Problem: Focused but Frantic

When I first started learning Getting Things Done (GTD), there was a strong appeal in the idea of addressing “open loops”. An open loop is something that perhaps you’ve started but haven’t finished. All those little things lying around the house, the projects that are half-way done, those ideas in your head, and more are all open loops that can be closed, packaged, and stored.

All I had to do was “capture” them by writing the work into an Inbox and transfer them to Projects and Action Lists.

The promise was that my unfinished work could all be put away somewhere that I could later get to. They’d stay out of the way otherwise. Later, my work could show up to my attention in a simple conveyor-like presentation. I could then “crank widgets” getting them done, one at a time.  I could focus.

Things seemed to go well at first. After dutifully going through the GTD setup process, I’d cram my days with lots to do, and almost surprisingly, get many things done. Heck, combining it with an outliner and later OmniFocus, I was able to write a book, continue building my medical practice, help raise my young kids, develop my piano practice, and more.

However, there was a problem, though it wasn’t clear initially. After some reflection, I realized that I was feeling pretty frantic. It was fine to get things done, but somehow the engagement wasn’t there. I’d drop one thing, dutifully adding it to the Inbox, and run to another. I felt disengaged, tired, and at times overworked.


It was the struggle of the next few years, and ultimately what became the next editions and books where I worked things out. An important set of ideas, in a nutshell, is to:

Consider the vision, the resources, and the ability to pause.

1. Consider Vision

First, it’s important to create a solid vision of the current work. I often read about how vision is important. The idea is to somehow create an idea of what we’re about to do in mind. It seems hokey having heard it so often. But, it does seem important. It’s important even in small work. The better I can consider:

  • What am I doing?
  • What would this look like when it’s done?

the better things tend to go.

Is the work to check off the task? More importantly, what is the task about?

The good time to reflect on the vision is at the Decision phase of a session (See Being Productive – Module 2 – available as part of the demo). Having said that, I often forget to do so and remember somewhere in the middle. That’s fine, as I can always pause and reflect at any time. In fact, it is quite useful to pause regularly during work to reconsider the above questions. Further, sometimes, I’ll even naturally reach out to

  • What does this work mean to me?

which is particularly engaging.

(See also Workflow Mastery on Vision)

2. Consider “How Far Can I Take This Now?”

Secondly, I consider how I can push the work as far as current resources will allow. Previously, I would simply drop what I was doing on a whim. After all, I’d reason that I could always pick it up later, particularly if I bookmarked it well. I became an expert bookmarker, but as I mentioned, little felt particularly engaged.

Instead, when I pause and consider the resources of time, attention, and material, I’m more inclined to continue. (See Workflow Mastery on Time, Attention, Material.) Certainly, I may have other things to do, I may have only so much ability to focus, and I may only have certain parts of what’s currently needed.

3. Pause Regularly to Re-Align

Combining the above first two steps:

  • Ask what is the vision?
  • Ask how far can I go with what I have?

lets me better address the impulse to disengage. Usually that impulse comes from some negative feeling be that tiredness, boredom, confusion, frustration, or otherwise. The ability to store work and come back later, while very useful, also seemed to provide a quick escape route.

Returning to the pause (See Being Productive – Module 3), I could ask:

  • Have I gone as far as I can in the moment?
  • If not, why not?
  • If there is some negative feeling, what is it about?

While there may truly be some limitation of resource that requires me to put things aside, e.g. I have other things to do, the pause allows me to consider how I can better move things forward now.

Underlying is an idea that I think comes from one of the first productivity articles I read by Steve Pavlina called Do It Now. While I don’t endorse the breakneck speed of doing work as he does, I like the idea of, if I can do it now, why not do it now?

There may be good reasons to not do it now, but the pause and reflection to make that decision allows for better engagement with whatever I decide to do. Of course, there is more to it such as optimizing lists for a realistic day, delegating, learning to say no and more, but the reflection needed to better engage is also vital.