GTD and MindReader Q&A

Chuck Brown posted some questions on GTD and MindReader as a comment on AO-Pack blog entry. I thought answering via a post would make sense as it provides some elbow room and an opportunity for others to chime in.

… I understand that GTD is not a set of absolute rules, but tools to use to your benefit, but am not comfortable with something key in the Next Step, concept. We’re told that if something will take more than say, two minutes, stick it in the system. I assume this leads to documenting every step that will take more than two minutes? But it can’t, or we would document going to the grocery store as 200 steps, obviously making the process more laborious than is beneficial. So how do you know how to break projects down?

Is it entirely arbitrary? The system is very keen on next steps, but what about all of the ‘other’ steps? So, I’m going to build a house myself, and the Next Step is to draw blueprints. But I know that to draw blueprints I need to buy big paper, and when I have them I’ll need to go to the copy store and make copies, and I’ll need to look in the yellow pages for contractors, and I’ll need to make a list of contractors to call, and I’ll need to call each one, and, and, and… By breaking this into discrete components (especially if I’m going to take the time to enter them into an electronic system), I would seem to exponentially increase the time it will take to get the project actually done. Maybe I’m missing the bigger picture, and I admit, I’m on the very outside edge crawling towards the center of all of this…

David Allen has a knack for ironic phrases like “the center is the edge”, “being complete with your incompletions”, etc. Perhaps the analogous phrase he might use to answer your question would be “Getting things done is about getting things done”.

Barriers to getting things done

What barriers get in the way of getting things done? Not capturing the “things” in the first barrier. “Things” can sit in your inbox, on your desk, workbench, garage floor, or mind. GTD stresses capturing all your “stuff” in a trusted system of some type. This is where tools like GyroQ and OutLinker come in. The “2 minute” rule relates to the trade-off of the time needed to process something into your projects and next action lists versus just doing it. I think with advent of fluid tools like those covered on this site, that guideline might need some revising, but that’s for another post.

Once something is “captured”, the next “not getting done” barrier can be lack of clarity on what is the first baby step to get it moving. This is where “next physical actions” come in. Although it has evolved to do quite a bit more, MindReader was initially conceived as a way to try to automatically assign “contexts” based on action verbs in phrases going into GyroQ or in MindManager topics. Sometimes the thought process of identifying the “next physical action” involves a backward sequencing process (replace tires – schedule visit – call store – lookup phone number) that generates a string of next actions. Once you have gone through that thought process, you might as well capture it in a map so that checking off the 1st step automatically queues up the next, but its not essential. Often just getting that 1st physical next action identified early catalyzes the rest of the process to move ahead quickly and naturally.

The third barrier to getting things done can be lack of having all those unrelated baby steps organized by “context” so that you can advance them efficiently. Among its other capabilities, ResultsManager excels at harvesting all your next actions from a network of project maps and laying them out for you in a single dashboard of next actions by contexts. Having a convenient “context” list can make you more productive in the little snippets of time that might otherwise be used inefficiently or go to waste. With gas prices being what they are, an “errands” list is all the more important.

The Chess Analogy
So how you do you break projects down? When I envision GTD, I think of what it could be like to be one of those grandmaster chess players who can run around a room and play 30 games (projects) at once. Now perhaps they do that by instantly recognizing the pattern on the board each time and the best next move. If I was going to do it, I’d have a project map for each game with some working notes and reference links on it, and a task reminder that the other player had the next move and to make sure I came back to it. I might also have a “next move” lined up based on the previous “review” of the situation for that game (project).

Thinking about this in another way, “Getting things done is not about what you are getting done”. You don’t need to document each completed action, or plan each next action for a project you are actively working on. You just want make sure you set projects up (or set them aside with) at least one next step to keep things moving.

Next question: Just want to make sure I understand something about the technology. I understand that MindReader requires MindManager/MindJet and Gyroq, but does it REQUIRE ResultsManager? (I have all of these tools, just trying to wrap my head around what does what). If I understand correctly, RM is really just a reporting tool (maybe an important one, but still a reporting tool). Is this correct?

No, technically MindReader doesn’t require ResultsManager or even GyroQ (it has some limited functionality running directly on topics as a standalone macro), but there is a lot of synergy amongst the tools. MindReader enables GyroQ to capture and set the context, due date, priority, etc of a large quantity of tasks and spread them across many maps in one step. This is most useful if you have the ability to pull all that information back together into a dashboard with ResultsManager.

Other readers can provide additional insights below.


  1. Jose Miguel Bolivar said,

    March 28, 2008 @ 8:58 pm

    That’s a very good question indeed.

    David Allen’s point is that “building a house” is not a single action but many, therefore it is not a Next Action but a Project.

    In fact, strictly speaking, even if there are just two actions but one cannot be started until the other one is done, that is also a project or, at least, a subproject.

    The way I would normally tackle the “build a house” project is as follows:

    I would first try to identify the main subprojects, say a) Blueprint completed, b) Contractors engaged and so on.

    Then I would think of further subprojects within a), trying to focus on those subprojects and related next actions that do not depend on others to get done.

    Once subproject a) is completed you can start dealing with b) and then c)…

    The grocery list is another good example of the usefulness of ResultsManager.

    On the one hand I have a kind of “default” list with items I normally buy every time I go to the store. Buying all the items on that list would be a single next action in itself. The principle is to cluster as single next action everything that can get done at once.

    Whenever I realize I need to buy something that is not part of that default list I add it as a separate next action.

    When I plan to go to the grocery store I run my “Go Shopping Dashboard” that collects all the next actions belonging to the category “Buy”, grouped by context, and I get all the “unusual” items I need to buy grouped under the “Grocery Store” context. That is all I need in addition to my standard list when I go to the grocery store, being sure I will not forget anything!

    The great think about ResultsManager is that I write down “buy butter” when I realize I do not have any at home and then I can forget about it forever knowing that I will be reminded to buy it when I am going to the grocery store.


  2. Chuck Brown said,

    March 31, 2008 @ 9:36 am

    Thank everyone for the great input! I get several new and interesting perspectives every time I ask a question here. On one hand, it’s overwhelming because of the depth of capabilities here, on the other it’s exciting and enlightening to see what you can do!

    I’d like to get some input on what your “Map Central” should look like. I know there will be comments that there is no “should” that’s the same for everyone, but what’s useful here? How much depth do you find success with here, vs pushing the ‘depth’ out to the next level? Right now, I have a simplistic “Work Projects” and “Personal Projects”, but I’ve played with breaking each of these down to having more project oriented stuff here. With MR working, though, I’m not exactly sure how much it matters what is on the Central map??? It seems like you’re going to push to specific maps with MR, and you’re going to review those maps with RM, so when/why does the Map Central come into play?

  3. BillS said,

    March 31, 2008 @ 10:41 am


    My original Map Central contained Personal, Work, Tid Bits, & Dashboards/Logs.
    Tid Bits were for abstract templates that I wanted to look into that weren’t specific to a work/personal project. The Dashboards/Logs (with the ‘exclude icon’) was linked to all my dashboards & the complete log (AO’s Mark Task Complete macro). Under each of Personal & Work I had only the main project maps as appropriate sub topics. When a sub project was large enough not to be contained in the main project map I would create a subtopic to the main project. Like this: Work->Big1>Big1.Sub1 . I would label each project with a dot notation to the parent “Big1.Sub1”. This visually linked me back to the main. Also, b/c I had links to the big sub projects in the Map Central, I didn’t refer to them within the parent project map. This reduced complication of excluding the sub in the parent for the dashboard as well as keeping me focused in each map.And I was still assured that everything was getting pulled into the dashboards. Lastly, when breaking down next actions I only break it down until I can make a reasonable estimate on how long it will take to do. This is kind of the novice-expert distinction. For instance “Go to work” – 45 min. I don’t need to break this down into Shower, Eat breakfast, get gas, drive to work, etc. However, for something new like “Lose 100 lbs. & be the next Jared” I might want to break down into smaller projects Exercise, Diet, Mental with appropriate task “Run 1 mile / day at 5 days a week”, “Reduce intake of cheeseburgers from 10/day to 2/day”, etc. Also, I use results (outcome) focus on projects & subprojects and on task I usually just jot what I need to do.

    Hope this helps,

  4. ActivityOwner said,

    March 31, 2008 @ 7:08 pm

    I have a highly visual map central that has no tasks or projects on it — it just has links to mini-map centrals for each area of focus. Each topic has a picture/image. In practice I actually rarely visit the map central map. I do all my navigation from the dailyaction dashboard or with “o mapkeyword” mindreader command. The key role of the map central is that it is the root from which ResultsManager searches out your project maps. If something isn’t linked from there or a sub-map, it won’t be found.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License.