The 1% that makes all the difference for your productivity
Your Mind is for having ideas, not for holding them.
This comment by David Allen stuck with me. It has changed the way I approach productivity. These 4 steps describe what it means to me to apply this quote to my life:
- A system for your mind
- Using GTD for all your open loops
- The benefits of the 100% system
- Is the 100% system realistic?
A system for your mind
How did I come across this quote? Self-management is a passion of mine. For years I have tried various methodologies of self-organization. The approach working best for me is GTD (Getting Things Done – trademarks David Allen Company). For nearly ten years I have now been extensively using GTD. First I was mostly interested in the tips and tricks GTD offers. I have realized more and more that David Allen’s quote above summarizes what I find most revolutionary about his approach: Externalizing ALL your commitments into a trusted system. The following paragraphs will describe the idea of using GTD to its fullest potential to cover 100% of your open loops.
Maybe you are new to GTD. It defines 5 steps to get control over your life: capture, clarify, organize, reflect, and engage. If you don’t know what those steps are I encourage you to read David Allen’s 2015 edition of “Getting things done – the art of stress free productivity”. Those theories might very well change the way you organize yourself. I recommend you to learn the basics before continuing.
Using GTD for all your open loops
With GTD you use a system to hold your “open loops”. An open loop for me is everything in your life that requires your attention. Open loops are mostly commitments you have for yourself and others, “Get a raise”, “Buy milk” etc. There are different types of open loops. It can be something you want to accomplish in the next five years or need to do in two minutes or right now. It can be a vague thought or a specific expectation. An open loop will grab more of your attention than it deserves, if you do not engage with it appropriately.
You want an example of dealing with an open loop? Think of the last time you very were overwhelmed by something that had your attention. Maybe you wrote a short list with everything that bugged you about it. You might have experienced a relaxing feeling just by writing the list. In GTD you apply this idea on all your open loops. Even after the first few times using GTD you probably will experience a feeling of heightened control and perspective. This feeling increased the more open loops I got out of my head using GTD. I started to use the GTD workflow on all my open loops: capture, clarify, organize, reflect, and engage. Here is broadly what you would do:
- You capture ALL open loops. In the beginning you collect all that is unfinished in your surroundings and that you are thinking off. Once your system is in place you constantly jot down what comes to your mind or that enters your realty into defined inboxes.
- You clarify EVERYTHING you have in your inbox on a regular base. One by one you decide what the items mean for you and what you need to
do about it.
- You organize ALL the results of your clarifications within a trusted system. This system will remind you, at the appropriate moment, to execute the steps required. For most tasks this will be a desired outcome on the project list (like “fix tires of bicycle”) and a next-action on the to-do list (like “call number X to order tyres size A).
- You reflect on EVERYTHING in your system on a regular basis. The weekly review is natural for you: Once a week you go through your system and ensure that all its contents are up to date.
- You engage in your world by using your system to decide what to do next. You pick the appropriate next step according to your current context, time, energy and priorities. You focus fully on what is in front of you. You have to be sure to chose the task according to your current circumstance and priorities out of ALL relevant alternatives.
Those are the 5 steps of the GTD workflow. The difference between how you start out with GTD and a “100% complete” GTD system is that the workflow is applied on “all the open loops”, clarifying “everything”. Doing GTD in such a scale is a lot of effort. It offers the following vast benefits.
The benefits of the 100% system
As mentioned above, making a short list of things that take your attention will enable you to see things more clearly. Techniques like brainstorming let you explore the details about a specific topic. Even if you use the list sporadically you get an increase of mental focus.
Using GTD gives you the opportunity to expand the mental clarity into more areas of your life. You collect most of your commitments of your professional and private affairs into a trusted system. You gain a feeling of control over your life. You use the system to overview all your near term desired outcomes. You direct your attention according to your priorities.
You could take this even one step further. There was a huge improvement in my feeling of control and perspective once I applied GTD to 100% of my open loops. The last 1% made the biggest difference. The idea is to free your mind completely from thinking about your open loops by using GTD extensively. Imagine having everything captured and gaining full clarity. You separate the thinking from the doing. You get used to a system managing your commitment in extensive detail. Your brain can focus on having creative ideas instead of holding them.
Once your system contains 100% of your reality your mind does not need to determine whether there is something it needs to remind you of. In physics the biggest energy is needed to get a standing object into motion. Similarly,
I have the impression that, your mind needs the biggest effort for reminding you of anything or nothing at all. If you are not holding your open loops in a trusted system, your mind will do it for you. Your mind then will constantly check whether there is something you might be missing.
If you succeed in having a 100% complete system it may well be “one small step for you, one giant step for your mind”. Capturing the last percentages of open loops may be hard. You may need to decide on the last elements you were procrastinating on. For your mind it could be a whole new era of stress free productivity.
Is the 100% system realistic?
Yes, a 100% system is realistic. The purpose of this blog is to demonstrate how to get to the 100% complete GTD system. It is an idealistic vision. It needs constant effort.
Are we currently able to capture every thought we have? Probably not. We do not have to capture every thought in order to free our mind from holding ideas for us. We just need to become good enough to capture everything that is potentially of some meaning to us. Getting better at letting go of the rest. Consider this state as the 100% complete state.
How do you determine what to capture and what to let go? It is a skill that you can learn over time. I found that it is helpful to capture a new thought by default. There is probably a reason you thought of it. I have a system in place with which I can handle inputs in large quantities. The 5 steps of the GTD workflow give the structure to deal with all open loops appropriately.
The way I approach “the mind is not for holding ideas” results in a large number of entries in the trusted system. I found it impossible to maintain the 100% complete state with simple tools, like paper. Advanced tools enable us to achieve a 100% complete system realistically. Read the next posts to learn how to get to 100%.
GTD is easy to get and hard to master. Writing on a paper list or using a simplistic tool already has benefits. Expand your usage of GTD to all the open loops in your life. It makes all the difference for your mind. Advanced tools make it feasible to manage all your open loops in a 100% completely trusted system. This way your mind is freed to do what it is best at: having ideas.
In the next posts we will explore ways to to enable you to employ such a 100% system and how tools can support you in this matter.
This post is part of my productivity series on advanced GTD. If you like the content, please comment and subscribe below.