In his book, Getting Things Done, David Allen describes a condition that martial artists sometimes call a “mind like water.” This is an analogy for how the martial artist ought to react to changing circumstances in combat. Imagine tossing a pebble into a calm pond. Then imagine tossing a boulder into the same pond. How does the water react? As Allen notes, “the answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.” Allen goes on to describe how this analogy can apply to our workflows and daily productivity.

As I remarked in an earlier post, one of my biggest GTD breakthroughs occurred when I finally realized that Getting Things Done is not about getting things done. Rather, it is about getting everything that has your attention out of your mind and into a trusted system that you review regularly, so that you can focus appropriately on the needs of the moment.

Like the pond in the analogy, a mind that is untroubled by worries over the various inputs of the day (because they have been safely stored away for later review) is free to respond to the demands of the task hand with heightened levels of creativity, and then return to a state of calm. GTD is all about restoring the calm. Indeed, the subtitle of the book is The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

Never was this made more clear to me than just recently, when a family crisis required me to drop everything at a moment’s notice and take off from work for a week. A huge boulder got thrown into the pond of my life, but because I had invested heavily in developing a customized GTD system, it was surprisingly easy for me to renegotiate all my commitments, delegate as needed, and then take off and leave everything behind. I was able to put my focus where it was most needed—on my family—and nothing in either my professional or personal spheres got lost. When I returned to work, everything was as it was supposed to be, and though the family concerns remained, my pond nonetheless returned to a relative state of calm which, in turn, meant that I had enough margin in my life to continue to focus on the needs of my family while still honoring all of my other commitments. That’s GTD at its best.

Towards the end of the book, Allen discusses three levels of GTD mastery. The first two are concerned with mastering the processes and tools, and integrating the practices and behaviors seamlessly into one’s life.

The third, however, is all about what happens when those practices become second nature, and one does them without thinking about it. This is the stage where the “mind like water” state of being truly comes into existence. This goes far beyond mere time management. In fact, time disappears at this level and one is simply engaged in the moment. There is no time, there is only “what’s next?”

The payoff? A mind free of worry and distraction is capable of new levels creativity and ingenuity that were previously not possible.

Question: Can you name a time when your mind was totally clear and you were completely engaged in the moment? What was that like for you? Leave a reply below.

Posted by Mark Zobel, Ph.D., C.F.R.M.

Executive Director for Philanthropy and Stewardship, and Adjunct Professor of Philanthropy at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois

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