Sustaining Flow with GTD - Next Action Associates

Have you ever gotten lost in the enjoyment of a task? Chances are it was something you were able to do well, but that also challenged you on some level. This lovely feeling, of being both competent and stretched at the same time, is something I crave, and have sought after both professionally and creatively throughout my life. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it “flow”–the relaxed, focused, and highly creative state where one’s skills are optimally matched to the challenge at hand. His Ted Talk on the subject is worth a look[1].

While attaining this state would, on the surface, seem to be as easy as doing something difficult that you both enjoy and do well, sustaining a prolonged engagement in this “zone” has been (in my experience) an on-going pursuit. One of the most powerful approaches I have found for maintaining this elusive “flow” state in my work and life comes from the dynamic of a lesser-known mechanism of the GTD methodology.

First, let me explain what I have been trying to achieve. It looks like this:

 Robert blog pic

Growth comes from taking on new challenges. The rate at which one takes on challenges is represented by the steepness of the green arrow. Obviously, too much, too fast, leads to over-commitment and overwhelm. However, once a challenge is overcome, it becomes the “new normal”, and so simply cruising along on a flat line will eventually lead to stagnation and boredom. I have been managing this particular dynamic, pursuing that optimal “steepness” to my green arrow, for many years–trying to neither “hit the ceiling” of overwhelm nor sink below the “floor” of boredom.

If I could simply choose in any given moment what I wanted to turn my attention to, I might be able to manage my flow by simply picking new things to do that stretch my skills and make me happy, and then move on to the next thing from there. However, the reality of modern life is that my diary gets booked out months in advance, and the results of a single business meeting or great idea in the shower can give me several new, exciting, perhaps even slightly terrifying projects all at once.

Keeping an accurate and complete inventory of all the projects I have committed to do is therefore one key to making sustained flow work. However, there is another very powerful and (in my opinion) highly under-utilised aspect of GTD that can help with this as well: the “someday/maybe” list. This is a list of all the great ideas that I don’t want to lose, but also don’t want to actively commit to doing as a project right now.

Having a dynamic interrelationship between my “someday/maybe” list and my project list allows me to navigate the straits of flow. Once per week, during my weekly review, if I am approaching the “overwhelm” state, I will review my projects list and actively renegotiate (with myself and others) those things I have committed to do.

Often, it can be as simple as transferring from one list to the other, just by telling myself “not now”. Sometimes, responsible renegotiation requires a bit more than this, but I can still make progress by identifying the successful handover as the new project goal, or by setting a meeting with a boss or colleague to figure out what to put on the back burner. Consistently and consciously renegotiating my commitments in advance, with good communication to all involved, helps me to not “hit the ceiling”.

Equally important on the other side of this equation is that I spend time with my “someday/maybe” list on a regular basis. The only way that I can feel good about moving those cool projects from active to “someday/maybe” (and trust that it’s not actually a black hole of “really never” items) is to make it a habit to review my “someday/maybe” list when I am in a more resourceful state. Then, I can decide if I have the time, finance, inclination, etc. to “promote” a someday/maybe item into an active project. I have accomplished countless goals that began in the realm of “someday/maybe” and, in the process, stayed well away from falling through the floor into boredom.

Even if you do not have a complete list of projects and someday/maybe items, you can try this for yourself right now. Identify where you are on the continuum from overwhelm to boredom. Then, if overwhelmed, see if there is one thing on your plate that you can renegotiate with yourself or someone else, and add it to a “someday/maybe list”. If you are a bit bored, let yourself commit to one of the fun, interesting things you’ve been meaning to do for a while, and add it to your “projects” list. If you experienced even a tiny bit of relief from doing so, imagine what making this simple approach into a habit could do for you.

Positive, sustained growth can only come from taking on new challenges and trying new things. But we know all too well that too much, too fast, can really lead to panic. By clearly differentiating between what I am and am not committed to doing, and actively renegotiating on both sides of that boundary line, I can re-orient myself into that state of flow more consistently. After all, that is where the good stuff happens—not in pushing through the overwhelm or resigning to boredom, but in constantly seeking out the conditions that help me stay pleasantly engaged and productively focused in this moment.

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