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

Abomination of Deskolation … Redeemed!

First the before pictures:

Ladies and gentlemen, 28 years in the making, RestartGTD brings you THE ABOMINATION OF DESKOLATION!

IMG 0977

Figure 1: The Abomination of Deskolation!

IMG 0979

Figure 2: The Accompanying Office

Now the after pictures:

IMG 1106 JPG

Figure 3: The wait, … what?

IMG 1102

Figure 4: Wow, just wow!

IMG 1106annotated

Figure 5: How It was accomplished

The Story:

This is John Niebergall’s desk.  John is an engineering teacher at Sherwood High School in South Portland.  As I’ve gotten to know John (i.e., seen his desk and had him over to my office to see my desk), I encouraged him to read GETTING THINGS DONE.  Over the holidays John listened to GTD three or four times via Audible, and then wanted help translating the ideas in GTD to his work processes.  I believe the specific words were “I’m a visual learner, I don’t do well reading books.  I need to see it.”

John is the target blog reader that I started RestartGTD to serve.  I’ve traveled to John’s office, carrying my Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M (I use portable Macs), had John take down one of the three ring binders against the back wall of his office, and we scanned it into PDF.   Done!  Four minutes, and now the paper and the binder both can go in the recycle bin.   It was hard to let that first binder go.  But the liberation grows on you rapidly.  It gets easier the more space you free up in your office.

Seeing scanning is believing.  John ordered his own Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 (PC) and I made another trip down to his office to take the scanner out of the box.  Maybe I should do a poll of how many GTDers have purchased scanners and never taken them out of the box? You know who you are! De-boxing is the key next action in getting a scanner up and contributing to your mind-like-water.

In addition to the visible things on and around John’s desk, I believe there is a second USB hub that is hidden inside the typing elevator drawer space.  And also, that there is a power adapter in that space to feed the label printer and scanner.

Reflections on Abomination’s Redemption:

Note in Figure 1, that John had a trackball on his desk when he started GTD.  This desk makeover has shifted him to a small travel mouse. There are wireless trackballs from Logitech and Kensington, but they cost $30 more than the Logitech M305.

John chose to keep his legacy desk with leg stalls.  That is this style of desk is like a horse stall, only for your legs.  I prefer sliding side to side so that I can start parallel projects on different parts of my desk during the day as interruptions happen.  My advice to John was to cut the surface off this desk and then mount it on IKEA legs. Ikea’s desks have inexpensive cable management options, and they are simple to work with.

The glass on the desk feels disruptive to me.  Glass is cold when you put your hands and forearms on it.  I think I’d prefer to remove the glass, and then I’d probably resurface this desk with white-board-contact-paper.  White lightens the room (always welcome in Portland where we get 5.5 inches of rain per month), and gives you a place to jot notes with white board pens, so you can save paper.

John is a public school teacher who has been in Sherwood High School for 28 years.  And he is digging his way out via GTD.  Teachers, you CAN DO THIS!   If I can shift to GTD, anyone can.  The key is to start.  Don’t start big or small.  Don’t give yourself the chance to over think this.  Just start.  John got the scanner, Evernote, and then beautifully reconfigured his desk (putting the scanner on the old typewriter elevator is genius!:-) to support his workflow.

Thank you John for sharing your before after.  Anyone else interested in sharing?  Before/afters are fantastic motivators.  Email me if you have pics you are willing to share.



Poll: What GTD tools did not work for you?

Buzz Bruggeman of Active Words Fame asked about doing a survey on what tools people have tried to implement GTD with, that have failed.  A great idea!  Hat tip Buzz!

If your (failed) tool is not listed, you can nominate it with a write in “Other” at the bottom.  Also, don’t even THINK about not voting because you’ve failed with so many systems.  This poll will allow you to write in and vote for as many options as you’ve worked with.


OK, in with the new.  How do you claw your way back into GTD flow?  What has worked for you??


Ok, the “off the GTD wagon” poll is now closed.  The results for 234 votes are as follows:

Getting overwhelmed with next actions is a problem in starting up GTD.  No question.  I look at the “Inertia” and “Snap Back” answers as kind of the same thing, scoring 46 votes. IT IS VERY EASY once you get into GTD, to never do that first weekly review.  I “have a friend” who has coasted with GTD for 3 years without doing a systematic weekly review.

I also seen the “Panic” and wonder if it should be lumped in with the #1 alternative of “Overwhelmed” or with #3 “Pushed out of GTD by crisis or situation.”  Or maybe all three should be lumped together?  There is definitely a mental game of GTD that needs to be played to stay on the wagon.

Please comment if you see anything I’ve missed.


Instructions for Kelly VanderSys (and other spouses of visual learners) on Getting restarted with GTD


There is an adoption life cycle to implementing GETTING THINGS DONE (hereafter GTD).  You can help Mark a ton by understanding what he, as a visual learner, is up against.


This is the adoption life cycle that I have personally experienced after 3 years of doing GTD.  Mark will repeatedly fall “off the wagon” of GTD.  You need to expect this, and be patient with it, and keep what you can do for him moving forward when he is in crisis mode.

When I started my new job here at Concordia last January, I fell off the wagon badly.  But then I got back on.  One nice thing about Evernote, is that you have a place to re-start from.  Once you have infrastructure, you never go back to zero.  You just go back to getting current on much less “stuff” than you started with.

When you see this cycle, go through it step by step and ask yourself “What can I do to help Mark get back on the wagon?” I think you will find that you can:

  • Do the weekly review with Mark to write down all the projects.
  • Scan, scan, scan, the important stuff that Mark is afraid you will throw out.
  • Put the paper into numbered banker’s boxes in the garage.  As you put the files into Evernote, you can put the banker’s box number on the note in Evernote so that when (not if, when) Mark freaks out and has to have paper in his hands, then he can go out to the garage and find the paper.
  • Review the papers that Mark has to pull back out of the banker’s box with Mark once a week.   Figure out what the common denominator is for the papers that Mark pulls and ACTUALLY USES.
  • When Mark pulls paper back, review with him where that paper is in Evernote, and if you Mark does not actually use the paper repeatedly, put the papers back into their correct banker’s box.
  • Papers that Mark repeatedly needs to have, and actually uses, need to go into manilla file folders and then into some kind of filing system by his desk (but out of his sight when sitting at the desk).
  • Figure out key words that corral Mark’s papers into buckets.  Then, tag the Evernote notes with those keywords so Mark can find all his stuff more and more easily over time.
  • You should get to know Evernote.  I don’t think it works well as a project manager because it does not allow you to edit in outline format.  My next-action-manager (Omnifocus on the mac) allows me to edit in outline format and outlines have become a life saver for me.
  • Probe Mark for what his inner editor is saying.
  • If what Mark is saying internally is very negative, we may need to assign Mark a writing exercise of writing down all the negative things he is telling himself. 
    • Writers do this in order to silence the inner critic.  We say things to ourselves that a fatuously untrue to ourselves.  Things like “You will never be able to write.” “You will never be able to get this project done.” “You will never be worthwhile.” These and worse.  We are our own harshest critics, to the extent that you can probe and air these things, you will accelerate Mark’s adoption of GTD.
  • Probe Mark for when he is procrastinating, and what he is thinking while procrastinating.   
    • Procrastination is self defense, it is avoidance, it is working out what Jesus really wants us to do in the crucible of a mixture of doing what we love, and doing what we hate.
  • Be patient with Mark, and encourage him to be patient with himself.
  • Make sure that Mark takes enough time off.  Scheduling dinners with friends who you love adds as much happiness to your life as making $100,000 more per year.  Life is not about money.  Life is about happiness (giving yourself away) and time.  Once Mark is on the wagon half the time, he will be much happier.  Beth (my wife 1.0) says “Bill is so unhappy when he is disorganized.” now.
  • Help Mark get better organized with the “stuff” that is bugging him the most.
  • The biggest thing that helped me at first was “One idea one piece of paper.” so be supportive of Mark doing a mind-sweep whenever he gets into “monkey mind” mode.  Because I did not (I’m still working on it) implement the weekly review, my inboxes piled up and I got disorganized.  Thus, I was unhappy for most of this year.   
    • My goofy Target totes that have all my paper project files in a clear order, enabled me to do systematic review.  Look for road blocks that are keeping Mark from being able to do reviews.
  • Getting Mark back to current on all his projects and all the open loops in his mind is the way out of frustration and too much “Inner critic” noise in Mark’s mind.  Once Mark gets current, GTD becomes possible again.  Once it is possible, then you can bite off one little additional piece of new infrastructure and try it out.  Don’t try to and implement GTD all at once (the last 10 chapters of GTD) as nobody but the unemployed can make that happen in my experience.

Visual learners have a problem with what I call “GTD vapor lock.”  After the initial flush of their minds, but before they get the ecology of system sub-components in place to do their first comprehensive review, the visual learner’s inner critic starts yapping at them and slowing them down.  Guilt, nag, drip drip drip, guilt nag, repeat.  Because you won’t see what is going on in Mark’s head, you will progress beyond him to stage 3 where you see that Mark can get a bunch of crap out of his head (project folders) and out of his face (general reference filing via Evernote).  Watch out for being ahead of him and then circle back to encourage, encourage, encourage.

Feed the elephant of Mark’s emotions, we’ve got to keep his elephant moving forward.  Don’t try to argue him forward.  Look for bright spots that you can see.  Look for bright spots that he can’t see or does not fully appreciate, and cheer-lead them into his face when he gets down.


Hope this helps!

bill meade

Order of Battle for Mark VanderSys (and other visual learners) Getting Restarted With GTD

One of my prototype customers for the blog is Mark VanderSys, a photographer and digital artist in Boise Idaho.  I bought Mark an audible copy of GTD 3 years ago when I was in the first flush of implementing GTD.  Mark has been trying GTD on again and off again ever since.  Mark is a visual learner who has been trying to implement GTD via a single comprehensive technical tool.

After launching the first five posts on restartgtd, I emailed Mark to tell him about the blog and how I think he might be interested (bottom) and here is his response (top)


I spent two hours on Skype with Mark and his wife Kelly talking through GTD, my system, why I have arrived with the ecology of sub-systems that I use, and experiments I think would be useful for him to try to prototype his way to a system that will get him to mind-like, desk-like, office-like, and life-like water.

With Mark’s permission, here is an order of battle (with my commentary) for visual learners to get restarted with GTD.

Step 1: Mind sweep

Get to a large table with nothing but a stack of 300 3″x5″ cards, and a pen.  Spend one hour writing down every idea that pops into your head.  As you wait for ideas, feel free to organize the cards you’ve written, into groups on the table.  But, drop everything when a new idea hits you, and write the new idea down.  Logic: The subconscious is holding thousands of ideas.  This is why your brain feels like Medusa where the snakes are all wriggling on the inside of your skull.  The purpose of the mind sweep is to get your subconscious dumped on to cards so that you can experience the release of stress.  Until you release your stress, you will not be able to focus your full mental faculties on the important and urgent tasks at hand.  That is, you will be fighting with one hand, and two feet tied behind your back until you get your mind dumped.

Step 2: Totapalooza

Go to Target and get 12 or 24 totes (or equivalent) to hold manilla folders.

Step 3: Slick Simple Totapalooza Storage

Figure out how you are going to store totes with manilla folders where you can get ahold of them in 5-10 seconds, but where you will not be looking at them while you work at your desk.  I use book cases (see my system here), you will need your own pleasing arrangement.  Plan on experimenting with this through multiple iterations.

Step 4: Scanapalooza

Get a 2nd computer set up to do nothing but scanning.  Your spouse, kids, admin, or friends, can do the scanning. The computer does not need to be in your office.  It just needs to be linked to your own account.  Have the scanning done in one location so that the files magically appear in your Evernote account.  Since you have a Fujitsu ScanSnap S300, I give you one week to have every piece of paper in your office that matters scanned.  If you can’t get the scanning done in 1 week, then you have to spend the $440 on Amazon to buy the ScanSnap S1500 (Mac Version | PC Version).  There, get it done, save $440.  Enough incentive?  I raked all the essential paper out of my 94,000 page file system in one week with my ScanSnap S1500.  If you can’t cut it in a week, your infrastructure is too small.  No whining.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste.  The fastest way to waste a mind is to have an office full of paper.

Step 5: Manilla Folder Palooza

You know that most excellent Brother QL-570 label printer you bought but are not using?  Get it set up so that you can make a folder with a pretty label in 15 seconds or less.  Organize your 3″x5″ cards into manilla folders that are projects.  Then, organize your similar projects into clumps.  You will find the clump names as you take your mind sweep and then roll it up into project folders, and then roll your projects into similar groups.  This approach is like DNA shotgun sequencing, a VERY bottom up organization.  But since your skull is about to split open from all the wriggling worms, this is a great way to take the next logical step.

Yes, I make an exception for 3″x5″ cards because there is no good way to manipulate 3″x5″ cards electronically at present.  You could see this as a rabbit running across your trail that you could chase down and invent a solution to, but since you need to feed your family I respectfully suggest you use the appropriate low technology of 3″x5″ cards and leave the inventing to someone else.  You can always scan the cards and dump them into a suitable electronic system once someone comes out with it. has a product called Curio that is in the ballpark, but I don’t think it can beat 3″x5″ cards yet.

Step 6: Organize Totes Into Project Clumps

Make folder labels for each tote so you can easily keep track of what clump of projects is in which tote.  You should not use my tote project clump names, but since you are a visual learner, I need to prime your pump.  Here are the clumps I’ve got going right now:

1. Career History (original artifacts from all the jobs I’ve held)

2. Immediate family (Beth and I, the kids, Mom Dad)

3. Broader family (Family histories, family portraits, more artifacts etc.)

4. Concordia University Projects (classes and the program I’m building)

5. BasicIP projects

6. BasicIP prospects

7. Graduate school

8. Dissertation

9. Research


11. Projects (lots of general thought projects that I occasionally pick up, add 3″x5″ cards with ideas to, then put away for completion someday).  David Allen would probably put these into “someday maybe” but for me they are topics that I enjoy thinking about and having them in a general projects tote, is pleasing to my mind.

12. GTD (my notes, exercises, questions, thoughts, etc. on teaching GTD undergrads, MBAs, professionals, and visual learners about GTD).

Step 7: Do another 1 hour mind sweep

Since you’ve made it this far, you have an initial set of ideas rolled up into projects rolled up into totes of kindred projects.  Go back to the quiet with pen and 3″x5″ paper and re-dump.

Step 8: Process Mind Sweep 2

You will continually refine and refactor (i.e., collapse, eliminate, rename, etc.) your projects.  This is normal you should expect to be refining, it is called thinking.  You just need to give yourself permission to think on paper.  The absolute pristine beauty of one-idea-one-piece-of-paper in GTD is that with file folders and totes, you can think with paper.  Use the (low) technology!

I’ve got an appointment to talk to you again next Sunday.  Good luck and have your credit card at the ready if you don’t have all your scanning complete!

Feel the love brother!

bill meade