GTD: Seek Complexity to Reach Simplicity?

by Bryann Alexandros. Average Reading Time: about 4 minutes.

Flickr: lipjin

This is Part II of Dethroning GTD: 2011 in Review. Read Part 1 here.

I return to David Allen’s quote in the book about having a “Mind like Water,” the metaphor from which the GTD philosophy springs forth:

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.

[I]f you get seriously far out of that state–and start to feel out of control, stressed out, unfocused, bored, and stuck–do you have the ability to get yourself back into it? That’s where the methodology of Getting Things Done will have the greatest impact on your life, by showing you how to get back to “mind like water,’” with all your resources and faculties functioning at a maximum level.

Remember that in Wired years ago, he admitted his system to be complex, believing that his system is what will help us achieve a mind like water.

This had never sat well with me.

In a guest article for Zen Habits titled “8 Great Anti-Hacks to Fundamentally Change Your Life”, Clay Collins points out the hidden fallacy:

The “mind like water myth” is that that productivity — or a productivity system — is the path, and that mind like water is the destination. Bruce lee once said that ‘all fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability’ and that ‘the possession of anything begins in the mind.’ I believe Bruce is right: possession of a “mind like water” begins in the mind. It’s not productivity first, mind like water second. It’s the other way around.

Mizu No Kokoro

No path to a mind like water will be alike.

A Mind like Water, or Mizu no Kokoro (水の心) in Japanese. I had a native Japanese friend who described to me what this meant in English. Literal translations are tricky, but he gave it a shot.

He said:

“Silent water. Water that moves slowly. So calm down. Relax.”

Relax and Look Within

Flickr: B_cool

This is the Five Flower Lake, Jiuzhaigou National Park. The lake’s turquoise waters are so clear that all the varicolored foliage and aquatic life can be clearly seen at high depths. Toss a rock then watch it gracefully sink into the lake bed.

The Five Flower Lake reminds me that along with a mind like water should come purity of mind.

In light of productivity, possessing a mind like water that is both still and pure is the lens in which you should look at everything. It allows for better judgment by evading complexity in the first place. You start simple and find out how you really work and what really matters.

Because how did life get so disorderly and chaotic in the first place? Where is your energy really going to? Is it pristine, preserved for more worthwhile things? Or have you given other people permission to siphon it away from you?

Possessing mind like water, both pure and still can better reveal your reflection. In Buddhism, this is “atman,” or “true self.”

I don’t advocate for zero organization or zero thought into your processes or workflow. Sometimes you find that you don’t need more complexity to an already busy and complex life. Sometimes the solution is to simplify. When you do, I think you’ll find the necessary elements in your organization. You might not have to catalog and inventory all things that arise in life, especially stuff that doesn’t belong to you. You may not even need GTD or another system. Maybe barebones stuff and a few simple habits initiated one step at a time.

And sometimes you just have to learn to say “no.” Let up on the sluice gates and say no to the flood of irrelevant inputs, or else the water — your state of mind and being — becomes muddled, spiritless, and toxic.

Productivity as an Existential Quest

Perhaps we don’t need more novel ways to organize all of the stimuli (or crap) coming our way, and especially not more complexity or externalities just to reach a mind like water.

The problem is human. It’s a self-leadership, self-management problem. It’s a quest for achieving our life’s work with the discipline to do it admist a shapeshifting, cascading, and evolving world. But this is something that cannot be wholly solved with an external, logistical band-aid.

To find out what really matters, strive to possess first a mind like water that is both still and pure. And I will wager that it’s not more novelty or complexity that you need. It’s less of it.

Happy 2012.

Part 2 marks the end of my annual review. I found that I worked best when I respected simplified rituals and organization. And that my energy is my most precious resource.