life Work


September 27, 2022

Mind Like Water?

I just finished reading David Allen’s Making It All Work, his 2008 sequel to the iconic and influential Getting Things Done.

Bookshop / Amazon (neither are affiliate)

This was my morning non-fiction read for the entire month (and part of August too!). It took me forever to get through, because a) it’s wordy and b) I often stopped to think and reflect on the material.

Allen wants to help his readers and followers get to a “mind like water”, where you can calmly flow from one activity to the next in full confidence that you are doing the right thing at any moment.

I absolutely love this idea, but find that what tends to prevent me from feeling this way is not lack of organization, but time pressure. I can know exactly what I’d like to accomplish in a day and feel completely in control of my tasks — but that still does not erase the time pressure that ensues on a day like today, when I want to:

  • publish this post
  • go running (an interesting interval run with 8 x 1 min @ 5K pace with 1 min recovery between each)
  • wake the kids up & shower
  • eat something
  • drive the kids to school
  • drop off swim form
  • drive to work
  • see patients / write notes / empty EPIC inbox + work email
  • eat lunch
  • check in with faculty member
  • see more patients / write notes / empty EPIC inbox + work emali
  • drive home, hopefully in time for dinner with kids
  • eat with kids
  • supervise homework / kid reading / etc (C has a project deadline that is stressing me out, which is annoying on multiple levels)
  • perform / supervise kid bedtime routine, including reading to 1-2 kids and lying in each bed for 10 minutes
  • have like 5 seconds to possibly chat with Josh
  • go to bed in time to get enough sleep

Admittedly, my non-patient days are more relaxed and less time pressured. But on a day like today, I just do not see mind like water to be achievable, because every single task is tightly time bound and I will be bumping up against deadlines all day. Yes, some of those deadlines are self-imposed, but they are there nonetheless!

I will note that David Allen does not have any children.

It was still an interesting read and I will probably read it again in a few years, just like I have done with GTD. So I’m not knocking it per se; I just don’t entirely find it applicable to my daily life, particularly on tightly scheduled days. Though I would probably feel worse on a day like today if I hadn’t taken care of many of life’s details (example: our dinner plan, the swim form I have to turn in) beforehand. Which requires careful collecting / processing / organizing in the GTD fashion. So, there’s that.

(GTD Deep Dive ep coming at you next week in BLP, which I recorded yesterday!)

Stay Safe & Dry

Thinking of those more directly impacted by Ian! We are lucky and getting stormy weather, but no ‘cane this time. Hopefully this #$(*&@ will pass quickly.


  • Reply Haya Finan Mckinley September 27, 2022 at 8:33 am

    HE doesn’t have any children says it all. (insert rant about the patriarchy, mental load, etc etc)

    I can’t say I read a lot of books in the productivity genre, but aside from Laura Vanderkam and a few select others, it seems like the majority of authors of this type of book are (primarily) white and (primarily) cis gendered males. Is this something that they (any of them?) acknowledge? Does David Allen talk about the privileges that allow his mind to flow like water from one task to the next? Or is this something implicitly assumed that if you are reading such a book, you already have the 4 base levels of your Maslow’s hierarchy sorted out? Perhaps I am just extra cranky this morning…. (not maybe. i definitely am, but maybe it is warranted)

  • Reply CBS September 27, 2022 at 8:37 am

    I feel like this is possible if loads of your logistics are externalised with a PA or you have a really consistent routine with no risk of interruption, ie. No call re a sick kid or a doctor appointment to schedule. But for the rest of us, I think it’s really hard. There are too many moving pieces to allow for us to work with full focus 100% of the time. I’m getting better at reducing email check ins but my life isn’t fully automated enough to not have “oh, I must ask about judo sign ups…” or “I need to print this thing…” pop into my head. And I worry this full focus approach minimises the need for genuine and spontaneous social interactions that make work life more pleasant and helps you build connections. Sometimes the right thing to do for me at that moment is not the thing I’ve planned, but is to check in with a student who seems out of sorts or celebrate an accomplishment with a colleague.

    • Reply Allee September 28, 2022 at 10:17 am

      This is great insight! I am someone who is able to focus quite well at work, but my relationships with my coworkers has struggled because I don’t have a good balance for the spontaneity that is typically necessary for relationship-building.

  • Reply Omdg September 27, 2022 at 8:41 am

    Omg no. I will not be reading this book. Just hearing the description is triggering. Of course you can be chill if you don’t have more to do than what can actually be done on a near constant Basis.

  • Reply Amanda September 27, 2022 at 9:08 am

    My husband is generally extremely involved in our household management and really wants to be, despite working/earning more than me. But I recently pointed out that the laundry list of things to do at night (clean up kitchen, wash bottles/pump parts, pack lunch for next day) was falling to me/I was the only one keeping the laundry list in my head. Last night he said “I’m thinking about more important things” lol. It is hard to impart the privilege associated with that statement to someone who enjoys that privilege. And yet I do see his point that if lunch gets thrown together the next morning or if there are dirty dishes in the sink not all will be lost. I suppose in my heart of hearts I care more about the kitchen being clean than I do about using that time to get ahead on MY work, whereas he cares more about working on his research at night and would rather let the house get dirty now and then clean it up later, so it is what it is.

    • Reply Elisabeth September 27, 2022 at 9:41 am

      Yes to all of this!
      My husband can literally tune out a mess or the kids fighting with each other and do deep work. Though an important side note: re the kids, I find that they will leave him alone to concentrate on said work. Even if they know I’m working, they will find a way to come ask some question or make me feel guilty for not engaging. My husband feels zero guilt and so the kids often won’t even bother trying to interrupt him while he works.

      My husband is very neat and really does enjoy helping with various household tasks, but it’s definitely on his “terms” in the sense that if he has something more “important” on his mind, he has NO problem leaving non-urgent things.

      Like you, “I suppose in my heart of hearts I care more about the kitchen being clean than I do about using that time to get ahead on MY work.” Amen. Just this morning I could not settle in to tackling my paid work (I work from home), until I had done a quick 15 minute power push through a whole bunch of little home tasks. They gnaw at my soul when they get left undone…

      And to the points above about this being written by a man who doesn’t have children, this is my biggest hurdle with Cal Newport’s work. I appreciate lots of what he does/writes, but I have never heard him discuss how his wife (I believe a SAHM) gets deep work done. One the surface it looks like he juggles parenthood and a big career…but in reality, it very much sounds like he can let the proverbial ball drop on the home front and focus on his deep work and his wife will be there to pick up the pieces?

      • Reply Amanda September 27, 2022 at 11:42 am

        My daughter is non-discriminatory in terms of interrupting work haha and will definitely interrupt him. And to be fair he is almost always home for dinner/before dinner so he could choose to just stay at work and get stuff done during the day, but he chooses to do a “split shift” instead so he can spend time w the kids. This is partially why I’ll often take care of the cleaning up stuff, but it doesn’t mean I don’t always have work to catch up on too. But he just literally is able to make the mess invisible until he’s ready to deal with it (which could be the next day).

      • Reply shalini September 27, 2022 at 1:39 pm


        I completely totally echo your thoughts here. I think those deep work pockets that we get are a lot lesser for us women. Maybe we are hyper-productive during those times but neverthless we have endless amount of other things tugging at us that we find it hard to ignore like our better-halves do.

      • Reply Helena Murphy September 27, 2022 at 7:02 pm

        “Just this morning I could not settle in to tackling my paid work (I work from home), until I had done a quick 15 minute power push through a whole bunch of little home tasks. They gnaw at my soul when they get left undone…”
        I can’t tell you how much I relate to this!

  • Reply Lisa of Lisa’s Yarns September 27, 2022 at 10:07 am

    I haven’t read either book and kind of doubt I will. I feel like this kind of advice applies to people who have control over their day. In my role, I don’t. I work in asset management and support our sales team that is selling our fixed income funds so I get asked to do calls or answer questions people have about the market, etc. Sometimes calls get scheduled in advance but often calls get scheduled for the same day. I have some set things I need to do/longer term projects, but mostly I need to be available to help clients understand what is happening in the markets/with our mutual funds/etc. and I have young kids, too, and things can always come up. So I could make a plan for the day but it would often get interrupted so it feels kind of pointless. But my days have to be fluid so maybe I have that ‘mind like water’ mindset already although I am probably more like a duck – calm on the surface but paddling like crazy under the water. Ha.

  • Reply TAS September 27, 2022 at 10:35 am

    The only people who I think his systems work for are high paid executives (who delegate a lot) and programmers/software engineers. I say this as someone who tried his system while practicing law and it was terrible. His philosophy about calendars as hard landscape only is just dumb and counterintuitive.
    I think the work Lisa Woodruff is doing (I bought the Sunday basket because of your blog) is much closer to solving the productivity challenges for women, AND she addresses generational differences which has been a game changer for me. I love Laura V. and her frameworks are terrific, especially those in her new book. But her professional work (and examples of others she uses) is much simpler than what I experience with like 12 areas of responsibility and 20 open projects.

  • Reply Beth September 27, 2022 at 10:55 am

    This point has been driving me crazy for months. I am going to start a podcast about productivity for women and the base assumption will be that we all have 10 million tasks open at once. I want to interview Cal Newport’s wife! Yesterday I did the following: call the eye doctor three times to order contacts (and it’s not even done, I have to call back today), plan a work trip, order dinner, order weekly groceries, determine when my parents can visit, book 3 days of dog walker for various activities, change babysitter arrival time due to my work trip, research and recommend overnight summer camp options, reschedule a kid dr appt, make sure I’m signed up for parent teacher conferences, help both kids with homework, take kids to evening activity, pick up groceries, clean up kitchen. And this was a pretty normal, non-stressful day. And these tasks were in addition to my actual work! I feel like I am constantly forgetting things but honestly I think there is just more to remember.

  • Reply Jessica September 27, 2022 at 11:42 am

    I haven’t read David Allen and don’t plan to, so maybe I don’t fully know what issues people are responding to, but I feel like the idea of having “full confidence that you are doing the right thing at any moment” is a great goal, and a major goal that all of my planning works towards. I’m never going to fully get there, but I can get much closer by tracking tasks and prioritizing well (including NOT doing things when possible) which I think applies to everyone! Maybe I think of it more as making a very stressful workload manageable, rather than being fully calm.

  • Reply Grateful Kae September 27, 2022 at 6:04 pm

    I haven’t read David Allen, but I’m not opposed to checking his work out, either. I generally feel like productivity books are never one size fits all, even things potentially written by other moms who have more in common with me (than a male/ no kids author). No two home situations are exactly alike, ever, so I think it’s just more a matter of looking for general ideas or themes that you can apply to your own life. I still can usually find nuggets of wisdom that resonate, regardless of the author’s exact lifestyle. Sometimes I just need to tweak it to adapt to my unique circumstance. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the book! I always enjoy that genre a lot.

  • Reply Sophie September 27, 2022 at 7:17 pm

    This is why I enjoyed 4000 weeks by Oliver Burkeman so much, and why I take all these productivity books with a grain of salt (although many have some good principles). In real life they are very hard (impossible?) to implement, even when you don’t have lots of stuff outside of work to juggle, like parenting and the mental load. Also, I liked that Burkeman talked about the challenges of parenting a lot in his book, and used a lot of quotes and contributions from women in his books, which is definitely something missing for example from Cal Newports books. It made a big difference to my experience of reading the book. That said, I have read and found value in a number of Cal’s books. Couldn’t get past the first few chapters of GTD though. David Allen is not for me.

  • Reply Coco September 27, 2022 at 8:16 pm

    i think time bound really makes a difference how I feel about my day. when I am on vacation and no meetings for the day, i pretty much do my same routine but it feels more relaxed. so i guess the challenge is how to ignore the time bound and flow like water, if ever possible.

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