Thinking And Doing

Posted in GTD at 12:00 pm by Haider

One of the primary reasons why the GTD system places a lot of importance on collecting your “stuff”, processing and organizing it, and reviewing your commitments is to draw a distinction between thinking about your work and doing your work. There should be the least amount of thinking about work when it comes down to doing your work.

Why is this the case? And how does the separation between thinking and doing affect productivity?

When it comes to doing what we need to do, or would like to do, we should be clear about what we want to achieve before starting to work. This is a major component to productivity, and maintaining this distinction will not only help you speed up your work, but will also improve your concentration with the task at hand.

We often leave much of our work undefined, and hope to figure the details out while we work. For example, suppose you are planning to read a book. Let’s say it was Getting Things Done. If you write in your to do list: “Read book,” you have not given yourself enough details about the task to be able to perform it straight away. When you read your task, you will naturally think: What book do I mean? Oh yes, Getting Things Done. This would be fairly simple if it’s the only book on your desk. But often, when we miss out important details, we end up thinking a lot about our work, and how we are meant to get it done, which impedes the actual work we are meant to be doing.

A task like: “Talk to Bob” needs a great deal of thinking before you can figure out what to talk to him about, the points you wish to raise, etc. However, you can write your task as: “Talk to Bob re newsletter – problem with layout,” which will help you focus your thoughts and make the task much easier to accomplish than if you hadn’t drawn a distinction between thinking and doing.

All the GTD stages, apart from the “Doing” stage, are intended to get the “thinking about work” out of the way so you can concentrate on your task while doing it.

David Allen calls this “cranking widgets“: when you have a pile of “widgets” (i.e. items) you need to “crank” (i.e. do a single action on), you can do your task automatically, because you know what needs to be done, and you simply work your way through the pile. But if you are faced with a pile of widgets that you have not explicitly defined what needs to be done about them, or the details you need to take into consideration to get the widget cranked, then your work will slow down as you struggle to make sense of the task you are doing.

This is why processes, flowcharts, checklists, etc are productivity enhancers: they get the thinking out of the way so when you sit down to work, you know exactly what needs to be done.

The distinction between projects and actions, according to the GTD system, is that projects are made up of a number of actions, which you will need to explicitly define. But the distinction between thinking and doing isn’t about defining missing actions. It’s about noting down the details that you have to take into consideration when performing a single task. If you need to make a phone call, what do you need to mention during the conversation? You will only be performing a single task, but you need to know exactly how the task is to be performed.

Therefore, when you write down the tasks you need to get done, make sure you include as much information as necessary to get as much thinking about work done before you come to do your tasks, so they can be accomplished effectively and efficiently.


  1. Bashar said,

    April 9, 2008 at 11:37 am

    In the programming field, I sometimes take the time to write up a proper scope and vision document. Most of those time the project never takes off the ground for some reason :). Others I tend to take the “I’ll see how it goes ” when I’m not sure what exactly the final product will be. I just have a mere idea in mind of what I want it to be.

    But I think in the software industry, sometimes think work out like this. Take Java for instance. It was meant for cable televisions or something like that, and then it became the best platform for enterprise apps. Have you heard about the connect dots backward theory Jobs talked about?

  2. Bashar said,

    April 9, 2008 at 11:37 am

    Sorry, this is the direct url

  3. Haider said,

    April 9, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    Bashar, thank you for that insight. I *absolutely* agree with you that many projects can grow by simply working your way through them, without defining how the work should be done. I often gain a lot of inspiration from simply starting my work, and finding out how things should be done by looking at the code and tweaking it as I go along.

    But there are cases when you need to get a task done, and it’s difficult to juggle all the details you need to consider in your head while doing the task. Suppose you need to work with 5 programs while you’re coding. If you’re not familiar with what programs you should open up, what files to open, etc. your pace will slow down as you think: “Hold on, what do I need to do next? What else do I need?” etc

    You can simply have a checklist in front of you that lists all the programs you need to open up, which will reduce the amount of thinking you need to do about your work while you work.

    The more proficient you are in your work, the less thinking you need to do about it 🙂

Leave a Comment