Episode #3 – David Allen guides you through a Mind Sweep

The GTD Mind Sweep is one of the core practices in the Getting Things Done methodology for experiencing stress-free productivity. Get out your note-taking devices as David Allen guides you through a Mind Sweep session to capture what’s grabbing your attention. We guarantee that you’ll have at least one valuable “Oh, yeah! That reminds me…” thought during this episode!

Listen Now


Did you get value from this process? Live Guided Mind Sweep webinars are offered every month on GTD Connect. You’ll also find Mind Sweep trigger lists in the Getting Things Done book and in our GTD Methodology Guides.


Subscribe or Download

Google Play Music

Podcast Transcript

Welcome everyone to the third episode of Getting Things Done®, GTD® for shorthand and this podcast is all about helping you on your journey, learning the art of stress-free productivity.

My name’s Andrew J. Mason and this episode, we’re in for something special. This is a guided Mind Sweep that David Allen’s performed at a previous webinar. Now this podcast episode is going to differ a little bit from the previous two so far, meaning you can listen to it entirely from start to finish and uh, you know, not write anything down, but I’m willing to bet, as David says, that one or two things are going to pop to the front of your consciousness that if you write them down are going to be highly valuable for you later on.

You know, one of the first steps of GTD methodology is capturing anything that has your attention and so this process that we’re going through today is all about externalizing what’s on your mind, taking a step back and then getting to a place where you can make decisions about it.

This segment, as well as literally hundreds of other pieces of awesome content designed to take your GTD game to the next level are available as part of GTDConnect.com. Now if you’re interested in becoming a part of that community and getting the inspiration you need, head on over to GettingThingsDone.com/podcast and stay tuned to the end of this episode for a coupon that’ll give you a significant discount at checkout.

Now if you haven’t already, get out your note taking devices, whatever you use to externalize thoughts, this is going to be valuable.

Here’s David Allen performing a guided Mind Sweep.

DAVID ALLEN: For those of you who may not be that familiar with the GTD and you’re a new member here to GTD Connect and you’re not that familiar or haven’t done a whole lot of Mind Sweeping for yourself personally yet, this is basically – the idea here is simply to empty what we call psychic ram, you know, that short-term memory space that’s hanging on to, “Oh I need to … would … could – oh I got to … Oh that’s right, I need to …” whatevers. And some basic ground rules here or some guidelines to get the most value out of this, what you don’t want to do is stop and think about what you’re thinking about, you just want to write it down. So nobody’s looking, unless somebody’s watching you do this right now, so you know, be totally honest and candid with yourself. You have the total freedom to wad up the piece of paper and throw it away after you finish it, so this is not – this is not to analyze your commitment, this is just to capture the things that you might have attention on.

Another way to think about this is just – what do you have attention on? What has potential meaning for you? I know this morning, actually last night as I was walking back to my cottage at home I just noticed three of my yard lights, my little halogen lights you know, the outside lights were out. And I went, “Oh God!” I mean, that’s one of those things, so easy for me to go, “I’ll remember that.” Right. As soon as I get into the house, I’ve then forgotten it and then the next, you know, ‘til – whatever. But I remember this time and I walked in and I got, you know, a nice little hat sized pad, you know, right by the phone that I can just walk in and write on. Kathryn and I are often – we see each other running over and writing stuff on the pad, much like that, and then tearing the pad off and so I actually replaced the lights this morning. Yeah! Good for me!

Anyway, don’t want to bore you with the details of my life. Let’s get into it.

So the whole idea here: Is anything on your mind? Some of you probably started already. Just write it down – Cat food. Oh yeah, I need to call Aunt Susie. Oh yeah, dah – dah – dah – dah …

Now what I’m going to do is be both helpful and bothersome. I’m going to actually call out in auditory form, I’m going to sort of give you triggers of stuff that might trigger some things, ‘cause sometimes it’s helpful to, you know, kind of stir the dust inside your head and have me or somebody remind you about things. You go, “Oh yeah!” That might help.

The reason it’s bothersome is you get on a roll here and then you hear me jabbering and you still want to keep going with your own roll. So I suggest, just keep going with your own roll and listen to me with half an ear, see if that triggers anything. If you start to slow down a little bit, then come back and listen to whatever I may be mentioning. So that’s the game.

So if you haven’t started already, just grab all the top of mind stuff, anything top of mind. Now, one other – just a little caveat here, if those of you who are old GTD, you know old-timer GTD implementers, if this is already in your system, if whatever it is that’s on your mind or that pops into your head, you absolutely know you have there, then sure, you probably don’t need to write it down, but be cautious about that, because if it pops into your head at all, meaning there’s probably something that might not be on cruise control about it, so when in doubt, write it down. You can always scratch it out later if you realize you over-captured, but much better to over-capture. So this is not to organize, not to analyze, just grab them as fast as you can, ‘cause you see once you pull the plug, these things start to roll and they’ll be associating in your mind, lots of other stuff.

So first of all, top of mind stuff – what’s on your mind? What do you have to do today that may not be captured yet? What’s up for you? Just jot it down. Abbreviate, write fast.

You might want to think about what just happened yesterday or the last couple of days, meetings, conversations, uh stop you in the hall stuff, things that have shown up in the mail, voice mails you’ve gotten, e-mails that you know, yanked your chain and that you haven’t been able to do anything or think through yet, but you know you need to.

While you’re doing this, if any of you have access to your calendars or diaries, it’s not a bad idea to pull that out and glance. You know, part of the weekly review, which is a great thing to do that I – always saves my life is a backward look for a week or two, just quickly stand back and catch all the – oh that reminds me. If you look back, I’ll be willing to bet you that you’ll see something back there in terms of meetings or things you had on your calendar that may, you know, bounce some uh – some stuff out of your head that you need to grab.

Same thing with going forward, especially this next upcoming week or two, events, presentations, family stuff coming up. Speaking of which any summerizing things and that’s with an “e-r”, not an “a-r”, on your mind, unless you’re down-under and it’s winterize. What’s up for this season, could be a lot of you in the Northern hemisphere anyway, this is vacation time.

Anything about vacation, planning, family, social events, nitty-gritty work stuff, projects – projects that have emerged that you haven’t identified as such yet.

Anything on your mind that you call a problem right now that you need to grab to later on make a project?

Real good idea to do a site walk-around in your mind’s eye. So if you are in your office right now, look around. Anything on the tables, on the desk, on the side bar credenzas, your in-baskets, your pending areas? Anything representing new stuff that’s shown up, you’ve haven’t had a chance to identify yet as something you need to do something about.

And in your mind’s eye, you might want to walk around, if you do during the week go to a regular type of office and regular type of office building and have staff around you and other people around you, just go there quickly in your mind’s eye. What about that? Anything that reminds you about meetings, people, projects, problems, situations, opportunities that are up and haven’t been caught yet.

You might do the same around your home/house. If you’re there, you might want to look around just in your mind, even what you can’t see and also what you can, any projects, pipes need fixing, spackle needs spackling. Any new equipment changes, clean up, fix, re-do, projects in the yard, if you have one. And of course, a great trigger is just people. Who are all the people in your life right now? What comes to mind? Anybody you have attention on? Conversations you need to have/want to have.

Okay, this is – particularly for those of you who are familiar with Mind Sweeps, I’m going to lift up to what I call 20,000 feet, because often times the areas of focus and responsibility that we refer to, sometimes gets into subtler stuff that may be still on your mind, just a little – not quite as easy to grab. So for instance, 20,000 feet, let’s take your job. If you’re doing work, what are the four, five, six, seven things you are supposed to be handling well? First of all, is your job clear itself? Anything unclear about that, you need to grab? Things changed, things have morphed, things have shifted in the company, your responsibilities, all that clear and on cruise control yet? And whatever those areas you’re responsible for, research, PR, business development stuff, sales, marketing, anything about staff, staff development, hiring, performance reviews, etcetera? Assets, quality control, tech stuff? Come performance review time what are you going to be held accountable to have done well over this period of time?

So thinking about all that, does anything pop into your head that you haven’t grabbed yet? Projects, more subtle stuff that’s kind of been hanging out there, possibilities, opportunities, someday/maybe’s.

And sort of moving over to the sort of overall life areas of focus, how about your own just personal and professional development? Anything about classes; anything you’re trying to learn? Anything you’d like to research, get better at; anything on your mind about that? Personal finances, assets, investments, bank stuff?

Fun? I hate to admit it, but sometimes I forget – oh yeah, fun! What are the things you like to do, anything even on your mind, you might want to – you know, concerts, subscription series, plays, you know, fun things, things to do with the family?

Speaking of family, anything about your relationships, if you haven’t caught it yet; personal, direct family relationships, extended family, good friends, your network, pets (don’t forget the pets).

Your creativity, your creative expression – everything okay about that? Any classes you want to take? Things you might want to do? And how about all your gear; all your gear okay; printers, faxes, scanners, blackberries, IPhones? Are you really going to do something about the IPad or not? You know, any of that.

Okay, if there were something that you haven’t captured, what would it be?

Okay. Well, it looks like not many of you have dropped off, so hopefully this wasn’t too intimidating for you. You know, usually people feel a combination of grief and relief when they sit down and do these lists. Uh, but that’s obviously what we work with and for those of you who are not familiar with our work-flow coaching process, that’s the first thing we do, or just about the first thing we do, when I sit down to work with an executor or whoever I’m coaching, is we need to get it all out. So this is stage one of how do you get things under control is first of all, you have to identify what’s not on cruise control. That is the things that we have attention on. Because usually there’s an inverse relationship between these things being on your mind and them actually happening. So the whole idea is to move from identifying to then getting things onto cruise control, which is where we go next about these, which are the next two phases of getting things under control, which are – okay now, now I got these out of my head, that will serve you temporarily and feels good temporarily. A lot of people – that just sort of changes their life actually. When they just get into GTD, they just get this first stage and start writing down a lot more than they ever wrote down before, sleep better, you know, able to focus better, etcetera, but then if you don’t move to the next two phases of – okay, now I got to decide what exactly that means to me that I wrote down. So many times people will write down something like “mom” and uh, we go “Yeah, well you had one, but that’s not just historical data, why did you write it down?”

“Oh yeah.” So now we have to go through the – okay, do you really want to get this onto cruise control? It’ll suck right back up into your mind again and you’ll start to resist looking at your lists simply because there’s more thinking to be done, so the more thinking to be done is phase two and phase three, what we call processing or clarifying what exactly these things mean to you that you got out of your head and then stage three is now organizing the results of that.

So when I think through “mom” what is the outcome that I’m wanting to achieve there? And you’ll see Kelly’s put the – our new work-flow diagram up on the screen so you can see these are the basic questions you just need to ask yourself. So essentially, the reason things have your attention is because you have not put sufficient attention on them. So they’re kind of a paradoxical situation, but it’s because you actually haven’t finished your thinking about them that – that’s why there’s still open loops in your head and why they keep popping in there. But the mind just doesn’t manage those very well, it doesn’t manage them very objectively, they just tend to pop in, oftentimes based upon how much emotional content you had wrapped into it, or how recent the thing go inserted into your head. Those tend to be as they pop out. But all that’s doing is just letting you know, “Hey dude, there’s something that you still haven’t thought about or decided about or really determined about this yet.”

And these are the basic questions: What it is? You know, “mom” why did you write it down?

“Well it’s her birthday’s coming up.”

So great! Is it actionable? See that on the screen. Basic question; two optional answers yes or no. You gonna do something about mom or not? And sometimes that’s where things get hung up right there.

And then once you make that decision, you might say, “Nah, I just wish mom a happy birthday. She doesn’t make a big deal out of it and you know, I send her good thoughts.” So – no.

Maybe I want to put her birthday on a spread sheet where I’m keeping track of birthdays, so it’ll become a piece of reference. Or maybe it’s incubate. Maybe her birthday’s not coming up for another six weeks. You don’t want to decide yet, then you say, “Hmm, you know, let me think that – I’ll just kind of sleep on that for a couple of weeks. That’ll give me still plenty of time to do something about it.” So then you can put a trigger in your calendar or in a tickler file and then come back to it.

So I doubt, you’d want to trash the idea. You might say, “Well just wishing her happy birthday is sufficient” and it’s complete. But those are the – you know, if it’s non-actionable, all those could be perfectly fine answers.

If it is actionable, you go, “Oh yeah, I guess I gotta do something about mom and her birthday.” Then, there’s two questions and you see them almost side bar there, you see that there’s a little dotted line that goes up to the left called “What’s the desired outcome?” That means that there’s more than one step to this. If you say, “Look, all I just want to do is I’m gonna call mom and leave her a message and wish her a happy birthday” and you can do that in two minutes, well that’s just not a multi-step thing, that’s just – okay that’s the next action. It’s called “mom”, you can do it in two minutes, so that would fit in the two-minute rule that you see down there under do it, so you can just do that.

If likely, that kind of scenario, you say, “Nah, we need to give mom a birthday party.” Or perhaps it’s like I need to look into whether my sister and I really want to do this or not for her. Then that might be what I call R&B, that’s my shorthand for look into project. But anyway, that would be a desired outcome, which you’d see if I’d say, “Yes, gonna – either I’m gonna give mom a birthday party or I’m gonna research it.” Now you have a project. You see that arrow going over to the left? And that becomes a project. That’s a stake in the ground you need to park somewhere and then keep reminding yourself that you have that commitment now to get that done. So you know, it gets back to the simplicity of Getting Things Done is defining what “done” means. Well, what does done mean about mom and birthday? Is it just that you researched it to make a go or no-go decision or you’ve actually celebrated her birthday? In either case, that would go on your project list and, of course, tied very directly to that, is “What’s the next action?”

And then the next action might be: “Ah, you know, I guess I got to call my sister and see – let’s chat about what mom might want.”

“Fabulous! Can you call your sister and do that in two minutes?”

“No, probably not, if she answered the phone, we’d probably be on the phone a while.”

“Great! Can you delegate that to somebody?”

“Probably not.” So that means I need to defer it. You see that as the third bubble up to the left there. Okay, now I need to park that. I need to call sis, can’t do it right now or I don’t want to do it right now and I need to park that, in which case, if you say, “Hmm, well if I only can call sis on Saturday or that’s the time I could probably reach her.”, then you might want to put it on Saturday’s calendar, so you don’t need to think about it, but on Saturday, that’s just something to do that day and you’re gonna do that on Saturday, you could park it there. Or if you said, “No, I’m just gonna call my sister as soon as I can, in and around all the other stuff I need to do, that’s where you would defer it to your next action list, where you put it down. You see a little “a” there for the action list, that would go on a calls list or wherever you wanted to keep track of that kind of thing.

Basically if you’ve done all that, you’ve made those decisions, parked them somewhere and then of course, what we can’t handle on the phone here is then making sure you have some regular review you trust then that where you park these things, you’re actually going to engage with appropriately. You’re gonna look at that project list and see mom’s birthday coming toward you frequently enough to make sure it doesn’t slip and you’re gonna see the reminder to make the phone call in some appropriate time and place so you can do that in time.

Now, that’s a lot said, but that’s basically the simplicity of the process. This is not some sort of theoretical, “Gee this might work.” This is literally what we spend thousands of hours with folks doing and it’s what those of you familiar with GTD, you know, that’s how you get your in-basket emptied. You don’t have to finish mom and birthday, but you do need to clarify what exactly it means to you, what does “done” mean and what does doing look like and park those things appropriately.


ANDREW J. MASON: So if you played along with us, then hopefully you’ve got some tremendous value out of that conversation. If you’re like me, your in-box is just a tiny bit more full and we just want to remind you that – that, as well as literally hundreds of other pieces of amazing content designed to take your GTD game to the next level are available, ready and waiting for you over at GTD Connect. Now if you’d like a significant discount while signing up, use the code “podcast” when checking out and you can do that all over at GettingThingsDone.com.

Join the Conversation


    1. Hi Susan, you’re right. It’s an old recording, and we’ll work on getting a new and better one recorded.

  1. Where is his document that David is referring to for the Mind Sweep/ Next Action list, deferred etc….

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.