Productive Living
David Allen

This month we're taking a look at one of the key concepts of GTD: mind like water. This refers to a mental and emotional state in which your head is clear, able to create and respond freely, unencumbered with distractions and split focus. Easy? Well...

I invite you to examine how much you use this as a reference point, and how practiced you are at applying the basic GTD principles to get you back into that experience when you slip away from it (as we all do). Are you spending the appropriate kind of energy on the various things that are on your internal radar? Are dumb little things taking up more of your psychic space than they should? Are you neglecting to put an appropriate focus on something that needs more attention? The ability to engage with your world without over- or under-reacting is a master skill which allows you to most effectively deal with the inevitable curve balls that life has in store.

Paying attention to what has your attention, then putting the right kind and amount of attention on it to put it to rest, is the simple but subtle secret to this optimal state.

All the best,




Even very important things can be on cruise control and not on your mind. If your attention is being grabbed, then there's almost an inverse relationship there. The degree to which your attention is being grabbed is the degree to which you are not free to place your attention where and how you want to. So, if nothing else, it's just a pure practical idea that, if you can get rid of the demons that are grabbing hold of your brain and shaking it around—whether that's buy cat food or reconsidering your career—then it will give you a lot more freedom to be thinking about those things in more creative ways or not have to think about them at all.

In Getting Things Done, this is a key practice I discuss in the very first chapter:

In karate, there is an image that's used to define the position of perfect readiness: "mind like water." Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn't overreact or underreact.

The power in a karate punch comes from speed, not muscle; it comes from a focused "pop" at the end of the whip. It's why petite people can learn to break boards and bricks with their hands: it doesn't take calluses or brute strength, just the ability to generate a focused thrust with speed. But a tense muscle is a slow one. So the high levels of training in the martial arts teach and demand balance and relaxation as much as anything else. Clearing the mind and being flexible are key.

Anything that causes you to overreact or underreact can control you, and often does. Responding inappropriately to your email, your staff, your projects, your unread magazines, your thoughts about what you need to do, your children, or your boss will lead to less effective results than you'd like. Most people give either more or less attention to things than they deserve, simply because they don't operate with a "mind like water."

Your mind is a great place to have ideas, but a terrible place to manage them. If you are still walking around with a head full of "stuff" that you have your attention on, don't be surprised if you're not reaping the fruits of your labors with GTD. I never said getting your head clear was easy—it requires work to keep it on your mind as well—but the rewards of having a clear head on a regular basis will pay you back many times over in ways you may never have thought possible for feeling in control and getting perspective.

Anytime is a great time to clear your head. Don't wait.


"If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything."

-Shunryu Suzuki

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