Beat overwhelm, decide sooner, calm the monkey

Does this sound familiar?

You get an email asking you to do something, but you don’t deal with it just now. You put it off, and put it off, until…

Aaaaah, I have to do something about this now or else!

An animated gif of a Muppet running towards the camera with mouth open and eyes wide in panic.

There’s a better way.

Most of the time, how far do you get before you finally decide?

A graph of "amount getting done" over time. In the beginning, you notice an email or something else you need to deal with. You put it off, and it bugs you more and more until your brain is screaming to do something about it.

What if your process looked like this instead?

A graph of "amount getting done" over time. In the beginning, you notice an email or something else you need to deal with. After a short time, you decide what you need to do with it: what's the next action?

The difference between these two is deciding sooner. Not always doing sooner — just deciding.

Don’t do everything right away. Decide right away what to do.

This is critical for email and anything else that comes your way: notes, assignments, ideas, instant messages, and more.

What happens when we decide later

Emails pile up. Ideas accumulate. Notes cover your desk. Your mind goes wild.

In the words of David Allen, “Your mind is great for having ideas — but terrible for holding them.” What makes it terrible? For one thing, your brain turns into a monkey, constantly reminding you of what you haven’t decided.

An image of a nervous monkey clutching a smartphone.

Do this! Do this! Do that! Do that! Remember X? You forgot Y! Working on A? You forgot B! Aaaaaaaah!

Your mind does this because, on some level, it knows it can’t let go of that thing. You have something to do about it, and that’s what your brain is terrified of losing.

Important or not, timely or not, your brain doesn’t care. It has only two modes: on your mind or off your mind.

What happens when we decide sooner: beat overwhelm

In a word: calm.

Look again at the second graph:

A graph of "amount getting done" over time. In the beginning, you notice an email or something else you need to deal with. After a short time, you decide what you need to do with it: what's the next action?

You see something, you say what it means to you. Processing email? What does each one mean?

  1. What do you need to do?
  2. Where do you store that action so you’ll see it at the right time?

That’s the basic process of getting things off your mind. This allows the monkey to relax and get off your back — so you can focus (or rest).

A picture of a Japanese snow monkey relaxing in a natural hot spring.

The idea is to eliminate hurry, frenzy, and stress, so you can focus hard and rest well.

The foundation of deciding sooner

Before you decide what to do with that email, you need an organized system. The essential components are:

  • Places to collect inputs (e.g. your inbox)
  • David Allen’s essential lists:
    • Committed Actions (a few steps)
    • Committed Projects (many steps)
    • Someday/Maybe (no commitment, review regularly)
    • Waiting For (answers, actions, etc. from others)
    • Calendar
  • Reference filing, for info you’ll want later

Creating an organized system may take minutes, hours, or days. What never changes is its value. When you have a system that works for you, it lets you do your best work. In other words, it’s always worth it.

How to decide sooner: calming the monkey

To actually decide what to do with that email (or note, or idea), you need a process for deciding.

Again, I can recommend no better that David Allen’s GTD Workflow. The short version is:

  • Do you need to do something about whatever this is?
    • YES:
      • Do it (if 1 minute or less); OR
      • Delegate it; OR
      • Put it on a list (see above)
    • NO:
      • File it; OR
      • Add it to Someday/Maybe; OR
      • Delete it!
  • Repeat

This is the basic process for getting things off your mind.

When to decide

Research says multitasking is a myth. There is only “switch-tasking:” rapidly switching between things and doing all of them worse.

So? Do one thing at a time. That means time for processing (deciding) and time for doing — not both at once!

My clients and I have found great success setting aside dedicated time for processing email and other things (usually two or three times a day). The rest of the time, we make ourselves as unreachable as possible (except for true emergencies) so we can focus.

A close-up image of a man facing the camera with his finger to his lips, making the "shush" sign.

Sidebar: reduce incoming volume

We live in a world of over-communication. Tools like Twitter and instant-messaging create a sense of immediacy. We can message people now, so we rarely think about whether we should. Yes, we just get it off our mind and get a little relief! — but this quickly comes back to haunt us.

Not only that, we create a culture of hurry that hurts us all.

Here are a few tips to get fewer alerts and calm the chaos:

  • On your phone and IM, use Do Not Disturb
  • In Microsoft Teams and other apps, use status icons and messages to let others know when you are and are not available to respond immediately
  • Turn off alerts
  • Customize which conversations and people ping you
  • Use email for non-urgent items only
  • Send and answer emails during business hours only
    • If you’re processing outside hours, use the “delay send” feature
  • Take more time to respond: messages beget messages!
  • Turn off email alerts!

If your supervisor says they expect you to respond instantly, and that’s not a critical part of your job, tell them (calmly) you can be “on” some of the time, but all the time will damage your focus on your important projects. If that’s what they want, figure out how badly you want to stay there.

After deciding sooner

To make your decisions effective and follow through with them, you need at least five processes, implemented effectively:

  1. Collecting
  2. Processing
  3. Organizing
  4. Reviewing
  5. Doing

The first three are outlined above. Together, these five make up (once again) David Allen’s essential workflow.

Beat overwhelm: keeping up in the digital world

In this post, most of what I’ve given you so far is essentially GTD, which has been part of my foundation for work for over 30 years. In our digital age, however, I’ve found knowing GTD alone isn’t enough. Though its principles are powerful, I must continually adapt my GTD practice to the changing demands of the workplace.

“If I were to even process everything coming at me, I’d have no time for work!” I hear that a lot. In fact, many of the people who come to me for help are in the same situation. I show them how to integrate what they already know with smart work methods (including GTD) with smart decision tactics and powerful software. The result: systems that work for the people who use them.

That’s something else I help my clients achieve, but that’s a post for another time!

How about you? What difference has deciding sooner made for you? How do you keep up in the digital age?

Image credits:

Graphs: Scott Moehring

Monkey with phone: Yago1. License CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. “Scared Ape with Samsung Smartphone.”

Relaxed monkey: PxFuel. Free for commercial use under DMCA. Link to original.

Shushing man: Camera Eye Photography. License CC BY 2.0. “Shhhh…

Time to start blogging/podcasting again…

David Allen (@GTDGuy) recently invited me to join him for two podcasts. We covered a variety of topics around two themes.

Eric in his office on a podcast

The first is my 5 Principles for Productivity Software Design and offers a glimpse of what I went through to design eProductivity. I also share what you should look for as a designer or user of productivity tools.

The second theme is how not to let your tools shape the way you work — a topic I am passionate about. The workplace is broken, and I have ideas on how to fix it. Good stuff to come.

If you were one of the many who completed my team’s Work Styles and Key Frustrations survey, thank you! You’ll be interested to follow the reactions and recommendations which I plan to share. I initially intended to respond personally to everyone, but this has proven impractical due to the hundreds of responses received. Therefore, I decided instead to share my survey observations in blog posts (and hopefully future podcasts with David Allen and others).

There you have it. I hope you’ll find this upcoming series extraordinarily helpful.

If you completed the Work Styles and Key Frustrations survey or want to keep up with the latest Intentionally Productive news, be sure to sign up to be notified.

Here’s to your calm and clarity!


What happens when you raise intentionally productive children?

They grow up and do extraordinary things.

I encourage everyone I coach and mentor to teach productive practices (whether mine or others’) to their colleagues, friends, and family. Some of you were surprised to learn I started teaching these to my children when they were three!

Last June, David Allen (my mentor) invited my daughter and me to speak at the global GTD Summit in Amsterdam.

Eric Mack and Wendy Haddad speak at the 2019 GTD Summit in Amsterdam on a panel titled "What's It Like to Have a GTD Family?"

This event featured dozens of notable speakers, experts, and innovators from around the world, including productivity experts David Covey and Marshall Goldsmith, former NASA astronaut Cady Coleman, and bestselling author Dan Pink.

While there, Wendy and I spoke on a panel with David on the topic of raising children with productive principles ⁠— not to turn them into box-checking machines, but to give them freedom to accomplish whatever they want.

You might find Wendy’s perspective on all this inspiring, as she shared what it was like growing up learning how to get the right things done in a freeing way.

David Allen, Mike Williams, Eric Mack, and Wendy Haddad speak at the 2019 GTD Summit in Amsterdam on a panel titled "What's It Like to Have a GTD Family?"

I’d love to hear from you in the comments: What productive, time-saving, value-creating skills have you learned from (or taught to) your family?

David Allen and I talk about the ultimate productivity app

In late July, John Forrister interviewed David Allen and me for a few hours about the ultimate app for Getting Things Done (click here for my previous blog post about this). That interview was published this month as a two-part podcast.

The three of us discussed what would make for an ideal app, why it hasn’t happened yet, how close I got with eProductivity (which David designated as GTD Enabled), and what’s next.

What is the ultimate GTD app?

After 25 years of working with David, we still agree that the ultimate GTD solution is not the perfect app: it’s the solution you can make work for you. No matter how good a tool is, you can’t outsource your thinking to it.

Of course, a good tool can drastically lower the resistance you feel to your work and encourage an intentionally productive mindset. I’m still convinced that those things, much more than gee-whiz features, are what make a tool extraordinary. It remains true, however, that the best tool can only support your thinking, not replace it.

"The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

I took this photo at the GTD Summit. Einstein was right (no surprise).

Links to the podcast

To listen to our conversation, click these links:

You can also find these episodes on Soundcloud and most podcast apps.

Feel free to contact me re: app design and system implementation

Since the release of this podcast, several people have asked me to consult with them on designing or implementing their own productivity systems. If I can be of service you, by all means contact me. I’ll be happy to talk about how I can help you.


What do you think about what we discussed in the podcast? Do you agree that no tool can do your thinking for you? Let me know in the comments!

David Allen gives away the ultimate GTD app

David Allen, world-renowned creator the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, is giving away the ultimate GTD app (some assembly required).

Twenty-five years ago, David created a set of plans for the ultimate GTD app. Despite committed efforts by many talented people, it has yet to be built. Now, David is putting his plans in the public domain.

David Allen’s announcement from the 2019 GTD Summit (in Amsterdam) about “the ultimate GTD app”

I designed eProductivity, the GTD app that David has used and recommended for the last decade. He talked about it at the GTD Summit in Amsterdam two weeks ago. Though we were constrained at the time by the existing Lotus Notes platform, this app is, in David’s words, “the closest anyone has ever gotten” to his vision of the ultimate GTD software implementation.

Over the six-year process of designing eProductivity (2002 – 2008), David and I looked at hundreds of apps supposedly designed for GTD. I’m sure many had smart people behind them. Some were elegantly designed, but none hit the mark. For many, it was clear that their creators simply did not understand the more subtle aspects of what makes GTD so powerful.

As David showed parts of his plans at the GTD Summit, he recommended developers talk to me. A few confidently claimed that they could crank out a dream app in a few weeks. Looking back on my 25 years of experience with David and GTD, I had to warn them not to be deceived. Though what the user sees may appear simple, behind it lies great complexity.

The ultimate GTD app will require an impressive array of features, but that’s not the hard part. The hard part—the part that I spent six years thinking about—is making the entire GTD experience as seamless and simple as possible for the user. That requires not only deep understanding of GTD, but also great complexity and intricate design, all hidden behind the scenes.

Consider this illustration: the perfect system is like an automatic transmission. As anyone who’s driven a manual transmission knows, an automatic turns a complicated operation into a simple one—and as any mechanic knows, the automatic transmission can do so only because it is complex.

Twelve years of running eProductivity has given me a unique perspective on what works and what doesn’t for personal productivity tools. This has led me apply the knowledge I gained in the software space to help people do their best work where they are, with whatever tools they have (Notes, Office 365, etc.).

David Allen and Eric Mack together at the GTD Summit 2019 in Amsterdam

That said, I, along with David, would love to see the ultimate GTD app come to life. If you have a productivity application that you want to GTD enable, or you’re thinking about designing one, I can help. 

What features would you love to see in the ultimate GTD app? Leave a comment below!

To read more about the GTD Summit and get productivity tips, be sure to subscribe.

The value of clear space for creative freedom: a refreshing reminder from the GTD Summit

I’ve just returned from the GTD Summit, an international productivity conference in Amsterdam. While there, I shared the stage with Getting Things Done (GTD) creator David Allen, bestselling authors Daniel Pink and David Covey, former astronaut Cady Coleman, and my own highly-accomplished daughter, Wendy Haddad (to name just a few).

A client asked me what my biggest takeaways from the Summit were. While I’m still wrapping my head around it all, I can identify perhaps the most valuable reminder: the value of clear space. It’s wonderfully refreshing to hear fellow experts and enthusiasts talk about such a crucial concept (even if it’s one you’ve applied for years). Clear space is so important because it’s a huge enabler of productivity, creativity, and personal freedom.