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Beware the Open Loops

An open loop is anything that does not belong where it is, which will be pulling on your attention of it’s not properly managed.


Anything considered “unfinished” must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind. This is the collection tool.

The Bottom Up Approach

Start with the most mundane, ground-floor level of current activity and commitments for personal productivity improvement. It’s easy to believe that it’s better to start with a top down approach, first uncovering the purpose and vision of what you want to achieve. Most people are too embroiled in commitments on a day-to-day level that focusing on the larger is horizon is next to impossible.

The Five Steps of Mastering Workflow

We (1) capture what has our attention; (2) clarify what each item means and what to do about it; (3) organise the results, which presents the options we (4) reflect on, which we then choose to (5) engage with.

Emptying the Containers

“Emptying the containers” is a fantastic term for going through the daily review. The containers for me personally is email, drafts and the calendar.

The Someday/Maybe list

This list is used as the “parking lot” for inspiring projects that’s impossible to move at right now. This needs to be treated as a temporary placeholder and should be reviewed regularly.

The Six-Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work

In order to know what your priorities are, you have to know what your work is. There are six different perspectives from which to define that.

  • Horizon 5: Purpose and principles
  • Horizon 4: Vision
  • Horizon 3: Goals
  • Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountabilities
  • Horizon 1: Current projects
  • Ground: Current actions


A paradox has emerged in this new millennium: people have enhanced quality of life, but at the same time they are adding to their stress levels by taking on more than they have resources to handle. It’s as though their eyes were bigger than their stomachs.

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Almost every project could be done better, and an infinite quantity of information is now available that could make that happen.

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Most of us have, in the past seventy-two hours, received more change-producing, project-creating, and priority-shifting inputs than our parents did in a month, maybe even in a year.

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The average professional is more of a free agent these days than ever before, changing careers as often as his or her parents once changed jobs.

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Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax.

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Anything that does not belong where it is, the way it is, is an “open loop,” which will be pulling on your attention if it’s not appropriately managed.

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People think a lot, but most of that thinking is of a problem, project, or situation—not about it.

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The ancestor of every action is a thought. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

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We need to transform all the “stuff” we’ve attracted and accumulated into a clear inventory of meaningful actions, projects, and usable information.

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And the common complaint that “I don’t have time to ____” (fill in the blank) is understandable because many projects seem overwhelming—and are overwhelming because you can’t do a project at all! You can only do an action related to it. Many actions require only a minute or two, in the appropriate context, to move a project forward.

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A big problem is that your mind keeps reminding you of things when you can’t do anything about them. It has no sense of past or future. That means as soon as you tell yourself that you might need to do something, and store it only in your head, there’s a part of you that thinks you should be doing that something all the time.

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avoiding getting a grip on the martial art of workflow mastery will be at your own peril.

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A task left undone remains undone in two places—at the actual location of the task, and inside your head. Incomplete tasks in your head consume the energy of your attention as they gnaw at your conscience.

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Basically, everything potentially meaningful to you is already being collected, in the larger sense. If it’s not being directly managed in a trusted external system of yours, then it’s resident somewhere in your mental space.

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Keep everything in your head or out of your head. If it’s in between, you won’t trust either one.

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Not emptying your in-tray is like having garbage cans and mailboxes that no one ever dumps or deals with—you just have to keep buying new ones to hold an eternally accumulating volume.

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Having a working game plan as a reference point is always useful, but it must be able to be renegotiated at any moment.

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The way I look at it, the calendar should be sacred territory. If you write something there, it must get done that day or not at all.

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You need somewhere to keep the instruction manuals for your kitchenware, the handwritten notes from your meeting about the Smith project, and those yen you didn’t get to exchange at the end of your most recent trip to Tokyo (and that you can use when you go back there).

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Most people feel best about their work the week before they go on vacation, but it’s not because of the vacation itself. What do you do the last week before you leave on a big trip? You clean up, close up, clarify, organize, and renegotiate all your agreements with yourself and others.

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If you have captured, clarified, organized, and reflected on all your current commitments, you can galvanize your intuitive judgment with some intelligent and practical thinking about your work and values.

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You create or accept your projects and actions because of the roles, interests, and accountabilities you have. These are the key areas of your life and work within which you want to achieve results and maintain standards.

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Minute-to-minute and day-to-day you don’t have time to think. You need to have already thought.

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Think of your purpose. Think of what a successful outcome would look like: where would you be physically, financially, in terms of reputation, or whatever? Brainstorm potential steps. Organize your ideas. Decide on the next actions. Are you any clearer about where you want to go and how to get there?

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What’s the first level of focus when the stuff hits the fan? Action! Work harder! Overtime! More people! Get busier! And a lot of stressed-out people are thrown at the situation.

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If you’re not sure why you’re doing something, you can never do enough of it.

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One of the most powerful life skills, and one of the most important to hone and develop for both professional and personal success, is creating clear outcomes.

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It’s as if your mind were to say, “Look, I’m only going to give you as many ideas as you feel you can effectively use. If you’re not collecting them in some trusted way, I won’t give you that many. But if you’re actually doing something with the ideas—even if it’s just recording them for later evaluation—then here, have a bunch! And, oh wow! That reminds me of another one, and another,” etc.

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You need no new skills to increase your productivity and reduce your stress—just an enhanced set of systematic behaviors with which to apply them.

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A great hammer doesn’t make a great carpenter; but a great carpenter will always want to have a great hammer.

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When considering whether to get and use any organizing tool, and if so, which one, keep in mind that all you really need to do is manage lists.

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The biggest issue for digitally oriented people is that the ease of capturing and storing has generated a write-only syndrome: all they’re doing is capturing information—not actually accessing and using it intelligently.

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It bespeaks a certain lack of awareness and maturity in our culture, I think, that so many sophisticated people are ignoring those levels of responsibility to their own consciousness, on an ongoing operational basis.

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Because digital storage, without much forethought, has become almost automatic, it is very possible to create an environment of constant input but no utilization. You are creating a library so big and overwhelming, you have limited your capacity to make it functional for the work that’s important for you to do.

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The function of an organization system is primarily to supply the reminders you need to see when you need to see them, so you can trust your choices about what you’re doing (and what you’re not doing).

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When is a problem a project? Always. When you assess something as a problem instead of as something to simply be accepted as the way things are, you are assuming there is a potential resolution.

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In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.

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Many people use the inevitability of an almost infinite stream of immediately evident things to do as a way to avoid the responsibilities of defining their work and managing their total inventory.

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When people with whom you interact notice that without fail you receive, process, and organize in an airtight manner the exchanges and agreements they have with you, they begin to trust you in a unique way.

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The price people pay when they break an agreement in the world is the disintegration of trust in the relationship—an automatic negative consequence.

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You actually love to do things, as long as you get the feeling that you’ve completed something.

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If you’re like most people, you’ve probably got some storage area at home—maybe a basement that you told yourself a while back (maybe even ten years ago!) you ought to clean and organize. If so, there’s a part of you that likely thinks you should’ve been cleaning your basement twenty-four hours a day for the past ten years! No wonder people are so tired!

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Too many discussions end with only a vague sense that people know what they have decided and are going to do.

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I’ve learned the hard way that no matter where we are in the conversation, twenty minutes before the agreed end time of the discussion I must force the question: “So what’s the next action here?” In my experience, there is usually twenty minutes’ worth of clarifying (and sometimes tough decisions) still required to come up with an answer.

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“There are only two problems in life: (1) you know what you want, and you don’t know how to get it; and/or (2) you don’t know what you want.”

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Unfocused meetings lead to unnecessary e-mails, which then produce the need for clarifying meetings, which produce more e-mail, and so on.

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The idea of “mind like water” doesn’t assume that water is always undisturbed. On the contrary, water engages appropriately with disturbance, instead of fighting against it.

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Books I’ve read.

Johannes Holmberg

Tiny summaries on books I’ve read. Sorted by latest read. But you can also sort on top recommendations. Highlights and covers are copyright to their respective authors.