Zen and the Art of Getting Things Done

Mind Like Water

In the spirit of sharing, and spreading knowledge throughout the productivity community, I am going to present a shameless rip-off! There is a remarkable post over at Copyblogger entitled “Zen and the Art of Remarkable Blogging” that has inspired me. I was perusing this article while some nagging bits of my Getting Things Done system were simmering on the back burner of my mind. Therefore, I have taken the liberty of editing this post into “Zen and the Art of Gettting Things Done”:

The 1974 bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance begins with the following disclaimer from author Robert Pirsig:

“[This book] should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.”

Likewise, this article isn’t going to teach you much of anything about Zen Buddhism, and absolutely zero about motorcycles. But I hope it does provide some insight into effective productivity, or, at a minimum, gets you to think differently about your current notions regarding Getting Things Done and the effectiveness you seek with it.

The Four Noble Truths of Productivity:

1. Get Over Your “Self”
Buddhists believe that suffering begins with our perception that we are separate and distinct from the rest of reality. In other words, our own egos make us miserable.
In productivity, the unorganized mindset can also cause you unnecessary pain. The key to successful productivity is an alignment of interests between Contexts and Next Actions. It’s that sweet spot where what’s good for your Projects matches what’s good for you.
Don’t focus on having a great system. Focus on executing a process that’s great for your input.

2. Free Your Mind
Zen is all about seeing deeply into the nature of things by direct experience. Productivity that is efficient and stress-free is all about seeing existing information from a unique perspective and capturing it in the proper Context.
Zen encourages meditation, and great productivity requires contemplative thought. If you’re truly going to get into a higher-level thinking mode, you’ve got to step away from the system and think. Stop hacking notebooks, arranging and re-arranging notecards and go for a walk.
Albert Einstein figured out that time is relative while on a stroll with a friend. Go do something else and a killer angle for your next project may just pop into your head.

3. Detach From Results
Another key to existential angst is an attachment to systems rather than simply focusing on excelling in our actions. The same is true for any pursuit, including productivity and Getting Things Done.
When you focus on the outcome you expect from your Next Actions, you are invariably creating a vision of success. Moreover, while one great achievement may change your productivity profile immensely, a failure to consistently perform at or near the same level will make you nothing more than a one-hit wonder.
Focus on consistently executing the fundamentals of your practice: Collect, Process, Organize, Review and Do. The results will come.

4. It’s Up to You
While still steeped in Buddhist philosophy, Zen is more concerned with attaining wisdom through doing, in that daily life and mundane tasks will teach you more than any sacred text could. In this way, productivity and Zen are closely aligned—simply showing up and keeping at it will teach you more than anyone else can.

Zen encourages practitioners to learn from teachers and other students to better understand how to attain truth through direct experience. The productivity community offers a similar environment, but the final breakthrough will always occur in your own mind and be the result of your own Next Actions. You’ve got to accept responsibility for your own success.

I’m sure the story of the origin of Zen can make this point much clearer than I ever could:

Buddha gathered his disciples at a lake on Gridhakuta for instruction. His adherents sat in a circle about him eagerly awaiting his teachings.

Wordlessly Buddha reached into the muck and pulled up a single lotus flower. He then held it high for all to see.

Practically everyone was bewildered. But then the disciple Mahakashyapa began to laugh.

Finally, Buddha handed the lotus flower to Mahakashyapa and said,
“What can be said I have said to you, and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa.”

Please forgive my insolence.

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