Is There Too Much "Stuff" in Your Life?

By Motley Fool Staff Markets Fool.com

Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner spends some extra time with productivity coach and guru David Allen on this bonus episode of Rule Breaker Investing. From managing "stuff" to his five steps and Mind Sweeps, Allen goes into greater detail on hisGetting Things Donemethodology.

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A full transcript follows the video.

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This podcast was recorded on Nov. 26, 2016.

David Gardner: And welcome back to Rule Breaker Investing. It's an extra! It's an extra for your Thanksgiving weekend. Happy Thanksgiving, wherever you are, and I'm thanking David Allen, again, for joining with us and letting out some of his wonderful Getting Things Done framework.

And David, I want to spot you up with a few of the things ... the tropes, the steps, the tips ... that I've picked up from you and just have you share those with Rule Breaker Investing listeners. Now, there's no question that a lot of us are going to know GTD, but this is, at least to start with, for people who don't know the framework. Don't know how you think, but have been interested by what they heard from you earlier this week.

So let me start with just a simple five-letter word to cue you up, because how you think about this word I think is really helpful for us and the word is stuff.

David Allen: Yeah. That's such a great word. It's all the things that have landed, somehow, in your ecosystem, and in your psyche, and in your world about which you know there's something you might, would, could, should, ought to decide or do about it but you haven't done that yet. So it's lying around. It's all those emails. It's all the huh? stacks. You know. You open an email and you go "huh!" and you close it back up again. That's that stuff.

So it's anything lying around that doesn't belong there permanently that is in motion but is not in motion. So all those things sitting on your desk that you still need to decide to do something about. Anyway, it's all of that.

Gardner: And I think what's been so helpful for me is that while I came to the book initially, and when I think about this word initially, I thought of it as a physical, tangible thing, and you do mean that. The stuff that's sitting around your desk that's maybe not where it should be. But you also are adding in all of the mental stuff that is in our heads -- and you're bringing the mental and the physical together -- all into that one big word.

Allen: Yes. Well, it's anything that's on your mind, actually. Anything that's on your mind more than once is stuff. As soon as you say "I need cat food," and you say that once more ... I need cat food ... that's stuff, because you're now inappropriately engaged with your cat. There's no reason to have a thought twice unless you like having a thought.

So those things that keep popping into your head just mean you're not deciding what you need to decide about it, or not parking the results in some trusted place, and that's how you then process stuff and turn it into real things. But the stuff, itself, is the raw material.

And by the way, most people's to-do lists are simply incomplete piles of stuff. You look at most people's to-do lists and they have things like Mom. Or bank. Yeah, Mom. You had one, I'm sure. And bank. Yeah, there are plenty of them out there.

Why did you write down Mom?

Well, because her birthday is coming.

What are you going to do about her birthday?

I don't know and I get asked that stuff.

Bank, yes. There are plenty. Why did you write it down?

Ooh, while I'm there I think I might want to have done maybe credit line or uh, uh... Huh!

That's stuff. So, yeah, all of that.

Gardner: All right. And then the next place I want to go is you have, really, I think it was five steps. Five steps to take in, gather, process stuff. Help us with this. Can you talk us through your five steps?

Allen: Sure. And I didn't make them up. I recognized the five stages we go through to get your kitchen under control, your company under control, or your conscience under control. Five simple steps.

The first thing you do is identify what's not on cruise control. That's the capture step. That's where [you] write everything down that's on your mind. Cat food. Get a life. I need a wife. I need a new assistant. Oh my God, my printer just broke. I need these batteries. Plll! You'll get it all. That will take one to six hours, by the way, for most people. So the first step is simply to capture all the stuff that's not on cruise control. That's banging around in your brain and in your life. That's step one.

Step two is you can't leave them there. Basically you throw all that stuff in your in-tray. Well, first of all, you've got to get an in-tray. Most people don't even have a real one or it's gotten petrified because it's not been emptied ever. So you need some place to capture all that raw stuff. All the stuff. That's great. That's a good first step.

But then you need to empty that in-basket by going through step two and three. Step two is I need to clarify what Mom [means]. What am I going to do about that? And that's the clarify step which is determining what exactly are these things and what am I going to do about them? What do they mean to me?

So determining the meaning. Is that an email that I need to file? Is that a reference email? Is that a spam email? Is it trash? Is that an email that requires some action from me? What exactly is this thing that now I've let into my world that's potentially meaningful and decide the meaning.

That's where you decide, "Look. Is it an actionable item? Yes or no?" And if it is -- if it is an actionable item -- then you need to decide, "Well, wait a minute. What's the very next action on this, and if one action won't complete my commitment about it, what's the project?"

So those are the simple questions you need to ask and answer to clarify what does Mom mean? What's the project? Oh, give her a birthday party. Fabulous. Now you have a project. What's the next action?

Oh, well, I should call my sister.

Great. Now you have an outcome. Now you have an action. So that clarification of what these things mean and what I am going to do about them, if anything, is very critical. Step two.

Step three, then, is to park the results if you can't finish it in the moment. And, by the way, finishing it in the moment is a cool thing. If the actions that you come up with could actually be completed in two minutes or less, you should just do it right then.

Gardner: And that's the Two-Minute Rule, one of your biggest. This is one of my favorites. This was a life changer when I first read the first page of that chapter. Just the idea that if you can get something done in the next two minutes, just do it and then it's out of your mind, it's no longer stuff, and you keep moving. And by the way, if it can't be done in two minutes, don't fool yourself, right?

Allen: Yes. But that probably gave you an extra six months to your life, didn't it David?

Gardner: Yeah, that's why I haven't aged, as we talked about elsewhere.

Allen: So you take the action if you can, but if you can't take the action, but you still need to do it, you need to organize a reminder. And that's where you go to stage three. You go, "OK, it's a call I need to make to my sister about my mom's birthday, but I can't do it right this minute, so I need to park that somewhere so that when I have a phone and time, I'll see a list of calls I need to make."

So it's a quite simple, obvious thing. What you decide stuff is trash, put it where trash goes. If it's a reminder about a phone call, put it where you put those things. If it's a project you need to keep track of until it's done, put it on a project list. So there's some fairly simple categories, but you need to make sure that those are real clear and that you've parked the results in a place that you trust you'll see at the right time.

Which brings us to step four, which means that even if you've captured everything, clarified next actions on them, parked them in appropriate lists; if you don't look at those lists at the right time and on a consistent basis to keep them complete, then you'll still be back in your head which is, again, a crappy office. So you need to make sure that the external brain is current and complete, which means that you need to build in a reflection process, step four.

So I've captured, I've clarified, I've organized, and now I need to make sure I'm looking at my calendar to see where to go tomorrow, and this week what's coming up. I need to look at my calls list. I need to look at my project list. I need to look at the stuff that I need to talk to my boss about or my assistant about the next time I see him or her. You need to keep this information out there, so interestingly, you need to actually use your brain in an effective way to keep your brain empty. So that's the reflection process, which happens at multiple levels and horizons.

Then you move to stage five, which is to say, "Once now I've looked at all that, oh screw it. I'm going to have a beer." And so now you make the decision about what to do based upon your analysis of the whole gestalt and decide that beer is the best thing. That's a high-performance beer as opposed to the avoidance beer where you haven't done all that stuff and then you go have a beer to try to numb yourself up from all the angst that that's going to produce.

Gardner: Yeah, that doesn't work too well, although I've definitely tried it.

Allen: I know it well.

Gardner: So that was a wonderful, quick primer of the five steps that you've put out there, and that you've helped millions of people be better at. Another of your concepts -- something that I would love to have you speak on -- is the phrase mind like water. And do I hear some water in the background? As I said mind like water, I think I heard water.

Allen: No, you heard me pour a glass of wine. It's nighttime, here, in Amsterdam.

Gardner: Yes, I know. I'm wondering. Have you ever lectured on "mind like wine," and if so, what would that be? But maybe that's a digression.

Allen: You wouldn't even need to, because there would be no mind left. Mind like water -- Bruce Lee made it famous. His sensei had coached him and he talks about this on YouTube. You can go find that there -- how he does that. The idea comes from the martial arts, which is that if you're going to be most effective as a martial artist (or frankly, as a human being), your mind needs to be clear and essentially respond to your environment like water responds to its environment. It doesn't overreact. It doesn't underreact. It might be rushing. It might be a crashing wave. It could be a calm pond. It could be rain or whatever.

But water's not confused about what to do. So the whole idea is that this light flexibility that water has been able to match itself to its environment -- if you translate that psychologically -- basically means being present with whatever you're doing. But if you take one meeting into the next emotionally, or you're taking work to home in your mind, or home to work in your mind, that's not mind like water. That's the opposite. It's mind like mud or quicksand. So the whole idea of having your head clear enough.

And you know, come on, here's the secret, David, as you may have figured out by now. That Getting Things Done is not so much about getting things done. It's really about being able to be appropriately engaged with all the levels of commitment in your life so you can be totally present with whatever you're doing. And that's the most productive state to operate from.

So the funny thing is that you actually will get a lot more done with a clear head. Because you don't need time -- you need space. It doesn't take any time to have a good idea, or to be loving with your kids, or to be present in a conversation. Those don't require time, but they do require room in your head.

If you're distracted by all of your stuff that you're not appropriately engaged with yet, and it keeps banging on your brain, and you keep thinking about that stuff, that's not the most effective way to either be loving to your kids, or to watch them play soccer, or to write a business plan, or to do anything. So the whole point of this is you need to be able to do what you need to do to get your head clear. I just figured out the algorithm about how you get stuff off your mind without having to finish it.

Gardner: And let me drill right into that fertile space, because my next one was going to be, sticking with mind, Mind Sweep. What is a Mind Sweep?

Allen: Taking everything that you have attention on and getting it out of your head and essentially write it down. You could record it if you want to, but it's actually better to write it down because then you have a visual component of it right there. If I were to coach people, one on one (which I still do), the first thing we do is we get them to just get a big pile of paper, and a good pen, and everything that pops into their head (little, big, personal, or professional) anything they have attention on.

It doesn't mean that they are committed to do it. It just means it's on their mind. Oh, I need cat food. They write that down and throw it on the stack. Oh, I need to get in touch with Fred Smith. We write that down and throw it on the stack. You know, I really need to look into whether I want to join a gym or not. We write that down and throw it on the stack.

So basically it's getting everything off your mind that's on your mind and you can do a pretty good cut on that in just five or 10 minutes. But if you were really going to do that, it would mean what are all the things that are incomplete? All the "open loops," as we call them, in your life?

If you were really going to capture all those, you need to look in every drawer. You need to look in every closet. You need to look in your garage. You need to look in the trunk of your car. You need to look everywhere at all that stuff that most people have simply gone numb to, but that aren't the way that you know they should be and they actually have grabbed your attention. Most people have gone numb to most of that stuff, so most people are not aware of how much stuff they really have of that nature. But that's what the Mind Sweep is -- it's an exercise to just start to get it out of your head.

Gardner: And David, for you is it a regular process? Is it a daily thing?

Allen: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I carry a little pocket notebook with me all the time. And by the way, that will take a couple of years to build as a habit. You can understand it and you can do it immediately, so it's not a hard behavior. It's like, "Hey, write something down."

But to be able to then, as soon as you say, "What a fabulous [restaurant]..." If somebody tells you about a cool restaurant and there's a part of you that's involved, [you] don't want to forget that that's a cool restaurant. For you to take the time, right there, to actually write that somewhere ... that takes two years to make that a habit. Most people will just assume, "Oh, that's cool," and they just stick it back in their head, and their heads keep spinning about it in some subliminal way. So learning how to do that, as a habitual process...

People walk down the hall and say, "Hey, David, by the way would you handle this?" Oh, yeah, sure. I'll get back to you about that. Like, careful. Because when it's on your mind, it seems so obvious you're sure you'll never forget it. And then two minutes later when the next obvious thing you're sure you'd never forget -- you think about that -- you forgot the first thing.

The problem is it didn't go away. You sublimated it and now it's creating pressure. Hey, there's a commitment I made. I forgot what it was, but it might be more important than what I'm doing. And that creates what I call the GSA of life and I don't mean Washington's General Services. I mean the Gnawing Sense of Anxiety. That somewhere out there I made some commitments and I forgot what the heck they were, but they might be more important than what I'm doing, so I don't think I'm going to be totally present anywhere.

Gardner: All right, two more for you then I'll let you go. I would love for you just to riff briefly on the concept of the Runway right up to 50,000 feet.

Allen: Well, I've identified six horizons that we have commitments with ourselves and often with other people, too. The Runway -- our original ground level -- I'm actually now calling the Ground Level and then Horizon 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 simply since we're going global and most buildings around the world (except for the U.S.) have the ground floor as the ground floor and then the first floor is the next floor up.

Gardner: Great.

Allen: Anyway, that said, there's six horizons. The bottom horizon is activity, or the real actions that you do. So that's feed the cat. That's go to this meeting. That's call this person, etc. The activity that we do.

A lot of those activities are driven by the next horizon up, which is the project level. Oh, the reason you would have some actions you need to do is because you need to get your watch repaired. You need to hire an assistant. You need to launch the ad campaign. You need to increase your credit line. And those are projects left for the next horizon.

By the way, at the ground level, most people have between 150 and 220 next actions. Next physical, visible actions that they are committed to do at any point in time as a sort of fairly standard inventory for most professionals, anyway.

The next level up, in terms of the projects, in the broad definition as called "something you can't finish in one action," we call a project. That could be as simple as getting your watch fixed. It could be complex. Right now I've got some major issues and some challenges with my eyes, so getting my eyes under cruise control may take a year or two. And so that's on my project list, as well as some fairly simple stuff. So most people have between 30 and 100 of those if you include personal and work stuff.

And then the next horizon is the reason you have projects and actions is because you have areas of your life we call areas of focus and accountability. These are all the things you need to maintain. You don't finish finances. You just to make sure they're maintained appropriately. You don't finish health and vitality. You just need to make sure that's kept at a certain level. You don't finish growing sales in your company. You just need to make sure that's happening in the ways you do it. You don't finish quality control, or customer service, or asset management.

That's the next horizon up where you look at that, [and] that'd be your job description. Someone, David, as you as maybe chairman or whatever could say, "What are all the things I'm being held accountable to maintain and to do well," given the role that you have and the hats you wear. So that's that next horizon up that drives a lot of your projects and a lot of your actions.

Then you have the next horizon that has a lot to do with direction. OK, now, where are you going? In the next three to 24 months, what are the things you need to accomplish? The bigger stuff? So these are bigger than projects. You'd call these goals or objectives. So a typical operational plan would be at this level where you say, "OK, by the end of 2017, we need to have this level of profitability. We need to have expanded this much. We need to have this many customers." Yada, yada, yada. Or I need to make sure I weigh this much or that I've learned Spanish. So those are the kind of things you set out bigger kind of goals and objectives and they drive, oftentimes, many of your projects and actions.

Then you have the horizon above that. The reason you even have those goals is because you've got some vision. Some long-term picture about where you want to be personally, or professionally career-wise, or lifestyle-wise or whatever. Oh, yeah. We would love, at some point, to have a second house. Or we'd love to be on a boat. Or I'd love to write the great American novel. Or God knows what you have at that level, but that's the next horizon, which is a long-term vision of success. Which is creating a lot of your goals and certainly, ideally, informing projects and actions that you're doing.

And then the top horizon would be well, why the hell are you on the planet? Why do you even have that vision? This would be life purpose, or the purpose of your company. And by the way, all of these horizons are equally ...

Gardner: Transferable ...

Allen: ... viable for enterprises as well as for individuals, because you're an enterprise yourself. So the whole idea is that then the top is what's the ultimate intentionality? What's the purpose of Motley Fool? Why do you guys exist? And what are your core values? What really, really, really, really, really matters to you? And those will be your top drivers, there, in terms of why you even exist.

That will then create the vision of you -- then fulfilling that purpose with wild success, which then creates goals that you'll set up over the next three to 24 months. And then also informs all the areas that need to be maintained so you've got a healthy enterprise which then starts all of the above. Starts to then generate all the projects or things you need to finish, which ultimately then informs all the activity and actions that you are doing.

So I couldn't get it any simpler than this, David. I tried. It would be nice to say there was a simple, little silver bullet prioritied A, B, C; 1, 2, 3; high, medium, low. God, that's such crap. I wish they'd just get rid of that in all those "sell those programs" and software stuff.

Gardner: Yeah.

Allen: Because it's so irrelevant given the complexity and subtlety of all of these horizons. But these horizons are very real. Whether you're conscious of them or not, they're all affecting what everybody's doing all the time.

I'm sure you've run across the five whys. Well, why are you having this conversation with me, David? Well, why are you doing that? Yeah, but why are you doing that?

Gardner: Yes.

Allen: But, why are you doing that? But, well, why are you doing that? So that's where you have this sort of abstraction ladder where you can keep rolling these things up. And that will tell you how much more comfortable you will feel that talking to me is exactly what you need to be doing right now. And me to you, same thing.

Gardner: OK, I probably need to end this conversation. There's so much more I'd love to talk about. Maybe, David, sometime in 2017 we can join again together. I'm quite confident Rule Breaker Investing listeners are loving this extra. David, let me just ask you maybe an inside GTD question for those who really know the methodology and love it.

With the blogosphere out there, lots of people opining on your work. Sometimes things going viral. Sometimes things being copied. Sometimes maybe things being miscopied or misunderstood. I'm curious. Are there any aspects of what you do, or say, or have said that you think people have kind of taken off in some crazy direction or are getting wrong?

Allen: Most people think there's a right way to do this and people who start to get into this go, "OK, now here's what you should do ..."

Gardner: Ah!

Allen: "... because I read this in the book and here's what you have to do." And that's not really included. When you have ears to hear and eyes to see, you won't see that in anything about GTD. The principles are intact. If it's in your head, it's in the wrong place. That's the truth. So anything that gets stuff out of your head is going to be functional and useful.

But if people say, "Yeah, but when you get it out of your head you have to use this way to do it," or, "You have to write it down," or "You have to use this piece of software. You have to do that," that's where people screw it up.

Gardner: And that is such a great point.

Allen: They over structure. They think the application as opposed to saying, "Look, here's how I do it. Here is a way to do it, and there are six gazillion other ways to do it once you understand the principles." So if you don't really catch the methodology and understand the underlying principles, then you're very likely to over structure your recommendations to anybody else.

Once you get it, you lighten up and loosen up a lot, and understand the huge freedom people have to implement this in whatever ways they want to do it. Not just your way.

Gardner: Such a great point coming from the man, himself. I definitely remember when I first read your book, you're really good and explicit about some people love smartphones. Some people love electronic. Other people love their yellow legal pad, and you very clearly said whatever works for each of us, that's basically what you should be doing.

Well, he is a friend and a mentor of mine. I saw your tweet in the last week or so, David. I love this one. "There are no problems, only projects." Maybe we'll talk about that some other time. But there's an inherent optimism and can-do to your work that's contagious for those who follow you and is, I think, what the world needs ... optimism. And I thank you very much for injecting some of that into our Thanksgiving holiday.

Allen: Hey, man, I'm very happy to do this again with you. Let's do it tomorrow.

Gardner: Wonderful.

Allen: Anytime, David. Absolutely. Sure.

Gardner: Thank you so much. David Allen. By the way, he's an awesome living advertisement, not that he needs it, for his book, Getting Things Done, but if you've enjoyed some of this conversation, I highly recommend Getting Things Done by David Allen and his subsequent works, as well. David, cheers.

Allen: Thanks.

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