Earlier in the month I was in California, taking part in the annual jamboree that is the David Allen Company staff meeting. This is always a great chance to catch up with many far-flung members of the GTD family and to spend some time with David Allen himself, who wrote Getting Things Done. One evening over dinner, as he so often does, David was doling out mental pearls, philosophising about our work and the journey to stress-free productivity.
His theme was clear mental space. A mind unencumbered by mental clutter and therefore better able to do what it does best. Better able to focus, with less stress and less internal distraction.
But for most of us in the modern world, the default setting is not mental clarity. Most of us have loads of stuff occupying our grey matter, from family commitments to professional must-dos. So how do we go about clearing our heads?
Well, one option would be to get everything done. Fulfil all of the commitments you have made to yourself and others. Complete all of those projects, personal and professional.
But of course, there isn’t really a finish line when it comes to our commitments. One project leads to another. Work begets work. If we get good at getting things done, the boss notices and we get more to do.
So you can’t finish the doing. But you can complete the thinking. You can, to quote David, “bring completion to your incompletions.” Paradoxically, this will probably involve less thinking than you do now. You’ll be doing more high-quality mental work: thinking more about things and less thinking of them.
Start by making sure that you’re not using your head to hold onto unprocessed commitments. Sit down with your favourite free-form collection tool, whether it’s a Word document or a trusty sheet of paper, and empty your head of everything you need to do something about. Grab everything: big, small, personal and professional. It’s all grist for the mill.
After your head is empty of those things, you’ll probably notice that your mind still isn’t clear yet. That’s because getting them out of your head was only the first step. The thinking’s not done.
So where to go from here? Now ask yourself, for each thing you’ve written down, “What’s the next action?” That is, what is the very next thing you’re going to do to move this forward? Try to identify things that are physical actions, things someone could watch you do. Who will you email? Who will you call? What will you search for on the web? What will you talk to your boss/partner/colleague about? Once you’ve got the answer, be sure to write it down, or put it into your organizational system if you have one.
You’ll probably notice that, for some of the things that were on your mind, asking the next action question is enough to finish the thinking. But for other things it’s not enough. You’ll still have the sense that there is unfinished business.
If so, then try asking the next question, “What’s the intended outcome?” In other words, what will be true when the thing that was on your mind is done and dusted? The answers to this question will be a picture of completion: “The budget for 2013 is finalised”, “The car has passed its annual inspection”, or “I’ve hired a new assistant.” Again, be sure to record the outcomes, either digitally or in writing.
For something north of 95% of your commitments, that will probably do it. But for some of the bigger or more complex things in your life, you’ll still have the sense that you’re not done thinking. In those cases a bit of project planning may be called for. This can take the form of something quick and easy, like a mind map of all of the thoughts you have about the project, or it might require more formal approaches and tools, like a Gantt chart. The Natural Planning Model, which is part of the Getting Things Done framework, can be helpful here too.
Ultimately, it’s up to you. Go as far as you need to to finish the thinking. You may find that, using this framework, you’re thinking more intensely–but less often–about the things in your life. It may come across as “mental heavy lifting”. But stick with it. The other side of that thinking is a clarity and relaxation that you may never have experienced.
Now that’s something worth thinking about.