Success is strong filters

​You only need a comprehensive productivity system if you’re overwhelmingly busy. Which I’m not.


In Getting Things Done, David Allen describes the increasing pace of incoming information; commitments, obligations, emails, invites, calls to make, places to be, favours to fulfil, things to research, stuff to write and read, errands to run. 

It’s too much. But Allen shows you how to overcome it and regain work-life balance. 

But I can’t help thinking, why not stem the flow at the source, rather than waiting for your work-life balance to reach such a crisis point?

How about, instead of fluctuating between cycles of overload and cleanse, we don’t let ourselves get to that stage in the first place?

How about we implement strong filters before we arrive at meltdown?

“To filter” means passing something through a device to remove unwanted material. Here are some strong filters that can stop us from reaching DEFCON 1:

1) Say no. A lot. More than it feels comfortable too. Make commitments very, very carefully. Because every “yes” (and “maybe”) comes with hidden costs to your time, attention and energy.

2) Focus on the essentials. No. Focus on the essential. Look at this diagram.

3) Set boundaries. Create triggers and mechanisms that promote the behaviours you need more of, and penalise the behaviours you need less of.

Don’t want to be answering emails at 3am? Cool. Tell everyone you’re only going to check mail between 3pm and 5pm. 

Want a screen-free day every week? Great. Tell everyone nothing will get to you on Saturday. 

Need to get some creative work done? Awesome. Tell everyone you’re unavailable until 11am every Monday and Friday.

Setting these boundaries is hard. Keeping them is harder. And they make people angry. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because they’re too scared to set boundaries in their own life.

4) Quiet and stillness. These two things are key to your ability to figure out what is essential. If you can’t pause and think, if you don’t give yourself the time and space to reflect and consider, you’ll never be able to see what matters and what doesn’t. 

Which gives us the following path:

Saying no (1) and setting boundaries (3) allows you to create quiet and stillness (4), which you can use to discover and work on what is essential (2).

I’m glad I’ve read Getting Things Done. I was skeptical. I still am. I probably won’t use 90% of the system. But the 10% I will use includes the following insight:

The key to productivity and workflow is not a system. It’s strong filters: Say no. Focus on the essential. Set boundaries. Give yourself the time and the space to slow down and think. 

Do that and you won’t get busy.

Do that and you won’t get overwhelmed.

​Do that, and you’ll be able to do the work that matters, when it matters.