I’ve seen people with a robust meditation practice whose personal lives were in disarray. If wisdom gained from a spiritual path does not extend itself to skill in managing the details of daily life, then our realization is incomplete.
This is why I am a fan of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity by David Allen. (People who follow the method described in this book refer to it simply as GTD.)
At one level, GTD is about managing projects and tasks. But it goes deeper — a fact that many GTD nerds miss.
Ironically, GTD is not getting your to-do list down to zero. Instead, the point of GTD is to:
- Clarify everything that you’re currently committed to do.
- Create a fail-safe set of reminders for those commitments.
- Keep those reminders in lists rather than your short-term memory.
Doing these things frees you from a host of distractions. They allow you to engage effectively with whatever shows up in your life while keeping your head empty.
David refers to this state of relaxed presence as clear space. When I finally understood this term, I immediately saw the link between GTD and meditation: Both of them are about preserving a still mind in the midst of chaos.
‘Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them’
GTD does not begin by asking you to set a ton of new goals. That would just give you more to do on top of your already overflowing inboxes.
Instead, GTD begins with clarifying the commitments you have already made.
When these commitments are not clarified, they become a potent source of stress. We find ourselves continually wondering: Did I miss something? What am I forgetting? What is the next thing that will blow up in my face?
This is the mental state of most people, most of the time: They are managing their life by trying to keep everything in their head. They cling to the hope that if it’s really important, I’ll be sure remember it.
This assumption is deeply flawed. After all, our working memory can only hold a handful of items. People are uncannily accurate when describing the nature of their stress as I’ve got too much on my mind.
David says it well: “Your mind is made for having ideas, not holding them,” he says.
Understanding the importance of agreements
So, the spiritual dimension of GTD is about staying present, relaxed, and clear-headed — even when you have a lot to do. There’s also an ethical dimension to GTD, which is about keeping agreements.
There are two big ideas to consider here. First, we make agreements constantly even though we are seldom aware of them. For example:
- I’ll get back to you on that.
- Let’s get together some time.
- I really want to get a new job.
- It’s time for a career change.
- Something about my marriage has to change.
Phrases like these roll easily off the tongue. It’s easy to forget that casual speech can signal life-changing agreements.
Second, once we discover how many agreements we make, we also become aware of how many agreements we break. Often we forget them because they’re not captured and clarified in writing.
Broken agreements carry a cost that is profound and largely subconscious — loss of trust. When you break agreements with other people, they lose trust in you. And when you break agreements with yourself, you lose something even more fundamental — trust in yourself.
The problem with to-do lists
So how do you get stuff out of your head and remind yourself to keep agreements? By making lists.
However, David does not recommend conventional to-do lists. These are often collections of vague ideas that don’t describe any clear actions to take.
For example, my own to-do lists used to contain items such as:
- Get milk
- Go to library
- Financial planning
The first item is clear. I know it means making a trip to the grocery store and picking up a specific product.
The second item on the list is kind of clear: Go to the library. But why? To browse the shelves, pick up a book being held for me, take a class, or what?
The third item is painfully obscure. What does it actually mean? What action is called for? How will I know when to cross it off as done?
Seeing things like this on a list triggers my fight-or-flight response. At some level I realize that financial planning points to something that deserves my attention. But it’s also big and scary and unclear. My impulse is simply to avoid it.
Four lists to save your sanity
David Allen recommends trashing your to-do list and replacing it with a set of lists that are more targeted, precise, and useful.
Some people are initially turned off by the sheer number of lists that David recommends. I recommend that you start with just three of them:
Mind sweep. This is a brainstormed list of everything that’s currently on your mind as unfinished or incomplete. If it’s nagging at you, then write it down.
Next actions. Now take each item on your mind sweep list, one at a time. Ask yourself: What would it take to get this item off my mind?What, specifically, will I need to do?
For example, financial planning could translate to: Call Dad to get contact information for his financial planner. This sentence starts with an active verb and describes a concrete behavior.
David refers to such behaviors as next actions. They are physical, visible actions that you could capture on video.
Projects. Some items on your mind sweep will require more than one next action to complete. These are projects — clearly defined outcomes — and deserve their own list.
For example, the desired outcome implied by financial planning might be: Choose investments that balance risk with growth. This calls for several next actions — getting contact information for a financial planner, making that contact, and scheduling a meeting.
Checklists. Other lists are useful but don’t fit in the above categories. This includes checklists for things you do on a regular basis. For example, I have checklists of:
- new habits to practice
- monthly bills to pay
- steps in publishing a blog post
- people to call, email, text, or visit
- “bucket list” ideas
Simple is not easy
Does all this seem simple, obvious, and barely worth mentioning?
It did to me at first.
And yet I soon realized that simple does not mean easy. Though initially skeptical of GTD, I was still keeping useless to-do lists and feeling overwhelmed.
Eventually I learned that nothing in GTD is complicated. It consists of a bunch of behaviors that you already know how to do. The key is to take David’s simple suggestions and turn them into stable habits.
David says that when people start making GTD lists, they often end up with dozens of projects and hundreds of next actions.
And we’re trying to keep all that stuff in our head? No wonder we feel stressed. This is no way to live.
One list at a time
When I take stuff that’s on my mind and turn it into projects and next actions, I do get to clear space — something like the serenity that arises from sitting meditation. And, I’ve experienced this state of mind even during periods where I’m managing lots of projects.
I invite you to experiment with GTD and see if you get similar results.
Of course, there’s much more to GTD than what I’ve mentioned here. To get the rest, turn to the sources listed below. The frameworks from this post can help you dive into them without getting overwhelmed.
Above all, remember that you can implement GTD incrementally — one list at a time. Take it easy and enjoy the ride.
Where to learn more
In addition to David Allen’s books, I recommend:
- Getting Things Done, the official website for David Allen’s company
- Calm Achiever, a website from certified GTD trainers in India
- Next Action Associates, a website from certified GTD trainers in London
- 10 big ideas from GTD by Josh Kaufman
- GTD in 15 minutes by Erlend Hamberg
- How to Create Lists that Motivate You to Take Action by Mohammed Ali Vakil
- 2 Step Formula for a Complaint Free Life by Mohammed Ali Vakil
- Practicing Simplified GTD by Gina Trapani