In this video, Todd Brown and Robert Peake talk about the pros and cons of maintaining one GTD® system versus two (i.e. personal and professional), and give practical tips for understanding your options and making best use of your system(s) overall.
Click to play this episode
00:05 Robert Peake: Hi, everyone. Welcome to another Change Your Game with GTD podcast. My name’s Robert Peake. I’m here with Todd Brown.
00:12 Todd Brown: Hello, everyone.
00:13 RP: And once again, the purpose of this podcast series is to elucidate some of the principles of getting things done at GTD methodology. The reason you’d want to know more about that is that it can help you get more done with less stress, have more work balance, be more productive, yes, but also be more in a state of relaxed, focused, giving appropriate attention to the stuff in your world that deserves your attention. So we’ve been doing this for a while and one of the fun things that happens is people write in. They send us an email and say, “Hey, would you cover this topic?” Or they’re thinking about that or these kinds of the things. And we had a couple of these come in recently. Dino wrote in and said, “Can you talk a little bit about the use of separate systems for your life and for your work, a personal and professional kind of thing?” We thought that was an interesting topic and one that certainly comes up a lot in our coaching and seminars and this kind of thing. So we thought we’d address that a little bit. Todd, what’s your experience of using a combined system or a separate systems over the years. And we’ve both been doing this for quite a while through different context, different jobs, different life circumstances. Has your thinking changed on this over time?
01:38 TB: I don’t think my thinking has changed, fundamentally. I think ultimately, my goal, for me and for anybody that I work with, is that you find yourself in a situation where, as it were, as things are making their way into your system that can happen in the most friction-free way as possible and as you’re using your system to be reminded about things, that that can happen in the most friction-free way as possible. Now if I’ve got an integrated system, that is I have all of my personal and professional reminders in the same place, the advantage of that then, of course, is that I only have one system to interact with. So if I’m capturing, it’s all going to the same place. And if I’m looking at my lists, as it were, I’m looking at a single system. If somebody does not have a strong feeling and they say, “Hey. Yeah, I don’t mind. Should I do separate systems, work and home? Or should I do an integrated system?” My default response is, “Start with an integrated system and see how that works for you.” And that’s not because I’m particularly a fan of saying, “Yeah, you should be looking at your work lists all the time.”
02:52 TB: That’s not the point, but it’s just that… Again, my goal is kind of friction-free operation. I want to be able to be as productive as I can be without having to swap between systems. If I’ve got dual systems… And we should talk briefly about risk… If I’ve got two systems, and I find I’ve got five minutes free before my next meeting, if I don’t because I’m at the office, let’s say, if I don’t look at my personal reminder lists in those five minutes, it could very well be that I miss the chance to do something which would have been a good choice in those five minutes. I’ve got the right amount of time. I’m in the right context, whatever it is. I need to make a phone call to book a haircut or something. So that is a risk if you have multiple systems. It also means of course the systems need to be kept in sync, which for certain people that can be a little bit more work than they’d like, but at the same time I also understand that there is, for a lot of people, a mindset that says, “Look. I do not want my work reminders and my personal reminders in the same place. That just fundamentally feels wrong.” And I get that. I can absolutely understand that.
04:12 TB: So, if somebody says, “Yeah, I absolutely… It just really feels strange, eeky, unhelpful to be at home at the weekend and to be interacting with the system, which has reminders of emails that I need to send at the office, let’s say.” If you feel very strongly that I’d say, “Yeah, that’s okay. Just be aware of what some of the limitations and the inefficiencies will be in a set up like that.” I don’t know. What do you think? What’s your experience been?
04:43 RP: I think that’s great. And I really like you talking about the friction factor and also pointing out sometimes it’s a practical situation. You have a desktop at work or there’s not remote access or it’s not done in that organization to put personal stuff in a professional system. So there’s just a practical reason you can’t. And as you say, sometimes people want that sense of clear differentiation so that actually having separate systems is a choice. Now to me, it comes down to context. A lot of this comes down to context. And so I liked what you were saying about how easy is it to get stuff in and out? And also how appropriate is it in terms of when you’re somewhere, you have a few minutes, can use a zoom in on the stuff that is actually appropriate the way you should be doing. On the sci-fi movies, they’re always going, “Enhance. Enhance. Enhance.” [chuckle] I think of that kind of thing, that kind of zoom. So to me, it’s a lot the dance between frictionlessness and focus. It’s between those two. How easy is it? And of course, the easiest thing is just one big system with one big next action context. And how much can you then create appropriate focus?
05:58 RP: So if it is a choice or even if it’s not, how can you use those two systems to create appropriate focus and designations and make sure you have good communication between the two, which is just a simple matter of capture. I often have been in situations where all email, my personal email from work just captured something to be able to process later or vice versa. I’m at home. I have an idea. I wanna process that in a work context, just making sure they talk to each other basically across the divide. You being the one that actually makes that happen of course. So yeah, I mean, I think people can get overly concerned about this. I currently have a one -system approach. But for many years, and in many different work situations, I’ve had two.
06:46 RP: Sometimes by choice, sometimes by necessity. And again, I’ve just found, if you’re thinking at the meta-level about how do I create appropriate focus, how do I get what I want when I want it in the right way? Balanced with having 200 granular context and it’s just cumbersome to put stuff in and out of all those contexts and having them separate or even duplicated across systems is cumbersome as well. So I think it’s more of an art in my experience than a hard science when we say, “Here’s the rules about how to do it.” But the guiding principle, I think, is that thing, is that friction versus focus where are you and how easy is it to use.
07:29 TB: Yeah, I love how you put that. I think that’s a wonderful lens to put on this. How able am I at any given moment to get in front of me reminders that are helpful to see in that moment. And that’s quite an interesting question and a question that I’m reasonably regularly asking myself about my own system. Is it… Do I have… To your point, do I have the right context? Do I have… Whether things are making their way into the system or whether I’m using the system to be reminded about things, can that happen in ways that feel like it’s flowing? That I’m able ideally to be operating at the speed of thought. And if that’s happening, great. And if not, well, yeah, maybe I’ve got an improvement opportunity. Another thing that occurs to me it’s a related topic is quite often in offices in professional contexts, what I find is that people are required to use multiple systems and that the thought that’s coming to mind there is that in quite in quite a lot of professional environments people who have any sort of responsibilities around sales will use some sort of a client relationship management software, cloud-based or other, which is a shared system.
08:51 TB: It’s used by the whole sales organization so that they can forecast sales and they can update projected revenue and that sort of thing. And for anybody who’s involved in sales, that system is going to be separate very, very likely from as it were, the rest of their GTD system. In other words, if I’m using Salesforce or one of the other products in this space, Salesforce or whatever CRM is a great place to put projects and very likely next actions around sales activities, right? So I wanna try to close this deal with this client for this product or this service, that’s a project that lives in my CRM. I’m not gonna wanna duplicate that in my non-sales system ’cause as soon as you start duplicating information in my experience, that way lies madness simply because all of a sudden now you’re trying to keep things in sync. That’s just inefficient over time. It’s very likely to break down. So that’s something that, as I say, I see quite a lot, is that people are required, really, to have those kinds of multiple systems.
10:14 TB: And in that sort of situation, what I would say is, just make sure that you’re clear what goes where, right? So it’s back to this whole idea of, back to this whole idea of clean edges in a system. Where your sales-related projects as an example? And where are your non-sales-related projects? Where would you look to find next actions in various contexts? And as long as you can sort of without much hesitation respond to those questions… Yeah, okay, well, all of my next actions related to things that I need to do in posting to Slack, let’s say, or Microsoft Teams or whatever, those are over here in this list. As long as you’ve got that kind of clarity and that kind of distinction in your system, I think you’ll be okay. But again, as I say, sometimes it’s not personal preference. Sometimes, the fact that we’ve gotta have multiple systems is imposed on us by our organizations.
11:12 RP: Yeah, absolutely, and I think sales sales CRMs are a great example of that. And another one that immediately comes to mind is any kind of ticket milestone tracking system. So if you’re doing technical support and you get that ticket to follow through to resolution or if you’re actively developing software, right, and you’re parsing out tasks or on the receiving end of having those tasks to do, normally tasks and tickets and those kind of things, as you said, I think at the project level that they’re basically multi-step usually not done in one sitting. And I think where a lot of those systems, one of the big potential failure points of just trying to use a system like that is if you’re not really clear about when those things are in a waiting-for state, right? So you aren’t necessarily tracking that, “Oh, this is gone to QA or this is come back to the customer or this is in a state where it’s not in my court but I need to track and follow up and deal with that. So generally with those kind of systems where it’s a work stream that’s fairly defined in that way… And I find the same thing, too, with CRMS and sales stuff, right? It’s called…
12:30 RP: You need to, in particular, have a really good way of tracking, “Hey, it’s back with the client that I need to follow up,” that kind of thing. So yes. As you said, it comes down to clean edges. Some of that I find you can build into the system, if you can do a can-ben style state. It’s in progress, worth waiting for something or whatever. Or likewise if you can keep notes in Salesforce. But if not generally, what I do is think of those things as projects ’cause they are a multi-step. And then I’ll keep the waiting-fors, I’ll keep the actions, I’ll keep whatever other components in my system, along with everything else that’s an action or a waiting for. And then you just need to know to go there as part of your, essentially, project list in the project stage of the weekly review.
13:20 TB: Yeah, I think what you suggested there is a really practical sort of halfway house, isn’t it? It’s sort of, “Well, my projects have to live in this shared repository of projects, because those projects are of interest to the organization more generally. But the next actions associated with those projects are gonna sit, as it were, in my system simply in the interest of making it as efficient and as friction-free as, we’ve been saying, as possible to interact with those and make sure as I’m making choices about what to focus on that I’m looking at complete inventories of possible actions in whatever context that I’m in. Let’s say… I think that’s well said. The other thing that’s coming to mind as we’re talking about this is, let’s imagine that we’ve got someone who says, “Look, take all that on board. I completely understand what you said about the minuses of having two separate systems. But I really want to have a separate system for my personal life.” What would we say to that person, not challenging the decision, in other words, encouraging them to say, “Okay well, that’s fine. Let’s figure out how to make this best work for you?”
14:27 TB: What kind of advice would we have for someone in that situation where they say, “Okay well, I’m gonna have my system at the office and whatever the calendaring email messaging technology and associated list managers are, but I wanna have a separate system at home.” What would we tell someone about how do they think about how to set that system up? Would it be similar, same in terms of the software. What would you advise in a situation like that?
15:00 RP: That’s a good question. And I think I would start not with the tool, if you can. If you have… Usually the personal system, you have a range of options of what tool you can use. But I’d start a little higher up from that, looking at where do you consider the dividing lines to be on a very practical basis? Where do you find yourself during the day, during the week? And what kind of things do you wanna have available to you as a result of that? Almost everyone has a home context, which is different than a home category. We point out it’s not just home-related stuff ’cause home-related stuff could show up on an errand’s list to do on your lunch hour at work. But a home context is, “I’m at home and I can only till the garden when I’m at home. And I don’t wanna see it, till the garden line item, when I go to work coming from of my computer. So thinking about context, not category, of type of thing really comes down to, where are you, what resources do you have available? And increasingly, for me, what resources or where am I also does include my head space and sometimes includes my digital space. Like if I’m logged into a particular application, just just that as a context for me more and more these days, like I wanna knock out a bunch of stuff in Salesforce. So I wouldn’t have that as a context.
16:31 RP: Likewise, there may be contexts for you in your personal life, so you can look at those. Certainly, a great one to have is agendas for important people, partners and family and whatever. If you have regular context and you have stuff to go through them with, that you don’t just wanna kinda leak into your social life all the time, but you can kind of structure that a little bit. So, I would start with: Where are you? What’s real for you? Do you wanna be able to run errands on your lunch hour? Do you wanna be able to do stuff on your commute? Do you wanna be able to make the odd phone call, and see that at work. Or is it really work time is hermetically sealed, and it really is totally time-bound about whether your work or your life shows up in a particular time window during your day. I don’t know. What about you? What have you found works for you in terms of that whole question of, “Do you erect a hard wall between personal and professional, and how do you deal with that?” And how would you relate to someone that really does wanna have that hard division and have those two systems?
17:46 TB: Yeah, and again, it does happen. I run into it reasonably often out there in the world as we do the work. So if I take as a starting point that they have made the decision, they want to have separate systems, that they don’t wanna have their work reminders and their personal reminders together, I think that the first thing I would say is, “Let’s make sure that this is as simple as ever possible to navigate.” So I’d be asking questions like: Number one, when we talk about having two separate systems, you can almost think about it in terms of the five phases. Does that mean that we’re gonna have two separate inboxes? And does that mean we’re gonna have two separate… I’m assuming that what they really mean when they say, “I wanna have to two separate systems,” is that I wanna have lists which are in two different places, in other words, reminder sets. They’re in two separate places. One, personal. One, professional. I think your point… And sometimes you’ll see that their thinking will change if you bring up the point that, “Hey, you can create the same sort of effect if you have contexts, which are clearly only things you would look at when you were in your personal life.”
19:01 TB: Sometimes that’ll help in the sense that it’ll help them to get to the point where they realize, “I actually know it’s not so much two systems. It’s that I’ve got clean edges in my context list.” But all that aside, if they say “No, no, no, two systems is the way that I wanna go”. So some things that I’ve recommended for folks in the past, one thing is have the same, have the same software, right? So if I’ve got a system in, if I’ve got a system that I’m using at work, use the same software at home what that means is that all of the nuances around interacting with that bit of software applies in both places, that means that I’m probably more efficient when I’m working with both systems. So that’s one thing that I quite often recommend something else, people will sometimes say “Look, the number of things that I think that I want to be reminded about when I’m as it were not at work.
20:02 TB: Feels like a pretty small number. And it doesn’t feel like it’s something that needs the kind of complexity that my work system needs”. And so in situations like that, I can quite often get them playing with the idea of just using something. Let’s go with 4000 year old technology, and let’s use paper let’s just choose something that they can use, which is really flexible, really easy to interact with requires no technical skills batteries don’t go flat all the advantages of paper, so that quite often you’ll see a light bulb go on for folks in that instance. And then I guess the other thing that I’ve seen happen quite often is that people will say, “Look” let’s imagine, they’ve got a desktop computer, a laptop, or some sort of a work machine. And they’ll say, “actually what feels helpful and appropriate for me is that when I’m in a personal context I’d like to have my system visible on my mobile device”right so they’ll just build something which will live only on their smartphone, right? And that could be, I think, again for people who have people live with their phones anyway, their phones are always available to them quite often people will decide that “hey, that’s actually the way that I wanna go”. So that’s, that’s a quick I think highlight reel of the kinds of situations, I’ve run into with people who feel pretty strongly that they wanna have, they wanna have diverse system separated systems.
21:41 RP: That’s great, yeah, and thanks for making the point about everything from paper to mobile devices because I think it is important to point out there are a lot of options and I love the idea of reminding people of the five phases that you’re gonna have to do all five of these phases across these two systems to some extent in order to have a fully functioning system. So how are you gonna reflect how are you gonna engage how are you gonna capture? It’s not just about the context of things. That’s a great, great point. So I think, we’re sort coming to the end of our typical timing here. If you were to have just a kind of, I guess, top tip or pitfall to avoid, things you’ve seen people do.
22:26 RP: Wrong that you may [chuckle] may wanna suggest people do, right? When it comes to having two systems, can you just kind of a top tip or take away as we’re wrapping up here?
22:36 TB: Yeah, I think a couple of things come to mind, one is follow your instinct okay? If we’ve done our jobs as coaches and trainers and people who are transmitting messages about how GTD works and how it can be helpful then hopefully you’ve gotten a good sense of the trade-offs between integrated systems and separate systems, but once we assuming that we’ve done that then build your instincts, don’t implement something simply because we said you should… You should ideally buy into whatever approach you’re gonna follow. And then the other thing I think is just be ready over time, and this goes whether you’ve got an integrated system or for a dual system, be ready to re-evaluate and re-think and it may be then in the future as you were saying, Robert maybe that in the future, you’ll go from a divided system to an integrated system or vice versa. I think one of the interesting things for me in my 15 years or so, doing this is how much these questions are ever green, and how helpful it can be to go back to the basics and say, “Hey where is my system where are my list, do I have the right context?” Can I interact with all of this, in roughly the speed of thought?” And if the answer of that is to all of that is yes, great. If not, then maybe I need to do but more thinking about refinements. So how about you?
24:07 RP: That’s great, that’s great. Yeah, no, I particularly think the opportunity for refinement is key. So I would say as the main tip for a main guiding principle start simple, start simple. And as you say, we go with what your instincts… Are a first pass at a system. And for me.
24:27 RP: Knowing how to refine the system, comes down to a very practical thing of noticing. Notice when you don’t have the thing you need, where you want it when you want it. Notice when you don’t have.
24:39 TB: Brilliant.
24:40 RP: What you need in the appropriate context, and make sure you capture that. It’s as simple as send yourself an email. Hey, I need an [24:46] ____ context. Hey, I need this. Hey, I need that. So if you’re caught out on a train, you can’t make the adjustment to the system in the moment.
24:54 RP: I need a not commute or not train list… Whatever it is, so notice when you don’t have what you need to hand on these divided systems approach and get that captured and get that changed. So to me that’s the mechanism of refinement. And so I would say start simple notice where it breaks down let that happen once right, that you missed an opportunity once to make use of a 5, 10 minute window of time and evolve from there.
25:24 RP: Great stuff. Well, thank you, Todd, for another as always fun conversation, again the purpose of this is to help you and to just shed some light on what it means to practice the Getting Things Done, methodology, what it looks like on a practical basis. So please do send me in our thoughts, questions, we love hearing from you, too… So firstname.lastname@example.org love to hear from you. Meanwhile I hope this was useful and helpful and hope you’ll tune in and join us next time. Bye for now.