The Mess Is The Masterpiece: Appendix A



Appendix A:

This appendix is an *aside* that I meandered along while writing section “6. Organize in Layers” in this morning’s post.  

I went on this journey because “Where should I start?” and “How should I organize?” are the most frequent questions about GTD. And ever since starting GTD, when people ask I vapor lock. Of course I tell everyone to go to the basics:

  • Yes they cost $700 but to get your organization to the next higher electron shell of organization, it will cost money (not a lot, the returns are huge – read below) and it will take time and though.  
  • Do what David Allen says in the book.    

But …

After this advice, my friends say “Yes, I see that, but that is just too much … where should I start?”  So I vapor lock because I feel like the steward of the productivity door which I can’t open for someone else.

I can talk you up to the door, tell you which key will fit the lock and how turning the key will open the door, and that once you are through the door, you will feel SO MUCH LESS STRESS and you will be more productive.  I can give you names of people I have helped apply GTD to become the most productive people in their organizations.  But, these are just words.  

Becoming GTD productive comes from pig-headed relentlessness change implemented for one week.  Doubts before and during the boot up of GTD just lead to excuses after GTD fails.   

I think of Allen’s method (chapters 4 through the rest of GTD) as the “whole-hog-cut-over” to GTD.  I’ve not seen anyone succeed with whole hog, and I tried it and had to drop back to organizing in layers. In the 3.5 years I’ve been doing GTD, I have evolved a “shortest path” startup for GTD based on my observations of MBA student success and failure in inculcating GTD into their lives.  I think the shortest path is to: 

  • read the first three chapters of GTD and then stop
  • buy Evernote and a Scansnap iX500 and go paperless 
  • Easier than you think, this took me 4 days to get to zero starting from 94,000 pages of paper
  • get a real desk

Evernote-paperless-real desk is an organizational retro-virus.  If you can make it to this point, it is not if you will implement GTD, it becomes … when.   

But I can’t afford to switch to GTD … 

David Allen’s prescriptions are too extreme for more than about 1 in 5 people attending his seminars to implement.  And, I’ve observed that my “shortest path” retro-virus prescription is also too extreme. I think this is because fear of change makes people focus on costs.  And, costs are an *instant* reason not to think, change, or explore.  However, costs do not win the race, productivity wins the race. 

So, let me swim up this impossible productivity waterfall a bit, by exploring the costs and value of the “shortest path” GTD startup.  I assume that an hour is always worth $75 to someone considering getting into GTD.  And, that the prospective customer is starting with near-zero organization as I did in 2009.  If your time is billed out higher or lower, you can adjust the spreadsheet (link) accordingly.  

The shortest-path GTD costs are: $2,283

Now let’s build a simple ROI model.  Assumptions: 

  • Work = 40 hours per week for 52 weeks 
  • Week 1 of GTD 0 hours productivity
  • Week 2 and > increase in work productivity by 1 hour per week up to 8 hours additional work per week 
  • ROI = $75 * hours saved / initial startup costs of $2283

So, break even productivity increase of $1283/75=30.44 hours saved. And these 30.44 hours will be saved by week 10 after starting GTD.  In fact, assuming that GTD yields just 8 additional hours per week of work lead to a first year return of 1248.36% (by my back of envelope non-discounted, rough estimation – download worksheet here).


Bottom Up Forecast of GTD Value Year 1

How many times during your career can you get into a 1,248%% return for $2,383?  Who rationally can afford to pass on the opportunity to capture $28,500 more value WITHOUT WORKING LONGER OR HARDER?  

Well, it seems, many people.  So … 

What are the objections?

  1. Is the ScanSnap essential? What if the company has copier/scanners? Not as good? Why? 
  2. Is the paid Evernote essential? Would free version do enough? If not, why not?
  3. Forcing me to go paperless is too disruptive! 

1 Is the ScanSnap essential?

In short yes.  Office scanners and copiers can scan paper into Evernote, but ScanSnaps lower transactions costs of dealing with paper.  Transactions costs?  Yes.  Why?  Because we may think:  

  • My next action is to scan this document into Evernote.   

But … oops, that is not a next action.  There are several steps, scanning at a remote scanner is mentally expensive.  The individual actions are: (121 seconds)

  • Pick up the paper – 1 sec 
  • Walk to the office copier – 60 seconds 
  • Sign into the office copier – 15 seconds 
  • Remember how to put the office copier into scan mode – 30 seconds 
  • Scan the paper, recycle the paper – 15 seconds 

Now the entire transaction takes 1 second longer than 2 minutes, so it just *barely* graduates in complexity to a GTD project by evading the GTD 2 minute rule.  

But the problem with office scanners are more fundamental than the 2 minute rule. Brains calculate costs in terms of complexity, the more steps, the more cost.  The more cost, the more delay.  The more delay, the more likely you are to lapse into disorganization.  So when you have to use an office copier, you will let your scanning pile up, then when you have a big batch of documents to scan into projects, you will go to the copier and have to mentally reconstruct what project each document is going to.  Because this is a big pain, you won’t do your scanning.  

When you have the ScanSnap at your desk, you cut the transactions costs.  For example the one page “scan project” is now: (21 seconds) 

  • Pick up the paper – 1 sec
  • Scan the paper into evernote – 15 seconds
  • Recycle the paper – 5 seconds 

And believe it or not, scanning promptly even with a ScanSnap at your desk takes intestinal fortitude. Just a lot less than dealing with a remote office scanner.   

2. Is the paid Evernote essential?

Again, yes.  Because Evernote Pro users get these additional benefits

Screenshot 5 26 13 9 51 PM

  • Paid evernote has a much larger cap on the data you can scan into evernote monthly.  Free version is 60 megabytes monthly, the paid version is 1 gigabyte monthly.  1 gigabyte divided by 60 megabytes = 16.67 times as much upload capacity. 
  • Upload capacity is most critical to people starting out with GTD.  With 60 megabytes you will exhaust your first month’s Evernote uploads in a short afternoon of importing documents.  
  • Paid evernote guarantees your documents will be text-recognized within 24 hours.  The unpaid accounts MAY be text recognized, but Evernote does not guarantee text recognizing for free users. 
  • Paid Evernote is less worry.  Partially this is because you never have to worry about hitting caps, and partially because Evernote is so valuable, if you don’t pay you will feel guilty.  Guilty because Evernote is in Guy Kawasaki’s words “Deep, Indulgent, Complete, and Elegant” as a product.  I happily pay $45 a year because I want the Evernote guys to stay in business.  I’m a little worried about them because Evernote is charging $45 a year for the storage that Dropbox is charging $240 a year for.  
  • These are enough reasons for me to pay.  Happily.  

3. Forcing me to go paperless is too disruptive.  



Ok, here you are needing organization, … and you are looking at a 4,000% return on getting better organized.  The faster you get yourself organized, the faster and higher your return.  In this context “Paperless organization being too disruptive” is approximately the same as saying “I choose not to accept a 4,000% ROI, because I don’t want to change.”  

If you have a system that isn’t competitive and you focus on avoiding change to the uncompetitive system, you are not sold on jumping to the next higher electron shell of organization.  You may not be happy with the details of your current organization, but you are content with the electron shell of organization you are in.  


The addition of 8 hours of additional productivity per week from implementing GTD produces and additional $28,500 return in the first year.  Against this additional $28,500 which is gained without longer hours and with less stress and pressure, the $425 to do your scanner right is rounding error.  The one week of forcing yourself to think in new ways, is nothing.  The nastiness of dealing with an office over flowing with paper, is the ante to make more by doing less.

I think that people very experienced with GTD tend to be annoyed with prospective GTD people who are deliberate in deciding whether to take the GTD plunge.  I can feel that way and I’m only 3.5 years in.  David Allen must be internally blowing a gasket when people can not move forward without perfect understanding and perfect planning.  

Personally, I’ve found that the real problem with disorganization is that in an average week I was getting 16 hours of real work done.  After implementing GTD for a week I was getting maybe 32 hours of work done, later I was getting 40 hours of work done, later I was getting 60 hours of work done in a 40 hour work week.  So my personal sense of GTD productivity improvements have been a doubling from 16 hours work completed in a week to 34, and then further increases until when I’m hitting on all cylinders I’m running at 60/16=3.75 times the productivity that used to be normal for me.  

To keep the spreadsheet simple, I did not incorporate these dynamics.  Including them would dramatically increase the return on investment.  

I hope that I’ve talked you up to the door, showed you which key will fit the lock and how turning the key will open the door (shortest path), and given you a feeling for how once you are through the door, you will feel SO MUCH LESS STRESS and you will be more productive.  But, these are just words. 


bill meade 

The Mess Is The Masterpiece


Source: Bernard Pras via


“I organize, therefore I am” but, … there is just no way to stay ahead of the mess.  Having just consolidated two offices with five thousand books into one office plus overflow into a 14 foot wall in the living room, I’ve been submerged for a month.  Purpose of this article is articulate some of the lessons learned in this personal “mother of all GTD re-organizations.” 

Lessons Learned: 

  1. Move first, organize after 
  2. Don’t over-think
  3. Get help from people three decades younger than you
  4. Remember problems are opportunities
  5. Let go of fear (that you will hate the office you end up with) 
  6. Organize in layers 
  7. These lessons apply in other domains

1. Move first, organize after  

It will happen whether you want it to or not.  When you move, you will reach the point where you need to get the atoms part over with, regardless of the consequences to your perfect GTD system.  Do not stress about this.  Just get the initial move over, and stack the boxes 2x higher than you think you need to in order to get everything in to the new place. 

Whenever I move my books I live for about an hour in a fantasy of how I will keep the books on the same book shelves before and after the move.  And further, keep the book shelves in the same order.  My library is 100% stored in stackable 3 tier collapsable book shelves.  I number the book shelves as 1 Lower, 1 Upper, 2 Lower, 2 Upper, etc.  And my theory is that I can mark these book case numbers on the boxes used to move the books, but it never works out.  My fantasy dies before the 3rd box of books is packed. 

I’ve decided to be good with this.  

Having disorganized books is a great opportunity to review your library (see 4 Problems are opportunities).  This time re-organizing, I’m pulling out all the books I’ve purchased but “not gotten to” and putting them into a single book case.  Concentrating these books has led to a reduction in stress.  “To read” organized in one place, is an organized project. Organized projects are always less stress than dis-organized projects.    

2. Don’t over-think



I am an over-thinker.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading WOMEN WHO THINK TOO MUCH by  Susan Nolen-Hoeksema.  Whenever you move, uncertainty is fanning the flames of over-thinking, over-forecasting, fearing-disasters, and over-working.  Uncertainty is just uncertainty, a temporary experience that will dissipate as you land and start bringing order to the chaos.  When you think you *might* be over-thinking, you ARE over-thinking.  Lately I’m using a trick to cut down on over-thinking: ask yourself what your friends would tell you to-worry-about or to-do.  Having just read DECISIVE by Heath and Heath I learned that thinking “outside-in” this way produces better results than thinking “inside-out” i.e., over-thinking.  

3. Get help from people three decades younger than you

They are altruistic enough to be happy to work for pizza.  They don’t make your father’s noise, when they pick up large boxes of books.  They seemingly never tire.  It is impossible for mere manual labor to discourage them.  Don’t be too proud, find their favorite pizza place and place your order. 

4. Remember problems are opportunities 

When I’m moving, the entire moving process I’m worried about how the organization at the end is going to turn out to be a disaster.  *Note* this has never been my experience when moving, but it is a constant gnawing fear while moving.  This time same as always.  However, being organized after the move, I’m loving my latest GTD organization more than previous iterations.  

5. Let go of fear (that you will hate the office you end up with) 

This is a big lesson learned for me. Of course it makes sense, when consolidating two offices into one, you have a bigger library of capabilities to draw on.  And when you move to a new space, there is always something better than the old space.  For example, my old space had poured concrete walls, very tough to hang things on. The new space is sheet rock which is easy to hang pictures and memorabilia.  

The “Where am I going to put all these books?” problem I feared while moving out, became the “Wow these books look great in the living room!” opportunity while moving in.  I was planning on putting the books in boxes in the garage, but my (angel) wife turned out to like them in her living room.  Wheew, dodged a bullet there. 

But, that is the point.  When you move and reorganize, you are always dodging bullets, you can always upgrade, you can always depend on your own (and your angel spouse’s) resourcefulness.  The longer I do GTD, the better I become at making a mess into a masterpiece.  

6. Organize in sequence-layers 


Source: Flickr

Over the years I’ve had many grand designs for optimizing book organization:

  • favorite books within arms reach (visually overwhelming)
  • topical sections (econ, biographies, evolutionary ecology, statistics, etc.) OK, but not that helpful finding books
  • books related to a project in separate piles on the floor 

and many other organizations.  I think this time I’m going to not worry about an “optimal” book organization.  I’m going to let the books organize themselves over time.  Layer 1 was getting the books out of boxes and on to shelves.  Layer 2 was to “balance” out the books on shelves so that they are not packed so tightly as to be difficult to remove.  Layer 3 was to pull out those “aha!” books I’ve purchased because they flipped my “might be pivotal” mental switch.  Layer 4 will be to organize the “aha!” books into clusters of related books.  And … I don’t know what Layer 5 will be … yet.  

Looking back at my walk with GTD, I’ve been organizing in layers the entire time.  David Allen gives us a defined system to implement, and we dutifully make a try … fall short … and if we succeed in having a few aspects of David’s system stick, we move forward tinkering with experiments.  Every once in a while these experiments pay off big (my ginormous conference table desk for example) but most experiments are localize, small, and very focused.  For me, a small focused experiment was to get 100% of the clutter off my desk, out of where my eyes fall when I’m working.  

Over the 3.5 years I’ve been dong GTD the experiments have aggregated to a pastiche of techniques that work.  I’ve had failures (like going 100% into electronic GTD with Omni Focus which was too overwhelming) as well, and I’ve responded to them for the most part with 3×5 card kludges.  

7. These lessons apply in other domains 

“The mess is the masterpiece” occurred to me as I was talking down an overwhelmed entrepreneur a couple weeks ago.  The first problem is no sales, the second problem is gearing up for sales once they start coming, the third problem is living with how you gear up.  Entrepreneurs live in rolling messes, always struggling to keep up, and get results.  The artist Bernard Pras should be the Patron Saint of entrepreneurs.  His pieces like Einstein above, make masterpieces out of messes, just like successful entrepreneurs. 

And, just like people doing GTD.  GTDers not being wealth for the most part, have to make due with the messy pieces of organizing infrastructure that we have, and gradually over time we discover we can evolve the mess into a masterpiece that increases our productivity more than 2x.  And, let us not forget the reduction in stress from knowing our projects are planned out to next actions.  


Living through the cycle of organized to disorganized and back can be very stressful.  But, it does not have to be.  Much of the stress comes from over-personalizing change.  From interpreting change as punishment for lack of perfection.  But change is mostly temporary uncertainties piling up.  Looking back at moving changes, I can’t understand why I was so bent out of shape at the time of the moves.  This post is about lessons I’ve learned from my latest post-GTD move, and how I will attempt to preempt stress during future moves.  

bill meade 

Perfect GTD desk +1

Screenshot 12 19 12 4 53 PM 2



I’ve been holding out on  :-(

I’ve been working since April 2012 on a successor to my “The Perfect GETTING THINGS DONE (GTD) Desk” post (which is the most read post on this blog).  1.5 years after we moved to the Portland area, Beth and I bought a house which allowed significant expansion of the good enough home office desk.

As a sufferer of chronic rhinosinusitis, I’ve found the need to keep facial tissues close at hand.  In fact, VERY close at hand as tissues go from box, to my face, to the trash in one choreographed motion.  So in the new house I have a GTD trash can.


my desk work surface is expanded from a merely “big” desk into an “Ikea conference table” sized desk that is 77″x43″.  I bought yet another Innovative 7500-HD-1500 monitor arm to hold up my 27″ iMac i5. I know that $260 for an arm seems exorbitant, but getting the computer off the desk is the best money you can spend in taking back your desk.

Also, if you’ve got a wall that you are facing when you work, you can get a monitor arm for $30 that will be great for giving you back your desk.

Anyway, to be optimal, I should have gone to IKEA and bought a conference table surface for $65 in the “as is section” but, I did not realize that the components I needed for my upgrade of “The Perfect GETTING THINGS DONE (GTD) Desk” would be available in the as-is department.  So, instead of saving 35%, I bought the full price $229 brand new white GALANT conference table (instead of the $65 as is white conference table).  I bought new adjustable Galant A-legs for $15 each, but in thinking about it I could have gotten away with buying 2 new fixed length Galant A-legs for $10 each and then 2 adjustable legs.

Screenshot 12 20 12 11 17 AM 2

Driver’s eye-view of the Perfect GTD desk +1

OK Bill, what is behind the monitor?

Screenshot 12 19 12 5 35 PM

Well, as usual, there is a lot going on behind the iMac.  I’ve used cable ties to attach a 3-tier paper tray to the Innovative hd monitor arm.  *Note* because the iMac and paper tray are hanging off the monitor arm, there is an angle that I had to compensate for with the paper tray.  Why? Because if you can’t get the paper tray approximately level, then you’ll have paper splashing on to your work surface.  = Unpleasant.  Here is a shot of the angle compensating cable tie.

And the indispensable ScanSnap S1500 rests on the base of the monitor arm. It is visible, but not when I’m looking at 3×5 cards on my desk.

Screenshot 12 19 12 5 46 PM

OK, what is going on under the desk

Excellent question!  Here is a macro shot of the under side of the desk:

Screenshot 12 19 12 6 00 PM

Once again I’ve availed myself of IKEA to provide pseudo drawer space as well as plain Signum cable management (US$10).  The Galant cable management tray (US$5) works as a static drawer.  Desk tools that conventionally clutter up desk surfaces are verboten in my conception of the perfect GTD desk.  So, I mounted the Galant cable tray a bit back from the front of the desk (to avoid hitting it with my knees), but still in easy raeachability.

In addition to microfiber cloth, stapler, and tape dispenser which are immediately available, I also keep a pocket knife and an eraser readily at hand.

Crayons?  You think Crayons are cool?

Well, in short, … I don’t know what to think about crayons.  Crayons come with memories, fun, and … crayon mess:



which … I’d forgotten about since I was 5.  But, still, writing on an IKEA conference table with Crayons™ is a great option if you are into crayons.  They come off with Scotch-Brite No SCRATCH sponges and Windex.

Screenshot 12 20 12 11 34 AM

Crayon mind mapping
(about moving ERP into b-education)
48 years after giving up crayons!

I felt giddy playing with crayons as a 53 year old!  The crappy wax mess that falls off the crayons, the problem of sharpening a crayon, the inevitable anger resulting from trying to sharpen a crayon in a pencil sharpener, the flash back to the 64 crayon set that had a sharpener in it (At least until you broke the first crayon off).  I found myself thinking about all the downsides of crayons as a dumb smile came over my face and I created a complex mind map that felt “just a little bit permanent.”

Buy crayons, write on your IKEA conference table, undo all the art formerly-known-as-damage, with a Scotch-Brite pad and Windex.  Fondly remember the voice of your mom yelling at you about using crayon on the table/wall/sibling.  You own the conference table, you can do with it whatever you want!!  Fun memories!


First and foremost, except for legs, you can make-do in building your desk by shopping the AS-IS department at IKEA.  This will peel about 35% off the total cost.

Second: grommet management.  Move the grommets away from where you will work most at your desk.  For me that is working at the computer.  And, place Signum cable grommets out of sight if you can.  You can’t control where the cable runs are, but you can control the wires between cable runs and move them out of sight.

Screenshot 12 20 12 11 22 AM 2

Third: Find a work surface that does not have a pre-cut grommet in it.  I like the simplicity of IKEA parts, but I was forced to remove the monitor arm and re-place it through the steel support deck, because the particle board of the surface was not able to carry the 50 pound load of the monitor arm and items hanging from it.

Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you for 2012!!!

So we are just almost exactly at 1 year into and about 130,000 page views.  The blog really started with the “The Perfect GETTING THINGS DONE (GTD) Desk” post which Lifehacker kindly picked up, and we are about at the end of the year with this Perfect GTD desk +1 post.  I’d like to thank everyone who has read, everyone who has commented, and especially everyone who has emailed back channel to this year.  I’ve had a blast opening my GTD kimono.  And it has been fun sharing the GTD love and enthusiasm with you.

May this year bring a happier, more robust recovery, and smarter GTD thinking than any year going before.  You guys reading this rock.  Let me know how I can help in 2013!

Support RestartGTD by buying at from this link!


bill meade

2012 Fall Semester: How the smart student will organize – Part 3 Articulating GTD Student Functions



Articulating GTD Student Functions: 

For a student, the seven functions of GTD are:

Studentfunctions05 1
GTD for Students

Q. What in GTD is new to students?

A. Filtering, Organizing, Reference Filing, Refreshing


GTD functions New to Students (in red)

Undergraduates are just-in-time work delivery machines.  Many students do not capture until forced to back track when attempting to do an assignment under deadline.  These “crises of capture” manifest themselves when a student emails the night before a midterm and asks for the course syllabus to be emailed “again.”  They know they have the syllabus in email, they just don’t know where.  

So, introducing GTD to undergrads is often problematic because of a “too cool for school” attitude that boils down to something vaguely hostile like: 

“I’ve never had to filter, organize, reference file, or refresh before, why do I have to do these functions now?” 

My answer in plain English is because organizing the GTD way: 

  • Decreases pain, 
  • Increases quality, 
  • Makes work a lot more fun (unlike sweating deadlines), 
  • Will allow you to capture more value from your education, 
  • Saves time,
  • Allows you to invest your time savings, say in sleeping or partying more.
  • GTD eliminates the temptation to cheat or cut corners, because when you get a plan clearly in mind, doing the work is the shortest distance to turning the work in.  

But students, you are going to have to trust me on this.  I know organizing is counter intuitive to the US school culture of cramming.  But GTD will not only work for you this year, it will work for you after you grow up into a memory challenged adult and parent.  Remember that I went all the way through the education system, then worked 20 years in industry, and had never systematically organized myself until after I read GTD.  

Fellow educators, I realize that telling students that GTD will make their time more available and disposable is a little like Josh McDowell making a film on Chastity for college students, and titling it “maximum sex” but the logic here, is the same.  Focus now, benefit from now on.  

OK, OK, What are the GTD functions for students in plain English? 

  1. Capturing
  2. Filtering
  3. Organizing
  4. Reference filing
  5. Trashing
  6. Doing, and 
  7. Refreshing

1 of 7: Capturing

Capturing is simply having few places (in boxes) to put everything coming into your brain, that will need to be dealt with.  


When you are capturing ideas or deadlines, or assignments or whatever, the process is to find the correct in box, and if you do not have a correct in box, to create the inbox.  

But, … be careful not to create too many in boxes.  David Allen’s advice is to set up “just enough” inboxes to get by with.  For me this has meant “cramming” ideas into in boxes where they don’t always fit comfortably.  Cramming is not pretty, but it works because the requirement for an in box is that it prevents you from forgetting or missing ideas.  Any in box where you will get to the idea in time, works.   

Stuff to be captured for students includes: Event dates (midterms, practice, games, dating commitments, parties, homework due dates, etc.), class materials (syllabi, handouts, slide decks, etc.), work related (work schedules, etc.), people related (Facebook status updates, email addresses and messages, phone numbers, etc.).  David Allen recommends a physical inbox and an email @action folder so that everything coming in can be put in a holding area so that it is not lost.  

The key technique in capturing, is using one piece of paper/electron per idea.  One idea, one 8.5×11 page.  One idea, one 3×5 card.  One idea, one electronic note.  Why? 

Because the single most powerful way to increase student productivity is to implement idea modularity.  Idea modularity is being able to take a single idea and freely group it with other related ideas.  Unbound cards and paper sheets with manila folders, give students modular control over their ideas.  

One idea, one piece of paper/electron has a second benefit: it reduces feelings of being overwhelmed.  David Allen talks in terms of “mind sweeps” to get the mind emptied so that the brain can be released to focus on the most important next action.  This is a by product of having way to capture ideas modularly.  See the “idea modularity section below”.  

2 of 7: Filtering

When you have all your incoming stuff captured, then you’ll need to process each item and dispose of it where at the next step of determining where the item belongs.  The key GTD question here is “Is there a next action?”  


If the answer is yes, then you’ll need to put the item aside in a pile to organize. If the answer is no, then you need to decide whether to trash the item, or put the item into a pile to be reference filed.  Stuff that goes into reference filing is anything that “Might be useful later.”  If there is no forecasted use, then recycle, trash, or delete the item.  

3 of 7: Organizing

Once you have cleared all your inboxes (physical and email) then you should have a nice big pile of stuff to organize.  Probably, you have an electronic pile to organize, and a physical paper pile to organize.  The logical process either way is to pick one pile to start with, take the top item in that pile, and then decide what kind of next action you have.  


If you have a single step next action, and you can do it immediately in less than 2 minutes, then immediately complete the next action.  If the single step action will take longer than 2 minutes, put it into a pending actions file (electronic and/or paper).  If the next action is really a project that will need multiple next actions to complete, then either create a new project, or add to an existing project.  

To illustrate the logical process of organizing, I’m going to share the organizing system that I use.  You may decide to use 3×5 cards + manila folders as I do, or you may decide to use Evernote’s Today/This Week/This Month, or you may decide to use an electronic system like Outlook or OmniFocus.  No matter.  The big point of whatever tool you choose to do your organizing is that the tool allows you to comfortably exploit idea modularity.  Huh?  

Idea Modularity in Organizing

One example of how idea modularity in capture, facilitates organization was when Beth and I set up a workathon after we moved into our new house.  Getting all the tools and materials was trivial.  What I found myself procrastinating on, was getting the task organization ready.  There was just a vague panic in my mind when I think about sitting down to organize.  Like going to choir practice, the overthinking-before is more difficult, than the event.  So, I had no organization up to 30 minutes before everyone arrived to help.  

So with my 30 minute deadline, I Beth and I brainstormed all the tasks that needed to happen.  This brainstorming produced 26 next-action project cards for six sub-projects of the workathon.  

Once the cards captured all the work tasks we rearranged them into related groups.  The groups that popped out for these cards were the sub-projects for the day.  Until these “idea modular” cards were laid out on the table, and then moved around in a way that felt pleasing, I had no idea how many sub-projects I had.  Check it out: 

Emergencycards 2

Workathon Project Organization
With this organization, the project ran very smoothly.  As people arrived, we told them to look at the rows of cards and pick the left-hand-most-card that looked like the most fun to them.  So, the major projects were accomplished by people working in parallel so thing ran smoothly and quickly.    

Another Idea Modular Example: Pop-up project organizing (for this post) 

Very often, I’ll wake up in the morning and ask myself “What do I need to do today?” That is, I do capture, filter, organize, fresh from scratch.  I think of these projects as “pop up” projects.  Stuff pops into mind and then I write one idea, one piece of paper (3×5) and get all the ideas out on to the table. 
Popuporganizing01 1 1
Again, I tend to procrastinate sitting down to an empty table with blank cards and a pen.  But, when I do, I inevitably walk away feeling great relief at having all the worries out on the table and in some kind of organization.  Also, I’ve found that I can’t clear my mind of pop up next actions and projects when there is a computer present.  So I’ve taken to using our empty dining room table so that I have no temptations, distractions, or priority interrupts (no phones present).   
When I sat down to try to distill a reduced-form version of GTD for students, I had a lot of other pop-up projects on my mind.  Teaching my 2 undergrad classes.  Changing the cat litter and feeding my piglet kittens.  I had to write the one-idea, one-piece of paper thoughts about these on cards, and arrange the cards before I could start on the reduced-form organizing for this post. 
This is normal.  Keeping your mind clear of “things that cannot be forgotten” is a never ending task.  The more you empty ideas out of your mind, the more ideas your mind has, … and about more things.  But let us note, this is what we are after, maximizing the impact of our minds (unconscious as well as conscious) on our lives.  You know you are appropriately (David Allen’s idea of “just enough”) organized when you open a folder (manila or electronic) and you have a visceral feeling of “ahhhhhh everything I need is right here.” 
Some times (mornings for me) when you organize you will get all your ideas out on the table, then arrange them, and then find that you can get all the projects (i.e., strings of >1 next actions) completed in a day.  Then, you don’t bother making a 

4 of 7: Reference-Filing 

The only sane alternative I see for reference filing for students in 2012 is Evernote.  


Everything that might be useful goes into Evernote.  If the items photographed, scanned, printed, or emailed, are sacred, then they should be physically filed as well.  But, 99.9% of paper will be scanned and recycle.  Why?  

Because when your stuff is in Evernote:

  • You can find it much more easily, more often, and faster than you could ever find paper files.  
  • You no longer need dedicated furniture or office space. 
  • You are automatically backed up to your other computers with Evernote on them. 
  • You have access to your files when you don’t have internet access.
  • You can share access to your files easily and securely (famous last words).
And the last reason I like having student materials in Evernote, having a great reference filing system eliminates last minute “crises of capture.”  

5 of 7: Trashing

Trashing is not new to students, and trashing is almost self explanatory.  But two thoughts are critical to trashing:


Thought 1: Is this true trash or false trash? 

When you ask yourself true/false about dumping an idea, you touch on the refreshing function of GTD.  Asking true/false activates your brain and brings to mind any other projects or “might be useful” contexts that would make the idea worth keeping.  How these related activities come to ming might be a clear “aha!” moment.  Or, they may come to mind as a vague uneasiness with hitting delete.  Either way, put the item back into the filtering pile if you are not sure you can get rid of it.  

Thought 2: Am I ever wrong when I trash stuff? 

If you empty trash instantly, if you are wrong, you will have a healthy chance to recover.  So trash things weekly, monthly, or quarterly, not daily or hourly.  

6 of 7: Doing

Doing work for students is anything but simple.  This post is written from my professor’s eye view of challenges students face in doing work well, and on time.  *Note* There are only three boxes that are actually accomplishing work in the doing figure.  

The difficulty is not in doing the work once you realize you need to do it.  The difficulty I perceive in students is how to cut through the wilderness of mirrors that is their priorities.  Once the priorities are worked through, students can sit down and crank out the work.  

*Note* This flow chart is not orthodox David Allen.  It may not even be “good” GTD.  But, it is what I wish my students would do to cut through paralysis of doing that eats up so much available time for assignments.  


If you have questions, leave them in the comments or email me at and I’ll try to post answers.  

7 of 7: Refreshing 

Refreshing is the “wormhole” or “Q” function of GTD to use a Star Trek metaphor.  Because refreshing simultaneously touches every other GTD function. This produces interesting results, for example: 

  • When you are doing refreshing well, you no longer need todo lists.  
  • Refreshing will help you over time spot “drone work” that does not need to be done, even after you’ve missed it in the filtering stage. 
  • Refreshing gives the mind a sense of release from worry, and confidence that there are no secret trap doors of destruction about to open underneath.  
  • Refreshing allows your work to almost spontaneously organize itself, or to organize by osmosis as you are touching your projects daily.  

 Studentfunctions05 1

Refreshing is so important that David Allen puts in a variety of refresh techniques into GTD.  For example, the weekly review.  A weekly review is a once a week 2 hour event where you review all your projects, all your in baskets, and then step through each project making sure you have a next action planned out.  But refreshing isn’t a single explicit process like the weekly review, refreshing is an integral part of all the functions.  For example:

  • Capturing
When you capture ideas to process them, refreshing is there as you ask yourself implicit questions like “Is this task REALLY something I need to do?  Is it bogus? Am I doing this just to please someone else?”  So you will find that refreshing while you capture will kill a lot of what I think of as “drone work” before you even invest the effort to capture the one idea one piece of paper or electron. 
  • Filtering
Refreshing touches filtering with other implicit questions that you ask yourself as you go.  For example: “Why did s/he send me this?  There is no way I’ll ever have time to read it.” Which is an evaluation which comes from refreshing.  Because you keep touching and moving forward all your projects.  When something comes in that has no next action, you get better and better at evaluating whether the item can be trashed or filed.  
  • Organizing
Refreshing is a big part of organizing, because as you organize you can’t but help think about how you are doing all your other projects.  So as you organize a new project, you often realize that something you learned in another project is very related.  It may be Excel PivotTables, or it may be something you learned in the other project.  But, projects moving forward compound and help one another.  This builds enthusiasm as you go.  
  • Reference filing
 A huge way refreshing helps you get projects moving forward results from sharp reference filing tools like Evernote’s Clearly and Web Clipper.  As you are web browsing, and you see articles and people that are related to your projects, with a click you can capture the content and the long term web link to the source.  Random web surfing moves information into projects because as you reflect on what you see, you can easily capture.  
Refreshing can also travel from reference files back to organizing as you discover helpful materials by serendipity.  
  • Trashing
As described in the trashing section, you reflect before permanently disposing of ideas.  Trashing is all about reflection and protecting your future self from your current self.
  • Doing, 

 While doing projects, some of the time you lose track of time, loose track of space, and you have unlimited energy to burn because your brain is in total flow.  But, most of the time you are working on projects, you are less absorbed in the moment.  And when you are not fully absorbed, you will have ideas relevant to project D while you are working on project A. This is reflection at work.  After you realize that project D could use a link to what you are doing in project A, then you reflect on the slickest and simplest way to capture that pointer, and then you move on with project a.  

Filtering is 20% explicit reviews, and 80% a calm sense of flow in your mind as you quietly and productively move your day forward.  

I almost hesitate to talk about refreshing with students, because largely refreshing emerges from doing the core GTD functions.  State of mind improves continuously as GTD becomes natural and as you “get your brain back” from wasted energy spent “not forgetting” disorganized ideas.  

The big picture:

So here is the “big” picture of how I wish my students would organize.  If you’d like a full size jpg of the file, click here to download from Evernote.  

StudentFunctionsBigPicture05 1

OK, I’ll get to Part 5 as soon as I can stop upgrading the graphics and description on this post (Part 4).  Hope you’ve enjoyed this reduced form exposition!!!  

bill meade 



Taught my “Getting (re)started with GTD” class last weekend.  One student needed to apply GTD without cash out of pocket.  So, I’ve been thinking about how to get started with GTD without spending anything.     

So, below please find the GTD office available for no money down (but you have to drive to pick everything up, so alas, there are time and gas costs included) available in Portland on 2012/04/25.  *Note* the links to Craigslist don’t live long, but they worked when I wrote this post.  More important items have the picture that was up with the post.  

An office, for free?

Step 1: Get a desk.  Portland’s Craigslist is a treasure trove of free desk options.  For example:


Source: Portland Craigslist Free


Source: Portland Craigslist Free


Source: Portland Craigslist Free


Source: Portland Craigslist Free

Step 2: Get organizing supplies like:

  • hanging file folders (Urban League of Portland)
  • home fax machine (Sharp plain paper inkjet fax from Vancouver WA – home of HP inkjets!) Homefax 1
  • A wood credenza to boost your desk space up to 30 square feet and give you some drawers and cabinets to organize withWoodcredenza 1
With all the free stuff listed to this point in the blog post, you have everything you need to implement GTD with a manual system.  But, you are not limited to a manual system.  Using community provided computers (libraries, coffee shops) you can digitize much of your GTD system, especially the pieces of your system that interact with your colleagues and peers.  So, on to step 3 … 
 Step 3: Take advantage of free electronic infrastructure.   
  • Evernote free account gives you 60 megabytes of upload a month for no charge.
  • Google Drive/Docs Gives you an MS Office substitute, and a Dropbox substitute.  Also gives you email, streaming music from the net, picture editing, and picture web hosting, etc., etc., etc.  And, if you don’t own your own computer, this will allow you to share and store documents with your class mates and you can access your stuff from any web connected computer.  *Note* Concordia University where I teach, allows students to check out Dell laptops with wireless in the library and at the computer help desk.  We also have computer labs to provide access to the internet.  
  • MicroSoft SkyDrive which currently gives you 25 gigabytes of cloud storage for 1 year for free.  Sign up and then go to account upgrades and take the free upgrade from 5 gigabytes (normal storage available) to 25 gigabytes.  
  • Kindle Reader.  If you don’t own your own laptop, you can still download (thousands of) free Kindle books and read them with Amazon’s Cloud reader.  If you have a laptop, you can download the free Kindle software (PC Mac) and read books on your computer and up to 5 other devices (phone, iPad, Cloud reader, etc.).  


The basic infrastructure you need to start implementing GTD is available all around you if you live in or near Portland Oregon.  Probably, the bigger the city, the better infrastructure available.  Even though I thought I “knew” about craigslist and free cycle I did not realize how rich these are as resources to get people booted up on GTD.  
Hope this helps!
bill meade 


Natural Planning Model: Silent Secret Weapon





GTD’s natural planning model (Ch 3) is my silent secret GTD weapon.  

Let Me Explain:

While an undergraduate, I was plagued by writer’s block.  Then, I discovered Gabriele Rico’s (1985) WRITING THE NATURAL WAY, and the concept of “clustering” (today called mind mapping) …

Writing the Natural Way  What is Clustering


… “trial web shift” feeling the time when mind mapping can graduate to writing, became tools for me.  Discovering the tools in WRITING THE NATURAL WAY gave me *tingles* of recognition.  I could not articulate why they were important, but I immediately knew.  

Next, I discovered Betty Edwards’ DRAWING ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE BRAIN which is really the drawing analog of WRITING THE NATURAL WAY.  Each book broke its domain down into a set of 5 or 6 orthogonal tools, that empowered the reader almost immediately to be able to articulate creative constructions on paper.  As I drew my own hand in perspective for the first time  ….


Source: Praterposte

… again, I had *tingles* of recognition that I was exercising an important new skill.  

Enter time (25 years), a Ph.D., three kids, moves, jobs, 5,000 books, 94,000 pages of personal papers, and finally in 2009, GETTING THINGS DONE. All this time, mind mapping laid mostly dormant.  I had tried to incorporate mind maps in my work, but I found that I could not show them to anyone without being stereotyped as “a creative” which meant in effect “so heavenly minded, no earthly good” + “unable to follow through.”  So, I kept mind maps to myself, and gradually stopped using them.  

When at the opening of chapter 3 of GTD, I heard these words (I was listening to David Allen’s recording via Audible 

/Begin *Aside* My students say that David Allen and George Clooney sound exactly the same


Separated at birth?  

Source: David Allen, George Clooney 

… so if you like Clooney, you’ll love the Audible version. 

/End *Aside* 

I’ve found the biggest gap to be the lack of a project-focusing model for “the rest of us.” We need ways to validate and support our thinking, no matter how informal.Allen, David (2002-12-31). Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (p. 55). Penguin. Kindle Edition.

 I had the by now familiar *tingle* that I was about to put my hand on a new power tool.


 Source: Discovery Channel – Thrill of Discovery — Ars Thanea

The five phases of project planning, i.e., the natural planning model, knitted together the long dormant clustering/mind mapping, organizing, with the big question “why am I doing this?”  So, David Allen had brought to project planning and management, the same 5 or 6 tool kind of thinking that I had experienced in WRITING THE NATURAL WAY, and DRAWING ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE BRAIN.  



And something else.  David Allen emphasized not trying to do all phases at once, not trying to use all the tools at once.  GTD’s separation of many of its tools (The five phases of natural planning, Processing stuff from doing next actions) are on of the simple things about GTD that I love most. I now consciously think about doing just one thing at a time.  Time was invented, after all, so everything would not happen at once.  

The five phases of natural planning gives an older person, a unique vantage from which to observe college students.  If you don’t have any in the house or on your 1040, let me refresh you that in terms of GTD, college students by default, insist on doing all phases of projects at once, using all organizing tools at once, and repeatedly plead the value of a looming deadline, to make them productive.  

And I have to confess, that I fall into this exact same pattern when I fall off the GTD wagon.  Natural planning out the window and reactive planning back in control.  


With natural planning’s five phases, I’ve found:

  • It is easier to break out of reactive planning. I just need to think of how much easier natural planning is, than reactive planning.  
  • I don’t need to hide mind maps any longer.  Being branded as a creative = no follow through has been replaced by being branded as “That rare creative with great follow-through.”  

I think this is because the natural planning model allows you to keep the momentum you build generating ideas, and spill it without missing a step, into organizing and next actions.  When people observe you grinding through problems with the natural planning model, the cynicism that often pervades workplaces, is suppressed.  People step back and say “Whoa! … What was that book you were talking about again?”  

Restarting Natural Planning  

My emphasis on a lot of open desk space is driven by the five phases of natural planning.  I need to spread out ideas, paper, artifacts.  And, my open desk space often calls to me “Biiiiillllllll put some paper on me, let your ideas oooooouuuuuuuutttttttt.”  But I find, that probably as much as I resist weekly reviews, I resist using natural planning as often as I should.  



Next post will be on “When to use natural planning” and will include my natural planning form and my evolved criteria for full blown natural planning on projects.  

Hope this helps! 


bill meade 

Recipe to get going, when you can’t get going


Source: Brandon Doman


I often have the problem of not wanting to get started on a project. Or, of sitting down at my desk and being vapor locked.  Then, I begin to get skittish about even sitting down at my desk.

This post is the GTD-ish recipe I’ve evolved to use when I feel resistance getting to work.

Three Steps:

  1. Get away from the office/desk (meetings are perfect) with 3″x5″ cards.
  2. Say to yourself, “What are the parts of this project?” And then write down one part of the project, per card.  And do a mind dump about the project. Once You have all parts captured, you’ll feel relief.  

    You are seven plus or minus two next actions away from feeling better.

  3. Next, I take the cards back to my desk and never refer to them. Once I have the moving parts in mind, I can sit down and crank out all the next actions as I do the project.


Time for a family story, my grandfather Billy (Ugh, I hate being called Billy, but my grandfather loved it.) Blyth was an episcopal minister.  He wrote his sermons at a typewriter.  He would be typing up to the moment the service started, while in full regalia, and then run into the service and leave his sermon notes in the typewriter.  The typewriter with paper in it was a trusted system for an individual project (sermon).

3″x5″ cards that I write but don’t refer to, are my version of the Billy Blyth trusted sermon system.

Another fun thing to note about my grandfather is that he was the center forward on the men’s collegiate championship hockey team at the University of Toronto.  And he married, the goalie on the women’s national championship hockey team at the University of Toronto.  At least, that is what the family lore claims, I should probably check the records. :-)

This recipe IS NOT the GTD-approved way to do GTD.  But it works for me.  My students who don’t use GTD, manifest an extreme form of the above “cooking up next actions in the process of doing.” Todays college students sit down to the computer (no desk work first, no next actions) and then research, compose, write, edit, all at once for their projects (papers).

What is important for my workflow, is getting the project into buckets that carve a project at its joints. Hope this helps!  Comment, good, bad, or ugly please?

bill meade








Simple GTD Startup

*Note* to the first-time-GTD-reader …

I advise people new to GTD, to read the first three chapters, and then stop. David Allen, please don’t excommunicate me for saying this, but when a green person is trying to do GTD on their own, what begins as a warm embrace, can grow into a guilt trip. The inner editors hound us about what GTD failures we are. So the warm embrace of discovering GTD pretty quickly morphs into self-recrimination.


So, don’t sweat that you are not doing all of the “official” GTD system. Enjoy discovering!

I think a year is the minimum amount of time to implement basic GTD. I had one MBA student who implemented 100% of GTD in a week. It almost killed them, and they dropped out of the MBA program without explanation. Cutting over to new infrastructure can be a killer. Don’t under estimate the impact of new routines.

So, I recommend that you not try to be a hero. If you still want to be a GTD hero, call me, stop by Portland, I’ll take you out for 3 beers and talk you out of it.

Back to GTD the book!  Let the words in the first three chapters sink in. Savor them, reread and absorb by osmosis. These chapters are battle tested and ready to rock your world. Take your time to discover them fully. Life is about discovery, not performance.


There is no need to bite off the entire GTD system to make big improvements in your work. All the big-picture changes you need at first, are in the first 3 chapters of GTD.

For example: after listening to the first 3 chapters on a 20 mile bike ride, I realized that I needed to:



  • Set up a reference filing system (Evernote + Fujitsu ScanSnap)
    • Most of my messes and clutter came from not having a good place to put X in.  Where X is an email, a piece of paper, a mind map for a project, or an agenda for a conversation with a client.  When you have the “ughhh” feeling when you need to put X down, but don’t have a good place to put X, then you’re experiencing hardening of the categories.  New rule, whenever you don’t have a place to put an X, then instead of just piling X up with other X, first put the X in your inbox and then add a project to think through a place that makes sense for X and its siblings.  Then, when you have time, you can ratchet your organization up a notch by systematically plugging the holes in your trusted system bucket.  Just having a place for X is a huge improvement over piles.
  • Write ideas down one-idea-one-piece-of-paper
  • Set up project folders (both electronically and in physical manila folders)
  • Separate the processing work, from doing of work (a HUGE leap forward for me personally)
  • Work more efficiently by consciously keeping my constraints in mind. Energy, focus, enthusiasm for tasks are HUGE in my getting tasks completed. Before GTD I would just work to exhaustion, sleep, repeat. After GTD I started pre-processing tasks (lists for “buy” that I put stuff on, and then look at the list in the store, lists for “people,” where I write down stuff as stuff comes to mind relating to a person) and then consciously switching to lower involvement tasks when I get tired.
  • I realized after reading GTD chapter 3, that I was not doing enough natural project management. I have always loved mind-maps, but I never realized they are best at surfacing next actions and list items. David Allen put them in context for me in Chapter 3. Now I am holding myself accountable to doing enough mind mapping and brainstorming (going for quantity not quality). Natural project management dramatically speeds up projects.
  • I found the beginning of the trail that is leading me to clutter-free work spaces. And, the unbearable lightness of being … paperless. :-)
After you’ve read, I next recommend these interventions:



  • Intervention #1:  Get a real desk! Every brain deserves a kick-ass place to work.  Typically this means
    • Make your desk much bigger. You need 30 square feet of desk space in your office. Not 30 squares in one desk, but 30 squares locally available.


  • Source:

    Get your desk completely clutter free from the surface of the desk up to 6″ off the desk. Only exception should be a monitor arm.  Monitor arms prevent your current small size desk from being turned into an overgrown monitor stand.


    Http www flickr com photos fogonazos 3051525726

    Source: Flickr

    To do your work you need elbow room. You need to be able to spread 3″x5″ cards, letter sized mind maps, and even butcher block sized mind maps across your desk all at the same time. When you get a big desk and fill it up with monitors, iPads, scanners, etc., you loose the opportunity to so much as fit a sandwich on your desk. Computers are not your brain. They are small piece of what GTD is about. Keep computers in proportion to your desk, as they make a true contribution to your job.  Don’t let computers be the tail that wags your work dog.

    The balance of computer/thinking-work facilities have shifted in the past three decades.  Back in the day, a 30′x60″x30″ desk was the default.  Here’s a pic:



    And companies had huge “bull pens” of hundreds of this kind of desk lined up.


    Source: John Lubans

    You might want to check out the Early Office Museum if you’d like to see more early office pics. Space was made for desks, though far from perfect this was more clutter-free than today’s cubicles.  Here is a representative home office desk today:



    And then an office-office cubicle environment.  The unique innovation of the modern cube is that the workspace itself is visual clutter.  But, it gets better when you have phones BBBBBBBBBRRRRRRRRringing and people talking.



    The bottom line is that today, a desk sized to allow brains to work are considered luxuries.  And modern offices have “furniture police” (see chapter 7 of Demarco & Lister’s book PEOPLEWARE (free summery here)) who take it as their mission to impose total uniformity.

    I feel very lucky to be able to control my desk. Control is important because your desk is a way that your conscious mind can demonstrate to your unconscious mind, that the unconscious is fully respected, valued, and celebrated. Without desk control, people take sick days when they need to get something done, spreading out on the dining room table (a great starter desk!).

    Conscious?  Subconscious?  Wait!  What?

    Right now I’m reading a fantastic book READING IN THE BRAIN. This book is about the brain as computational image processing pipeline. The research reported in the book steps millimeter by millimeter through the brain mapping out which neurons are doing what.  Neurons seem to be hard wired to recognize the sub-shapes of word. Every word is a complex tree.  In the following image, see how the neurons assemble letters from the primitive sub-letter shapes in the bottom row of processing.


    Source: READING IN THE BRAIN L 755

    When we put a shape in front of our eyes, we kick off large quantities of unconscious recognizing and processing.


    Source: READING IN THE BRAIN L 670


    “This view holds that the letterbox area of the brain initially evolved to recognize natural images, but not the shapes of letters or words. Nonetheless, evolution endowed it with a capacity to learn, and thus to turn itself into a reading device. Our writing systems have progressively discovered and exploited the elementary shapes that this region is capable of representing. In brief, our cortex did not specifically evolve for writing—there was neither the time nor sufficient evolutionary pressure for this to occur. On the contrary, writing evolved to fit the cortex. Our writing systems changed under the constraint that even a primate brain had to find them easy to acquire.”

    Source: READING IN THE BRAIN L 2346-2351

    I am only 1/2 way through the book, but based on what I’ve read so far, clutter triggers unconscious processing that is at the least an energy drain and at worst an energy drain + constant distraction.  Look at your desk and pretend you are a monkey.  Is there anything on your desk a monkey would be intrigued with?  We are monkeys, GTD monkeys. And clutter is intriguing to our inner monkeys.

    David Allen, when interviewed for the book WILLPOWER used a very provocative Buddhist image:

    “When he began working with overtaxed executives, he saw the problem with the traditional big-picture type of management planning, like writing mission statements, defining long-term goals, and setting priorities. He appreciated the necessity of lofty objectives, but he could see that these clients were too distracted to focus on even the simplest task of the moment. Allen described their affliction with another Buddhist image, “monkey mind,” which refers to a mind plagued with constantly shifting thoughts, like a monkey leaping wildly from tree to tree.”

    Source: WILLPOWER (pp. 77-78)

    Here is Drew Carey’s description of his desk before GTD:

    “I have self-control in some ways, but not in others,” Carey says. “It depends on what’s at stake. I just got so fed up with the mess in my office. I had boxes of paperwork and a desk I couldn’t get through. Both sides of my computer were piled up with crap and old mail. You know, it was at a point where I couldn’t think. I always felt out of control. I always knew I had stuff to do. You can’t read a book and enjoy yourself because in the back of your mind you feel like, I should go through those e-mails I have. You’re never really at rest.”

    Source: WILLPOWER (p 74)

    OK, let’s piece a couple ideas together.  First, we are evolved from monkeys (hey, God had to create us through some physical mechanism, why not evolution?) so we live in hot-wired monkey brains.  Second, we have an innate propensity to attract work and paper.  Like the Peter Principle of managers being promoted to their level of incompetence, it may well be that knowledge workers attract work to the point of “monkey mind” incompetence.

    And what is insidious is that clutter organizers, just magnify the problem.  See what Mindy Starns Clark says about organizing tools:


    “I thought that getting a house organized began with buying lots of cool holders, bins, dividers, and charts and then the stuff would almost jump inside and organize itself. I didn’t know I should never buy any organizational product unless it serves a specific function in a specific place. And even then the purchase should be made only after I’ve measured for it and determined the exact size and shape of organizer I need. In fact, it wasn’t until I began researching housekeeping in earnest that I learned that most organizational products create more mess than they help to contain.”



  • Intervention #2: Get a reference filing system that is easier to use, than to not use. See: Evernote + Fujitsu ScanSnap



  • Intervention #3: Do a complete mind dump.
    • Sit down for an hour with Excel, or Paper, or Word, and write down every thought that comes to mind about anything that is out of place in your life. I typically give students 20 minutes to do this in class, which I let run for 40 minutes (the student’s don’t notice because they all have a TON of open loops in their minds).  Do it for an hour the first day, and then 20 minutes a day for the rest of the week.
    • *Note* Mind dumps are a great method to get back on the GTD wagon after you have fallen off.


    Source: Austin Kleon

  • Intervention #4: Get a copy of THE HOUSE THAT CLEANS ITSELF and read up on the author’s ideas around “stations.” In short, the method Mindy Starns Clark uses, is to let the messes build up in your house by not cleaning.  Then, get a ladder, then climb the ladder with a camera by each mess, then take pictures looking down from the ladder, then print out the pictures, and then figure out the root cause of the mess, and design stations, to prevent the root cause from recurring. “Stations” allow you to do 100% of a job in one place, without having to make side trips to get materials or tools. In our new house, I’m going to build a charging station by the front door or the garage door once I figure out which door I’ll usually use. In the apartment I had a charging station by my desk, which was great for getting the devices on the teat, but not so good for taking them off before I left for school
    • The concept of “stations” resonates in harmony with GTD. Much of the GTD methodology itself can be decomposed into stations. The desk is a station. The phone is a station. Agendas for conversations with important people, are mental stations for future conversations.




After you have lived with GTD for three months, then try reading further into the book.  GTD is a puzzle, you need to start with the corner pieces of the puzzle (GTD chapters 1, 2, and 3) and then get the pieces assembled.  Once you have the basics down, you can move deeper into all the habits of GTD.
Hope this helps you get started with GTD!  Comment or email if you have any questions!

bill (“the” GTD excommunicatee :-) meade

Top 10 GTD Tips For Moving


Having just about completed my second move since starting GETTING THINGS DONE (GTD hereafter) 3 years ago, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on how great GTD is in facilitating a move.  Bottom line, applying GTD to a move is worth 2 days of effort, cuts worry by 75%, and saves you ingesting at least a bottle, of Naproxen.

Top 10:

#10 Use Next Actions to Cull

Before you pack, go through your stuff and ask “Will this EVER have a next action?” if the answer is no, then recycle it or put it up on craigslist free.


Recycling is good, cuts about 80% of the stuff-clutter out of your life.  And, giving away is even better.  I have a hard time giving anything away that isn’t in new condition, but putting the scratch and dent stuff up will give you a great check on how blessed you are. Don’t be too proud to let someone else benefit.

I estimate the next action filter saved me moving about half my stuff and 98% of my paper reference files.

#9 Resistance Is Futile, … Reference Files MUST Be Assimilated!

If you bite the bullet now and get the Evernote pro and a scanner, you will arrive at your move’s destination, with an unbearable lightness of being … PAPERLESS!!!   Triaging your paper a month before you leave, and start scanning at least two weeks before you leave.

My example: I had 94,000 pages of paper in a monster 5 drawer SteelCase horizontal file cabinet.  I triaged every page, pulled out 20% that might have a next action (17,500 pages) and scanned every potentially useful page into Evernote in 4 days.  But, I know that it is hard to read these perfectly good words and reach a critical mass resolution to go to Amazon and buy the scanner and then to Evernote to buy the premium account.

If you are not convinced, please let me relate to you what happens in my 1.5 day GETTING STARTED WITH GETTING THINGS DONE classes when we cover reference filing.

Imagine you have arrived at my class with a box of papers that need to be scanned and put into Evernote.  Great!  I sit you down to your computer and my Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M (works on both Mac and PC) and then I say “Pick the nastiest document in your box to scan.”  You pick a 3 ringer binder from a conference you attended, pull the front cover page out, pull the contents out, remove the dividers between sections, and put the first 50 pages into the scanner.

“Wait!” I say, check the time.  It is 10:11 am.  Then, you push the scan button and the pages start feeding.  When we are 30 pages through the 50 in the ScanSnap, we put another 30 pages into the ScanSnap so it will put all the pages into one continuous file. Repeat as the next 30 pages feed, and the next, and the next, and the next, and the next. Now the binder is scanned.

Once the entire binder is through the scanner and the Fujitsu driver has gone back to sleep, we look at the clock.  Let’s see: time is 10:15 am.  Fear of scanning 0, data, 1!  This is the sufficient experiment I use to help people  produce the data they need to evaluate for themselves, the value-in-use of scanning (Shout out to you Paulina!).  So far, everyone completing this exercise has had a funny “But this was easy!” look on their face, and then they’ve ordered a scanner.  And the best part is still to come.

Putting documents into Evernote.  Why is Evernote the best part?  Because if you pay your $50 a year, the day after you put a document into Evernote, the document is full-text searchable.  Now not only have you recycled all your paper, but, you’ve found a way to ACTUALLY FIND your reference materials.  Search and ye shall find.  First law of evernote.

#8 Upgrade Your Desk

A move is a great time to engage in desk hegemony.  In my first post-GTD office move, I upgraded the legs of my desk to IKEA Galant “A” legs which allowed me to tilt my desk forward and fit the desk into a smaller space in my office.  In my second post-GTD office move (Today, March 2012), I upgraded to a conference table sized desk.  Here’s the first peek.


The iMac is not on an arm yet, I have not figured out how to get goofy paper trays on the arm, but you get the idea of an even bigger mother of perfect GTD desk. Peopleware decrees that every knowledge worker should have 30 square feet of desk space in their office.  This gets me a lot closer to 30 square feet.

#7 Look for GTD-Furniture-Bricolage

I think of this as “furniture like water”.  When you are in a home, in a routine, it is just culturally normal in the USA to think of furniture solely in terms of “What’s the next piece of furniture we need?”  When you are moving, your mind can open up to new possibilities as a result of having new thoughts like:  “I have too much furniture?!” But the very best part of furniture and moving, is GTD-bricolage.

One GTD bricolage that has been FANTASTIC for me, is when I realized the shelves in a Home Depot purchased organizer, fit into the ancient TV entertainment center where the stereo used to be.  This allowed me to put my large format Epson R1800 printer behind the dividers where the TV used to be, and all the ink and paper for the printer in the organizer behind the smoked glass, and over size paper in the entertainment center’s drawers.  People are getting rid of entertainment centers these days, they can be used for a lot of organizing, setting up stations to keep clutter out of sight.  I’ll add a picture of the entrainment print center once it is moved next week.

#6 Upgrade Your Bed

Beth and I have used a waterbed for 26 years.  Our bed gets an upgrade every time we move it (5 times so far).  This move, I upgraded the bed by making it into modules that could be assembled more quickly.  And then, once the bed was up, I drilled cable run holes through the headboards on the attached dressers.  I have no clue how I could have not thought of drilling cable holes long before now.  Now I’ve got a slick simple solution that cost $4 (Ikea Signum cable outlet kit).  Again, pictures soon.

#5 Next Action The Garage

You know you’ve been postponing doing this for 15 years.  Or at least, I was.  But a month before the movers descend on your house, have some pride, and make a “Will there ever be a next action?” pass on your garage.  This takes a lot less time than you think.  It took me three hours.  It takes my students no more than four hours.  TECHNICALLY this was covered in point #10.  But the layers of procrastination build up into a coral reef when it comes to garages.  Don’t be like me and wait 15 years to do 3 hours of work.  Just do it!

#4 Use Open-Topped Boxes

The kinds of boxes typically used for moving conceal too much information.  If you go to CostCo first thing in the morning, you can get the cardboard fruit cases (which have nice thick handles) and then pack them by station where the stuff was organized.  When you have open-topped boxes, it is easy to see what the box’s destination is.  I think you get about the same amount of stuff loosely packed in a fruit case, as you do in a standard moving box.

D3M 3221

Open topped boxes 100% sourced from CostCo for free

#3 Or, Use Your Label Maker to Make Labels As You Pack Boxes.

If you follow my advice and get a label printer, you can make a label in 10 seconds.  If you follow David Allen’s advice and get a slow alpha numeric labeler, you can make a label in a minute.

#2 Make Floor plan Of the New Dwelling

And number each room.  If you can get nothing else done, label the boxes by the room that is their destination.  Bonus points for putting up a map on the wall so that your movers or (like us) helpers from church, can easily see the location of the room number of boxes as they walk into the house.

#1 Build Two New “Stations” When You Land

Stations hark back to the most excellent THE HOUSE THAT CLEANS ITSELF.  A station is an organized work area that allows a specific job to be done without side trips for materials or tools.  The two stations I’m gong to build at our new home are: First, a charging station by the front door for phone, bluetooth headset and iPad.  And, second, a station to organize the UPS, cable modem, router, NAS, etc. in a convenient spot (at waist height or better) but, out of sight.


bill meade




Restarting GTD: The Bow Wave


I saw this great article on bulbous bowed ships a month or so ago. The key illustration in the article is of the natural bow wave of displacement hulls (green below), the bow wave of the submerged bulbous bow (blue line) and the resultant combined wave (red line).

Figure 1 – Source:

Bulbous bows reduce the drag on ships. The energy savings can be huge, like 500%. Since reading the article, I haven’t been able to stop reflecting on how GTD reduces drag … like a bulbous bow. Wait, stay with me now! And, I’ve been exploring analogies between how GTD works and how bulbous bows work. In this post, I’m going to explore how the analogy fits, and use the analogy to articulate some of the visceral sensations I’ve experienced in (re)starting GTD.


So what?

This analogy allows me to articulate some of the visceral sensations I experience when re/starting GTD. And, it was a stepping-stone for me to quantify component costs of organizing that I experience.

Visceral Sensations:

In the beginning I was disorganized. For example, my wife said “I have to have a door that I can close on Bill’s office, then, ‘it’ is OK.” This starting point is represented with the green line on Figure 1. As I implemented GTD I had a sense that the hills I was climbing, were flattening out (shift from green to blue in Figure 1). The bow wave became less steep. Work began to flow without drama, I was able to stop using todo lists. Crises slowed down, and then, for the most part, stopped. I developed a “situation awareness” of all my projects that allowed me to prioritize my time dynamically, and cut down dramatically on stress and energy drain from work.

Now the quantification part.  To try and put an equation around my experience, I set up costs of organization as follows:


Equation 1

Just for the sake of illustration, I’ll subjectively make up scores for these costs before I got on the GTD wagon. Assuming there are 2,000 working hours in the year, I would apportion the hours in each category as:


Now After:

My costs of organizing before GTD were substantially higher than they are now. My current costs of organization I would guess are as follows:


I admit this is an anecdotal comparison.  But let’s not forget the point, I’m trying to get a handle on how to articulate how GTD has freed up time and mental strain.

Back to visceral sensations:

My dominant visceral sensation from shifting to GTD was a sense of relief. Let’s compare before and after and see why:


Comparison 1

Table 4 displays each of these elements with my subjective sense of what happened.


Table 4

OK, so this comparison before and after GTD compares the green with the blue line. Before has lots of drag, after has a ton less drag, huge savings in time and energy and clarity. Actually, one of the hardest things to describe well about GTD, is the feeling you get as you calmly work through next actions and projects, and realize that you are catching up.

Read that sentence again!

How long has it been since you had the hope of being caught up? I’ve spent my adult life behind. But as you implant GTD and find the right mix of digital/paper/people/reading to keep you humming, you begin to have a glimmer of hope that you can get everything done. Viscerally what this feels like to me, is being under water, like 10 meters under water, and being short of breath.  You are down and you know you need to go up, you force yourself to be calm as you swim as fast as you can. At some point, you realize that you are going to make it to the surface before your air runs out. That point of realization, is what going from the green bow wave to the blue bow wave *feels* like.  As you implement GTD, you start down wave from the green line.  You begin to see light.

In my first cut at implementing GTD, this release sensation, and the feeling of being on top of my work for the first time in my adult life, was very powerful.  Almost intoxicating.  My wife said “Why are you so happy?” after the first week of GTD.  As I fall off the GTD wagon, and then get back on, the seeing light sensation is not as great.  But, it is still there.  After getting back on the wagon over December 2011, I’ve had a month of clear mind.

Even though I have a clear mind, I find that I am confronting many bad habits picked up in decades spent being behind.  For example, I find that when I think about prepping a class meeting for my quant methods undergrads, I automatically and instinctively panic, start feeling guilty for not having the prep done already (even though I haven’t had time to do it, guilt is free once it become part of habit).  So panic, fear, and guilt are there for many tasks I have to do.  But what I’m finding is that so is a quiet side of my mind.  A calm, confident side of my mind.  This calm/quiet/confident part of me over this past month, has taken the tasks away from my habitual panic, guilt, and fear side.  I find myself saying “Why am I feeling guilty about this, I have a ton of time to get this done.  Oh, and another idea I can put in that class…”

Seeing the light, having the hope of catching up, allows me to SPEND my time before the task, much more productively.  Instead of worrying, I’ve dropped the worry, I’ve shifted to reflection.  As I reflect on the class I need to teach, I find that I am able to use the information on where the minds of the students are, and develop smaller, more focused Excel exercises.  I am much more in touch with the students when I’m not self-criticizing about not being omniscient.

The blue line is hope.  The blue line is GTD flow.

What About The Red Line?

Here’s a refresher on Figure 1:

Figure 1 – Source:

I think the red line is a metaphor for what happens when ahem …, “a certain person” falls off the GTD wagon. Immediately, I ooops, … “they” become less efficient, “they” have a visceral sense of the bow wave of daily work, becoming steeper. This kicks off panic. Panic decreases clarity and increases self-criticism. In the face of chaos and criticism, interruptions become drop everything crises.

Speaking of crises, how does one’s boss know to walk in during panic chaos and self-criticism moments? “Whoops” the person has another “suppository project.” Drop EVERYTHING NOW!


When you implement GTD, you have many visceral responses. Because GTD works on both subconscious and conscious levels, these visceral sensations are important signals. Signals that you are making progress. Signals that you may be back sliding. When you get into GTD work flow, you have a sense of stress relief, a sense of time slowing down, a sense of clarity of mind, these are good. All nourishing to, … mind-like-water.

However, I find that some people I help implement GTD, respond to these positive visceral sensations, with a lot of self criticism. Self criticism as you implement GTD drives you from the blue or red curve, back to the green curve. Exhausting. That is what falling off the GTD wagon fells like.

I hear questions like “I thrive on chaos. What will I do if I don’t have chaos in my life to thrive on?” These can really drag over-thinkers to the green bow wave in a hurry. Remember, if you can’t get everything done, the most likely cause is that you are not organized enough. When you get organized enough, you surf down from the green bow wave, to red, and if you buckle down, to the blue. You can feel it. You will feel it, just focus, breathe, and organize. When you panic, organize more, and then get back on the wagon.

bill meade