In Box Zero Disease: A conversation from RestartGTD Part 2

From: Bill Meade [email protected]
Subject: Re: Thanks for blogging on Restart GTD
Date: October 30, 2012 1:11:07 PM PDT
To: Dave Findlay <[email protected]>

On Oct 30, 2012, at 4:32 AM, Dave Findlay <[email protected]> wrote:

Hi Bill,

Just thought I’d drop you a quick note to say Thank You! for writing your restartGTD blog. I’ve found it helpful with all the practical details of (re)implementing my own GTD system.

Thank you for writing.  The blog is not beating the world for traffic, so I continue to write the articles I wish that I had read and could read.  Every time I start down writing an article, I develop new GTD ideas.  I’m having a blast.  I’m glad you are enjoying it as well.

As a brief background on the GTD journey of one of your regular readers, I first found GTD at age 25 (I’m 29 now), when I was working as the sole paraplanner in a busy financial planning office. I found it through a search borne of desperation — I was working long days, had weeks of work piled up, no possibility of outsourcing or hiring extra help due to some extenuating circumstances within the company, and my huge backlog was starting to cost the company money. I figured I was a few weeks away from a nervous breakdown, and implementing GTD offered immediate and spectacular relief, even though I did it poorly at the time.

Since that first experience, my GTD adherence has waxed and waned over the following four years, meaning a month or so of great GTD hygeine, followed by a 6-12 week period of gradually slacking off, usually followed by some high-stress event, like missing a deadline or getting caught short somewhere and having to pull an all-nighter or work over a weekend, followed by an all-day session relocating the handlebars of my GTD system, etc. Kind of like the Book of Judges on repeat, hehe.

Since reading your blog, I’ve taken the plunge and sourced a ScanSnap S1500M, which has significantly streamlined my filing, and I’ve also switched email providers to make filtering and getting to Inbox Zero a much more common event (would have done this years earlier, but all the passable variants of my name in gmail were already taken). Inbox Zero now happens an average of once a week, in all personal and work email accounts.

By the way, this makes you a GTD black belt.  I went to the official GTD seminar in Portland OR, last November and was surprised to find that I was a black belt!  Only about 15% of the people attending the seminar implement anything like the full GTD suite of tools and habits.  I had discussions with DavidCo last year that gave me that statistic.

I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon recently when I do a good brain-dump and weekly review, where I get all email and physical inboxes to zero and get very clear on all my projects at 10,000ft, bring them up to date and recalibrate time-lines for the completion of ensuing steps … (and my weekly review still only happens on this level about once every 3-4 weeks, if I’m honest) … immediately afterwards, I get sick. It’s like my body has been amped up on stress for a period, and the clarity that a good review brings is enough to let my body down off its adrenaline-high, to an immune trough — I don’t want to accept the term “leisure sickness” just yet, but the experience is similar.

You are the second person to tell me this.  My first thought is “Get up to, but no to, inbox zero.”  Avoid the trigger, but capture most of the benefits.

It’s amazing how our minds and bodies get used to a certain level of dysfunction, and struggle when it’s eliminated. I’m examining my GTD system to see where the gaps are — I figure if I’m stressed enough to crash my immune system, then somewhere along the line I haven’t externalised all my open loops and agreements. My brain is still trying to handle them.

I have people who tell me that as they approach a panic-free work, that they get a new fear (?).  The new fear is that the lack of chaos will kill their creativity.  I think the reduced form equation for this is:

stress = creativity

Crazy!  But, tell that to the inmates!  They don’t have the receptors in their brans for the message.

Two of my MBA students who have gotten to inbox zero, task zero, and are fully caught up on work, have contacted me in terror to say “What do I do now?”  Culture, school, watching our parents work hard as we grow up, a lot of our world conspires to program us to always be working … under stress.

/begin GTDessay

Think about it, how many unstressed people have you see at work in your life?  The boss?  Bosses may look serene on the outside, but on the inside they messes.  Western cultures all teach “behind as normal” which makes little sense.  The disappearing boundaries between work/personal, tast/project, team/individual in today’s knowledge work place seem to be tapping into the evolutionary trait of trying harder.  Trying harder is a vestigil function, it makes no sense today to live perpetually trying harder today.

Come to think of it, I used GTD to get my work under control, and then I used GTD to double my work capacity, while proudly increasing the quality of my work.  Perpetual “behind as normal” is not sustainable.  I’ve been postponing the day of cut off.  That day that David Allen talks about near the beginning of GTD where you “control what information gets into your life.”  Control the inflow, control the system, control your life.

My next GTD problem is to figure out how to fix the thermostat needle for “enough” work.  How do I decide enough is enough?  How to I get a feedback signal to tell me that I’m too low or too high? When exercise ceases?  When whimsical thinking ceases?

I think “behind as normal” thinking is what throws so many people off their GTD band wagons.  It is just habit to lapse and then recede comfortabbly back into being behind with the rest of the herd.  In Pressfield’s THE WAR OF ART he talks about humans being herd animals, and creative people having to convert themselves to turf animals.  To picking some turf that they will live or die defending.  Something like that tranformation is behind the need to restartgtd all the time.

/end GTDessay

Your thoughts would be welcome, but I understand you’re busy, so no pressure. Thanks again for writing such an helpful blog.

I appreciate the kind words and encouragement.  May I post this email response on the blog?  Most GTD users are closet users.  You can’t survey them for what they need to hear to develop further.  They won’t answer.  So I keep trying to use every input possible to lay out fleeces that will resonate with readers.  Your thoughts would be great to post!

Best Regards,

bill meade

p.s., Do you produce awesome Zinfandel in Toowoomba’s Darling Downs?  Am I invited for some if I’m in the neighborhood?  :-)  I ran several invention workshops while working at HP, in Melbourne (mel-bunn).

Warm regards,

Dave Findlay
Toowoomba, Queensland

Restarting GTD: Sleep Hygiene


In the undead-GTD-odessy that was 2011 for me, I learned a big lesson about sleep.  A friend recommended INNER PRODUCTIVITY to me and I devoured the first three chapters.  On reflecting why I was so ill at ease, using the tools in the book, I came to the realization that I was just … exhausted.

Having come across William Dement’s THE PROMISE OF SLEEP at a used book store, and having purchased it, I resolved to start reading about sleep.  The top 10 resulting implications about sleep and GTD:

  • If you have sleep debt (yes, your brain keeps track) monkey mind is A LOT more likely to strike, … and become your default mode.
  • Sleep debt kills.  Specifically, Dement claims more teens die from falling asleep at the wheel than from being drunk.
  • Alcohol and sleep deprivation are a deadly combination.  Dement claims that most teen drinking deaths are kids falling asleep at the wheel after drinking.
  • It is OK to ask your doctor for sleeping pills for those nights where the boss is a jerk, the admin is incompetent, and you know that you are not going to be able shut an eye until a randomly selected moment 5 minutes before you need to wake up.  Sleeping pills picked up an indelible stigma in the 1960s.  Read Dement’s book, then make the “Dement deal” with your doctor that you’ll get 30 pills and you won’t refill the prescription without an appointment to talk about how you used the pills.  You’ll use about 3 pills in 3 or 4 months. Not every night, just the nights you must wake up refreshed.
  • Look around.  If you are suffering sleep deprivation, there is someone in your immediate contacts, who is suffering more.  My example, I had a student, one of the brightest I’ve ever had, who was missing class, who I almost ran into on the way to the final exam, because he made a poor driving decision.  This poor guy had sleep apnea even though he is a scholarship soccer mid fielder. Skinny as a rail.  The opposite of Jabba the Hut.  Anyways, when you encourage one of your more sleep deprived colleagues to get a sleep study done, they come back to you and say “It is $5,000 and my insurance won’t cover it.”  
    • *Note* An automatic adjusting CPAP machine is $500.  The only reason that sleep studies are the $5K sheep in the throat of the snake of buying a $500 sleep machine, is that hospitals have learned that they can extort $5K from insurance companies at will.
    • How can this be?  Because insurance companies have learned that the pain in the butt nature of sleep studies creates better than even odds that insurance customers won’t do a sleep study, even if the sleep study is covered.
    • Welcome to American health care where the lawyers don’t care, the administrators don’t care, and the doctors can’t afford the emotional space care. Interlocking incompetence.  Ridiculous.
  • If you put sleep first, the sun will still come up in the morning.  Everything gets done.  If you are doing GTD, everything more than gets done.  But you need to discipline yourself to put your brain’s well-being first.  Nothing else can happen if you are not taking care of the cabbage.
  • Having lost sleep, you reach the panic stage of stack overflow a lot sooner than when you are rested.  I think doing a weekly review while you are tired is a big mistake.  You can’t trust yourself when you are stupid.  Every 24 hours of sleep you loose cuts your IQ by a lot, like by 25% to 50%.
  • Project planning must be done while you are rested.  If you get that “I can just cram this planning in in the 20 minutes I have” point, you are past done.  When you hear yourself say “I can cram…” it is time to put the planning down until you can come back with your mind intact.
  • David Allen talks a lot in GTD about deciding what you do based on energy.  If you go into the day with low energy, then you are only going to be able to do clerical tasks competently.  You need to be caught up on your sleep debt to do the important but not urgent tasks.
  • When you put sleep first, the people around you somehow magically stop freaking out, and compensate to fill in the gaps that you probably think would cause catastrophe.  I don’t think sleep is safe to talk about at work.  Silence is success.  But, it has been my experience that when you realize your real limits, and start acting within them, it all works out.  Even if you are working for the 4th worst boss you’ve ever had.

Sleep, can’t live, love, or flourish without it.  Sleep is GTD infrastructure.


[email protected]

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??

Off the GTD wagon? How did that happen?

Re-read to re-start GTD

Does it help to re-read when I need to re-start GTD?

Short answer: Yes.

But, my advice is not to re-read the entire book.  Instead, I advise you to re-read the first three chapters.  Part 1 of the book is the basic GTD model.  This is the data you want situational awareness of so you can opportunistically get back on the GTD wagon.  Less reading means less guilt.  Less guilt means less wasted energy and less wasted time.

What am I looking for on this re-reading?

I get something new from GTD every time a read it.  But, I’m looking for gold and here is my theory of where the gold is hiding:


  • Worry reduction:
    Most tasks that take up significant mental thinking time, are not being converted to results during that thinking time. They are being worried about.  If you divide the time it takes to do a next action, vs. the time it takes to worry about the next action, the result is always less than one.  Simple fixes: 
    • Write the dang thing down so you stop worrying about it.  It is amazing how often I catch myself worrying about a next action because I have not taken the 10 seconds to write it down.  Write it down, stop worrying, and then natural project management determine when the task gets closed out.
    • Or, I can take a morning, and then rake out all your tasks that are taking more worry than work, and get them done.  If I just make a top 10 list of next actions I’m spending the most time worrying about, I can knock them off and have my brain back.
  • Rumination reduction:
    When you get all the projects laid out, and all the sub-components and moving parts laid out, and then you’ve got the next actions laid out, then you will stop thinking about the project.  Instead of ruminating, your mind can shift to productive work or enjoyment.
  • Increased focus:
    When you have a mind like water (and a “desk like water!”) the stuff you work on, you work on more intensely.  You are more productive.
  • Increased efficiency:
    comes from having the infrastructure you need to do your work, where you need to do the work.  Having a GTD desk set up so that it is pleasing saves running down lots of rabbit trails to get simple things done.  I’m really loving the rabbit-trail, station idea from THE HOUSE THAT CLEANS ITSELF in think this through.  That is, when you find to do a simple task like writing a letter, that you have to go three or four places to get the envelopes, the cards, the stamps, the pen, a place to write, etc., Mindy Starns Clark says you have just discovered a rabbit trail.  To eliminate rabbit trails, develop a station of all the supporting materials needed to do the task, that can be kept out of sight near by the task.  My desk is a work station in the Mindy Starns Clark use of the term.
  • Enthusiasm:
    The word comes from two sources: “en” which means in, and “theos” which means god.  Enthusiasm is “the god within.” When you are less worried or not worried, and not ruminating on disaster, focused, and efficient, your natural enthusiasm “pours out power smooth as silk” as James Garner said of Wankel engines.   When you get your full enthusiasm behind an efficient, effective, focused project effort, you build momentum and take people with you.
  • Improved collaboration:
    When people see you on the wagon, they are impressed.  They may not say anything, but humans are hard wired to watch one another and detect any shifts in competitive advantage.  And implementing GTD is a HUGE shift in competitive advantage.  As the people around you start adopting pieces of GTD, like reducing stuff to next actions, you will find that you can engage with them more productively.  Over time this has a big impact on your organizational effectiveness.

So, on a re-start of GTD, try substituting very tight monitoring of your own sensations of worry, rumination, focus, efficiency, and enthusiasm. I am a worrier.  Such a worrier that I did not discover I’ve had panic attacks all my life, until I was 42.  I’ve just always thought suffering through worry was “normal.”  So, today with GTD, I watch my worry thoughts closely, and then when I catch myself worrying, I drill into what I can do to create a re-organized station, to replace the rabbit trail of worry.  Same deal with rumination.  I am prone to thinking and rethinking about an un-articulated next action, without articulating that next action.  When I catch myself ruminating, I ask “What is the next action?”

This self-based approach to restarting GTD may work for you, where trying to transpose David Allen’s template into your life en mass, has failed.  One thing is a lot to change at once.  Once you get your first GTD habit down: say using Evernote for general reference files, then you can work on your second habit.  Piece by piece you can assemble a trusted system.  Just take it a day at a time.  Pick your next piece to assemble.  And remember the phrase:

Illegitemi non carborundum!

[email protected]


Falling Off the GTD Wagon

When people discover GETTING THINGS DONE (hereafter GTD) there is a lot of excitement, and a cycle begins.  Here is the GTD adoption life cycle that I am still going through:

At the top/beginning of the adoption life cycle is the discovery of GTD.  For me, this was the bike ride where I listened to David Allen read the Audible version of GTD.  I think I got through the first three chapters in the 2 hours I was on wheels by water.  After your first listen/read you are pumped about GTD.  Then, after you start to implement, the critic enters.


Yes, critic.  My walk with GTD has been affected by a shrill, critical, inner voice.  Having just listened to Pressfield’s WAR OF ART which David Allen mentioned in his interview with 43Folders’s Merlin Mann in talk #1 on procrastination, I believe that the the inner critic is a big part of who can, and who can not implement GTD.  Pressfield’s distinction between the self, which wants to grow, change, and evolve, and the ego, which wants to maintain the status quo is huge.  And when people start doing GTD, they are going to press up against the distinction.  The ego is the inner critic, the self, is the child like discovery that GTD’s architecture unleashes.

There is an exercise in Natalie Goldberg’s WRITING DOWN THE BONES called “Trouble with the editor” where the exercise is to write down all the negative things that the inner editor says.  When you write the self-destructive words down on paper, and look at them, you gain perspective.  I mean, it is obvious that telling yourself that you will never be a writer, in writing, is idiocy.  So Natalie Goldberg’s approach to dealing with the inner editor has informed my adoption of GTD.  In stage 1 when you think “This could work for me!” your editor is mute, gathering data, thinking up ways to trip you up for even venturing to think about doing something outside the hierarchy of people and status.

At the point you start having the opportunity to implement GTD, say in cleaning up your desk.  The editor comes back on line with words to the effect that “Change is impossible!” Because unless you are unemployed, you don’t really have the time drop everything and blow up your life and office to cut over to Allen’s system, most people kind of let GTD go, and go with the natural flow in their lives.  Easier than countering the internal editor, and besides, there are a lot of hot projects right now.  Not a good time to change.

This will go on for one, two, or three months.  In my case, when I went on the bike ride in March of 2009, I had already had an Evernote account for 7 months.  I came back from the bike ride convinced that I needed to fix my reference filing system.  But, I did not put two and two together and start moving my files into Evernote until June!

When teaching GTD seminars now, I short circuit this initial editor delay by having students bring in their computers and documents, so they can scan their documents into their computers with my Fujutsu Scansnap S1500.  Somehow, when someone sees a 200 page book disappear into a PDF file in 4 minutes, we get to the 3rd state in GTD adoption, immediately.

Here is stage 3: Resurgence of Hope

What is really *interesting* to me about stage 3 is that when husband/wife or boss/admin pairs of people start trying to adopt GTD, the two personalities progress at different rates.  The person implementing GTD (who is dealing with the internal editor) slows down and gets stuck at stage 2: “This is impossible” while the helping/catalyst person, can immediately see that getting reference files into Evernote is going to work.

In stage 3 we are back to dealing with self growth issues.  We can try this strange software and strange hardware and see if it helps.  Then we have that thrill of discovery when we can find long lost documents in evernote.

Stage 4 is crisis.  Crisis happens to everyone, even David Allen.  When crisis happens, you fall off the GTD wagon.  So, expect this, and don’t expect to be perfect.  When you hear your inner editor telling you there is no hope because you are not perfect, ignore.  Don’t let your ego get the better of your self.  One of the best things about GTD is that it forces you to set up infrastructure in an organized way.  Once the crisis is over, it is easy to go back to the organized infrastructure and pick up where you left off.  Once you’ve fallen off and then gotten back on the GTD wagon a few times, your inner editor will stop telling you that there is no hope of getting back on.

My experience with falling off the GTD wagon and then getting back on is what led me to start this blog.  Every time you get back on the wagon, the experience is different.  In fact, my GTD development has come from cycling on and off the wagon as I’ve attempted to refine and refactor how I do GTD.  Here is the core of GTD for me:

I have not implemented GTD religiously.  I don’t use contexts.  I haven’t been good about doing weekly reviews.  And in the cycling off and on the GTD wagon, after three years, I’ve learned that weekly reviews are the keys to rapid wagon re-boarding.

When you do your initial mind sweeps in GTD, you get the ideas into manilla or electronic folders.  Then, if you don’t review the ideas you’ve organized (i.e., weekly review) then your brain will take those ideas back.  Once your idea has taken back the ideas, you stop getting new fresh cool ideas, and you begin wandering back to the land of Monkey Mind.

To get back on the wagon, you need to do a complete project and idea review, then a mind sweep, and get back to mind like water.  Once you are at mind like water, you don’t need check lists, to dos, or an iron will to force yourself to work.  Mind like water gets work done for free and without feeling stress.  As I fall off and on the GTD wagon, I use the process to rethink and rework my office and desk.  As I climb back on the wagon, I pick another niche in the GTD ecology that I’m evolving to work with my brain (*Note* not from my brain), and prototype an improvement.

Prototypes are sometimes high tech, but more usually, are low tech.

The last stage of my GTD adoption life cycle is ignoring the inner critic.  When you can get back to mind like water, you don’t need to plan, you can just be as you work.  When you are being, you express your true self, not your ego.  It is this true self that is interesting, point made by another fantastic writing teacher, Brenda Ueland in IF YOU WANT TO WRITE.

Everybody is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself. But it must be from his true self and not from the self he thinks he should be.
Ueland, Brenda (2010-01-15). If You Want to Write (Kindle Locations 62-63). Wilder Publications. Kindle Edition.


Adopting GTD is to repeatedly fall off and climb back on the GTD wagon.  Adopting GTD is a process of refactoring and refining how you process information so that you can get more done at the same time as suffering less.  The key to getting back on the GTD wagon is reviewing.  If you feel that you don’t have enough time to get on the wagon, you are not organized enough.

For example, while I had organized my office, my library, my garage, and my electronic files in the first two years I was adopting GTD, I had not really gotten to the bottom of handling both electronic and paper project files.  I had a stow-away box with folders full of memorabilia that could not be properly scanned.  It was not until I fully implemented my hybrid paper and electronic system, that I was able to review every folder and every file once a week.

Once I had all the pieces in place to do my weekly review, the stress fell off my shoulders anew.  Like the first time I did a mind sweep via GTD.  Weekly reviews are kryptonite for stress.  Just do it.  Just feel it.

GTD: Before and After

GETTING THINGS DONE (hereafter GTD) has had a big impact on me.  As witness, this post shows as much of the before/after GTD as I can articulate, it will evolve as I refine the post into enough detail to please visual learners (you know who you are John Nieberall!).

Question 1: What is GTD?

To my mind, GTD is a brain hack. GTD may look like a self help book, it may feel like a religious cult.  But, GTD is an approach to organizing that helps you shop around for tools that allow productivity with a peacefulness.

GTD is important because life does not come with an owner’s manual that says “get organized in a sustainable high performance way.”  So people go through school, work, phd programs (I did all three) and never spend a day getting organized beyond coping with the next deadline.

Here is the GTD architecture diagram taken from the PDF accompanying the Audible version of GTD:

Question 2: What did your life/office look like before GTD (circa 2009)?



In the garage, I also had a 5 drawer horizontal filing cabinet with 94,000 pages of journal articles, research data, and miscellaneous documents that were too good to throw out but not good enough to use.  Here is the filing cabinet in the garage next to the Y2K water barrel.

Question 3: What does your life/desk look like after GTD?


Note that this desk is: (1) large 6′ x 35″, (2) clutter free from the surface up 6″, (3) canted (the front edge is 1″ closer to the floor than the back edge.  I will write more posts on desks and their requirements as taking back my desk was a key stepping stone for implementing GTD.

<<Aside>> the most up to date “after” desk picture is available in the Dungeon Desk post.

Next comes my physical filing system (Target totes) with 5″ book ends in the tote if there are not enough manilla folders to completely fill the tote:

D3M 2955

D3M 2956

But, over the years, I’m using fewer and fewer of these totes, and shifting the vast majority of my projects into electronic formats. The reason for this is Evernote. Go buy Evernote. Do it. Do it now!

Nothing has helped me to stay on the GTD wagon more than Evernote. Makes it easier to file documents correctly, than to deal with the clutter, loss, and despair of messy papers.

So while before GTD had the 5 drawer horizontal file cabinet, after GTD I have a modified GTD system:

To get from paper to Evernote I raked through the 94,000 pages of paper in the file cabinet, and ask myself for each document “Will there ever be a next action for this document?” 80% of the documents were instant “No!” and they went straight into recycling.  The 20% that were yes or maybe, were 17,500 pages which I scanned in a week on my Fujitsu ScanSnap.

Here is my annual capture of reference file information.  The median monthly count of documents captured for the first three years of my using Evernote, is 65.  For the most recent 3 years, the median is 164 documents per month.

Many of the documents I capture in evernote are web pages, the Evernote Webclipper and Evernote Clearly browser add ins have become indispensable for me. I’ve capture 3,336 documents via Web Clipper (to see how many you’ve captured type source:web.clip* in Evernote’s search box). The total for Clearly is 1,441 documents captured (source:clearly*). I use Web Clipper whenever I need to assign the notebook the document needs to be placed in.

Here is my cumulative Evernote document count over the 57 months I’ve been doing GTD.  The jumps happen as I have scanned and recycled, as I Evernote has lifted limits on file sizes, as I’ve moved, and often, when I start a new job. I have 48 gigabytes of information in Evernote as of 2014/10/01. But I’ve paid just $45 a year, which has felt like rounding error. Nothing.

My final offering to the visual learner on Before/After GTD is a worksheet that covers more pieces of my system (GTDInfrastructureEvolution01b.xlsx):


Here is a summary view of how I am doing GTD after 3 years:


See also 5 years of subsequent GTD system evolution in GTD Time Lapse.