Sometimes we get so caught up in our day-to-day work, simply ‘doing’, often over-busy and fighting fires – that we lose the bigger picture. We can often find ourselves being driven by the ‘latest and loudest’ rather than the things that will really help us achieve our bigger goals and objectives.

This loss of perspective is normal, but the Getting Things Done® (GTD®) Horizons of Focus model can help ensure that your daily work is aligned to big picture thinking – the higher-level values and your wider purpose.

Todd Brown and Robert Peake discuss the Horizons of Focus model and how it can be used to help drive your work, be guided by your purpose, and see the big picture in everything you do.

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0:00:00.5 Todd Brown: Hello, everyone. And welcome to another Change Your Game with GTD Podcast. My name is Todd Brown, and I’m here with Robert Peake.

0:00:14.4 Robert Peake: Hi.

0:00:14.7 TB: Our goal in this podcast here is to give you some thoughts about how you can get the most out of the GTD or Getting Things Done methodology on your road to helping you to get more of the right things done as efficiently and as effectively as you can do, but at the same time in ways that reduce your stress levels, reduce your distractions and help you to shut off from work when you wanna shut off from work, that’s GTD in a nutshell. And our goal is to help you through our experience personally as GTD practitioners, as certified trainers, coaches, and also based on some of the experiences that we’ve had with clients to help you to get the most out of GTD. I remember when we were talking about what we’re gonna talk about, what we felt would be an interesting topic, it’s astounding, ’cause we did check and we haven’t really talked about this in quite a long time, is doing a bit of a deep dive into the horizons of focus model.

0:01:12.5 TB: So would you mind just giving us a little bit of a high level overview, maybe for those folks who aren’t all that familiar with the model or… The words might ring a vague bell, but it doesn’t bring… Nothing vivid springs to mind, maybe bring people up to speed on what the model is and what its function is.

0:01:27.7 RP: Yeah, sure. So our favorite horizon… So the horizon idea, the idea with a horizon really is that as you look out on the horizon the further away something is the less in focus it is, but as you look, cast your eye further out, you can see a lot, you can see the context or the big picture, whereas up close, the immediate things that you’re looking at, let’s say, your up close Newark vision can be quite detailed, quite crisp, but doesn’t necessarily involve the whole big context of the grain of sand versus the far off waves in the distance, if you’re looking out from a beach, that’s the idea, and that metaphor really serves to give you an understanding of what we say when we say, having a sense of perspective, perspective is the bigger picture, as well as how it all joins up. You can see from the farthest horizon to the nearest grain of sand and everything in between, and that’s when people say, Alright, I feel like I got the big picture, I got the perspective, I have the direction. I know how this all links up and then I’m headed in the right direction as it were, so when people say…

0:02:46.3 RP: I feel like I need more perspective on the bigger picture of what’s going on and how it all joins up, what we recommend is that you work on the horizons of focus, or work within that framework, and by work on it, what I mean is two things, one, externalizing it, because what we recognize is the horizons of focus exists, right? They already are running and operating in your world, values exist, different areas of focus of your life exist, and you’re already participating in those, but externalizing those in a way that you can then the second thing, reflect on them appropriately, is what gives people a sense of perspective so you’re engaged consciously rather than unconsciously with how all the pieces in the different horizons fit together.

0:03:34.5 RP: So the horizons, the reason we distinguish and break this stuff up is there are some unique characteristics to each horizon, and there’s also a degree of frequency with which you might wanna review each horizon, and generally the rule is, the further out the horizon, the higher up the horizon, the less frequently you’ll need to review that. So the first horizon, our favorite horizon is next actions, that’s why we name the company what we did, and it’s the part that a lot of people find revolutionary ’cause it’s that very next step and it’s that thinking about what’s the very next small single sitting one off action I’d be doing to move something forward? The next horizon up from that what we call projects, you can also just think of as multi-step outcomes or multi-step desired outcomes, and that’s the end point, it’s the finish line, it’s the done state that the next actions are gonna be incrementally driving you, driving you toward.

0:04:32.2 RP: So those two get ticked off as done at some point, but the next level up from that, what we call areas of focus, areas of responsibility are ongoing, so those are ones that unless your life circumstances change in a big way, you’re always gonna have some of those and health is one that every human being with a body has. It’s an area of focus, it may all be on track, but once it becomes off-track, you realize, “Okay, that’s an area that I need to give some attention to,” and so areas of focus generate projects and actions when you wanna change what’s going on in that area, the next level’s up from that, what we call goals and what we call vision are, again, a lot like projects, things that get ticked off as done at some point things you said you wanted to do, it’s just the timeline is further out with projects, we say within about the next year or so with goals, two to three years, vision, three to five years out, and the reason… Just the reason we distinguish that is really practical because your next action list, you wanna look at every day, your project list, you wanna look at it once a week, but goals, stuff that’s two to three years out, you may wanna look at quarterly or even annually.

0:05:46.5 RP: The vision stuff, three to five years is probably a once a year visioning exercise, so again, it’s just that practicality of what do you want in the more continual focus in a weekly review, like your projects, and what do you want to review as more of a… Let’s an annual planning exercise or something like that, and then that top level one is again, something that exists, they all exist to some degree already, but the people may or may not have necessarily made conscious a lot and that is your sense of purpose and values, so the purpose is the big why either why does your job role exist or what gives you a sense of purpose about your life. And then the values are the things you don’t want to just go against or transgress as you’re going about fulfilling that purpose. I found certain values for myself when I came to a different culture.


0:06:40.6 RP: And this value of just brutal honesty, blunt and frank didn’t go over quite as well in the British culture, for example, so you find out that values are to some degree relative when you butt up against someone else with slightly different values, but that’s at least my flavor version of the model in a nutshell, and again, the reason we have these six horizons is yes, there’s different traits to each, but also there’s a different degree of frequency with which you wanna be reviewing it and also getting clear at each level or each day gives you a different kind of perspective, that broadly… What did I miss out there Todd, what did I leave out? [chuckle] How would you describe it?

0:07:28.2 TB: I wouldn’t say you missed anything, but I think as you’ve been talking about it, it brings to mind a number of things, which I think will probably be interesting and enlightening for folks, the fact that you mentioned that this is not an artificial framework, in other words, David Allan quite famously has said many, many times, he said he didn’t invent GTD, he discovered it. And so the horizons of focus, just like the workflow model that we talk about, the natural planning model that we talk about, these various frameworks that guide our thinking in getting things done, the horizons of focus model isn’t reflective of something that we’ve built… It’s doing something, it’s making explicit something, which is in some ways happening anyway, and as you say, just like so much that we do in GTD, getting, externalizing the thinking about those things and then reviewing that can bring… Well, I’m gonna say when it comes to the horizons of focus, I think out there, there is a huge, huge need for this, if people are interested in making sure that they’re not just driven by, as we say in GTD, the latest and the loudest, they’re not just driven by the social media posts that are showing up, or the Microsoft Teams posts that are showing up, or the emails that are arriving or whatever, that they’re getting a bit of balance in their lives so that the things which are less…

0:09:04.3 TB: Less urgent, less in your face, but are equally as important, are getting their fair share of attention so that you’re making progress to those things that are, toward those things that are a bit further out there. Sometimes in my seminars, I’ll ask people to do… I’ll ask people to do a little bit of a thought exercise where I’ll say, “Think about something that you want to achieve. Pick a time frame, two years out, three years out, a long-term goal, something that feels like… That it’s not something you wanna do in the next few weeks.” So that could be in terms of the horizons of focus, that could be something that we call a goal or objective, that’s what we call horizon three, so something that you might wanna get done in the next one to two years, is the timeframe we use there as you said, and then it could also be a vision thing, three to five years long-term planning thing, and what I’ll say is, “Okay, now, think about your email inbox and ask yourself the question, have you had any emails related to that recently?” And for most people, they say, “Well, no, I haven’t…

0:10:16.3 TB: I’m dealing with other things, I’m fighting fires, I’m dealing with things that are more project level,” whatever, and the result of that is that if they don’t have some external reminder about those longer term things they’re trying to accomplish, and if they’re continually driven by just what’s arriving in their worlds, then what that will mean is that thing that is a five-year goal, let’s say when they consider the question again in two or three years time, what are your five-year goals that will still be a five-year goal. They will not have made much progress toward it. So I think it’s in our world where the world is coming at us so fast, where the technologies are evolving to allow us to be reminded at all times of day and nights about various things that are happening. I think that the need for this model, again, for people who are… Who are not content simply to be just driven by their email inbox, some people just say that, they say, “Hey, I’m… ” I heard someone said this to me in a seminar one time, “I’m very happy to be driven by my email inbox.

0:11:21.0 TB: That’s absolutely fine as I see it. That’s my job, I do email.” [chuckle] And if that’s your attitude, then there’s not a lot… What we’re offering here is probably not a lot attractive, but if your goal is that these, as I say, that these longer term things that are important to you, get enough attention in your world and spending some time with the horizons of focus model, I think can be very beneficial. That’s… That’s my take. What do you reckon?

0:11:48.4 RP: That’s a really good point. It’s such a good point. And the horizons of focus, to me is where getting things done, as you said, gets to be about getting the right things done and getting proactive about what you want, just recognizing that you have desired outcomes, things that you want to be true. That aren’t true, is a revelation for some people who relate to their various problems in life, this is a problem and I need to figure out what to… You know, I need to deal with the problem. And we say, “Well, what’s your desired outcome?” And they go, “Oh, oh, I can have a desired outcome?” But again, that’s reactive, that’s reactive to a problem or a situation that’s come in a sense to you, and as you say, there’s a lot of things, hope, dreams, goals, ideas that we have that just acknowledging them and starting to review them regularly changes in my experience, the orientation of your brain toward that topic, you start to see things differently, you start to experience things differently in relation to that as a stated goal as opposed to an unconscious goal, so very, very powerful model, maybe a bit of an unsung hero of GTD and something that really, I think anyone can start to do with the right prompt and the right inroad to starting to create these horizons of focus for themselves.

0:13:18.0 RP: When you go to do this, Todd, I’m curious, what is your process for getting your own horizons of focus exteriorized, where do you… First of all, how do you mine that out for yourself, and then where do you store it? Where do you keep it? How do you review it? What’s Todd’s relationship to horizons of focus?

0:13:41.8 TB: Yeah, it’s interesting. So as we’ve talked about, many times anyone who’s been along to a seminar or has been coached, will know that when we talk about the bottom levels of the horizons of focus, so if we’re talking about calendars and next actions, that’s where there’s more complexity, there’s more structure, there are more elements, if you will, to the system at that level, orientation maps, as David Allan would call them, the more elements to your system that you will be able to interact with an order that you’re reminded helpfully about things or where you’re notifying things. And one of the other interesting things about the horizons of focus model is that as we make our way up, generally speaking, the complexity, the need for complexity goes way down. So at the top level, what we call horizon five or purpose and principles, most people just need a bullet list of, I don’t know, half a dozen, maybe 10, whatever the right number is for you, elements at that level. So to answer your question, down at the bottom levels, as I’ve mentioned before, my system is broadly based around Microsoft technologies and the Mac and Apple platform, I do use some other bits around the edges, but it’s Outlook, it’s Microsoft To Do, and Mac-based with the tablets…

0:15:13.0 TB: And an iPhone. But as I make my way up, it’s really interesting, at some point, for a while I had everything in the same system, so I had within the Task List in Outlook or these days in Microsoft To Do, I’d actually have a separate category or a separate folder where I kept my higher horizons, and what I recognized over time was that I really didn’t need it to be in the rest of my system, so these days, I literally just have those higher horizons from horizon three all the way up to five, they’re all just in, they’re all just in document form, literally just in document form, and I stored them… One of the things that I realized many years ago was that I quite like… Because the lists are quite short, I quite like using very large fonts, so I print them out, I have them with me most in paper form so that I can look at them from time to time, anyway, you can absolutely use other technologies and other people have other preferences, but I just thought, let’s just keep this really simple and let’s make it… As long as I know where to find it, that’s really the key.

0:16:17.6 TB: And the only thing I’ve left out there is horizon two, which is what we call the areas of focus and responsibility, and that for me is kept in a mind map, in a digital mind map format, which works for a lot of people, because it gives you the ability, the nature of that level of the horizons of focus is that it’s quite helpful to be able to think organically about the highest level of your focus, sorry your areas of focus and accountability, highest level in the sense of, for example, family relationships, let’s say, and then, because if I’m using a mind map, what that allows me to do is then dig into that a little bit, okay, so maybe then I would have as sub areas of focus and accountability, the individual members of my family, just as a reminder, as I’m looking at that inventory of how are these people doing? Are they getting from me what they need? Am I getting from them what I need? That sort of thing. So there you go, in a very big and rugged nutshell, that’s what it looks like in my system. How about for you, and what do you think… For someone who’s new to this, what do you think you’d be recommending by way of kicking the tires and getting started?

0:17:35.2 RP: Yeah, yeah, so mine’s very similar, it’s effectively document-based in the areas of focus, started as a mind map, and as you know any, basically any spider diagram can be collapsed from 2D to 1D just by doing indented lists, so effectively it’s the same thing… Top level heading, as you said, like family, and then individual key family members or family responsibilities or whatever, nested under that, so a very similar format when people say, I wanna do some work on the areas of focus, usually we really like to go bottom up or I like to go bottom up, when I’m coaching people for capacity reasons, [chuckle] meaning that if you really start charting out this grand, grand vision for yourself, but you don’t have the operational capability to really be on top of what’s already coming at you, what you’ve essentially already initiated and created and have going in your world, more of that, more of those big impossible dreams are gonna feel a little impossible or potentially overwhelming to the extent that your creativity and your ability to really get into that and go with that and engage with that may automatically be a bit, a bit backed off, just because you’re dealing with or coping with the inbox. So once you feel like you’ve crawled your way out of your inbox a bit, once you have a reasonable project list and the next action for every one of those…

0:19:14.5 RP: Another place to start to look would be to start just marching up the chain in a linear fashion to the areas of focus. Here you’re really just looking at a brainstorm, like I said, health, family, and if you have any kind of job description or any sense of what your job is, that would be described using verbs like maintain, ensure support, those kind of ongoing verbs about, this is an engine that needs to be kept running and clean and etcetera, those are the kinds of areas of focus that would show up professionally, actually as well as personally. So that’s one approach is very linear bottom-up, but I’ve also come across people who just intuitively go, “You know, I really need to… I just really need to get in touch with my values. I just really need to do that work and let some of my values start to pull me and start to align me…

0:20:12.7 RP: With some… I need to call some projects, I wanna do that based on whether or not these projects really line up with my values and my sense of purpose, by all means, jump up to the top and spell some of that stuff out. So it doesn’t have to be absolutely linear, you don’t have to be fully underway with a completely operationalized and habituated GTD system to gain benefit from the horizons, but do be aware that the more that the lower horizons are really solid and really working for you, the more that this awareness of the higher horizons will have somewhere to go, when you identify an area of focus and go, “Oh my gosh, that area is off-track, you can get it on to a project list comfortably rather than go, “Okay, that’s on a project list, but my project list is incomplete and I feel uncomfortable about that.”

0:21:05.9 RP: So that’s been my general coaching again, it’s not a hard and fast that you gotta go bottom-up, because sometimes I just recommend people trust their intuition, I think, “Wow, that area really seems interesting to me, and I feel like I could get some benefit there,” run with that you know you better than I do, frankly. You’ve been living with you every day, so that’s broadly, at least where I recommend people start. What about you in terms of once they do wanna engage into a particular area, what do you generally recommend, what do you see work for people to get them kick-started or prompted or to give them an entry point into thinking about some of these different areas?

0:21:50.0 TB: Yeah, I think generally, I’d go with what you said there, I think what I would maybe add just by way of a refinement that I’ve seen is helpful with some people, is that especially when it’s coming to… When it comes to the outcomes that are high, so what we call horizons three and four year goals, goals and objectives at horizon three in your vision, at horizon four what I find is quite helpful when people are specifically looking at those two horizons, is that they just do a brainstorm about… The framing question I quite often use is just, “What do you want to have happen longer term?” Okay, and they don’t… Because some people get a little bit too focused on, “Okay, is this your after next thing, or is that a four-year thing, or is that a… What’s the timeframe?” And I think what I encourage people to do is just focus first on what you want, it feels like it’s longer term, and then we’ll come back to it and we’ll do a little bit of parsing of that so that we can figure out what belongs as it were in which bucket? And once you’ve got it in the right bucket, of course, that brings then the benefit that you can understand what the incremental steps are, let’s say at the goal level, that’ll get you up to the vision level.

0:23:02.1 TB: So what do I need to get done in 2023 that will get me to something that I want to achieve by 2026. So that’s one thing and the other thing that’s come to mind for me that I think is really important, and this is something that’s evolved in my own practice recently, when we talk about outcomes, quite often, I think we use language like… We use the language of achievement or a payment or acquisition, we say, I want to own something, I want to want to get the new job, I want to… I want to achieve a better time in my chosen sport, whatever it is, and all of that, of course, is very valuable, but one of the things that I’ve found in my own system recently, which I find very powerful, is to be open to the possibility that your outcome is to be experiencing things differently, I want to experience things in a different way, and that for me has been really, really revolutionary in my own system, I’ve still got lots of outcomes in there that look more like, have one of these to achieve one of those but this whole idea of being able to say, my day-to-day experience of something has changed, that has proven to be…

0:24:22.5 TB: As I say, that has proven to be very, very powerful, and especially with these higher horizons, that might be something that you… That might be something that you could explore. You wanna experience your relationship with somebody in a different way. That could be, for example a way to frame that. So Robert, I am really surprised, but this is… We’ve almost reached the end of our time, any final tips or tricks or anything that I just said that triggered some thoughts you think might be valuable for folks?

0:24:50.0 RP: I think that’s great. This time has flown by, so obviously, there may be more to unpack here, but I just… Hearing you talk about the experience leads me to some of the deeper bits of the horizons, so for those of you that want to really engage with this in a way that… That could inspire you. Going up the horizon model, one of the ways that you can do that is by asking why but not why as in how come, but more why in the sense of what’s underneath that? And in a way, talking about the experience rather than just the tangible thing that symbolizes that experience. I want an experience of freedom, and so I wanna buy this really cool new bicycle, it’s like, “Well, there’s a lot of ways to experience that wind in your hair experience, even if you can’t afford the new bicycle yet. And the whole model is structured that way to some extent, to where it’s very easy to take a single next action and by going, “Well, what’s under that? What’s the reason for that? What’s driving that? What’s the purpose behind that?” To get way, way up, right…

0:26:09.6 RP: Into a [0:26:11.3] ____, your sense of purpose in life, right all the way up to purpose and values from a single next action. So to me, one of the great powers of the model is that you can start to uncover deeper and more inspirational purposes, if that’s more of what you need by going up the model with the Why, and you can also get granular and make sure that that stuff’s actually happening rather than just being some kind of pipe dream by asking how, what would be true five years from now, if I was really experiencing a total sense of freedom in my work and life, what would be true two to three years from now about that… What are the ongoing things I might need to support meanwhile to build up to that, what are projects for this year that could start to lead me toward this amazing 10-year goal or whatever it is? So it lets you break it down when you’re dreaming big, but not doing anything about it, it lets you get in touch with inspiration when you’re down doing something and not quite sure why you’re doing it. And to me, that’s just something incredibly powerful because wherever you find yourself and whatever you need in that moment, there’s a way to go up and down the model to get that for yourself. What do you think? How did we do? [laughter] We covered some ground and boy, I just feel like there’s even more ground that we could cover.

0:27:38.9 TB: Well, I guess I could just finish with the idea that I’ll just… Echo something that you said earlier. One of the things to be aware of, I think, especially around these higher horizons that as you work with them, is that this is not for the faint of heart. You will come, you will come face-to-face with some really interesting and maybe challenging thoughts about what’s important to you, what do you really want to achieve, it might involve conversations with other people in many cases, especially as you go higher up the horizons, if you’re talking about three to five-year goals, well, maybe you wanna be involving your friends, your family, your colleagues, whoever is a part of some of those larger goals. We haven’t even touched on, and back to your point about there might be more here, I haven’t even touched on how this model can be used at team and organizational level, which we have also had a lot of experience of over the years. But that’s a conversation for another day. Well, listen, Robert, thank you. I’ve really enjoyed this, I have… As usual, I’ve come away with some new thoughts about how I can refine my own practice, so thank you for everything that you shared, and thank you all for being here.

0:28:49.2 TB: As always, we are very keen to hear from you if this topic has resonated with you, if it’s inspired in you, any other thoughts about anything else that we could be talking about in this podcast series. It would be helpful, please do let us know. As usual, please subscribe, and if you’re interested in getting more of these, you’ll then be notified on a regular basis if you click the little bell, that there’s more coming, and until then, we’ll look forward to seeing you next time. Bye for now.


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