David Allen: Mind Like Water and Getting Things Done

by Alan Furth

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…

Achieving “mind like water” through Getting Things Done

I was surprised to find that the most important benefit that (David Allen’s ) Getting Things Done (GTD) claims to provide is an increased capacity to focus on and think creatively about our higher-level goals and values.

In other words, more than a methodology for getting things done, GTD is a system for aligning ourselves with meaning.

The argument is that by providing a reliable system for recording all our to-do’s and setting up appropriate reminders, we “empty our heads” of all the mundane stuff that we inevitably need to take care of in the here and now, freeing up lots of psychic energy that can now be used to think (consciously or unconsciously) on more meaningful stuff.

From the book:

Many executives I have worked with during the day to clear the decks of their mundane “stuff” have spent the following evening having a stream of ideas and visions about their company and their future. This happens as an automatic consequence of unsticking their workflow.

I totally buy this argument. Above and beyond what I have experienced during the few weeks since I adopted GTD to manage my day-to-day, the key benefit of my Year of Nothing was a spontaneous shift towards a life based on meaning.

Empty your mind, Free your mind

I think that the key here is the “emptying of the mind” that occurs both by doing Nothing, and by the process of writing context-based to-do lists and reminders advocated by GTD.

Allen describes this mental state as “mind like water,” and uses metaphors from the martial arts to convey the idea of a mind that is highly focused in the here and now, yet flexible enough to deal with the bigger strategic picture, reflect on the higher issues that we consider truly meaningful, and therefore keep our actions consistent with core values and crucial goals.

The “mind like water” and martial arts metaphors used by Allen are specially significant for me after the insights on the Taoist concept of wu-wei or “effortless action” gained throughout my Year of Nothing:

In karate there is an image that’s used to define… “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… 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 is key.

Anything that causes you to overreact or underreact can control you, and often does. Responding inappropriately to your e-mail, your staff, your projects, your unread magazines… will lead to less effective results than you’d like.

Mind like water and synchronicity

The Luck of the Tao: synchronistic events that bring us the right resources, at the right time, for to achieving our goals effortlessly.

I had been postponing reading Getting Things Done for a long time. Then, right after my Year of Nothing I felt naturally drawn to it as I got back in touch with goal-oriented action. This makes perfect sense from a Taoist perspective: according to the concept of wu-wei, once “mind like water” and an enlightened focus on higher purpose is achieved, we should expect lucky, synchronistic events that bring us the right resources, at the right time, for to achieving our goals effortlessly.

I wonder what Allen would think of the link between “mind like water” and synchronicity. His core audience of business executives would perhaps find the concept to be too esoteric, but he definitely is a firm believer in a psychological mechanism that resembles the Taoist paradigm of synchronistic luck.

Because a mind like water state automatically shifts our focus towards higher-order goals and values, Allen thinks that this (with the help of simple, positive visualization exercises of desired outcomes) has a direct impact on our brain’s Reticular Activating System (RAS):

[The RAS] is basically the gateway to your conscious awareness; it’s the switch that turns on your perception of ideas and data, the thing that keeps you asleep even when music’s playing but wakes you if a special little baby cries in another room…

It seems to be programmed by what we focus on and, more primarily, what we identify with… We notice only what matches our internal belief systems and identified contexts.

From this, it follows that by applying GTD to our lives we should automatically start noticing all sort of resources in the environment that can help us in the achievement of our higher goals. According to this view, it is not synchronicity that “brings to us” these resources: they were always around us, we just failed to notice them due to our RAS’s lack of proper focus, and is part of the same process that strengthens our creative imagination and subconscious capacity to experience aha! moments mentioned in the beginning of this post.

The similarity of this process and synchronicity is very well captured by a passage by Maxwell Maltz quoted by Allen in the book:

Your automatic creative mechanism is teleological. That is, it operates in terms of goals and end results. Once you give it a definite goal to achieve, you can depend upon its automatic guidance system to take you to that goal much better than “you” ever could by conscious thought. “You” supply the goal by thinking in terms of end results. Your automatic mechanism then supplies the means whereby.

Regardless of what David Allen thinks of Taoism and synchronicity, one thing is for sure. If Lao-tzu would live in our day and age, he would definitely be a total fan of Getting Things Done. I can picture him in his Taoist robes, having green tea for breakfast after early-morning meditation, checking the “next action” folders in his Evernote-GTD system on his laptop…

From Alan Furth originally: http://www.alanfurth.com/achieving-mind-like-water-through-getting-things-done/


  1. All good articles. My condolences on the loss of your friend. Not everyone is as fortunate as you to have had one so good. I know he will be missed.
    “Mind like water” is a quote made famous by the Karate master Bruce Lee. He has used other notable quotes as well.

  2. For implementing GTD you can use this application:


    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote and Google Calendar, and also comes with mobile version, and Android and iPhone apps.

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