How GTD® Helps Us Navigate in a World of Change - Next Action Associates

When there is a lot of change happening in the world, it can sometimes leave you feeling out of control. In our latest video podcast, we discuss how Getting Things Done® (GTD®) can help you navigate in a world of change, reduce stress and overwhelm, increase productivity, and ultimately, improve your overall quality of life.

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00:00 Speaker 1: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of the Change Your Game with GTD podcast. My name is Todd Brown, and I’m here with Robert Peake.

00:13 Speaker 2: Hello.

00:15 S1: Our purpose in this podcast is to provide you with some thoughts and some approaches for getting the most out of the GTD methodology, and then if you do that, what that’s going to mean is that you live in more stress-free ways, you get more of the right things done, and you’re able to shut off from work when that’s appropriate. And Robert, as we were talking about what to talk about today, as we always do just before we hit record, we thought that it would be helpful to talk about the… In a world that is so full of change at the moment, right? Political, economic, health-wise, there’s so much going on and there are so many layers of change and so many different areas of change for so many people we thought it might be helpful for us to do a little bit of talking about how GTD can support us in this world where the level dynamics have been turned up to 11. What are your thoughts so just you reflect on the current reality, is there anything in particular that comes to mind or anything that you’re thinking about your GTD knowledge or practices that are helpful?

01:26 S2: Yeah, definitely. First of all points, bonus points for the Spinal Tap reference there. Yeah, I love that the philosopher Heraclitus said, “Change is the only constant,” and I love that he said it in the fifth century BC, [chuckle] ’cause we’re still quoting it. And I think the interesting thing about uncertain times is, or certain situations in life that create uncertainty is that often, we can tire of them, but they won’t tire of us, so it sorta is sorta like here we still are dealing with change, dealing with uncertainty. So this to me, is one of the reasons I think that having good systems is particularly important in managing situations and circumstances that change in ways that we don’t expect and go on for longer, frankly, than we would have liked, because just trying to manage it through sheer force of will, through some form of ruminating on it, through some form of just trying to push your… One’s way through it often doesn’t work. Often what we’re in is a situation that involves some level of endurance basically, right? We gotta get through this at the timing and pace that it is to be gone through.

02:58 S2: So as a result, having systems and systematizing the approach to some of these things, I think, and to dealing with change in particular, I think is what lets, me anyway, kind of stick it through, stick through something for the long haul. So that was my initial thought, it was just “Thank goodness for having systems,” rather than having to try and force my way through situations that really force isn’t gonna do it. Right? Just willing something back to the way it was is not enough. You’ve gotta really look at “What good can I do today? How can I affect this outcome today? What’s one small next step?” The aggregation of those steps kind of is the only way through. So that was my initial thought is, “Thank goodness for systems in times of heavy change.” What about you?

03:55 S1: Well, as you’re talking about it, what’s occurring to me is that one of the things that has changed a lot, I think, for many of us, probably most of us is that we have a less of a sense of control, right? And I think if you rolled back four months and did a sort of a pre and post survey, you’d probably find that people today are just so much is so unsure at the moment. So we have this… It’s a very natural human desire, I think, to have control in our lives and to have a sense of control and that’s something that is not much on offer in the current moment. I mean, we’re sitting here in the UK, we’re starting to come out of lockdown where the government is making announcements about the pace at which that’s happening and some things are being walked back and some things are being moved forward, and so even just the limitations on what we can do day-to-day have been changing.

04:52 S1: So you try to go from there to “Hey, I’d really like to have a sense of control of my life,” I don’t even know whether I’m gonna be able to meet friends for a dinner in the country pub up the road from what was here in a few weeks time. So it’s a… I’m reminded, over my career, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Middle East and in conversation in the Middle East quite often, what will come into conversation is this phrase “Inshallah” which translates as I understand it, basically to “if God wills it,” right? And I think that’s a really important reminder for me that we want to have a sense of control, we in a certain sense as I say, I think we believe that we need a sense of control, and that at the same time, it’s in moments like this that it becomes clear to us what the limits really of our control are, how much control we have over our world.

05:49 S1: All that said, I think what you’ve brought up there is really important. In a sea of insecurity or indecision or lack of control, I find it fascinating how… Not just productive, but in some ways quite comforting, the question, “What’s the next action?” can be, right? And I know it’s… We talk about this all the time. It’s sort of one of the basic GTD 101 questions, “What’s the next action?” But it can get us out of that… It can get us out of all kinds of things. It can get us out of worry, it can get us out of a decision, it could get us out of a sense of hopelessness. It’s fascinating to me, especially in times like this, how powerful that one question can be. My situation is what my situation is, right? And it may not be the situation that I wanna be in. But an interesting question is, I find, “Okay, it is what it is, what’s the next action? What are you going to do to change the situation or to do what you can do to adapt to the situation, if changing the situation is not an offer?”

07:03 S2: Yeah.

07:03 S1: What do you think?

07:04 S2: I think that’s absolutely powerful because it gets us out of the victim of circumstances position, and back in the drivers seat. Even that moment of being back in the driver seat, I think, by realizing there is something to do, something doable, just can be a shift. The world looks a little different, I think, just once you’ve identified a next action on something that was formerly a real problem and now a project, something for you to do something about. And interestingly, if you go right up the Horizons model, the Horizons of Focus model, so the six-part model, where we think about the different levels at which you think about your work. I think there’s a lot of value at the very top, as well. The very top level being purpose and principles or values, those things that you hold dear about how you do what you do.

07:57 S2: So the big why, your purpose, what gives you a sense of purpose, and what you don’t wanna transgress in fulfilling that purpose. And those two things, interestingly, in my experience, rarely change. They become clarified a bit more over time, they become a little bit more clear and crisp about what that really means to me, but the same kind of idealistic, 20-something, I now have kind of similar purpose, just maybe more clarity on exactly what that means and what the scope is of that. So, an interesting question for me has been, how do I hold true to my sense of purpose in the midst of a circumstance that is different than I would like it to be, or is less certain than I would like it to be? How do I adapt what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, so that I really feel like I’m holding true to that, in relation to new input, new information, new situations, new circumstances. And that too can get into some pretty profound, sort of Victor Frankel like territory, right? Where you go, “Wow, can you really hold to a sense of purpose and higher purpose?” in all circumstances, or incredibly difficult circumstances, and there’s some really inspiring examples of people who’ve done that, they’re the people that we really, or at least I really look up to.

09:22 S2: But from that, then you can start to think from the top down, so you can take this from the bottom-up called, “Do I have any next action? Can I do anything about this?” And the answer’s pretty much always, yes. The ultimate fall back to me is, I have some control over my attitude toward it. So that’s the last resort, part of control for me, is at least I can change my attitude a little bit. Or you go from top down, you can go like, “Look, how do I get in touch with and fulfill that sense of higher purpose, how does this change my goals, how does this change my vision for the future, if at all, how does this change the areas of focus that I wanna focus on, how does this change some of the projects that I may need to renegotiate so that other ones that I didn’t realize were coming into my world, that are in my world, I can give appropriate attention to?” And it trickles down from there to the next action level as well. So I love that kinda any entry point into that self-reflection model, the six part Horizon of Focus model, can give us an opportunity to align with what we want to be true for us.

10:33 S1: Yeah, I think as you were talking about the Horizons of Focus in particular, Horizon Five, Purpose and Principles, as you say, I’m just reflecting on the first time I heard about the model and I sort of got exposed to the ideas, I sort of thought, “Yeah, interesting, makes sense. I think I’d like to give that a try.” And I came up with a draft high level purpose. So I sat down and said, “Why do I think I’m on the planet, let’s have a draft.” And it was embarrassingly bad, it was just really cringing, toe grippingly, cringingly bad. And I would… And to your point, what happened over time was that it just became more and more clear.

11:21 S1: As I started to, I suppose consciously, and unconsciously, to think about my purpose, it became clear and I started to refine, and refine, and refine and over time, it’s gotten to the point where it actually feels like it’s really… I would say the work is all done, but it feels much more congruent with what I believe is going on for me as a person fundamentally. So I suppose that’s a little bit of encouragement for those of you who are maybe sitting there thinking, “Well, life purpose, really?” And just get a bad draft done, and believe that you’ll refine it over time. I think though, you’re right. It’s an interesting one this… One of the other things that I reflect on, after however many weeks we’ve been in lockdown now, is that the… What’s become much more clear to me is what the requirements are.

12:13 S1: And when I say requirements, I mean, what do I really need to have to live a satisfied life? And that’s become clear in a bizarre way because of the lack of some things, which I normally would have said, “Well, yeah, that seems quite important to me.” And it’s only now in a position where I’ve really had to, in many ways, strip my life back to some core things that it becomes clear that a lot of those things which felt important then, now in retrospect, don’t really feel that that important. I don’t know, have you had any experience like that, as well, that lockdown leads to clarity?

12:53 S2: Absolutely, no I absolutely have. And there have been various moments in my life where there’s been major game changing, life-changing input. So I’d be curious for you as you reflect on those moments where circumstances changed significantly in your life, what your kind of strategies were for getting a handle on that, all the GTD. But one of them for me, as I reflect on that is, just as you said, creating space, I would call it, you know, “Wow, something big has happened, I need to create space for dealing with that.” If nothing else for dealing with it psychologically sometimes. And so how do I create space? Well, the beauty of the GTD system is it shows you all the things you’re filling space with at the moment, right? It’s all there. All the space fillers, the big rocks, the small rocks, the whole… Everything in the jar is there. So if you wanna clear some of the jar, you have a really good inventory to go to.

13:52 S2: And so the first thing I look at is the project level. And just look at, right, what projects do I renegotiate? And depending on the circumstances I may explain a little go, “Hey, here’s what happened? Here’s what’s going on.” Family versus whatever. And usually people are pretty understanding about that when you when you give them enough information about what has changed, why, whatever; they get it, we all get why the local cafe closed or whatever because of lockdown. So communicating well, but with those that you need to renegotiate with. But doing it and getting pretty… As you said it focuses the mind. Renegotiating at the project level is probably the single biggest go-to to create space. When I talk about space, I also mean time, right? Actual time on the calendar, that looking at what I have booked as kind of hard like a hard landscape. The stuff where you gotta be some… On a Zoom call these days at a particular time.

14:52 S2: So creating that, creating room for what’s new and recognizing that there’s also gonna be an impact where, given all of this, actually what I need sometimes is more time to stare into space or stare out the window times than usual, to integrate the experience and the newness of it, and to have time to think and reflect on what this means and all of that, so. Sometimes in a real acute crisis type of situation, the answer is get busier. But very often at some point for me, there needs to be a moment where I go, “Look, I need to create space to integrate this experience and to deal with what’s new.” So that’s been me. I’m curious for you, if you reflect on a time or two when major, major stuff has changed what are your go-tos on a practical basis to cope with it in relation to your system?

15:46 S1: I don’t have… I think your example is a brilliant one. And I think that the projects list, this kind of what are the outcomes I’m working to achieve in the next 12 months or so? That… It can provide… Both… As I reflect on it, the power of it is, I think, foundational to everything that we do in GTD. It’s a very important idea. And the benefit of it, I think, is interesting, both in somehow in conscious and subconscious ways. The fact… And we go back right now to one of the really, really basic ideas of GTD, which is that we’ve got an external system, right. So we’ve got a system which has all of our commitments in it and it is something that we review regularly. And most people don’t really feel the need to be looking at their projects list on a daily basis. For most people, that’s just way overkill, right? That’s too often. So, on average, probably most people during the weekly review once a week, when they’re sort of going through everything, is the time when they look through the projects list.

16:53 S1: But as I think about it, it’s by being clear about those projects, having them in a system, which I know I’m going to review. And I know, interestingly, that I have reviewed, right? That I think that the pull of the project starts to become in some ways, in a really interesting way, a bit subconscious, right. In other words, because I’ve reviewed the system and because I’ve, and I know I will again, it creates this subconscious tension in instances where I know that I’m not really moving forward on these projects in the way that I would like, or alleviates that kind of subconscious tension when I realize, “Actually, that project is fine,” right? I’m clear what the next action is, the next action’s there, may be it’s been there for quite a while and it doesn’t feel like something that in the current world is hugely… Has huge urgency behind it.

17:55 S1: So yeah, I don’t want to get too mystical about it. But that occurs to me as well as the the benefit of the projects list and of our regular review of the projects list, seems to me again, to be both conscious and subconscious. Am I talking… Am I in the land of the fairies here? What do you think?

18:14 S2: No, no, I absolutely agree. It’s just about… When you stake down on what’s real for you, and you review that regularly, I think it’s a very well understood and just kind of psychological fact that you’re gonna start closing that gap, your brain’s gonna be orientated that way. Now, this is why I tell people to put in desired and successful outcomes as the as the project statement when we work together and they go, “Oh, yeah, well you know and I go, “Well just make it good, make it look good, make it enticing.” You’re gonna be looking at it once a week for however long it takes to get it done. And in your brain, you know, when you tell your brain, “Here’s the task,” it very dutifully marches away in its thought process about how to fulfill that task. And if it’s stated in the negative it’s gonna start giving you negative possibilities. So I absolutely think how we externalize and relate to the stuff we’ve externalized is very very real and very very tangible. People don’t go into board meetings going, “Right, how are we gonna decrease our stock value this time?” It’s like, “Give me your best thoughts on how we can we can reduce shareholder value here today,” you know right.

19:27 S2: You don’t prime the pump that way, you prime the pump with a bunch of mud. So no I absolutely agree. I don’t think it’s fluffy at all, but that getting real with what is, what do you want, and what you don’t want anymore, what is no longer important. So that stuff’s not something that’s recycling back on you weekly in an unhelpful way and draining draining brain, brain juice, as it were. I think that’s very, very important. So if you know, I think we’re not the only ones, facing a bit of change and uncertainty. If we were to kind of send people off with one or two sort of top tips as it were, or things that they as either a beginning or a journeyman GTD practitioner could do to help gain a little more of that sense of control over what is controllable, what are your thoughts on what we could get give people to kind of go away and try?

20:24 S1: I’ll tell you what, why don’t I talk to the folks who are fairly new to GTD and how about you talk to the more advanced folks?

20:33 S2: Great.

20:34 S1: I guess if you’re new to GTD or maybe this is the first you’re hearing of it, right, maybe somebody’s forwarded you this podcast, what I would say is, keep in mind a couple of core ideas that I think are gonna be very helpful. The first is, if it’s on your mind, it’s very unlikely to be moving forward, right. So, one of the best practices is start to get in the habit of getting things out of your mind, that’s really important. So anytime you identify something where you’d you say, “You know what I’d really like the world to be different,” then get that idea out of your head, get it down on paper. And then the second thing I’d say is, get in the habit of, even if it doesn’t have a huge amount of structure, but, get in the habit of having an external system, an external system which has reminders in it, which you refer to on a regular basis.

21:26 S1: So you already have this, right, you’ve already got a calendar, you’re probably looking at your calendar at least daily on most days. Think about expanding that idea, right? So we’ve been talking a lot about projects today, put together a list of things which are the more than one step outcomes you wanna have done by the end of the year. Okay? And make that a discrete part of your external system. Whatever technology do it on paper, do it in whatever digital tool, do it online, whatever works best for you. And then get in the habit of next action. Okay?

21:56 S1: So, for each one of those outcomes and for all of those things that you’ve captured, what’s the next action? What’s the very next physical visible thing you need to do to move that forward? That’s kind of your three minute introduction to GTD and some of the core ideas that I think would be helpful in the current environment. What are you going to do to talk to… What are you going to say to the folks who are more experienced GTD’ers.

22:20 S2: Well, you know, there’s no moves but the basic moves, but there’s there are some ways to think about and relate to some of the basics that might help. So, if you’re doing GTD, you’re doing mind sweeps, you’re getting stuff out of your head, already. By mind sweep we just be mean you’re sitting down with some kind of recording implemented piece of paper or a Word doc or whatever, and answering the question “What has your attention?” I would encourage you all to do that with, particularly the focus on what’s uncertain right now in mind. You just go, “Alright based on the current climate what am I kind of worrying about, what’s niggling away at me, what is this, and start to get that out.

23:00 S2: That in itself is a mildly therapeutic but that’s only step one. Then, I would say, “Look at that,” and, run the GTD thought process that you know so well on clarifying your projects and next actions, but have a think in particular with each one of these things that you’re so called worried about, about what is controllable in that situation. What is within your control within that situation? And what is within your control within that situation is necessarily the project is the outcome that you’re wanting to go toward right? So, I’m sure you can think of examples of people and situations that are not within your control but you found some element that is actually something where you can affect some form of positive change, or where you do have some desired outcome within this that is 51% believable, that it is reasonable, that you could actually influence that outcome.

23:55 S2: So that’s thing one, is do a mind sweep. Get your worries out, turn your problems into projects. And then thing two is probably your system’s gonna be a little overloaded at that point if you do, it’s very possible that there’s more there to do than one human being should be expected to do. And so getting the stuff that’s real, that’s in there, out, is going to create some pressure and the way to alleviate that pressure is to then renegotiate some of those things you thought were important, that in reality, some of these things that were worries are gonna edge out or are gonna edge out, in order to create a system that is reasonable for one person to live within.

24:34 S2: And renegotiate those things, and renegotiate them well and consciously and kindly with others, or with yourself, get them into something maybe, get them into projects deferred, get them into, you know, a calendar item for October to review, is it time to pick these things back up? But get them out of your active system and get real with those things that are within your control to start to alleviate any of the other concern around what’s changed, those are my thoughts.

25:02 S1: Good great stuff. Thank you, Robert. And thank you all for joining us for this week’s Change Your Game with GTD podcast. It occurs to me, we’ve had Viktor Frankl, and we’ve had Heraclitus, and we’ve had Spinal Taps so we’ve ranged all over.

25:17 S2: The big three, the big three right there, yeah.

25:19 S1: All over the big three, all over the intellectual landscape. Hope you found this helpful. If there’s anything that we could do to help you on your GTD journey, please do let us know. You can find us at, we very much do requests. So if you have anything in mind that you’d like us to talk about in one of these podcasts, please do get in touch. Thanks again, be safe, be well, and we’ll talk to you next time. Bye for now.


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