GTD in Uncertain Times (Video Podcast) - Next Action Associates

In this episode, Todd Brown and Robert Peake share insights into how Getting Things Done® (GTD®) can help you stay positively and productively focused during uncertain or challenging times.

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00:05 Todd Brown: Hello everyone and welcome to another Change Your Game with GTD Podcast. I’m Todd Brown, and I’m here with Robert Peake.

00:12 Robert Peake: Hello.

00:13 TB: And our goal in this podcast is to give you some material for reflection, exploration, refining of your getting things done, thinking and practices, helping you to enable stress-free productivity, and make the things happen that are important to you in your world. And Robert as we were kicking things off today, as we sit here in the middle of March 2020, one of the things that seemed to be on both of our minds and we’ve also had some feedback from some of our viewers and listeners that they’d like to hear us talk about GTD in uncertain times is the title we’ve come up with and that seems to me given everything that’s going on in the world to be something that’s quite timely. How do you deal with situations where your core assumptions about how things work, about your expectations, about how the world is going to unfold, when those things are shaken or no longer seem so so predictable. So yeah, what’s your experience been in situations like this where you’ve got… Where the ground under your feet seems to be less steady? What are your thoughts about that?

01:32 RP: Yeah, I think it’s a great topic and I think it’s something that, yeah, and I think that a lot of people can relate to if you’ve been doing GTD for any period of time. So a couple of decades into doing this as you can imagine, I’ve been through some financial crashes of wide range of personal situations that have been difficult or uncertain. And GTD is stuck with me right through all of that. One of the things I love about the methodology is that it is dispassionate, it is a neutral approach in itself doesn’t have feelings about what’s going on, I would say, or at least finding the right next action, finding the right desired outcome can be a fairly straightforward and mechanical process. And likewise, working from a set of list, a good set of list to orientate you toward right independent of how charged the content is, or independent of how uncertain things are, depending on how shaky I feel right now. I can look at my list and know what’s the next best thing to focus on.

02:48 RP: And amazingly, what I’ve found in all of that is that getting in motion is incredibly, I wanna say therapeutic, but incredibly empowering really, to be able to identify next actions, take next steps, to have control over what you can control essentially, I think is really valuable and really important in uncertain times. So those are kind of my initial… That’s my initial overarching thoughts on the topic of uncertainty and how GTD helps so much with that. What about you, what have you experienced with that?

03:28 TB: Yeah, well, as you’re talking about it, I think I really love that idea that the methodology itself is dispassionate even though of course we’re not and especially in times of uncertainty, we’re not. And I suppose in a way, and like you, over the years, there have been situations where it’s kind of felt like the floor has dropped out from underneath me and it’s interesting in those times I can remember writing a journal entry many years ago where I said something like in this time, which was very difficult. I was saying to myself, somehow there’s this calm that the sense when I engage in these kind of, these, I say straightforward, getting things on best practices that we talk about. It’s funny as you say it helps us to focus our energy in the direction of making something happen, making the world different, even if what we’re doing is something that’s actually quite small, really interesting coincidence.

04:36 TB: I was… I woke up this morning, the radio came on and it was tuned to the news as it is, here in the UK and the BBC came on and the news was, as it has been for so many days, it’s been pretty bleak globally. And for a few minutes, I was sort of lying there, a bit kind of awash in the bad news as it were, and then, as I got out of bed that night and I started to sort of make small things happen, what I realized was that the activity of being involved in, any activity that’s creating outcomes, that’s making things happen gives me, I think, a sense of control which is quite reassuring. And again, that idea comes, I think directly from GTD, this idea that we are productive animals, that we make things happen and somehow being in that productive state even if it’s small things, the kind of things that I do on a ritualistic basis to start my day, even if it’s small things that really changed my mindset and made me feel a lot more positive about the day and it gave me a greater sense of control of what’s going on in the world. I don’t know, what do you think?

06:00 RP: Yeah. No, absolutely. I think it can be very, very powerful to be able to have a sense of control over what you can in times and in a world where increasingly the feedback we’re getting is we’re not in control on a really macro level. There’s maybe some things we want to be happening in our world and in our environment that we can only do a small part to support it and to promote in our individual lives. Sort of, I don’t know about you but I sure often feel like I wish I could do more and yet the things that really are there for me to do, take care of the family and support others and do this work and be of service to other people who are stressed out and need the methodology is good work too, and so focusing on that, doing a good job with that, gives me a sense of confidence that I am directing my energy positively as best I can.

06:52 RP: And so yes, definitely, the get me out of bed factor I think is a big one with GTD, that you just go, “You know, I’ve got some lists, I’ve got some stuff to do, and I can do this, I can do this.” There’s another… An element of uncertainty too where if you can I think get enough altitude on the situation, and GTD I think really helps you to gain altitude by digging you out from just the grime to be able to look up. I think that’s one of the big… The big benefits is getting to some of the higher horizons and getting some perspective. And I think in any really challenging uncertain time or any time where something has changed suddenly in your life or in the world, there’s opportunity. And I think that whole… “Well, every challenge is an opportunity” can feel like a bit of a platitude unless you have the mechanism to really start to look that way and capitalize on what could be the opportunity there.

07:54 RP: Weird example in my personal life, there was a point at which a relationship ended, and I was heartbroken for lack of a better term, and I was feeling that way for a while. And then what I realized was, well, this is an indication I’d like to be in a relationship actually. I’d like to be in a relationship that does work, that doesn’t end suddenly. And I actually went, “You know what… I’ve got a desired outcome. I’ve got a desired outcome, I wanna be in a relationship.” And so, you know what, let’s do a little bit of… If this were a project, what would I be thinking about? And I actually just went back through my mind and debriefed some of the past relationships I’ve been in, and I identified, “Wow that really worked really well,” or “Now you know what, that was a bit of a red flag over there. That was an indication that things weren’t… We weren’t so compatible in that way.” And I actually just set an outcome, and created a little list that just said, look, this is an opportunity right now in the midst of feeling sad that something is ended, to look at it and go “Okay, this has ended, but this is still something I want. What are the signs that I’m gonna be moving toward the thing I want?”

09:04 RP: Weirdly enough, within about three months, I met my wife. [chuckle] And it’s not like I was carrying around that piece of paper. And as we were going on our first few dates ticking things off, but it was in my… It would be a little weird. It was in my consciousness.

09:18 TB: A question for you before we… [chuckle]

09:19 RP: Yeah, yeah, yeah, she’d be pretty creeped out if she found that list with a bunch of tick marks next to it. But it was in my awareness and I’d done the kind of thinking around sort of getting serious about relationships, if you like, as a direct result of something that felt like a catastrophe. If anybody’s experienced that real kind of heartbreak of “Oh my gosh, this was the one.” So debriefing, when circumstances change really looking at it and going, “Okay, well, things have really changed. This is really what’s true. What do I want? How do I know how to recognize that? What does this tell me about what was going on? What either was or wasn’t already working or brewing under the surface, or what have you? And what are the other opportunities here?” There’s always opportunities when things are really shaking up and I’m not saying go and price gouge people on tissues and hand sanitizers. But I am saying positive opportunities, things that you can do, and things that you can take forward as a result of thinking in terms of outcomes, thinking in terms of what do I want and how do I make that happen?

10:23 RP: Rather than, “Oh my gosh, the thing I did want is gone. Now what do I do? What was me?” I don’t know. What has been your experience about going… Finding positive opportunities and then that’s the game changing…

10:39 TB: I think that’s… I think that’s spot on. The thing that comes to me as you’re talking about that, and then the situation you’ve described is I think an interesting… An interesting sort of case study for this concept of control. And we talk in our work about the importance of control, to have a sense of control. And when people hear the word control, sometimes what they hear is “Oh, what you’re saying is that I need to be able to somehow control my life or control what happens to me.” Which of course is not… Is not amongst our gifts. And your example is a perfect example of that. I’m guessing on the day before that relationship ended, you weren’t saying “Yeah, well I really hope this relationship ends,” right? So that was a nasty surprise. So, control I think… The way I would encourage people to think about control, is not control in the sense that, yes, I am somehow the master of my… Master of my universe and I control what happens to me, but the metaphor I quite often use in the work is you’re in control in the sense that you’re at the wheel.

11:44 TB: Right? You’re in control in the sense that you can react to the world as it comes… As it comes at you and you have some choice about how that happens. So I think that’s… That’s an important consideration to make. I think the other thing that comes to mind as you’re describing that kind of change in your own mindset from, “Hey, this relationship has just ended” to turning that into something positive. This idea that identifying desired outcomes in GTD is not about identifying a fantasy world that we wish we lived in. There needs to be… We can have desired outcomes, goals, projects, that are really ambitious and that feel like it’s not at all clear how we’re gonna get to them, but they also need to be… And this is again a quote from David Allen I absolutely love, “Your desired outcomes ideally should be 51% believable.”

12:43 TB: I think that’s also something to keep in mind as we go through all of this. It’s not… We’re absolutely not encouraging you to live in a world where… Where you’ve got fantasy outcomes, which are really incredibly unlikely to happen. You’ll probably find that over time you are more satisfied and more… You have a sense of kind of peace about all of this. If you’re focused on outcomes that do seem achievable, even if you don’t see how. Even if you just sort of say, “Yeah well, this feels like it’s 51% achievable. I’m not quite sure how I’m gonna get there, but that’s what I’m gonna go with for now.” Again, I think this whole idea of control is an important one. What do you reckon?

13:29 RP: I do, I do and I really like that you point out, we don’t have any kind of ultimate control, we have choices, ’cause I think that’s such a big part of GTD is creating a system that inventories what you’ve committed to in terms of yourself and others, and highlights that you have choices in relation to that. You can re-negotiate commitments, as things and circumstances change, and that you can follow this real, I think key principle of GTD in doing all of that, which is what has your attention. And as you start to look at, “Well, what has my attention right now? What really has my attention and how do I systematize my going about making the best choices I can within those circumstances?” Really, I think is what it comes down to. That in itself has a kind of integrity and rightness and again, it gives you, to me anyway, a sense of confidence in a sense of some peace as well in the midst of whatever is going on.

14:36 RP: So identifying that and then as you do, often you’ll find what really has your attention, what’s under that? What’s under that, what’s under that, and how do you deal with them, relate to that as well? GTD isn’t a therapeutic methodology, but you may need some support in that regard. You may need, at minimum, to talk to a friend if not, talk to someone that can hold for you in a more sort of counseling type role or whatever, but being able to resource for yourself, being able to reach out, being able to really take care of yourself, I think, a fundamental way in which you can say, “Oh, I need better self-care.” A fundamental approach to self-care is what has your attention and what you need to do so that that’s not so much a worry as something where you’ve taken some positive action. Now, is it still gonna potentially be worrying and in the background and on your mind? Yes, possibly, but it’s so much harder when something is on your mind, not only because it’s troubling in itself, but because you’re constantly trying to remember logistics around that.

15:45 RP: I think people who are carers for example, can relate to, or are dealing with this, if you’re both dealing with the emotional content of caring for a loved one who’s not well, and also trying to remember their medication schedule up in your head, that’s a really simple example of how a system, just a spreadsheet or a table or alarms on your phone or whatever, can help you to be considerably more present in a potentially challenging situation. Then if you’re also trying to deal with all of these logistics. So systems don’t solve the emotional content, but boy, systems go a long way toward helping you be present with what is the emotional content and what do you need to do about that. How do you need to support yourself through that situation? So, I’ve just found that idea of paying attention to what has my attention and then finding recourse in terms of whatever I can systematize there. Really, really helpful when I ask the question, “How do I support myself through this, through this time?”

16:51 TB: Yeah, yeah, and just talking about it, I’m sort of, what’s going through my mind is paying attention to what has your attention on the one hand and then identifying, okay, given what has my attention, what would I like to be true? That feels to me like without getting too woo-woo about it, like tapping into a deep kind of wellspring of our own wisdom about tough situations, in our lives, I think I’m reminded of the difference between taking positive action and just kind of worrying, I think, for an awful lot of people and look, I’ll put my hand up and saying, me included from time to time, the next action that I actually execute sometimes on tough things is worry. Next thing, next action worry about this for five minutes, right? Which is obviously not a terribly productive choice. Sometimes it feels emotionally necessary to just kind of, to do a bit of worrying as it were. But I’m consistently then relieved, impressed by the impact of saying, “Okay, given where I am, given everything that I know about the situation, I may not love the situation, the situation may be really frustrating, really depressing, threatening, whatever it is, what’s my next action? What am I gonna do to move it forward?”

18:19 TB: And you mentioned something there that I think is really important for a lot of these situations, where sometimes when I’m working with clients and we’re dealing with a tough issue, it could be something in their personal lives, it could be something they’re feeling at risk at the office, maybe their role is under threat or something, and it’s kind of tough times and they’re really struggling to come up with, “What do I do here?” It just feel sort of awash in the situation. And I find that quite often, in the situations where somebody is really struggling to come up with, frankly, with the next action, with what we suggest that they do that a very helpful suggestion in those situations is quite often… My next action is to talk to somebody. Who would you talk to? Whose opinion you trust, you respect, who might be able to help. Give you some perspective, give you some maybe some distance on it, maybe give you some practical advice about how to handle it. So, thinking in tough times, that’s one to keep in your back pocket as well this idea that who else in your world might be able to give you some advice that would help.

19:41 RP: Yeah, definitely. Getting more information is an important next action to remember. And remember that people are out there that want to help. There’s a lot of us out here who wanna help. So, talking tactics for a minute, Todd. Let’s say uncertainty has come knocking at your door, it’s there, it’s not probably your first rodeo but here it is again, your old friend uncertainty and change. What are some of your go-tos within the GTD methodology? Where do you go first or what do you do first either a specific examples or in general? Where do you find yourself going for support within the model?

20:27 TB: Yeah, I think it’s a great question. I think two things come to mind. One is I find that it’s important and helpful in those moments to reconnect with what I want the future to look like. So to put GTD terms around all of this, this would be looking at my higher horizons. What do I wanna have be true in three to five years or next year? What are the outcomes at that level? And I do find that helpful. I also find it in those situations really difficult to do that. The same time that you’re doing that, there’s a voice in your head that’s saying, “But wait, things feel so uncertain.” But I do find that when I do go through that exercise and I look at those higher horizons, what I find is that quite often I’m reassured by the fact that whatever the short-term change is in the context of those longer term outcomes it in some cases, in many cases, feels less critical, less important, less threatening.

21:40 TB: So that’s one thing is reconnect with what you want the future to be. And I think the other thing is, quite frankly, get busy. So, what are some next actions here? What are some things that I can do that will help the situation whatever it is? And we talk a lot in this work about how much planning is required? How much… Some people think, well, every time I have a project like buying a new mobile phone I need to put together a 27-step plan with contingencies and risk assessments and all that, and the answer to the question as far as I’m concerned is you need to do enough planning to get the thing off your mind. And for a lot of things in your life, that’s really just gonna boil down to have you identified a desired outcome? What does done look like, and what’s the next action?

22:39 TB: What’s the next thing that you need to do to move that forward? And I find… And again, I’m thinking back to when I wrote that journal entry all those years ago, I found the identification and execution of the next actions that felt like they were good ones in the situation, that brought a tremendous sense of… There was a sense of peace that came with that which I don’t think would have been there if I hadn’t done that. So big picture, yes, absolutely. So high-level thinking about what I want the future to look like ’cause that can be reassuring and can help put whatever the current trouble is in a bit more context. And then number two, yeah, what do I need to do? If I start moving things forward, how would I start moving things forward? That’s what comes to mind for me. How about you?

23:32 RP: Yeah, those are great, yeah. No, I think similar. I think from a very mechanical standpoint, one of the things I do first, one of the first places I go is to a weekly review ’cause it’s at that place and in that part of the methodology and approach where I often find the opportunity to look at things from a little bit higher perspective. I potentially make some changes. So one of the first things I’m looking for is we’ve got some projects here based on this new game changing input, is there a project, is there an outcome here, is there a finish line? Get through the bridge funding and stabilize the business or whatever it is. Is there a project, is there discrete outcome, is there a finish line? Then based on all the things I thought I had going on already that seemed so important as you said, often new input can really change that. Is there anything that I can re-negotiate or the need to renegotiate? Or is there anything no longer relevant? When you change jobs for example, a whole lot of projects go away, maybe a few new ones show up called make a good transition to the new person or whatever, or settle into the new job role.

24:47 RP: Some areas of focus might even go away if there’s major life circumstance changes going on. But does my system accurately reflect the new reality is, I guess, the overarching question I’m looking for. In that process as you said, I’m defining projects and next actions relative to this stuff and it’s really, it’s quite empowering to be doing that thinking, to be doing a very strategic type of thinking about, okay, what is and what am I gonna do about it and how do I get that into my system so I know that I’m gonna be doing those things and I’m gonna be really… There’s a certain… Yeah, I think it’s peace, a certain peace that comes with going, look, I’ll do the best I can, I’m gonna do the very best I can in this situation, and I see that and I see what the best I could do looks like. I’m gonna track that and I’m gonna go for it. Good stuff. Parting any kind of wrap up, maybe thoughts around people out there feeling uncertain what they can do to support themselves or any big picture thoughts around making this work, making GTD work in uncertainty.

26:02 TB: Yeah, I guess I think about people who are, that I’ve worked with over the years who were feeling overwhelmed for any number of reasons. It could be something really macro like what we’re going through right now in the world, or it could be something quite micro that they’re going through that really doesn’t affect too many other people. But I guess two thoughts, one is the way out is through, the way out is not around. Avoiding… Some people I think especially those who are new to GTD and are learning about it, GTD becomes for them something that they do when they have time to do it. It’s sort of, yeah, when I get to it, I’ll engage the best practices. And my own experience over the years is that that, when things really start to go pear-shaped, that’s the time when you need the best practices. So I’d encourage you to tend toward them as it were as opposed to tending away from them.

27:04 TB: And the other thing I guess I’d say is just be as understanding and forgiving of yourself as you can be in the situation and that doesn’t mean feel like that you’re going to forgive yourself for wallowing for six months straight on the sofa because you’re feeling completely out of control. But what I do mean is we all, even in the best of times, we all tend to fall off the wagon from time to time, we all tend not to implement this methodology perfectly and just give yourself the space to say, Hey, especially in a time like this, that may be something that’s gonna happen and I can take that on board. It’s funny I was talking to a group of trainers in Germany on Wednesday this week and we were talking about the things that they don’t do in the GTD methodology on a regular basis. I just said, “Look, let’s be really honest with each other. What kinds of things do you not engage in as often as you think you should?” And we had a really rich conversation around all of that. And then at the end I said, “Okay now, given all of that, which of you wants to give up your GTD practice?”

28:18 TB: And nobody raised their hand. But I think, yeah, as I say, I think on the one hand, the way out is through, and on the other hand, be a little bit gentle with yourself about some short-term backsliding. How about you?

28:34 RP: I think that’s great, yeah. I think that’s really great advice. I think if you’ve paying attention to what has your attention and getting that into a system just that fundamental thing can be really, really valuable at certain times because your certainty lives ultimately inside what’s happening in the world, but your relationship to it being that feeling of uncertainty is in here. And so getting some of that out in terms of positive, concrete steps really, really makes a big difference. And I think, interestingly, one of the real opportunities with this ’cause you and I have been doing this for quite a long time. We’ve seen some stuff and our system has seen some stuff, and it’s gotten through it, we’ve got through it with the system and as a result, it’s like, yeah, you’re not taking this away from me. I need this more than ever.

29:26 RP: But for some people, as you said, that’s not necessarily yet the case. So consider this may be an opportunity for you to take your system to another level, in fact. To really establish a whole another level of trust that your system is a way that you’ve when you’ve got your back. It looks like it’s got your back, but you built the system, you’ve got your back. You’re gonna be doing strategic thinking, you’re gonna be looking for opportunities in the midst of challenges. You’re gonna be taking positive action using this system in uncertain times and consider that I’d certainly do that part of what really got me going, GTD is something I really wanna share with other people ’cause I know it works is that mine is not an untested faith in the system. It’s been through some fires and come out stronger. Come out stronger and more capable. So consider that that’s, I think, a possibility for you as well. That when things get tough, if you go to your system, if you work your system, if you use it, if you really consider that these principles and approaches can make things better or as good as they can be in difficult times, you may have a whole another kind of level up experience with your system by relating to it when the chips are down.

30:49 TB: Great stuff. Well Robert, thanks for that and thanks to all of you for being with us here on this latest edition of the Change Your Game with GTD Podcast. As always, we’d love to hear from you. This topic was suggested by one of our readers, listeners, viewers as they say, so please if you have anything that you’d like to have us reflect on, have us riff on, please do let us know. Drop us a line at [email protected] Very much looking forward to hearing those thoughts from you. In the meantime, we wish you all the best in dealing with whatever the world is throwing your way and we’ll look forward to seeing you next time. Bye for now.


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