In our latest podcast episode, Todd and Robert discuss how long it takes to learn GTD and the fact that this is a journey.
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0:00:06.1 Todd Brown: Hello everyone, and welcome to another in the series of the Change Your Game with GTD Podcast. My name is Todd Brown, and I’m here with Robert Peake.
0:00:15.3 Robert Peake: Hey Todd.
0:00:17.6 TB: Hey Robert. Our goal in this podcast is to provide you with our thoughts, our experiences around helping to implement stress-free productivity using the Getting Things Done methodology. Robert, when you and I were sort of kicking ideas around before you hit record, one of the things that we thought would be helpful just based on our recent experience, things we’ve heard from clients and our own experience, frankly, is talking about focus. We quite often say that we’re in the focus business, and so one of the things we thought it’d be helpful to talk about would be how do we enhance our focus in 2023, enable greater focus, reduced distraction? That’s sort of the gig as we’ve described it. So let me ask you to kick off. What’s on your mind about focus and about maybe challenges and solutions?
0:01:10.7 RP: Yeah. Well, I think one of the things I’m interested in is what we call relaxed focus, and in particular, what gets in the way of that. I think certainly my experiences of early childhood were one of having quite a bit of relaxed focus, in playtime, for example. There’s not this stress or driving thing, it’s really about kind of being in the moment. So how can we get back to that, how can we remove some of the barriers to relaxed focus? And I think frankly, my reflection is that as we go along, I think we pick up bad habits along the way. So for me, and exploring all of this, I’m looking into 2023, and kinda fresh start, new year. Yes, it’s an arbitrary marker, but why not take advantage of that to have a fresh start, and think about how do I support myself in eliminating distraction and in eliminating stressful focus, if you like? So, I have a lot of bad habits, and one of them is kind of getting up tight or getting tense, or getting hyper-focused, if you like, on what I’m working on. And one of the ways I noticed that that’s happening is physiologically. I’ll start tensing up, and I’ll start kinda leaning in to the screen. I’ll kinda… I had a friend once walk by… We’re in an office and he walked by my office door and saw me doing that, and he said, “Don’t fall in.”
0:02:42.0 RP: Sort of intensely focused on the code or whatever it was I was working on. So that’s one of the ways that I noticed that I’m not necessarily in a relaxed focus kind of place. So there is a lot in the getting things done in the GTD methodology about relaxed focus, ’cause it is kind of one of the fundamental aims, getting things off your mind, doing the thinking in advance, getting things into a trusted system so that you can be present, so you can have that, if not sense of play, certainly sense of being fully present with whatever it is you’re working on. So I think it’d be fun to explore some of the ways in which we can support ourselves in overcoming some of the bad habits of creating stress, creating hyper-focus and creating distraction. I think one of the main things we were talking about in advance of this conversation, just as we were teeing things up is distraction and how often we are distracted, but also how often we distract ourselves. So, curious your thoughts on that ’cause I think that was one of the impetuses of this was your experience around distraction.
0:03:48.0 TB: Yeah. Do you know, just as you’re describing that, what’s coming to mind for me is that when you talk to people about the distractions in their lives… I did a seminar over the last couple of days I was just telling you about, and of course one of the things that we hear a lot about is what gets in the way of people’s ability to be both stress-free and productive. Those are the kinds of questions we quite often ask at the beginning of the seminars. And what I heard a lot from people was in essence, “Well, the distractions come from my colleagues. The distractions come from the outside world. The distractions come from my Team’s post.” This is a company that uses Teams, “Or my inbox.” And I think for a lot of people… I’m not saying those things don’t… That those sort of interruptions don’t occur, of course they do, but I think that one of the things that people tend to discount is the amount that they’re distracted internally. They’re distracting themselves in a sense. And that can be because they’re being too open to distractions. So, take your mobile phone, put it next to your workstation while you’re working on your laptop, put your mobile phone next to you and your IQ goes down.
0:05:05.0 TB: We’ve got some good studies that tell us that that is part of the story when you’re open, when you leave yourself open to those kinds of distractions. So I think one thing for people to think about is where… And then, of course, that’s a lot of what GTD is all about, right, is reducing those internal distractions. And having to think about which external distractions we can shut ourselves off from. One of the things that came up in the seminar last couple of days was… I mentioned to this group, “Hey, by the way, some people didn’t know this, but you can actually shut Outlook down. Did you know that, that you can actually close Outlook?” And there was, of course, quite a bit of laughter, but a couple of people went, “Actually, that’s really interesting ’cause I haven’t shut… ” What I heard from these people was, “I haven’t shut Outlook down in months, it’s just sort of a constant presence.” So how open are we to distractions, to external distractions? But another consideration, of course, as you say, is our internal distraction, the extent to which we allow ourselves or set ourselves up to be distracted internally.
0:06:18.3 TB: And the best practices in GTD, a lot of them are focused on exactly that, right? How do I reduce those sort of internal distractions? And to come back to the thing that you referenced, the story that I told just before you hit record, one of the things that I’ve been doing over the last couple of days, I got back in touch with a best practice, that’s something that I talk about all the time, and I was not exhibiting this behaviour, I was not doing it. And that has to do with when you’re…
0:06:51.1 TB: What I was doing, and those of you who know GTD will sort of recognise the terminology, I was clarifying and organising the things in my inbox. So I was basically making decisions about the emails that had arrived. And what I found myself doing was cherry-picking, in my inbox, cherry-picking the things that look like they might be quick, fun, or otherwise engaging, right? And what I recognised was it’s not evil, but it’s also not optimal, right? What I ought to be doing is just making decisions one by one about the things that are in my inbox. And so what I recognised was, and this is really tactical but also very powerful. So when I opened the email that I was gonna make a decision about, I maximized it, so that was the only thing on my screen. I couldn’t see my inbox, I couldn’t see anything else on my screen, other than this email. And that immediately made a pretty big difference. So all of a sudden I was not distracted by the thought that, “Okay, well, I’ve got this window open in front of me and I’m focusing on this email, but gee, might there be in the inbox something else that would be more fun, and maybe I should click over there and… ” you know.
0:08:05.8 TB: And so again, sort of a tactical approach based on the best practices that we talk about that made a big difference to my morning. Two hours, I’ve been working… Before you and I got together here, two hours I was working sort of very… I was definitely in the productive experience based on that small change.
0:08:28.3 RP: I love it. I love it.
0:08:31.1 TB: Yeah. Anyway, back over to you. What’s that engendered for you, if anything?
0:08:34.9 RP: Well, no, I think you’re absolutely right about the perils of cherry-picking. I had a former colleague who used to call it “snacking on the inbox”. And making the point that snacking rather than having set meals and thinking about the nutritional value of what you’re doing is a bit similar to what you’re doing when you’re kind of cherry picking. And I thought that was great, and I think really, since then, there is so many more channels besides email. We can be easily kind of constantly info-snacking, if you like, in a wide array of possible information sources. So for me, one of the things that as a GTD practitioner that has evolved over time for me that I think is very much complementary to my practice, is just the moment of pause. So increasingly, I found that I was getting more and more on reflex with the phone, it was just a reflex. And my wife pointed out to me that sometimes even at meals, I’d be reflexing onto what’s going on on the phone. So just literally taking a moment when I have that impulse to take a breath, take one breath in and out and be present with your breath, has had a huge impact.
0:09:49.4 RP: And likewise, when I’m at work and there’s this wide variety of potential input channels, sometimes I remember to ask myself, “Hang on, am I ready for a new input? Am I actually ready for a new input? Or am I just coming off the back of a meeting and actually I need to take 5, 10 minutes, I need to kind of sort out my thoughts about that, or I need… Before the next completely different context that I’m running into, be it a seminar or a conversation, or whatever it is, do I need to just go get a cup of tea and stretch? What do I need right now, rather than what’s the next source of stimulation?” If you like. So I think all of that requires a baseline sort of hygiene in your GTD practice of being able to capture and having an inbox. Because I think the ability to not have to feel like you’re constantly snacking and going around to all the different potential sources to see where you should be putting your focus. The prerequisite to that is that you instead have a practice of capturing into select inboxes what those things that you really do need to see more than meals than the snacks, and then clarifying and organising those, sort of preparing. So preparing the meals, if you like, in advance so that you can sort of be nutritious and be concerted.
0:11:10.0 RP: You can tell I like this metaphor. So you can kinda cook for yourself rather than just snacking all day long. Maybe you can get away with that at uni, but not so much today. So anyway, that’s one thing that’s tactical and specific, but also I think very much complementary to the practice. What about you? In terms of your GTD practice, what do you notice about how it helps you to create more focus, how it helps you to deal with maybe some of the bad habits of distraction or whatever those things are that get in our way?
0:11:48.3 TB: Yeah, I just wanna come back to something you said, then I’ll answer your question. I had a boss… I might have told this story in one of our previous podcasts, but I had a boss when I was still working in a large corporate, and she was very famous for dealing effectively with the question that you just mentioned, namely, “Am I ready for more?” And what she would do is she would work offline, so in other words, she… And she was connected to the network, but she would actually set… I think it was Outlook she was using at the time. She would set Outlook to offline mode. Now, for those of you that don’t know, what that means is that Outlook does not go up to the server and grab the latest emails that have arrived, so you can deal with the emails that you have in your inbox. And she would deal with whatever was in her inbox and then she would… Sorry, she would load her inbox, as it were, download what was up on the server, then turn it offline, and then deal with those emails. So she had the confidence that nothing new was going to arrive.
0:12:49.5 TB: And that was a very… That gave her the ability to focus without being worried about being distracted by incoming email. Then once she had all of the email dealt with, whatever that looked like for her in her inbox, and her inbox was clear again, then she would again, turn Outlook back online, and then the next however many emails would arrive and she deal with those. So that, again, sort of tactical approach might well work for a lot of people. But coming back to your question, I think what… It’s so interesting, right? So I’m sat here next to my physical in-tray. And my physical in-tray is… For me, it’s actually quite full at the moment. It’s got quite a bit in it. I’ve done… Doing for the last couple of days, I’ve been doing the seminar I mentioned, we had our end-of-year meeting on Monday in London, which was great, and then a dinner afterwards, which was also wonderful. But what that meant was from a keep-on-top-of-your-inbox point of view, I haven’t had a lot of time to focus on it. So the in-tray is quite full at the moment. Now, on the one hand, you might say, well, that might create some stress, and it could do. But what I really like about the fact that my system has, as we say, clean edges. In other words, I know all of those things in the inbox are things that I need to make decisions about, and I also know exactly how I’m gonna make those decisions.
0:14:22.9 TB: So using… Coming on to another best practice in getting things done, using the clarifying questions, “What is it? Is it actionable? If not, is it trash reference or incubation? If it is actionable, what’s the next action? And then can I do that in two minutes? If so, I do it straight away. Can I delegate that? Can I defer it?” And then the last question, “Is there a project there?” For those of you who are brand new to GTD, that’s a bit of a fast-forward through the best practice. Those of you who have been through GTD will be familiar with those questions. But the point of those questions is that they give me the ability… I have the confidence that I’m going to be able to make decisions about those things which are effective and efficient. And because I know that, I know how I’m going to approach that stack of paper. It’s now a stack, it’s not just a few sheets of paper in my inbox. That gives me the confidence and I can actually relax about it.
0:15:17.4 TB: And another important thing, and again, this is… It comes back to what you said, the fact that it’s sitting in my inbox and it’s not scattered all over my office [chuckle] is also really helpful, ’cause I know that it’s all in the same place. And all of the things in that in-tray, they share a meaning, they all mean the same thing. They all mean, “Hey, these are things you captured because you think they might be important to you in some way, and you need to make decisions about those.” But as I say, my practice, my GTD practice gives me the confidence that, “Yeah, okay, they’re there. But for the moment, I’m focused a hundred percent on doing what I’m doing, which is this podcast with you.” And then after that, yeah, the work with those things can recommence.
0:16:02.1 RP: And I’m glad of it that you’re, fully, fully here, and I’m glad you are here. It’s such an important thing, the inbox. It’s huge. There’s something psychological too about having a thing contained in a way. As you said, you don’t have to sort of go hither and yon to figure out what’s possibly deserving of your attention. And, actually, my wife was remarking the other day. We went to a friend’s house and in their bathroom, they had various potions and lotions and things that you would have in a bathroom, but it was contained. There was a little kind of dish or box or whatever, and we were just remarking on what a difference it made to have sort of a boundary or an edge around it to say, this is intentional, this is an inappropriate place rather than scattered across the counter top or whatever. And so there’s something very much psychologically similar about an inbox to me too that it represents… That this is contained. And I think, interestingly, some of the more advanced GTD-ers I know, are ones who can, because it’s contained, because it’s corralled, comfortably and happily ignore it for a while.
0:17:14.8 RP: Like you’ve just said, you’ve had two or three days of not being fixated on the inbox, and that’s actually, I think, one of sort of a… Mid-way along the journey, people often do get sort of fixated once they realise they can clear the inbox through clarifying and organising, through this methodology that we teach in this specific thought process. They’re just always into the inbox, they’re just always clearing it out ’cause they get the win. That’s the game, it’s clearing the inbox it’s actually no, there are other elements to this. So in a funny way, the inbox is a very, very powerful way of putting things in their place so that they don’t distract you, but also if you become fixated on, that they constantly have to clear the inbox, that in itself in a weird way can distract you from the fact that actually you should be giving attention to the lists you made, giving attention to other forms of review and work, other than simply constantly clarifying those emails. So I think it’s an interesting thing that at different points in your journey, certain elements of the practice, you can use to distract yourself if you like. That’s how I put it. They are not distracting, but you can use them to distract yourself as well. So, yeah, I think that’s very powerful and there’s some subtlety too to… Win is a practice actually something that you’re over-utilising and it actually starts to become its own form of distraction. I don’t know what…
0:18:39.3 TB: I think that’s such a good point. I think as I’m thinking about it, at given moment, everything that you are not engaged with, ideally, is in your system somewhere. That could be the stuff in your inbox, that could be the things on your lists. It’s everything you’re not engaged with other than what you’re doing right now is in your system, and so it gives you… And I’m completely with you. I think that’s in some ways the hallmark of people who get more advanced about this is that they don’t get obsessed about getting their inbox to zero. I remember… This takes me back actually, one of the very first email… A certain email, wrong. One of the very first podcasts I heard with David Allen, and this is going back more than… It’s gotta be about 15 years now.
0:19:34.4 TB: David was being interviewed and he said to the person who was interviewing him that he had not looked at his inbox in two days. And the interviewer was astounded, “How can you not look at your inbox for two days?” And David said, he said, “That’s pretty rare. It’s pretty rare in my life.” But he made the point I think we’re making, which is that someone who’s got a GTD practice that’s well developed and has a good sense of the kind of rhythm that they need in order to stay on top of things can make that kind of decision. It’s funny, it takes me back to something that’s been on my mind a lot about my own GTD practice, and I bring this into the work that I do with clients, pay attention to the sources in your life of pressure. What’s creating pressure. The fact that I’ve got stuff in my in-tray, this physical in-tray, that’s a source of pressure in my system that’s telling me that that needs some focus. I’m not overreacting to that pressure, it’s just a pressure that’s there, and at some point I will deal with it.
0:20:42.4 TB: If I open up some of my next action lists or my contacts lists and I see that they’ve gotten quite long, then that’s also a source of pressure. My system is telling me you haven’t focused on this enough or you might benefit from focusing a bit more than this, so get more on this. So I think that’s also an interesting one. People who, again, people who I think have gotten toward the black belt end Of GTD quite often have that kind of sense of their own system, and they don’t over-react. They don’t say, “Oh my goodness, I’ve had… I’ve got more than a screen of emails, and that’s a panic inducing sort of thing and I need to deal with that right now.” It might be, don’t get me wrong. If I’ve got the kind of role where clients are emailing me every 15 minutes with critical issues, well, okay then, that’s part of my role and I need to be open to that being the kind of pressure that needs a more immediate response, and I think for a lot of us that would be over react. Let’s not get obsessed, let’s not get obsessed with our GTD practice.
0:21:55.3 RP: Nice. Well, the other one where I’ve noticed there’s the potential to get obsessed is once you really get the power of how much it reduces distraction to simply capture things, that practice is one of simply called get it off your mind, get it externalised in some way that you’ll go back to it or get it over to an inbox as quickly as you can. There can be a tendency to get hyper-focused around that too. For me, it’s an uncomfortable feeling to have something on my mind these days. Having done GTD for so long, things that… I mull over things, I think about things but I don’t necessarily try and chant the reminder “must get milk, must get milk.” I find that a very bad use of neurons. So as a result, I found that one of the things I was doing is that was creating the phone reflexes ’cause I was capturing things on my phone, and just the other day, I switched to having a physical pad of paper by my bed rather than the phone, ’cause what I found is then I’d go to capture something and then there’s the blue light on the eye balls, you kow, I might as well just see what emails have come in and the next thing you know you’re down the garden path.
0:23:05.5 RP: So there’s something about the practice where as you get more subtle with it, you start to realise what’s gonna work better for you, but it also basically comes back to that thing you were talking about about visual distraction. So maximising the window rather than even having all the icons available, putting the phone to charge in another room rather than right beside your bed, so you don’t even have access to the phone at that time. And we advocate that in your physical environment, you only have reference equipment, decoration or supplies, those four types of things only, because if you run your eyes over stuff that’s anything other than that, it’s probably potentially actionable or reminding you of something actionable, and it’s gonna pull on you, it’s gonna start to pull on you. So it’s interesting, it all comes down to some very basic first principles around checking in with yourself, around minimising the visual triggers of potential distraction, but I think there’s some real subtle ways along the way in the practice that you can make adjustments to the way in which you are doing GTD that will help in some ways, just as much as the fact of doing GTD profoundly helps with distraction in its own way. What do you think?
0:24:21.5 TB: Yeah, do not. I’m just reflecting on… I think one of the things that I wanna get across to the people that I work with is, it’s your point about… What I’d say is, hey, become really impatient, really impatient about having things in your head that represent open loops for you, become impatient about that. Try your best not to carry open loops around, for all the reasons we talk about, you won’t be reminded about them when it’s helpful to be reminded about them, you will be distracted by them when it’s not helpful. And so that’s one of the things I think that, again, I really try to get people to do that. Now, of course, what that means is that they also, if you think about captures of practice, they need to be in a position to capture no matter where they are, and that’s important.
0:25:15.1 TB: I think your example of well, the phone’s not in the bedroom anymore, I’ve got paper, I’m completely with that, I think… And there have been some interesting studies about the impact of people having tech in the bedroom, what that does to our sleep patterns, so I just have a stack of index cards and a pen right next to the bed. I don’t use it very often, but every once in a while, maybe once a month, once every few weeks something will occur to me just as I’m drifting off to sleep, or when I’m… And every once a while I’m woken up by thoughts about things that need doing, and so I’m just in a position in that moment to just grab the idea, put it down on the piece of paper.
0:25:58.5 TB: What I tend to do is write it down, I don’t turn on the light ’cause that would be a little bit unsociable for my wife so it’s almost always scrawled. That’s very difficult to read the next morning. I do my best to write it in legible ways, but then what I’ll do is I’ll literally put it next to the bed on the floor, so I step on it in the morning. Okay? So I’m sure I’m gonna focus on it in the morning. And there you go, again, it’s a small thing, but it’s a way that I can reduce that kind of distraction and without fail. Every time I do that, I drift back off to sleep, and it works very well. We’re coming to the end of our time. This always goes so fast for me to say, so let’s do some top tips. Those things to focus.
0:26:44.8 RP: Yeah, this is great. I think it is just worth maybe summarising some of what we covered. We covered a lot of ground and pleasantly surprised and I feel like I’ve learned a lot, so thanks, it’s a really interesting conversation. So a lot of practical stuff around visual distraction, so maximising your windows, going into offline mode so you’re not pinged. And I think these days it’s a lot more than just switching Outlook to offline mode, it’s like there’s a lot of potential switches, the Do Not Disturb mode, you may need to set that multiple places to not actually be disturbed, but having an inbox, such a great one to corral your thinking and then have a habit of clarifying and organising this stuff. Getting things out of reach when they’re not appropriate to have them, to start to break that habit cycle, that reflex cycle. Capturing early and often, as you said, being impatient or intolerant of having stuff circulating in your head that’s to remember rather than higher order thinking.
0:27:48.0 RP: And I love the idea that you step out in the morning, that’s exactly the kind of thing where I go, how am I absolutely gonna make sure that I’m not just gonna scribble this piece of paper and it’s gonna stay by the bedside, I’m gonna forget it? So, so many of these are around being kind to your future self and acknowledging that you need help to create great focus. What do you think? What are some of your takeaways from this?
0:28:11.8 TB: I think you’ve done… And I always enjoy these Robert, as you know, and likewise, I’ve learned a lot. I think you’ve done a great job of summarising things. I think the question really is… Maybe one more, as it were, a top tip, which would be, be sensitive, be open to being aware of what are the sources of distraction in your world. And even in those situations where the distraction is external, you get the sense that you’re being distracted by other people, then ask yourself the question, well, if that’s not helpful, what can I do about that? So if you’re in an open plan office as more of us are making our way back into the office these days, and you find that there are more distractions there from your colleagues, from your co-workers, what can you do about that? Go somewhere else, go to the coffee shop, go down to the canteen, if you work in an office that has a canteen. Get out of the physical space and see if that makes a difference. And ultimately that’s what we’re all about, the productive experience includes being focused and being focused on the right things, and I think all of the things we’ve talked about today will help folks along those lines.
0:29:28.0 RP: Great stuff.
0:29:28.1 TB: So thank you all for being with us on this Change Your Game with GTD Podcast. Please do like and subscribe if you wanna hear back from us for future episodes, and as we always say, if there’s anything that you’d like us to discuss in this podcast series, which Robert, we looked this up the other day. I’m still in awe of this. That it’s been this long. You and I have been doing this for seven years, which is really hard to believe, but it’s been a great journey. It really has been. I scrolled, believe it or not, I scrolled all the way back to the first one. And it came out in 2015.
0:30:01.7 RP: Wow, time flies.
0:30:06.3 TB: So if you have… To all of you out there in the audience, if you have topics you’d like us to discuss, please do let us know, we do take requests. In the meantime, we hope you have… Whatever the rest of your day looks like, you have a great day, and that is as far as possible, as productive and as stress-free as possible. Thanks for being with us. Bye for now.