How to have a mind like water

This post contains outdated info on the tools I’m using. For the most up-to-date info, see this page.

In David Allen’s classic book on personal productivity, Getting Things Done he describes an ideal state of mind:

Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn't overreact or underreact.

So why do we care about this?

A mind like water is a disciplined mind, a mind focused on the right things, at the right times. David Allen places this in the context of personal productivity, getting the things you need to get done, done. David Allen’s Getting Things Done system can help you clear the clutter from your daily task list and help you order your life in a way that is consistent with your values.

I think there’s actually a spiritual component to this, if we’re open to it: the very biblical concepts of stewardship and working “as for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23).

It’s so easy in the digital-age of distraction to forget the sacred trust of time that we’ve been given. In midst of “important” emails, social media notifications, and activity-packed schedules, we miss the important because we’re too preoccupied with the urgent. I’ll be the first to admit that I have sometimes gone weeks and then wondered why I haven’t made progress on the stuff that really matters to me. When that happens I know I haven’t been disciplined in my approach to managing the many things that demand and deserve my attention.

It’s possible to be very busy, but still procrastinate and put off the most important things. This naturally leads to anxiety, restlessness, and stress even though it might seem like you’re workin hard on the surface. This is where a disciplined system can be a huge help. It can help remove some of the friction of starting and finishing those tasks and projects that we just don’t want do, by providing clarity on exactly what we need to do next.

How to get things done

In a nutshell, David Allen’s technique revolves capturing your “next actions” into a trusted system, making sure they’re organized in a useful way, reviewing them on a regular basis and of course, actually doing them.

Everyone will have a different way of doing this, of course. Some people keep everything in a three-ring binder notebook, others organize their world in Excel. Some people love high end notebooks like the Baron Fig, others make do with index cards and legal pads.

Your tools don’t matter that much, as long as they actually get used. Whenever I learn about a new productivity system or tool, it’s very tempting to tinker and experiment instead of actually making headway on my action list. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

An overview of my GTD system

All that said… Here’s a snapshot of my trusted system; not because you should do things exactly the way I do, but more for you inspiration and education. Here we go.

Capture & Organize

Simple tasks For the capturing and organizing simple tasks, I use the app. lets me add tasks quickly and organize them efficiently into sublists like “home,” “work,” and “someday/maybe.” You can even add recurring tasks for action items that you do every day, week, month and so on.

Multi-step projects If I need to plan a multi-step project, I’ll make an todo item like, “plan such and such event.” When I execute on that task I will actually plan the event by breaking it down into smaller tasks. I use Trello for this. During meetings I used pen-and-paper to capture and transfer action items (todos) to as soon as possible.

Time-sensitive items Items that have to be done at a certain time go immediately on my calendar (a Google Calendar/Outlook combo). If something needs to be done on certain day I’ll add a due date to the item in so I’ll be reminded on that day.

Paper items I have inboxes for paper items that need to be processed and put on my task list. To be honest, this is the weakest point of my system…mainly because I haven’t been disciplined in my review process for these at home. At work, I quickly scan and email most paper items to myself. Which brings me to my email system.

Email Everyday I get my inbox at work to zero. To do this I use a simple (but effective) three-folder system:

  • #1 Follow up
  • #2 Hold
  • #3 Archive

My “Follow up” folder is for any email that needs an action from me (including a reply) that I can’t do right now.

The “Hold” folder is for any email that needs further action from someone else. So anything that I’m waiting for a reply on or that someone else needs to act on before I can “close the loop.” It’s also a handy place for anything I might need for next couple of days for reference.

Everything else goes into “Archive.”

Review I schedule a weekly review on Friday to go over all of task lists. I’ve learned this step is crucial, and really the key to making GTD work. Without a disciplined review, all your nicely captured tasks stay in your nicely organized system…but may never be acted on. I look through my list, making sure things are are in the appropriate folders, adding anything that comes to mind, and transferring items to the calender if needed. I do the same thing with my projects in Trello.

Taking action My favorite feature in is how the app will guide you through planning the tasks you’d like to accomplish that day, complete with some motivational feedback when you finish your session. I do this every morning almost without fail so I can make sure to keep reviewing my list and making progress every day.

Of course, I’m not there yet. I don’t always have a mind like water. But I’m getting there one next action at a time.