In his book, Getting Things Done, David Allen describes a condition that martial artists sometimes called a “mind like water.” This is an analogy for how martial artists 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? Allen notes, “totally appropriate to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.” Allen describes how this analogy can apply to our workflows and daily productivity.
One of my biggest breakthroughs occurred when I realized that Allen’s Getting Things Done method is not about getting things done. Rather, it is about getting everything that has one’s attention out of one’s mind and into a trusted system that gets reviewed regularly so that one can focus appropriately on the needs of the moment.
Like the pond in the analogy, a mind untroubled by worry over the inputs of the day (because they have been safely stored away for later review) is free to respond to the demands of the task at hand and then return to a state of calm. Getting Things Done 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 takeoff from work for a week. A huge boulder got thrown into the pond of my life, but because I had invested in developing a trusted 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 and nothing else in my professional or personal spheres got lost.
When I returned to work, everything was as it was supposed to be, Though the family concerns remained, my pond nonetheless returned to a relative state of calm. That meant I had enough margin in my life to focus on the needs of my family while still honoring all of my other commitments. That is Getting Things Done at its best.
Towards the end of the book, Allen discusses three levels of Getting Things Done mastery. The first two are concerned with mastering the processes and tools and integrating the behaviors seamlessly into one’s life. The third, however, is about what happens when those behaviors become second nature, and one does them without thinking about it. This is the stage where the “mind like water “state comes into existence. This goes far beyond mere time management. In fact, time disappears and one is simply engaged with 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 of creativity and ingenuity previously impossible.