In this episode, Robert and Todd discuss how to manage and break down large projects, wether it’s a complex email or a big personal event like a wedding.
watch time: 24 mins
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0:00:05.6 Todd Brown: Hello everyone, and welcome to another of these Change Your Game with GTD podcasts. My name is Todd Brown, and I’m here as usual with Robert Peake. Hello, Robert.
0:00:16.2 Robert Peake: Hello, Todd.
0:00:19.7 TB: Our goal in this podcast series is to help you to reflect on, hopefully learn a bit from experiences, our experiences and the experiences of people that we’ve worked with around the Getting Things Done Methodology. And our goal is to support you as you continue on your journey toward the benefits of GTD, which are ultimately the experience of stress-free productivity. And Robert, as you and I were kicking around things to talk about this morning, something that we both, I think thought would be a would be a good topic, was something that came in from one of our listeners, one of our viewers, as it were. And that’s this topic of complex inputs where you have situations where you’ve got let’s say a project that’s got a lot of different moving parts.
0:01:10.2 TB: Maybe you’re getting communications that are coming in where the communication is paragraph… It’s an email and it’s several paragraphs. And in that email there will be a lot of things that are actionable. Some of it might be referenced, some of it some implications of the email contents might be more someday, maybe. So I guess let’s just talk a little bit about that. Do you have any sort of kickoff thoughts? How would you approach a situation where either let’s say it’s a big project with a lot of moving parts, and or you’ve got some communication about maybe one of those projects, which has got a lot of elements to it?
0:01:52.8 RP: Yeah, it’s a great question, and thanks to, thanks to Martha for sending it in. It’s nice to hear from real people out there that are actually benefiting from this. I heard someone once that I was coaching say to me that their boss likes to throw out idea grenades, which I thought was a great way of putting it. And there’s two elements there. One, there’s this kind of lobbing it over factor and the fact that it is also probably sort of ticking and there’s a potential to explode. But the other part of it too is who’s gonna jump on it? We’re all stressed, we’re all got a lot going on. Who’s gonna be the one to sort of sacrifice themselves for the team and say, I’ll pick that up.
0:02:37.0 RP: So I think one of the very first things I try and do and this is very much in the spirit of GTD in particularly GTD in relation to teams, is figure out who’s gonna do this, who’s gonna commit to what? And of course, GTD helps a lot with that inn a GTD enabled organization, when you have have clear areas of focus and for example, hey, that’s really a sales thing. That’s an HR thing. This is a back office admin thing. People really have a solid understanding of what they should be jumping on. But again, these kind of ideas that get lobbed in very often there’s no clarity about who should do it, even if you have pretty clear job role descriptions. And sometimes it’s not really clear either, whether this is just a good idea or it is something that we should be committing to.
0:03:34.3 RP: So people often in coaching when they get these kind of big woolly amorphous things that come into their world, they have difficulty deciding what even to do with this. And so the the first thing that I recommend is that actually your next action is to figure out what you need to figure out in order to progress this or not. So one of the big questions we ask is, do you need more time or do you need more information to be able to figure out, to be able to decide what you’re going to decide about this? And usually one of those two things helps people kind of shake out the next step. Which is talk to someone, get some more information, respond, saying, Hey is this something you really wanna do? Or is this a someday maybe type thing?
0:04:24.7 RP: Again, in a GTD enabled organization, you have this shared language that you can talk about someday maybes and waiting fors and who owns what project with this kind of framework behind you that will help you execute on that as a whole team. But that’s my kind of first take is do that big cut of is it actionable? And if so, whose action ought it even to be or actions. If it’s something big and complex as we’re talking about. So to me, the first level of unpicking, a big woolly thing is what’s actually in here for whom? And what are the actual potential commitments in all of this? And what does that kind of spark in terms of unpicking these big ones?
0:05:11.4 TB: Yeah, no, I like it. I think you sort of… That’s such a crucial thing. And, and I think under the topic of optimizing meetings. So often I think we come out of meetings with the sense that there’s real ambiguity right after the meeting, who’s got what, what’s the responsibility? Who’s got what commitments. And I think that’s something that… It’s a very practical thing. We’ve talked about it before that people can do at the end of meetings is just to say at the end of the meeting, just go around the table or around the windows if you’re doing a virtual meeting around the pictures and just say, Okay, who’s got projects and who’s got next actions based on what’s happened in this meeting, that can be so helpful.
0:05:57.3 TB: And just really drives ambiguity out. And of course gives you the opportunity if there is indecision or disagreement, right, to figure out what that is and make sure that people then discuss it. No, that’s not with you, that’s with me. I’m better placed to do that, so I’ll take on that action, for example. So I think that is key. I’m thinking as well about these situations where, let’s go back to the idea of an input. A complex input. So you get an email, it’s several paragraphs long and has a lot of information in it. And this always takes me back to someone who used to work for me back in the days when I worked at a large corporate and he was famous for this, he would send three page emails.
0:06:39.9 TB: And it was pretty clear he was taking days to put these emails together. And by the way, all in the spirit of trying to be helpful, et cetera, I mean, he wasn’t a bad actor by any means. But the result of that, of course, was that a lot of times those emails got skimmed, they didn’t get fully appreciated. So a couple of things that come to mind for me when it comes to that is first off, just be open to the possibility that yeah, there will be multiple things that this email means. So this email might mean there’s some next actions for me. This email might mean that there’s some things that I need to delegate. There might be some things here that are more someday maybe in nature.
0:07:22.3 TB: And then at the end of the day, it could also be that the situation is, Hey, on top of all of that, I wanna hold onto the email as referenced. So first off is be open to the fact that… The complexity that it might well be that this needs to be met with a certain level of complexity simply because of the nature of the thing. It could be that there a given email reflects multiple projects. Could also be. The other thing I think that comes to mind for me around this is when it comes to these complex emails, it gives us the opportunity. If you think about it on the other end, if you think about it from the point of view of the person who’s creating the complexity.
0:08:05.9 TB: We can really help each other out by quite frankly, chunking our emails down. If you recognize you’re in conversation with somebody and you’ve got four or five topics that you need to discuss with them, breaking that down into four or five individual emails will help. It’ll help in the sense that the receiving person then can deal with each of those as a discreet thing. Whereas if it’s more… If the email has the nature more of a, Hey, I’m having a chat with somebody that I know and there are a number of things on my mind, it makes it tougher for that person to deal with. Plus, of course, then the email is longer, and therefore more off-putting takes longer to… Or might be less likely to be engaged with in the first place, let’s put it that way.
0:08:53.7 TB: So yeah, I think there are… And what’s interesting for me, I think as time goes by… Is that and this may be a result of the fact that so much more of our communication is happening in channels like WhatsApp or like Teams chat or like what some of these sort of short messaging formats is that the number of emails that I’m getting these days that are tomes, that number has gone down, that number’s gone pretty significantly, I think, over the last five years or so. But that said, that doesn’t mean to say that I don’t get emails, which are three sentences on four different topics. And it would be my interest and the interest of the author to sort of break those down so that it’d be easier to deal with. So yeah, those are some kickoff ideas, I think, in this other realm. So this is now about the way that we’re communicating about complex things. But yeah, that’s in my experience been kind of what I’ve learned and the best practices I’ve evolved around that.
0:09:56.3 RP: That’s great. Yeah, and I think it is really true in my experience that GTDers naturally tend to try to solve those kind of problems, or at least not contribute to the monograph monolith tome email as you said, chunking it down, sort of single subject emails, other things you can do, like the kind of journalistic inverted pyramid. Like you start with TLDR or spoiler alert, here’s what I recommend we do, and now here’s the supporting information for that rather than a big buildup. Also tagging people, we do this at NAA where we say, @Todd, can you sign off on such and such and then carry on in the email if it is kinda one subject, but multiple people have multiple actions.
0:10:43.4 RP: I think it’s a natural result of us becoming aware of how we work best, and then realizing there’s some general principles about how others work best. And so we’re actually sending emails with the recipients in mind in terms of what they might want or need to take out of the email in terms of their own actions, projects, itineraries, et cetera. So I think that’s big, and it’s a natural consequence of doing GTD as any kind of group team or organization.
0:11:16.2 RP: I think another thing maybe to address in this is, is not only the monolith email, but the monolith situation. It can be something that comes in, in a single word. Like she said, Yes. So we have a shared project now called getting married. And it’s not just a project, it is a project with many, many sub-projects from catering to invitations to all kinds of stuff. So I wonder if Todd, maybe if you wanna kick off on any of your thoughts on unpacking something that is large and complex in nature, even if it’s, even if it’s not multi-stranded in the way it came in, that certainly you’re gonna have to unpack lots of different things that need to be considered thought about and moved forward about some kind of new, big input in that sense.
0:12:13.1 TB: I think that’s really, it’s such a rich vein to tap. So I think on the one hand the first thing, again, just be open to the possibility that there will be multiple projects that are kicked off as a result of this. Another thing I think about the phrase that we use quite often, which is that a good GTD system has clean edges. In addition to that, good thinking has clean edges. In other words, and if we can be not woolly in our thinking, but rather have… And this is where the clarifying questions come in. What is it, is it actionable? If not trash, reference or incubation. If it is actionable, what’s the next action, et cetera.
0:13:01.3 TB: I mean these are all questions that allow you to give your thinking very, very clean edges. And so what comes to mind for me as I’m thinking about these projects, these kind of multi… These more complex things that we’ve got going on that represent multiple projects, is try to get clear what are those, what are the lines here between the things that I’m trying to work on? And those, once I’ve done that. So, let’s go back to your example. So project is at a very high level, the project is we’re getting married. And as you say, this is an example of course we use quite often in seminars. Or in coaching, because it just, it explains itself. Having a project called Get Married is probably not as helpful as it could be because a wedding breaks itself down almost immediately into, as you said, invitations, catering, dress, et cetera.
0:13:55.6 TB: And so one of the things that… Once you figured out what those sub projects are, then you can start to drill into, okay, in the… Let’s take catering as an example. Okay, what’s my desired outcome? What does done look like. And of course, what’s my next action? How would I get started? And there might be multiple next actions depending on the project. It could be that there are multiple parallel next actions that you need to undertake in order to get to that desired outcome. But I think another benefit of having those kinds of clean edges in your sort of mental engagement with the project, is that those clean edges will then naturally find their way into your system. In other words, okay, if I don’t already have a place to put information about the project, which is catering for my wedding then I’ll need to create something like that. Because I’m gonna be hungry for those kinds of clean edges.
0:14:58.1 TB: Again, just to make… Not because tidy is good, not because we like boxes where things go, but simply because it just makes it so much easier on your future self. As you make your way through this project, it makes it so much easier for you to know where to find things, not to have to search through multiple unrelated things in order to find relevant things, et cetera. So, I think this idea of clean edges will naturally come out of having clean edges in our thinking. And the result of that is that we… The complexity that the sort of off-putting overall complexity of whatever it was that came our way, maybe it was off-putting, maybe it wasn’t, if it was a wedding, maybe it wasn’t so off-putting, but this kind of daunting complexity, let’s put it that way, the kind of daunting complexity of this thing starts to dissipate as we undertake these best practices and therefore enhance our sense of control which is a very important element of all of this of course.
0:16:07.0 RP: And I think that’s the fundamental thing. Maybe the question under the question that Martha was bringing up is a single email or a single big event can immediately throw you into feeling out of control. Even if you chose it or you chose in partnership with someone else, even if you’re excited about it, that’s that fundamental thing of, Wow, now can we handle it? Can we pull it off as it were? So I think a few major events in my own life, another tool that’s really helped me is something called the Natural Planning Model in GTD. Our wedding is one example, moving from California to the UK, launching a new book, buying a house. These were all times when I used the Natural Planning Model.
0:16:56.4 RP: The Natural Planning Model basically is a way of going sort of top down. And I won’t go into too much detail about how it works, but just to say, one of the things I really like about it, it’s almost a footnote in the in the Natural Planning Model presentation sort of guide that if you’re not feeling as in touch with the purpose of this, or you want to be more in with the inspirational purpose of this sort of, you want to go up, you wanna review or unpack more of the goals, the vision, the big picture stuff we did kind of mood board type things for our wedding. We had a slogan. We said, we want it to be simple, classy, and elegant. That was our thing.
0:17:41.0 RP: And so everything that came in, we went, can we make it simple for our own sake? My wife was in grad school and I was working full-time. We had all had all kinds of stuff going on, and can we make it sort of classy and elegant. So getting in touch with those higher level values and purpose and stuff helps keep you going in the inspirational side of things. And then if it needs more action, get more granular about what is the real project? What is the real action? Exactly what you were saying, Todd, about what is my real desired outcome and what is kind of very next step that’s just gonna keep me moving, keep me going one step at a time. Our slogan when we were moving from California to the UK was, “We’re doing this, we’re doing this, we’re doing this.”
0:18:22.7 RP: Meaning we’re not doing it perfectly. There’s hiccups along the way, the moving vans delay, the this, the that, whatever. We’re doing this, we’re doing this, we’re doing this. So getting in touch with the high level, getting in touch with the practical level, the Natural Planning Model, to me is a real example of how to take control of something that’s much more than just one project and one action in a way that’s really worked for me in my life. What would you say, I feel like we’re starting to converge on on wrapping, but I’d love to hear your thinking on how all this fits together, how GTD helps, how we survive the complexity we’re in. I think Martha mentioned kind of the information age and the fact that this is to some extent a symptom of the information age, that there’s just so much we could be engaging with. What are your survival tips?
0:19:31.5 TB: And survival, I think is an interesting word to use in this context. I think on the one hand, everything that we’ve been talking about here will help. The best practices, the tips around the different ways of thinking about things. By the way for those of you who are not familiar with the Natural Planning Model if you have a copy of David Allen’s first book it’s chapter three. That chapter deals with the Natural Planning Model. It’s also something that we handle in our level two seminars. So, it’s a topic there. I think in terms of the… If you find yourself faced with what feel like daunting levels of inputs or situations that just feel like they’re a bit complex, I think the first thing to do… Again, stick with this idea that ultimately, if you’re gonna get control of these situations, you wanna figure out what they mean, and the clarifying questions are a great place to start.
0:20:36.5 TB: Another thing that comes to mind for me is sometimes, this is my own experience, sometimes things, when they first arrive, they just feel really overwhelming and just like, okay, and I’ve been doing GTD for 18 years. I’m feeling a little bit daunted and what I quite often do in those situations is just gather everything that I have about the project, and quite often that’ll involve printing a bunch of stuff out. Quite often it will involve notes that I’ve taken in meetings, whatever. And what I do is I just… It’s one of the reasons I’ve got the counter, I’ve got behind me, that’s a standing level counter. Which I specifically built for this purpose is I just will distribute all of that content across that physical space and just sit with it just for a minute.
0:21:31.5 TB: And of course, I’ll be picking up different pieces of paper and I’ll be looking at different things. And what I found is that for me, that reflection means that, or, consistently results in me starting to make decisions about what goes where, what are my sub projects? What do I need to be focused on in terms of outcomes? Which of these things that I’ve gathered have already turned into reference material? Are there next actions here? It’s in some ways what I’m doing there is implementing the Natural Planning Model, really. But even without any knowledge of the Natural Planning Model, just being with the artifacts somehow I found really helps. So that’s my quick tip. Over to you. What are your top tips for these kinds of situations?
0:22:26.7 RP: Well, no, I think that’s great. And it really underscores the importance of externalizing, externalizing. I think maybe I used the word survival a little bit in that one of my kind of theories is that we may, our single brains may not have evolved enough to be dealing with the information overload. And so we need distributed brains. We need a brain to help our brain, as it were. And GTD is that right? So, get it out, get it externalized, get away to get a handle on it in a way that it’s not just circulating in your mind. So another tip in that regard, if something big and complex comes your way and you’re not really sure what needs to be done about it is the mind sweep piece is to do a little bit of a kind of brainstorm, mind sweep process around this particular topic. So just getting it out, and as you said, just having it out there as something you can manipulate, shift around, scribble on, work with is already, for most people, gonna give them some degree of relief, anyway.
0:23:30.6 TB: Good stuff. Well, sadly we’re gonna have to draw a line under it there. That went really fast in my experience. So thank you again, Martha, for your suggestion of a topic. And for all of the rest of you out there if you have anything you’d like us to be talking about in this series, please do let us know. We very happily take requests as we quite often say. Also, do please like and subscribe so that you can hear about what we’re gonna be doing in the future. As always, if there’s anything else that we can do to be supporting you on your journey to stress free productivity, please do let us know. So for now, from Robert and from me, thanks for being with us and we’ll see you next time.