In this episode, Todd Brown and Robert Peake discuss how Getting Things Done® (GTD®) helps you to navigate successful outcomes, and how adapting appropriately can help us to optimise productivity and wellbeing during challenging times.
00:05 Todd Brown: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another in the series of Change Your Game with GTD podcasts. I’m Todd Brown and I’m here as always with Robert Peake.
00:15 Robert Peake: Hello!
00:16 TB: Our goal in these podcasts is to provide you support as you optimize your ways of working, increase your productivity and your effectiveness, and reduce your stress levels with the help of Getting Things Done methodology. And Robert, we were sort of kicking ideas around before we hit record, and we should probably just say we are here in lockdown, both you and I here in the United Kingdom, like much of the world. One of the topics that came up and seemed to resonate was this idea of dealing with things that aren’t so much tasks to do. We would call them open loops that have to do with, “Oh, I need to email him. I need to call her. I need to post that to my Slack channel,” whatever it is. But things that we detect in our lives that are incomplete in the sense that we have some emotional investment, or the open loop feels like it’s something that has to do with our emotional lives. Any examples come to mind of situations like that in your own world, in your own experience that you think is helpful?
01:30 RP: No, not really at all. I find I’m generally pretty devoid of emotion and emotional content in my life. Kidding! Yes, absolutely. It goes with the territory and it goes with being human. I think that’s really one of the first things to acknowledge and recognize, is that when you have a whole-life system, you really are dealing with all aspects of your life. And so for me, yeah, there’s a lot of circumstances in my life that I’ve navigated using the GTD methodology, big and small, and that’s one of the fascinating things about, again, a whole-life system, is that it’s not just top three things. Sometimes, it’s the little annoying things that the small-sized emotional content that can actually be quite draining as well, or really needs attention, needs appropriate attention, which is what the GTD system provides for me. So yeah, I can think a lot of examples, and I think as I try and bump up and look at what do they have in common or what does my behavior in relation to them have in common. Someone was saying, “Does it really just boil down to outcomes and actions?” And in a way, yes, but I think there’s some subtlety to that. So for me, recognizing that I don’t necessarily have control with a capital C, which is certainly something that’s been underscored by current circumstances, right? The lockdown. But that I do have choices in relation to that, that give me a feeling of being in control, has been hugely helpful.
03:13 RP: So whenever there is emotional content, sometimes, that can be adjunct to your desired outcome. You have a desired outcome, but there’s some emotional content about getting there. And sometimes, emotional content really can indicate that there needs to be a desired outcome in itself, is something that needs to be resolved. So how you think about desired outcomes. Does it just come down to an outcome? Does it just come down to deciding what’s true for you? Well, no, not in the literal sense of, “It’s just the outcome and now, put the emotions aside and march toward the outcome.” I think for me, a lot of the times, relating to the difficulty itself can be an outcome. I don’t know, what have you found? You’ve been around for more than a year or two in this world, I’m sure you’ve had your share of ups and downs. What’s helped in the method for you?
04:11 TB: The gray hairs are real, yes. Yeah, I’m reminded of some things that have happened in the work that I’ve done. One instance, in particular, in a seminar group where someone had recently been bereaved, someone very close to them. And there was a moment in the seminar where you could feel… First off, it was an active, incredible bravery, I think, for this person to bring it up in this sort of group, this group environment. But there was a moment where you sort of… You felt like, “Okay,” you could see, I could see in her eyes, was weighing on her heavily. It was very fresh, it was something that had happened recently. And she was sort of awash in it, she was awash in the emotion of it. And as a trainer in those moments, the last thing you wanna do is say, “Okay, what’s your next action?” I think you need to be sensitive to what’s going on. And so, I just let her talk about the situation for a minute or two. And then I think what I said at the time was some flavor of, “I understand that that’s incredibly difficult,” and ultimately, what you would really like is that the desired outcome were that, “This is not true. That person is not gone, that person is still in my life.” And there’s gotta be an awful lot that’s tugging on you saying, “Well, you wanna talk about how I want the world to be different? That’s what I want to be different. I want this person back.”
06:00 TB: But what I encouraged her to do is to think about if… Is there something that you think you want to do about it? And it took her a minute, and you know, obviously I wasn’t gonna push this hard, but what she came up with was she wanted to get in touch with her siblings because they were gonna do something by way of creating a memorial. And I think that we’re talking about doing something that was gonna be digital. This was her idea. And so, while on the one hand, what went on, I think in that moment was that her realization flipped slightly to, “No, I can’t have the world, different in the way that I would really desperately like it to be different, but what I can do is I can do something. I’m not totally powerless in the face of this.” And I’ve thought about that often, in the time since, that there is… We talk. And you and I have talked a lot about what is a good desired outcome look like. Well, a good desired outcome, David Allen would say, is something that’s 51% believable. And if you’ve lost someone in your life, getting them back is not 51% believable, but that doesn’t mean that you’re powerless.
07:30 TB: There are things that you can do that, I guess, without getting too philosophical, but I believe very deeply that we are ultimately productive beings and that one of the things that we do is make changes in our world. And in moments like that, I guess, I would encourage people to think that the fact that you’ve lost someone or the fact that someone’s not well and it’s a difficult situation. That doesn’t mean you’re completely powerless. And to explore that. Explore that and see if it might help. I don’t know. Does that resonate at all with you separate of…
08:09 RP: It really does. Yeah, that’s an incredibly powerful story, I think. That’s just a great example of sensitively using the GTD model to create some sense of, you know, being able to direct yourself positively in a difficult time. And sensitivity I think is an interesting thing because, here, you were facilitating it with someone, with a participant. But in a sense, being able to be sensitive to yourself, being able to be in touch with yourself is a useful, a very useful thing when it comes to understanding how to navigate your way through stuff with big emotional content to it. And in the GTD method, really, one of the kind of overarching questions maybe that we ask ourself a lot is, what has my attention? And in a way, the specific method of identifying outcomes and actions and where things live in the different horizons is a way of answering what has my attention and what do I want to do about it, what I wanna do about what has my attention.
09:24 RP: So if you kind of bump up to that level when you’re dealing with these things that do have a real emotional charge that really are… Suddenly hit you or have been there for a while, having… Exerting a kinda gravitational influence on you. I love what you said about we are kind of our ultimate impulse is to be productive. And I think of the… One of the definitions of intelligence being the ability to adapt to change, right? And so, to me, emotional intelligence is a way, in a way would be an ability to adapt to change in emotional circumstances, in a way that is positive, that is productive. So, it is a new input. It sometimes is coming from within, but being able to do something externally, often, again, it’s just very empowering to be able just to identify. “Well, you know what? I wanna memorialize or I wanna have closure or completion in some way about this.”
10:29 RP: And I think, you know, there’s no harm in setting out the project of, “I want a greater sense of closure and completion,” and then really being willing to look. Do I need to talk to someone? Do I need some counseling? Do I need some support on some practical level to deal with what has my attention? ‘Cause what has my attention right now are a big feeling, are these big feelings. So I think it works on a lot of levels once you become more kind of subtly attuned to what’s really up, what’s really up for you, and what do you want to or what are you willing to do about that, again, to adapt and adjust intelligently to your new circumstances, emotionally intelligently, if that makes sense. So I love that story. I think that really… Yeah, that definitely hit home. Thank you.
11:16 TB: I’m also thinking, let’s flip this on its head a bit. Much of the world is in very difficult straits and there’s a lot going on out there, but let’s flip it around and talk about what goes on in, as it were, in your GTD world, when really positive emotions pop up, right? Or, you know, things that generate joy, things that generate kind of real excitement, real passion, whatever it is. What happens in those moments, right? What’s the reaction in your GTD system to those kind of developments? And just as I was saying those words, the thing that came up for me is, for, I think for a lot of people, those moments don’t immediately result in an impulse to be productive. In those moments, I’m happy to wallow in those positive emotions. But that said, I think it’s an interesting question, right? Well, what do you think? If you talk about really, really positive things that have happened in your world, has GTD helped? Has it been something that’s… Again, were those emotions you just wanted to sort of sit with and enjoy? Or did actions that might have been implied by those things come later? What’s your own experience been?
12:04 RP: I think it’s great, Todd, because, you know, in a lot of ways, it really comes down to… There’s a lot of similarity, right? And so looking at the other side of the coin and in actuality, it’s just important to acknowledge that feelings are and they span a pretty wide range. For me, yes, often the basking factor shows up for sure, and it can give you pause. But often, when I’ve completed something significant or had some significant success or accomplishment or there’s just this big positive feeling show up, I get a burst of creative energy, and so there’s creativity that comes from completion, there’s also creativity that comes from the excitement of new circumstances. So this person that was asking, was asking about relationships and conflict in relationships, and you can certainly look at that, but also, new relationships that are exciting and fun and can also be in a way kind of overwhelming too, but there also can be this real surge for me. So being able to give appropriate attention to new circumstances in the midst of my own wellspring of creative energy, it’s been really important to use the someday maybe list for that, frankly.
14:02 RP: To be able to capture good ideas and inputs and positive things that are going on in a way that doesn’t mean I necessarily feel like I have to be committed to that, and I’m thereby increasingly overwhelmed, because again, even positive overwhelm is a kind of overwhelm, by feeling like I have to do a lot or engage a lot with this. So appropriate engagement and appropriate attention being paid to what’s going on, I think, is a big theme of what the methodology gives us and helps us too. And just to briefly touch on the idea of relationships, relationships are areas of focus, they always are, they’re on, so this person was asking about where in the horizons model do these kind of things fit. And a lot of our emotional content comes from relationships, good, bad, otherwise, but they’re ongoing. Those are ongoing areas of focus that are important to acknowledge as such and to revisit periodically, so that you’re saying, “Well, what do I wanna be true in this situation and what can I do about that,” for example. I don’t know, what about you? Positive emotions, great things happen. How does that impact your system?
15:15 TB: Yeah, I think what I’d say about that is, as you were talking about it, what came to mind for me is that quite often in situations like that, what happens is a bit of a flurry of new possibilities, right? And quite often, not always, but quite often, those things then become really exciting projects, right? So the program is confirmed with the client, and number one, and boy, oh boy, that means all kinds of cool things can now happen in terms of the actual implementation of that and the way that. We’ll work with those people to make that as positive an experience as possible, so sometimes, sometimes I think what I find is that the positive outcomes very naturally generate more positive outcomes. Coming to your idea of relationships and the areas of focus, and I think that’s such a great way to think about your relationship to, your relationship to the people, relationships of the people in your life they’re not something you’re gonna tick off as done.
16:26 TB: My relationship to my wife is not something I’m gonna tick off as done as there’s no outcome there. But a really helpful question is, “Hey, how’s it going?” Does it feel like there’s something there that needs doing that isn’t being done now? Is there a need in essence, and if so, then a great question is, “Okay, well, what’s the project? What’s the thing that I would do that if it were to be achieved, I would then feel like, yeah, this area of focus, this relationship is now in good shape, is now at a level that I am comfortable with?” So yeah, I think it’s a really interesting question, and quite frankly, sometimes when great things happen, I’m very happy just to… I love the term wallow, I think that’s great.
17:23 TB: Just wallow in it for a couple of days. And I suppose another thing that’s quite often true of these positive outcomes as they’re happening, these positive emotional reactions, quite often, there’s less of a sense of, “Oh my goodness, I need to get into action here,” Whereas if something big and negative happens, then that quite often comes with a sense of urgency about this is a situation that needs resolving somehow, whereas, yeah, if it’s positive, well, I’m just gonna enjoy that for a couple of days. And then, yeah, if there’s some outcomes that come out of it after that, then great. And if not, well, then that’s maybe what the universe intended anyway. I don’t know, any of that make any sense to you?
18:11 RP: It makes perfect sense to me. Yeah, it really does. And as you were talking, one of the things I was reflecting on is both, the rough with the smooth, the good with the bad, whatever the emotional content is of what’s going on in your world. One of the wonderful side effects to me of the GTD methodology or maybe it’s not a side effect, maybe it’s actually one of the big benefits is a degree of objectivity. David often says, “You work, but you are not your work.” And so, when something comes through, literally good or bad, being able to look at it from the point of view of, “Well, what has my attention? What’s up and what do I wanna do about that in relation to that?”, immediately kind of pulls you out of, “I am this thing into, “I am someone that can respond to this thing.” And that in itself to me, is just incredibly, incredibly powerful in its own right, in that.
19:15 RP: Ideally be a little less kind of hooked in to the slings and arrows of fortune in this life that we go through. David even goes so far as to say, “You have a life, but you’re not just your life. There’s someone in there, there’s a pilot in the cockpit, you’re not a plane.” And I think that’s a really powerful part of the thought process once it really becomes ingrained. Once it really becomes ingrained, my kind of first response to something big or small, good or bad, is very often, “What do I wanna do about this if anything?” Not, “Oh my gosh, I am this.” I don’t know if that makes sense.
19:58 TB: No, it’s perfect. And as you’re talking about it, the thing that I’m reminded of is, think about the difference if we think now about the horizons of focus model, we think about the top level of that, where we talk about purpose and principles. That’s different than the levels in that model that have to do with outcomes, right? So horizons four, three and one, where we have projects, we have sort of goals and objectives for longer term or medium term outcomes, and then at vision level, where we talk about long-term outcomes. The fact that those are different in the model, is a reminder of that quote from David, which I think is beautiful. And it’s one of those quotes, the first time I heard it, I just thought about it for about two weeks, which was “You do your work, but you are not your work,” as you said. And that for someone in… Look, I grew up in the States, I spent a lot of time there.
21:00 TB: And in western cultures in general, I think there’s kind of a lot of, “You are your work, you are defined by what you do in your role and how much money you make and your responsibilities and what’s on your business card.” And I think that’s an incredibly powerful and helpful reminder that that’s maybe not the most helpful way to look at it, and the kind of objectivity that you’re talking about can be wonderfully cathartic maybe, certainly freeing. And also I suppose likely gives us the right kind of perspective to be no less effective in making the things happen that we wanna make happen in our lives, but gives us the kind of perspective to be able to stand back enough, so that it’s more likely that we have a healthy relationship to our productive selves.
22:07 RP: That’s great, that’s great. Yeah, I love that. Well, excellent question by Peter, toss that in our hopper net and I love that we’re kind of getting to that higher level where you really, you are more of an agent of change rather than at the whims of change, the winds of change. Because I think that, that for me has been one of the big ways through. The big ways through. And of course, people are dealing with a lot of different things that are potentially quite emotionally charged right now, being in different circumstances, being with people that you’re normally only around on the weekends, right? Or not being with people that you’re normally around on the weekends or during the week. All of that are potentially big stress factors. So, I think it’s encouraging and useful to just look at what can you be in control of, what is under your control these days. And how can you respond intelligently, again, adapting in ways that make you feel empowered to at least do something. And I love that the single tiny next action approach so often can get us unstuck and just start moving, when we start thinking about some of these things that are so big, that are global in fact. So much of our focus, I think is global these days. But thinking about, “Here’s something I can do right now that can help me or someone else, here’s a single next action, a single step I can take.” I think is incredibly powerful in that kind of climate. Great stuff.
23:49 TB: We’re coming to the end here. Folks, thank you very much for being a part of our audience. As always, the reason that we do this work is to be of help. And I’m going basis to you, if you have topics, and thank you, Peter for sending in this topic. If you have topics that you’d like us to be talking about in the podcast, please by all means, do let us know, as we say, we’re very happy to take requests. In the current environment, in the change environment that we’re all dealing with, we wish you all the best. We certainly hope that you and yours are safe and well. And we’ll look forward to being able to meet many of you face-to-face, in person, hopefully in the not too distant future. Until then, be safe, be well, and we’ll talk to you again soon.