Doing GTD: On the Bandwagon And The Inevitability of “Off”


I read a very perceptive article on last weekend. The author is Maxim Kotin, and the article “What I’ve learned after 10 years of quantifying myself” had a poignant passage at the end that summed up how I feel about falling off the GTD Bandwagon:

7. Eventually you will give up. It’s inevitable
It doesn’t matter how strong your willpower is. Eventually you will
break. Someday you will feel that you can’t bear the responsibility
for your time [GTD] any more. You will quit — for days and maybe 
weeks if not months. It’s ok. It doesn’t mean that the system is 
bad or ineffective. It doesn’t mean that there is something wrong
with you. On the contrary: you are 100% normal. It’s just too 
damn hard to be alert 24 hours a day.

Falling off the GTD bandwagon for me, comes after “sprints.”

A GTD sprint evolves out of work closing in on you, you responding by organizing with more focus (and a bit of desperation) until you reach the point where you as a GTD trotter horse let go of trotting and start to gallop.

Galloping is a GTD sprint. You give up long term maximum productivity, for short term results. I for example, have a boss who is a genius at pushing teams to produce breakthroughs. When my boss starts pushing, it is like hearing a Caterpillar D12 engine in the distance, then the clank clank of the caterpillar drive draws closer, the the cold steel of the blade on my … back.

In a GTD sprint, you go with whatever situational awareness is in your head, for the duration. The key GTD moment comes after finish. Your crisis is averted, the falling sky has   been propped up. Now what?

Now you let your mind unwind a bit and you realize:

  1. Your GTD trusted system is a mess.
  2. You have an expense report that I need to start procrastinating on finishing.
  3. While you were sprinting, your heard of genius cats were generating questions and you have a queue of genius cat questions awaiting your attention.
  4. You are exhausted.

And now it is time to get back on the GTD band wagon. Aw crap!

Work can feel like it is unending. Like it can never get enough of your time. Another perceptive insight from Maxim Kotin’s blog says:

1. You can only count on 5 working hours a day
You probably know a lot of people claiming that they work 10, 
12 and even 16 hours a day. They are fooling you — and maybe 
they are fooling themselves. Because aimlessly surfing the 
Internet is not work. Hanging out on Facebook is not work. 
Chatting with a peer on Skype or at the cooler is not work. 
Smoking outside is not work. Staring out the window is not 
work. Even working with your beautiful to do list for a 
half an hour is not work either, although it definitely may 
look like it.

So face it. You have to do everything, and you can really only do it in 5 hours a day. Work is not unending. It isn’t about how long you work. It is about how smart you work. So the key question to ask when you are off the GTD band wagon is: “How can I maximize how smart I work in the 5 hours a day available?”

And this is an on-ramp to getting back on the wagon. I haven’t found any way to work smarter than I work with GTD.

bill meade

p.s., Ask me a GTD question!

GTD of Fear at Work

Quick note on the GTD of fear at work:

I recently started a new job. A dream job. But all dreams come with some crazy, and some weird (C&W). The C&W in the new job was extreme time pressure. This post is my observations on what extreme time pressure and the ensuing fear did to my use of GTD. Or better, what my use of GTD did to my productivity under extreme time pressure + fear.

  1. The biggest positive of this experience was that GTD put me in a focussed frame of mind. There was no possibility of having a mind-like-water when I was desperately behind. Ready for anything? I was barely able to keep up with meetings tomorrow.

    But, … GTD did allow me to develop an attitude towards worry = that worry was a complete waste of time. Being afraid, and resolving to not worry about it. I focused on doing good work, and living or dying based on the good work. This turned out to be an ace that I can keep. I’ve been able to re-use the “We are data scientists, all we can do is good work. And we will live or die based on doing good work.” and so far, good work has produced nothing but breakthroughs. And, …

    I don’t miss the time spent worrying. :-)

  2. I’ve heard about trotting horses that you train them to swing right and left legs together, and then very gradually, you train them to speed up with the trotting gait. If you push them to faster than their training can support, the stop trotting and gallop. This slows the horses down.

    Fear at work pushes my use of my trusted system, to the point where I stop using it. And like trotter horses, I begin to gallop with stream of consciousness organization. And I slow down.

    When I go from trotting with my trusted system, to galloping without it. I’m off the GTD wagon. :-(

    I find that I have to budget time to focus on organizing all the information pouring in. Budget time to refactor and build-out my trusted system towards new challenges. But because of the time pressure, I have to sneak trusted system building into time cracks of the day.

    This is the sentence we GTD users bring upon ourselves. Raising productivity, taking on more, getting to the point of galloping. Then, refactoring and refining. Over time, responsibilities increase, and the refactoring of the trusted system never gets easy. It just works. No guarantee trusted system refinement will be easy.

  3. Looking back on the past 3.5 months, I wonder if the focus GTD has brought, or the ability to put aside fear and worry, has made me more sensitive to patterns. Patterns have been leaping to mind. For example:

    (a) A common pattern of our customer sales cycle.
    (b) The repeated pattern of co-workers under pressure.
    (c) The validation of my “radar” that sees future problems … far in advance

Perhaps there is a self-induced “Hawthorne effect” for GTD people in struggling to keep work life functioning smoothly from a trusted system. Whatever the source, GTD has stood me through.

bill meade

One idea, one piece of paper … One idea, one card … Seriously? Bill’s cards often have >1 idea …


Example De Jure Misuse of One Idea One Piece of Paper

This post began as a response to a reader email. In the beginning was R. asking about cards. I’ve expanded the post with pictures and some of my GTD history, in the hope that this post can be a stepping stone for other people on the GTD journey.


Sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you. But, I’ve been looking forward to writing this email ever since I skimmed your message 2 days ago.
On Wed, Aug 13, 2014 at 8:49 AM, R. wrote
I am finding one thing extremely difficult to get my mind around.
The one idea, one 3×5 card.
​I got 1 idea 1 card from David Allen’s “one idea, one piece of paper” which I can’t actually find in GTD, but I came away from GTD thinking it. Whether he said it or not. Or, intended me to take away the 1-idea-1-card concept, the value is 100% in idea modularity.
What I mean by idea modularity, can be seen by comparing separate 3×5 cards with what most people do, which is to carry around a “log book.” I used to carry a log book and paste business cards into them and write notes, mind maps, action items, etc. in them. But there is a problem: log books turn into higgledy piggledy quagmires of open loops.
I would write stuff down, and then never come back to the idea. Which, my subconscious saw, and consequently, my subconscious kept the job of “not forgetting” so I wasted just as much energy remembering, as I would have without the log book.
David allen talks about taking these kinds of log books and blesses using them AS LONG AS YOU GO BACK AND RAKE OUT ALL THE OPEN LOOPS and capture them in a modular way. By modular, I *think* David Allen means taking the idea and getting it into a project folder that the idea relates to. Here is what he says:

David Allen:

“I usually recommend that clients download their voice-mails onto paper notes and put those into their in-baskets, along with their whole organizer notebooks, which usually need significant reassessment.”

Allen, David (2002-12-31). Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (p. 118). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition. 

By “reassessment” I *suspect* David Allen means the ideas usually are laying in log books in all their chocolaty project goodness, waiting to be articulated as projects, and then converted into next actions. At least when I was keeping log books, I rarely wrote down projects, let alone next actions. In fact, what I usually did was to write down “AI” for Action Item and the wrote down a project (not a next action). And to my brain, projects laying around in their chocolaty project goodness in a log book, were anything but actionable.
So, back to cards …
3×5 cards are modular because they capture the idea in next action form, stack neatly, and they go cleanly into manila project folders. And as I’ve said many times on RestartGTD, when I open up a project folder with note cards in it, and I see all my ideas in one place, ready to go, I have an “ahhhhhhh” feeling of relief at not having forgotten the ideas, and a flash of excitement as I can dive into the project (spread the cards out on my huge dungeon desk) and get going.
IMG 20140104 143951
Bill Dungeon Desk
For me, being habituated to a trusted system process of getting ideas on cards and cards into folders, enables me to make up project folders for ideas, usually in advance of the folder turning into a real project.
Yeah, this opens a whole new can of worms. How can I make a project for something that isn’t yet a project? I will tell you. I. Do not. Know. But, somehow, my subconscious seems to have gotten a handle on preemptive project definition … via working with a trusted system. Cool!
I start having ideas a month or two or three ahead of projects. So, I just create a folder, and file it in a Target Tote.
Target Tote Action Shot
Target Tote Label
And then once I’ve added 8 to 15 cards to a folder, that folder reaches some kind of critical mass, and the project folder turns into a real project. At that point, I have a realization that those thoughts in THAT folder I started, are now “real” and have to be acted on. *Bing* subconscious has now upward delegated a project to my conscious.
After reviewing your from 12-30-13, 3×5 Cards and Manila Folder GTD Startup, I felt that I understood the mechanics of the process you use, but I found myself straining to read how you breakdown 1 idea per card. I saw several lines on every 3×5 card and was unable to translate that to an example of  appropriate granularity for ideas.
​There is tension in my mind when I write stuff on cards. ​
ASIDE: Story of Bill starting GTD:
When booting up GTD, I initially used letter paper to capture open loops and thoughts. Just like David allen says.
Generation 1 GTD Desk
This was before I discovered “thematic clumping” folders together in totes from Target. Consequently, all folders were created equal, and I bought large folder organizers, took books off shelves, and had massive quantities of folders (look to the left of the top of the big display and you can see folders in an organizer.
This was a bit much. I only accessed a minority of the folders, and all the folders had letter size paper in them. And the volume of paper began to work on my head. Here is a picture of my tote library of thematic clumps. Turns out there are a lot of ideas in one’s head that when they can be safely captured, flee in delight from staying in the cranium not being forgotten. Who knew?
Thematic Clumps of Captured Ideas
(and some non-recyclable papers)
But, now I’m way ahead of myself. As GTD began to produce paper, it was a bit much. I was not expecting a lot of refugee ideas from my head, to insist on be resettled in paper, in thematic clumps of Target Totes. So, I took a temporary detour from using paper, and being 100% David Allen, to using OmniFocus.
In fact, I got so carried away with electronic organization I entered 100% of my paper into OmniFocus. Electronic heaven of GTD organizing. The only problem was that I could not stand to sit down to my computer.
Because … all my work was there waiting for me.  My desk became a trap. In fact, let’s take another look at my desk:
Does anything stand out about this arrangement? Like the iMax screens (don’t forget, event he iPhone was waiting expectantly)?  Note I have subsequently gone to a single monitor, and zero materials (not counting cats) on my desk.
Another David Allen saying that I remember from GTD (but which I cannot find in the Kindle version) is that if you get TOO ORGANIZED, your brain will refuse to use your trusted system. OmniFocus put me face to face with over-organization. A first for me.
Omnifocus, is great. Omnifocus is powerful. But because OmniFocus has built in outliner I was seduced/intoxicated to the dark side of one idea, one piece of paper. I had entire projects outlined with next actions. Project = heading, next actions = list underneath. In fact, reflecting, this is better but from my brain’s perspective, not different, from the land of higgledy piggledy quagmire log books. And my brain did not like it. So my brain went on a GTD strike, for the old work rules.
So, to wrap up this aside, I had to go back to paper. My brain “gets” paper.  But with letter paper, there is so much wasted space. Seems like a lot more wasted space that 3×5 cards. Because I recycle every piece of paper, I thought “3×5 cards must even be less paper to be recycle!” (*Note* which I don’t want any recycling experts reading this, to disabuse me of. :-)
So, I went back to paper, manila folders, but this time, using 3×5 cards exclusively.  Sorry the aside got so long, but this sub-story of my GTD journey, is a common GTD occurrence. GTD is a long string of sub-stories.
Articulating sub-stories is a big reason that I started the RestartGTD blog. In fact, this re-telling of the paper to OmniFocus to 3×5 card cycle, made me realize that the thematic clumps of ideas in Target totes, happened, because my brain finally had a repository for thousands of ideas it was not forgetting. Once it could trust me to not lose the ideas, it went (subconsciously) full bore to dumping the ideas to long term storage in my trusted system.  *Note* to self, people implementing GTD for the first time, might want to plan for a lot of resettling of ideas on to paper or whatever their brain likes as a storage media.
ENDASIDE: Story of Bill starting GTD
When I’m writing ideas on 3×5 cards, I don’t discipline myself to a single idea per card. You caught me!
Only one idea per card, feels like wasting paper, just as using letter sheets felt like too much waste. So, if the ideas are related to the same project, because I’m a cheapskate|undisciplined, I’ll write multiple ideas per card. Or, like the card at the top of this page, I will sometimes title with a project, and then bullet with next actions to complete the project.
However, you will be heartened to know that while I’m writing the 2nd and 3rd ideas on the card I’m thinking “You’re doing it wrong. One idea, one piece of paper!” I just don’t listen to myself, because I want fewer cards to do the work.  And in many cases, a card is enough for a honey-do project like trimming bushes.
I believe I am way ahead of where I would be if I only had the GTD book in attempting to implement GTD.
​REMEMBER: GTD is not about “doing it right.” GTD is about hacking your own brain by building a system around it, that your subconscious can use to make you look like a genius. Life in GTD is experimentation, discovery, planning, de-planning, refactoring your system, and trying again. Originally I intended RestartGTD to become a sharing platform for people who bump up against hard issues with GTD, sharing their success with others.
GTD as David Allen does it, is a highly weaponized system for sales people. But, most of us are not sales people. So we have to listen to our feeling, intuitions, and and make efforts to test, evaluate, and reflect on what is pleasurable, as well as what works.
Hope this helps!
bill meade ​

Musings on eighth grade organizing …





THE NEW YORK TIMES has a curious article: Working From Home, Without Sideshows, today.  

 Work OR Home?

From a GTD perspective, this OR dichotomy *feels* odd.  The GTD perspective on where to work is not an OR.  GTD is AND.  As in, how do I work at the office, and at home, and on the way between office and home, and when I’m at any phone, and when I’m at any computer, and …  Which is to say, all the places in our lives and moving among them, are interruptions to work that we must pre-organize our GTD selves in order to work around, in, over, under, and through.  

Now while I feel like a robot for looking at the world as a place to work rather than play, GTD has allowed me to feel less stress and live with increased happiness, because I am in harmony with my American cultural programming to work, work, work.  But more sanely, GTD has allowed me to sneak fun into my work in many new ways, so GTD has an impish rebellion component as well as the Protestant Work Ethic component.  


Source: Stetson Hills School

Work or Home, todo list, checking off todo list, the NYT article is written from what I have come to see as the “eighth grade school of productivity”.  

  • Make an outline of the work you need to do.  
  • Letter the projects in capitals, 
  • then break down the projects into sub-steps 
  • and number them.  
  • Underneath the numbers use lower-case letters, etc.  

This “work is accomplished by sitting along and developing documents” paradigm was the crowning achievement of my eighth grade year at John A Hannah middle school in East Lansing Michigan.  

Screenshot 12 16 12 12 42 PM

Microsoft Word = Eighth Grade Thinking With Unlimited Money Pushing From Behind
*Note: the outlining in Word has never worked* 

Home offices then are most productive when optimized for the eight grade approach to work: 

  • Separate space to work that “sets a tone that says ‘work happens here.’ –Angie Mattson
  • Rules with significant others to prevent interruptions -Angie Mattson
  • Organized work space “If your work space is cluttered, your mind is cluttered” –Janet Bernstein 
  • “Your desk … should only have the essentials you need….”-Janet Bernstein
  • “Don’t work in pajamas or sweats…” -Janet Bernstein
  • “Build the kind of accountability found in traditional offices” –Jason Henham
  • “Create a to-do list for the day and cross each task off as you do it.” –David Smith 

But, … but … but … 

While I adhere to most of the above bullet points, the idea that a grown person’s organization can be improved by re-voicing the eighth grade perspective on productivity and adding new bullet items, is bogus.  When working adults talk about productivity by going back to the eight grade productivity model, we don’t learn.   

How can you say that?  

Because one of the fun things I’ve learned about Getting Things Done by helping people get started with GTD and Get restarted with GTD, is that school teachers are very disorganized.  


Source: After Kutscher & Moran

Not out in the open, but in inner mental lives, and most aggravatingly for GTD parents, in organizing infrastructure.  Now, before you launch the flame to, let me say, “thou teachers do protest too much”.  I’m actually not in the ballpark of criticizing teachers with this comment.  Instead, I’m replaying comments of my public school teaching clients.  Many public school teachers have abominations of deskolation organizing infrastructures.  

And I think this outside of the cup neatness vs. inside the cup chaos is part an parcel of the eighth grade organization model that is the default organization taught in US schools.  

Think about it, the reason that GTD was different when you were first exposed to it, was that it was not an 8th grade step-by-step process, or a list of platitudes to crank up self-control.  Instead, GTD is a system.  A system plus a workflow template that works end-to-end.  Even more in that David Allen has refined GTD over decades, with hundreds of users.  

Another contrast between 8th grade organizing and the real world is given by looking at what eighth grade organization training did not provide: 

  • An organized infrastructure for doing knowledge work that is larger than 1 notebook
  • Something along the line of David Allen’s “trusted system” 
  • A-Z filing 
  • Capturing all sources of important documents 
  • Paper
  • MS Office documents 
  • Web pages
  • eMail 
  • Illustrations 
  • How to think with paper
  • working out ideas via draft after draft of writing, vs, working out ideas with meta-writing tools like: 
  • Given a set of facts, create a powerpoint in 2 hours to present the story of the facts, as coherently as possible
  • Fill in gaps with assumptions, and document each assumption
  • How to take an organization for a project, and then evaluate what is missing and what is un-necessary
  • How to apply common sense in the face of “groupthink” and “Abeline paradox” pressures in groups
  • How to distinguish important knowledge gaps from trivial gaps 
  • How to think for oneself about what is necessary and what would be “nice to have” 
  • How to do “raiding party” research to fill in important gaps
  • How to confront fear of criticism in a group, think for oneself, and then opportunistically obtain information
  • How to divide up research across a team
  • Matching people with passions
  • Helping team members get over paralysis through analysis 
  • Using the network of all team members to find “hot” information

Enough Musings What Was Cool in the NYT piece? 

The links in the article were very interesting in a GTD-way.  In particular I liked Janet Bernstein’s web site questionnaire

Screenshot 12 16 12 4 45 PM

“Clutter words” like: overwhelmed, frustrated, procrastinate, embarrassed, lack of organization, stepping stone their way across the questionnaire.  

I thought it was Fun-ronic (fun+ironic) that the organizers had broken/empty links in their web sites on the big day of a NYT article.  This is a goof that I would make!  Sign of genius! 

Screenshot 12 16 12 4 46 PM


Screenshot 12 16 12 4 49 PMSource: 


Hope this was enjoy able! 

bill meade  


Side Projects: Garden of Slow Reflections




Reading Daniel Tenner’s blog about side projects today, I had an uncharacteristic feeling of “Hmmmm.”  I have 3 of Daniel’s blog posts in my Evernote reference files at present.  The first was about picking technologies, the second was a delightful parable of “The salesman and the developer” and the third was about “How to hack the beliefs that are holding you back.”  Something I need to re-read in light of the RestartGTD conversation with Austrailia.  

All of which is to say that generally when I read Daniel, I think “Dang!  I wish I had blogged that!”  Not today however.  Today I think Daniel did not go far enough.  W00t! An opening for me to build on!!!

Daniel’s post was building on a Post by Andrew Dumont that takes a hard line on side projects.  The hard line might be summarized visually as:

Screenshot 11 6 12 11 27 AM

Source: Telegraph.Co.UK

See also:

Here is the textual representation: 

Know that when you start just a side project, you’re starting so much more. It’ll completely consume you. The worst failure in any side project is to devote time, energy and sanity for any sustained period only to close the doors.

Side projects are a means to an end.

They need to start with an end-state in mind – create a passive income stream, validate my idea. They need to have deadlines and key metrics – six months to profitability, 10 paying users to validate my idea. But most importantly, they need to be a sprint. The longer a project lingers, the harder it becomes to keep morale high and pull the plug if it’s not working out.

Now, interpreting this passage as a blanket statement on side projects is taking Mr. Dumont out of context.  Andrew is talking about startup founders getting distracted by side projects.  A serious problem for burned out minds.  And, in his tweeting Andrew pointed out a FANTASTIC Scott Belsky essay “What Happened to Downtime? The Extinction of Deep Thinking & Sacred Space” so the above is not warmongering to extinguish side projects.  

But, it does represent a left-brained view of managing work that has become the defacto politically correct way to reason, in work groups lacking trust.  So, I liked it when Daniel took (slight) exception to Andrew’s hard line saying But if you want to start a side-project today for the heck of it? Go for it.” 

Daniel did not go nearly far enough for my tastes, which was my problem really.  But the itch created by Andrew and Daniel got me thinking about GTD and my side projects.  

The purpose of this post is to take side project ideas, immerse them in the GTD amniotic fluid, and use them to explore “side project GTD thinking.”  

GTD of Side Projects

For me, GTD side projects have been a great source of mental unburdening.  For each side project I make a manilla folder and then gather 3×5 cards and letter pages with thoughts about the side project.  Side projects started as a way to mind sweep more fully.  I did not like having isolated cards with ideas that clumped together.  So just to get the ideas off my mind I would clump them into folders.  And then, I group folders into Target Totes (see before/after and scroll down).  

When I listened to GTD and David Allen said “most people have 100 projects going but can recall only” 7+/-2, it rang true with me.  Except, I think I have way more than 100 projects going.  And these projects are not all what I’d call “core” to my work.  Many of them are projects that my brain thinks up and won’t let go of until I write them down.  

After 3 years of GTD however, I notice that side project folders have a tendency to evolve into core, focused, time-constrained projects.   When I realize that a side project is now a “core” project, I sit down in my school office, a clear desk, and the folder with the accumulated detritus of cards and pages, and then a sense of calm comes over me as I see that all the ideas my brain trusted me with, are all accounted for.  

I’ beginning to be convinced that side projects that my brain wants to build, but that do not do work for me today, are a kind of “over the horizon” work radar.  By teaching me mind-sweeping and organizing, GTD has made it possible for me to have the idea in the previous sentence. 

Previous to GTD I would stop these side projects by feeling too guilty to do anything about then when I had “real work.”  The guilt kept over the horizon projects disorganized and stuffed into my overwhelmed brain.  Mind sweeping them out gave me back creative capacity.  Organizing over the horizon ideas converted randomness into a down stream GTD by product that I can use to further increase my productivity.  And, cut stress.  When you realize an over the horizon project has just landed in your lap, opening a folder to all your ideas in one place is the opposite of stress.  Prevents guilt from getting a toe-hold to derail the work.  

Or, so it seems…  

bill meade

If you’ve read this far (thank you Daniel Tenner!) you should follow RestartGTD’s rss feed.   

p.s., Daniel Tenner and Andrew Dumont, if you feel misinterpreted by the above, let me ( know, I’ll refine your input into the post!   






















In Box Zero Disease: A conversation from RestartGTD Part 4


This post is part 4 of a discussion that evolved out of the observation that when some GTDers get to InBox-Zero, they get sick immediately after.  “InBox-Zero-Disease” is the name we’ve developed for this.  The idea of coming up to, but not all the way through InBox-Zero, to avoid InBox-Zero disease sparked a discussion of self-reprogramming to avoid falling off the GTD wagon.

Dave Findlay’s words are in bold left justified.  Bill Meade’s responses are not-bold and are indented from left by one tab stop.  Hope you enjoy!

From: Bill Meade <>
Subject: Re: Thanks for blogging on Restart GTD
Date: November 2, 2012 3:33:54 PM PDT
To: Dave Findlay <>

On Oct 30, 2012, at 6:18 PM, Dave Findlay <> wrote:

Hi Bill,

Thanks for writing back! I wasn’t expecting a comprehensive reply with an essay like that. You’ve raised some interesting thoughts:

The thoughts come naturally from conversations and sharing.  I wish RestartGTD had more sharing (*hint* *hint*).  I love it when readers write in and ask questions (*hint* *hint*).  I don’t have great answers, but I’m willing to look stupid in order to move my GTD implementation forward.

– When you talk about “beating the world for traffic”, I think of crunchy blogs full of “top ten lists” and 400-word click-bait articles that don’t say anything. I’m so glad restartgtd isn’t one of those.

I’m glad that someone thinks it is *not* one of THOSE BLOGS!!!

– Great advice on avoiding the trigger while capturing most of the benefit. I’ll give that a go — an almost-there weekly review in good health is way better than an immaculate review and being unwell.

Getting to the cuttinge edge of “mind like water” has been a very slowly acquired skill for me.  I’m doing a two-step dance between my GTD infrastructure, and how my brain thinks.  Gradually, I’m evolving from a sporatic mind-like-water to episodes in GTD flow that are becoming longer.  GTD is re-programming that takes time.  I advise newbies to GTD to not read chapters 4-end of GTD.  Just to get the basic model, and then get reference filing under control.  I have not been able to reprogram all of my brain subsystems, at once.  So I think one GTD thing is enough to change at a time.

– What we would actually do once we arrived at panic-free work. That’s a fascinating insight. I’d always thought that “If only I could get all this finished …” but I wouldn’t have a clue what to do upon arriving at “finished”, due to the behind-as-normal phenomenon you mentioned. So, we’re conditioned in so many ways to strive for something (getting our work done), and also programmed to self-sabotage our efforts to attain it.

I could really feel the tension between getting my mind cleared, and then allowing old habits to kick in and derail GTD, when I first started trying to implement it.  I think our counter GTD habits are school-driven, work-driven, family-driven, competition-driven, to always be on, always having the distilled essence of our genius flow neatly and continuously from our mouths/fingers/pens/keyboards.  This perpetual trying harder gets in the way of an optimized evolutionary path of increasing organization.

Insidious! No wonder falling off the GTD bandwagon is so common — it’s like we have to get down deep and rewrite some of our internal scripts before we have a hope of staying on it for any length of time. This, then, might be the real work of sticking with GTD: rewriting the scripts that make you fall off (converting away from being a herd animal, like you mentioned).

*Ding* *ding* *ding* this is the kind of insights that I’m after!  Great observation Dave!!!

Yes, we should be talking on RestartGTD about:
• Identifying habits that run us off the GTD wagon.
• Ideas and techniques about how to re-program these habits (i.e., re-write the scripts).
• Philosophical approaches to re-programming.  NLP, wack-a-mole, whatever…

Not sure exactly how to do this, other than maybe to approach it obliquely by asking related questions until we reach the AHA! moment, or introducing ourselves to small GTD wins to prove it’s not so scary.

Stopping bad habits is one piece of the puzzle.  But I think also, that GTD people should be talking about the trial and error changes we make, and why our brains decide to, or not to, adopt the changes.

For example: I’ve talked before about my initial “cut over” from mess to GTD via putting my entire work and thought life into OmniFocus.  After a few days of having my entire world waiting for me when I sat down to my desk, I found that I was avoiding sitting down to my desk.  Then, relistening to GTD I *think* I heard Allen say “If you get too organized, your brain will refuse to use your system.”  But, I’ve not been able to put my finger on the page number.

Since then, I’ve evolved my GTD system by:

  • Cutting 100% back to 8.5×11 paper
  • Cutting 100% over to 3×5 cards
  • Dropping the use of contexts for task lists
  • Adding manila folders in “clumps” (i.e., the Target Totes where I keep related folders)
  • Falling REALLY HARD for Salvatore Sanfilippo’s daily, weekly, monthly, task tracking format which I added “eventually” to in lieu of a “someday mabye” bucket. And unlike Salvatore, I don’t use this format in Evernote, instead I’m using it in OmniFocus.

So, I’ve ended up with about a 70% electronic system.  My brain didn’t like 100% electronic 3 years ago, however, it is ok with my 70% electronic system today.  Over time I feel like my brain has aspects of a pendulum swinging first to 100% elctronic and then when it gets some experiece, swinging back to paper, then settling in to the right of middle.

Fitting new infrastructure tools into our GTD routine is a separate function from re-programming bad habits.

As for Task Zero … I’ve never been there. I’ll have to try it and see what happens, although having now framed it like this, observer bias will probably make it much less interesting.

As I said, I’ve had students email me after.  I have friends call me when they were approaching task-zero.  Both kinds of email ask me “What should I do.”  And I think the answer is reflect on what you are feeling mentally, and if you can, why.  This is a great skill taught in INNER PRODUCTIVITY in order to track down reasons for procrastination.  I think reflection *might* allow us to drill into why being caught up makes us uncomfortable.  And then, to what the source habits of the “always behind” mentality are.  This too, we should be talking about on RestartGTD.  But again, the conversation is too one sided.  Help me out anyone?  Please?

– Trying harder as a vestigial function. Haha! It’s true — and we’re in a great place when we realise “trying harder” to handle the constant load of inputs cannot be done. The firehose can’t be switched off, partly because so much stuff is open-ended. You get assigned a project, and nobody has defined what “finished” looks like, so you get all visionary, thinking “I could really go for it and create something world class with this project”, and in so doing we create extra inputs and agreements for ourselves.

In addition to finish-line uncertainty, I’m certain we have too many projects.  I know I do.  In GTD when I saw that the average person has 100 projects, I had a leap of recognition.  But killing projects before they can damage your schedule, energy, and mental work load is a skill I need.  Projects are just easier to accurately cull in retrospect once they have starved to death.

Then the lizard brain tries harder and quickly succumbs to overwhelm.

The lizard brain is the “Limbic system” which is at the top of the spinal cord.  It is the center of self knowledge and the center of emotion (I remember reading this but can’t think of the cite, forgive me please).  Our self knowledge increases reluctantly when we need to learn things about ourselves, that are upsetting.  Like “Why my wife divorced me.”  10 years later the realization “I was an asshole to her.”

Does some of this “upsetting=reluctant learning” apply to our understanding of GTD?

  • It can be upsetting when you realize how disorganized your life has been.
  • It can be upsetting to have to re-negotiate your identity not as a spazmodic participant in your own life, but as an active cause of your own life’s evolution.
  • It can be upsetting having to face up to negative criticisms “You would be awesome if you could ever get your mind under control!” we’ve had over our lives.  Especially when these criticisms are true.

– You talked about your next GTD challenge being to create a feedback mechanism to help you regulate the amount of work you handle (really, the volume of inputs you choose to address?).

In thinking about this for a couple days, I think there are two issues: First, having a closed loop feedback signal that indicates when I should turn off.  For example, not having enough time to exercise would be a good signal for me.  Not having enough time to entertain friends.  Not having time to spin down.  I’ve always taught my kids that “Meades need downtime every day.”  but I have not been practicing what I preach.

And in addition to time feedback.  I think I need a second feedback signal directly at “sources of escalation.” For example, jobs are always wringer-cranker-uppers.  I think I need a bright line in the sand agreement to shut down when the job escalates.

So, when I feel an escalation of stress and work (escalation and stress come hand in hand), I need to stop.  Rethink.  Move the fulcrum over.

Is work this kind of stressor for you Dave?

That’s tricky. I guess most people (men, especially) don’t find out they’re doing too much until their wife complains they’re never around, or their kids react/rebel, or they develop a chronic health condition. The only way I could think of to regulate that is indirectly, by putting some external speed-limiting measure in place, like the number of hours you choose to work. That might not create a quantifiable feedback signal (“work left over on Friday afternoon” isn’t useful once you’re tackling bigger projects, and several at a time), but it’d lead to intuitive regulation — over time either you have too much to do so you’re forced to cut back, or you feel like you’ve got extra capacity so you look for areas to expand in. I could be oversimplifying.

This is a great example.  I’ve always had jobs where I was home at the time the kids got out of school.  Then until after dinner when I went back to school to teach in the evening.  I could not have raised a small children while working at HP.  The norms of “be at your desk, always be in a meeting” were overpowering.

Right now, I’m working on never getting to the point where if Beth calls, I say “I’m sorry, can’t do that, too slammed.”  Beth called me on “playing the slammed card” a couple weeks ago, and it was way-useful for me to start attacking the pace at which I’m working.

– Feel free to post the email on your blog. It’d be interesting to see what comes of it. Feel free also to edit for brevity and flow as needed.

You are not the long winded one, … I am.  :-)

– There’s only one winery around here, and no Zinfandel that I’m aware of — but some of that is grown a little further south in the Granite Belt region around Stanthorpe. I’m not well versed on fine wines (coffee is my gourmet drug of choice), so you’d be welcome for a visit if you’re in the area. It’d be an education for me.

That is right, Zinfandel likes to be stressed and grow on rocks.  Gourmet coffee will work just fine!

Mel-bunn. Hehe, it should be renamed according to tech startup naming conventions: Melbn. Then we’d be pronouncing it right.

LOL thanks for the tip!

Thanks again for the correspondence.

It is a pleasure corresponding about GTD!  I hope others (*Hint* RestartGTD readers!) will join in, and that we all benefit from the communion of kindred minds!

bill meade

Warm regards,


David Allen 2 minute 30 second Audio Podcast: How to get back on the wagon (Allen’s title = “At least you have a wagon”)

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Click here for a David Allen audio podcast on getting back on the GTD bandwagon.  Interesting high points:

  • Allen says even he falls off the GTD wagon
  • Keys to getting back on the GTD
  • Give yourself permission to get back on the wagon
  • Block the world out
  • Sit down
  • Just do it
  • Getting back on the wagon is not that hard, not nearly as hard a starting GTD

Give yourself permission?

When I heard Allen say this, I immediately thought of a children’s book, “The Story About Ping” BY Flack and Wiese (1933).  From Wikipedia here is the plot:

Ping is the name of a domesticated duck who lives on a riverboat on the Yangtze River in China. He gets sent out every morning to forage along the river with his relatives, and is expected back every evening. The last duck on the boat would get a swat with a stick and one day he is the last duck. He is afraid to return and spends the night on shore. When he awakens his boat is gone and he is soon caught by a boy on another boat where he worries about becoming their dinner. After some time the boy lets Ping go just as all his duck relatives are getting back on Ping’s boat nearby. Ping rejoins his family and happily receives the last duck swat.

And also from Wikipedia I learned that Captain Kangaroo read  “The Story About Ping” once a week for 17 years (along with Stone SoupMike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and The Little Engine That Could  all of which had longer runs on Captain Kangaroo).  I suspect the Captain taught me The Story About Ping! :-)

Mapping The Story About Ping to RestartingGTD:

  • Fear of the swat
    • = fear of weekly review and/or
    • = fear of letting go of denial and admitting “I am off the wagon” and/or
    • = fear of “THE SCARY INBOX”
    • Shutterstock 6126868 Source: Purchased from Shutterstock
  • Night on shore and the boat is gone
    • = Denying being off the wagon by ‘legitimate’ distractions
    • = Beginning to work without a trusted system because of guilt
    • = Old nightmares about being someone’s “dinner” return
    • = fear of getting back on the wagon being just as hard as starting up GTD for the first time
  • Back with family and taking the swat
    • = If you can just sit down do whatever you are fearing, the swat is surprisingly small
    • = Once you are home it is very good … mind like water on the water … GTD without quack ups … I could go on ….

bill meade

Analytics of Procrastination and Guilt: Before and After GTD

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The purpose of this post is to share an “aha!” I just had while working with my beloved 3×5 cards. The “aha!” is represented on the graph above under the orange B.  But first, let me share with you my experience with procrastination and guilt.


Writer’s block, cramming, starting projects and throwing them out after one burst of work, impulsive leaps off critical project paths onto distracting tasks (pinball anyone?), failure to launch until every piece is perfectly in place, number of projects building until it seems like the number of projects will inevitably and immovably go up forever,  procrastination has taken many forms in my life.  At root, I have come to believe that procrastination is the reciprocal of organization.  Of course, I may be biased by having experienced GTD for the past four years.

The graph at the start of this blog post is a subjective attempt to weigh how much procrastination I did before and after GTD.  I picked percent numbers vaguely thinking that I could measure procrastination in my memory, by estimating how much time I remember spending procrastinating.  I don’t think I spent 65% of my time procrastinating, but playing with how much I feel I procrastinated before and after GTD, it was the difference between the two levels that had the biggest contribution to the number.  The relief from procrastination has been a big part of the “stress free” productivity of GTD, for me.

As I continue to apply, continue to refine my GTD system, I am procrastinating less every year.  More and more, work that I used to dread sitting down to do, is easy to sit down and do now.  And I’ve noticed that when I’m procrastinating, that this is a signal for me to do a mind sweep and get my mind cleared.  It is like as I try and remember things, the things I’m remembering become a pile, and then a knot, and then a Chicken-Little like voice in my head playing an endless loop of “[: Don’t do it now.  You are too tired.  Maybe tomorrow:]”  GTD has given me the system to organize well enough that I can mind sweep and silence the voice, untie the knot, organize the pile into 3×5 cards, and then sit down and do the work.

In THE WAR OF ART, Steven Pressfield talks about resistance in much the same way I’m talking about procrastination:


Like a magnetized needle floating on a surface of oil, Resistance will unfailingly point to true North—meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing.

We can use this. We can use it as a compass. We can navigate by Resistance, letting it guide us to that calling or action that we must follow before all others.   Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

Pressfield, Steven (2010-08-30). The War Of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle (Kindle Locations 134-138). PREMIERE. Kindle Edition.

And like the ex-marine Pressfield is, his little war manual of creative accomplishment teaches how to confront resistance with frontal assaults, flanking attacks, and interlocking fields of fire:

RESISTANCE AND SEX   Sometimes Resistance takes the form of sex, or an obsessive preoccupation with sex. Why sex? Because sex provides immediate and powerful gratification. When someone sleeps with us, we feel validated and approved of, even loved. Resistance gets a big kick out of that. It knows it has distracted us with a cheap, easy fix and kept us from doing our work.

It goes without saying that this principle applies to drugs, shopping, masturbation, TV, gossip, alcohol, and the consumption of all products containing fat, sugar, salt, or chocolate.

Pressfield, Steven (2010-08-30). The War Of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle (Kindle Locations 178-184). PREMIERE. Kindle Edition.

My favorite passage of the book is where Pressfield confesses how resistance almost killed his book:


When I began this book, Resistance almost beat me. This is the form it took. It told me (the voice in my head) that I was a writer of fiction, not nonfiction, and that I shouldn’t be exposing these concepts of Resistance literally and overtly; rather, I should incorporate them metaphorically into a novel. That’s a pretty damn subtle and convincing argument. The rationalization Resistance presented me with was that I should write, say, a war piece in which the principles of Resistance were expressed as the fear a warrior feels.

Resistance also told me I shouldn’t seek to instruct, or put myself forward as a purveyor of wisdom; that this was vain, egotistical, possibly even corrupt, and that it would work harm to me in the end. That scared me. It made a lot of sense.

What finally convinced me to go ahead was simply that I was so unhappy not going ahead. I was developing symptoms. As soon as I sat down and began, I was okay.

Pressfield, Steven (2010-08-30). The War Of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle (Kindle Locations 227-234). PREMIERE. Kindle Edition.

If procrastination is a battle you are always fighting, you might want to consider that it is really, a war.  And if it is a war, Pressfield’s WAR OF ART might be *handy* to have around.



Source: Wikipedia

As much as I’ve felt procrastination in my life, I’ve felt guilt, more.  It it isn’t bad enough that we have the Chicken-Little voice telling us to procrastinate.  On top of Chicken-Little we get a siren sucking our energy, distracting us, criticizing constantly.  Siren works to define this second voice for me, because either the Greek idea of sirens as femmes fatale who lure to destruction, or the modern sense of a loud noise that prevents thought is the net result.

And this is a separate issue from procrastination.  When you overcome procrastination and sit down to do the work, you can hit a brick wall if your inner editor/siren is blabbering, stabbing, ridiculing, bargaining, etc. with your creative capacities.  The best antidote I’ve found for the guilt is doing the work despite the voice.  As you get fully into the project, the editor/siren fades.  the second best antidote I’ve found is Natalie Goldberg’s “Trouble with the editor” (p. 33) exercise in WRITING DOWN THE BONES.

Trouble with the Editor

THE MORE CLEARLY you know the editor, the better you can ignore it. After a while, like the jabbering of an old drunk fool, it becomes just prattle in the background. Don’t reinforce its power by listening to its empty words. If the voice says, “You are boring,” and you listen to it and stop your hand from writing, that reinforces and gives credence to your editor. That voice knows that the term boring will stop you dead in your tracks, so you’ll hear yourself saying that a lot about your writing. Hear “You are boring” as distant white laundry flapping in the breeze. Eventually it will dry up and someone miles away will fold it and take it in. Meanwhile you will continue to write.

Goldberg, Natalie (2010-08-31). Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala Library) (Kindle Locations 518-523). Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.

We knowledge workers may not have invented guilt, but we sure have perfected it!  But man, has GTD ever cut down on the guilt I feel.  Over the years as I work organization through my life, work has gone from happening in spasms, towards the asymptote happening in flow.

What about the orange B?

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Over the past four years I’ve procrastinated much less, but while my guilt level initially was way down, I find that I’m feeling a little more guilty about less procrastination over time.  See the orange A in the figure.  This was disconcerting.  Doing better but not getting my full measure of stress relief!

Recently I was going through my: procrastinate>>”Oh, I need to mind sweep and 3×5 card this”>>now-organized, work cycle.  And as I sat down after organizing, to work, I had the realization that one of the reasons I procrastinate is because I’m subconsciously afraid that if I just do the work, I’ll do the wrong task first.  In English this time:

I procrastinate because I fear doing the wrong task first.

Interesting!  “Fearcrastination!”  Look it up in Google, it won’t exist until this page has been indexed!

What about the orange B?

Well, the experience of realizing that I procrastinate because of possible starting task error, that I “fearcrastinate” gives me a handle to cut down both procrastination and guilt about procrastination.  That is, as I succeed in cutting procrastination and gaining insight into procrastination, I can feel the guilt line bending horizontal at the orange B.

This is the GTD idea that I want to put across in this post.  Organize when procrastinating and then when you work, you will have no more guilt to deal with. Simple really!  Sorry it took 1492 words.  :-)

bill meade

Call for …



Desk Before Pictures!!!! 

There has been a fair amount of hinting that readers of RestartGTD are interested in seeing GTD desk pictures, and sometimes even in sharing desk pictures.  I’ve put my before/after up, and the before/after of one other RestartGTD reader.   Now let’s everyone show everyone theirs!  

Find a picture of your desk before GTD, or take a picture of your desk when off the GTD wagon, then post the picture in the comments to this blog entry.  Blog readers then can chime in with comments.  Commiserate about desk problems.  And generally encourage and troubleshoot.  

I love doing desk makeovers, so I’ll chime in where I think I can add something. For example,

If I were presented with the above desk, then I would advise the “Brutal GTD reference filing cut over” hereafter BGTDRFCO:

Step 1: Go to CostCo and get 5 large boxes.
Step 2: Get a rolling dumpster.  
Step 3: Wait for the weekend (best time of year for the BGTDRFCO is holiday in December, the only time when people will leave you alone at the office)
Step 4: Go through the piles on the desk, left to right, pick up each document and ask “Will there ever be a next action?”

  • If yes, and the action is immediate, put the document into one of the five boxes labeled “In” 
  • If yes, but the action is not immediate, put the document in one of the five boxes labeled “To Scan #” where # goes from 1 to N for all the boxes needed to hold scanned documents. 
  • If there will never be a next action, then put the document in the rolling dumpster. 

Step 5: Move through the entire pile of paper on, in, and around the desk dumping, inbox-ing, or to-scanning all the documents. 
Step 5: Get:

Step 6: Get the scanner working with Evernote:

  • If you have a single-pass dual-sided scanner at work (most workplaces do) then set up scan to email to email to your evernote in-box email address.
  • If you have a desktop scanner, set up the “Scan to Evernote” function to use PDF without doing optical character recognition (OCR). 
  • Set up a clear space to put your “To Scan” box on one side of the scanner, and a second clear space (use another of the 5 boxes labeled “Scanned #”) to build up your pile of scanned documents.  

Step 7: Start on the “To Scan #” box that is on top.  Take each document out, …

  • If the document is not precious, then cut the staple off the top left corner, and feed the document into your scanner, scan it, and then deposit the document in the “Scanned #” box. 
  • Repeat until all the documents in “To Scan” labeled boxes have been scanned.  Change the box labels from “To Scan #” to “Scanned” as you scan documents.  This step took me 3.5 hrs a day for 4 days to import my first 17,500 pdf documents into Evernote.  
  • Store the “Scanned #” boxes if you are paranoid, or recycle if you have that “This is going to work! Uplifting feeling after completing your scanning.” 

Step 8: Put the “In” box on your desk.  You can now scan through the box and apply David Allen’s “processing” to get the documents where they belong.  

I’ll post my current desk in a comment for others to share how they would modify/refine/replace.  But it won’t be until tomorrow!! 

Have a great day! 


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.
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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.

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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.

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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