is better than nothing if those really exist for you. So I would just say encourage people to get out there and try it. Grab a piece of paper. Put on the hat that says, “Okay, now I’m thinking about this particular high horizon and spell some stuff out.” I think people, as you said, do get stuck on this as a model.

30:45 RP: It must be complete and comprehensive, it must get it right the first time. But if you use that to wait and not put anything out there at all, you don’t have anything. So have a bash, I think, is my… Have a go is my suggestion for those of you that may have not broadened out beyond the weekly review. Get some stuff out there that you could review, see how that is and come back to that once a week, once a month, a couple months, quarter, annually, whatever feels right for you. Try it, give it a go.

31:19 RP: So thank you everyone for watching, for tuning in. It’s always great to get your thoughts and comments as well on this podcast series. So if you do have any of that [email protected] We love hearing from people. And be sure to check out our website and to subscribe to the podcast if you like that format is one on the train or whatever, or subscribe on YouTube, if you prefer watching us. We’d like to get this out in many ways as we can. Whatever way works best for you. Meanwhile from me, from Todd, we’re wishing you a great reflection of the appropriate Horizon to just help you feel more in touch with all the good rich stuff of life and see you next time.


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