Getting the (Working) Mind to Empty

Personal productivity expert David Allen is interested in what allows people to work in the state Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”: relaxed, focussed, and in control, making intuitive choices, knocking the work out—and enjoying it. In his book Getting Things Done, Allen likens this state to the “swing” state of rowers, or the “ready” state of the martial artist, the “mind like water” that neither over-reacts nor under-reacts. He asks “What if you could dedicate fully 100 percent of your attention to whatever was at hand, at your own choosing, with no distraction?”

This possibility contrasts sharply with the mind randomly yelling at itself about commitments, tasks, and responsibilities, often at times when nothing can be done about them. Tense, distracted, and avoidant, such a mind jumps around, or at best settles into a task partially and with discomfort.  

Meditators will recognize the “monkey mind” and its dukkha.

Allen claims that this is a result of trying to keep too much in our short-term memories, which are unsuited to the task; as a result, they overload.  “Most people walk around with their RAM bursting at the seams. They’re constantly distracted, their focus disturbed by their own internal mental overload.”

“This produces an all-pervasive stress factor whose source can’t be pin-pointed. Most people have been in some version of this mental state so consistently, for so long, that they don’t even know they’re in it.  Like gravity, it’s ever-present—so much so that those who experience it usually aren’t even aware of that pressure.  The only time most of them will realize how much tension they’ve been under is when they get rid of it and notice how differently they feel.”

This is, of course, not just the predicament of managers, executives, and similar “knowledge workers” (to use Peter Drucker’s phrase); meditators will instantly recognize the “monkey mind” and its associated dukkha (“suffering” or “stress”).

According to Allen, many people’s first taste of greater freedom is when they have re-negotiated their work and other tasks in preparation for a vacation. He wants us to re-negotiate all the tasks we hold in mental RAM, all the time—not by permanently vacating the world of work, but by getting our reminding system completely outside of our heads. Then and only then can we give our chosen work our full attention.

This requires a system reliable enough that out minds will actually trust it and begin to quiet down. The elements of the system Allen proposes are not particularly novel: capturing nagging tasks on lists, sorting, reviewing, processing. But he has grouped such common-sense approaches into a coherent system, and has done so around a specific goal that has served as his criterion.

Intriguingly, that goal is not simply “getting more work done.” Although that is its by-product—and Allen’s selling point—he has reverse-engineered his system not from that business outcome but from the goal of getting the mind to “empty” so that it can really address the work. Diagnosing the cause of a certain flavor of distractablility as it is evident in the workplace, he has set about to reverse that cause. And he has attempted to make his prescribed cure seamless—seamless enough that it really will achieve its goal.

The goal is not getting more done, but getting the mind to “empty.”

“There is no real way to achieve the kind of relaxed control I’m promising if you keep things only in your head,” he says.  Commitments, plans, wishes, even passing judgments that something should be different become incompletes, “open loops,” adding mental weight and clamor. “If it’s not being directly managed in a trusted external system of yours, then it’s resident somewhere in your psyche.” The overloaded mind is inherently inefficient, able to give only a fraction of its attention to any one task— “like trying to swim in baggy clothing.”

Getting those open loops out of the psyche and into an external system results in immediate gains for work efficiency and quality. The clients Allen has worked with have experienced dramatic upsurges of creativity after getting their mundane “stuff” out of their heads and into a trustworthy system.

Like most people, I could certainly use a boost in work efficiency! But I am even more interested in the way Allen has framed his goal: around getting the working mind to empty, so that it can focus. As a meditator living a lay life in the early twenty-first century, it seems essential to bring my meditative practice into my daily life, work, and relationships, and essential to order my life and work so that they support meditative practice rather than sabotaging it.

If life provides causes for disquiet, meditation cannot go deep.

Without attention to the rest of my life, trying to work the Buddha’s larger diagnosis-and-prescription in my formal meditation only—that is, in a half-hour or hour or even two hours a day—is just not going to cut it. Of course, the Buddha’s insistence on living ethically is even more essential. But notice that it is essential for the very same reason: if your life provides causes for disquiet, your meditation will not thrive or go deep.

Allen’s system addresses a jangle of practicalities, not ethical issues. But ethically blameless, even praiseworthy, projects can also disrupt the mind—and so disrupt meditation. The Visuddhimagga, a Buddhist meditation manual from the fifth century CE, gives an example: a complex project like constructing a building will overload the mind in exactly the way Allen describes. There are building materials to order and to track, workers to supervise, plans, standards—open loops clamoring for attention. Even though there is no ethical problem with these concerns, they can still unsettle the mind, presenting obstacles for meditation.

So can responsibility for the upkeep, repairs, and security of a home and the objects in it. The Visuddhimagga gives other examples of commitments that can be inimical to meditation because they contribute to the inner jangle: workplace strategies and politics, the complex demands of teaching, planning for travel, the care of family members, and undertaking the mastery of large amounts of information. 1 All require the tracking of large amounts of diverse information tied to contingencies and to amorphous responsibilities; all can present serious obstacles for meditation.

The Visuddhimagga is giving advice for serious monastic meditators. It assumes a strategy of simply ending these commitments, whenever possible. For example, it advises monks with responsibility for a building project to go ahead and finish it, if it is near completion—but to negotiate a way out, if it is not near completion. It is also essential to notice that this advice is not the whole of the Visuddhimagga’s advice about meditation, or even about clearing away obstacles to meditation: it is just one preliminary—but important—level of clearing the stage for serious work.

Where does that leave a serious lay meditator who works for a living, cares for a family, serves a community—who is involved in multiple, compound, complex responsibilities? For whom finishing one project may only signal the beginning of the next project, who probably has multiple projects going at the same time?

Can we manage the responsibilities of life and work outside the mind, leaving the mind empty, open, and free to attend to the task at hand?

Working with the continual presence of such obstacles or impediments may just be a characteristic of the lay life…  unless their disruptive effects could be drastically reduced. What if one could manage those concerns outside the mind somehow, as Allen believes he can teach people to do? What if that really does leave the mind empty, open, and free to turn its full attention to the task at hand?

Allen’s system involves the use of technology: a technology that was so new in the Buddha’s time that it wasn’t even (very) disruptive yet: writing. During the Buddha’s lifetime, writing was known but used mostly for account books: that is, for an area of life where both precision and detail could easily become overwhelming, and where dispute and contention are possible, even probable. (Writing is thought to have begun in similar ways in most or all cultures: for some type of accounting.)

Allen’s system can be implemented with electronic gadgets (which might be better for the hyper-mobile), but it needs nothing more advanced than paper and pen. It harnesses writing for what may have been writing’s original purpose: getting bothersome details out of the mind, and tracking them in a trustworthy way.

Allen’s system uses a “new” technology—writing—to address an ancient problem: the jangle of the mind’s reminding system gone amok.

Writing has now been around long enough that it has become truly disruptive. Accounting and most other areas of life have become staggeringly complex, largely as a result of the ability to store and manipulate information externally and in symbolic form. The information instantly available online is overwhelming. Viewed in a really (really) big frame, writing is a new experiment for the human species. Its full consequences are, as yet, unknown. 2  Allen’s system makes use of writing to help quiet a kind of jangle that (we may conjecture) was well-known even before writing: the jangle of the mind’s reminding system gone amok.

Most “time management” or “productivity” literature I have encountered has been about the importance of sticking to top priorities, delegating less important stuff. I have not found my life, or my inefficiencies, or my dukkha accurately described in this literature. Reading it has mostly left me even more uptight, anxious, and inefficient!

David Allen’s book Getting Things Done came out in 2001. I read it back then, implemented a few elements of it, and was helped to a limited degree. I returned to re-read it this year (2015). I am now impressed and intrigued with its potential as a whole system. Allen accurately describes a dynamic that affects my meditation and my life. While his system is certainly not a substitute for the meditative development of sati (mindfulness) and samadhi (concentration), and not a substitute for the clear conscience that comes with ethical behavior, it may be a partial substitute for shedding the mundane responsibilities that distract us—as the Visuddhimagga prescribes, and as many of us do when we go away on retreat. That is, it may open a third alternative between renouncing the commitments that disrupt the mind and acquiescing in their negative effects on life and meditation. That new alternative might allow more of our at-home, in-life meditation to participate in the power of meditation-on-retreat. And might allow us to bring the capacities developed in meditation more fully into our daily lives and relationships.

The potential of Allen’s system is as a whole system, however, not as isolated tips and tricks (which is how I used it earlier). And in my opinion, any user will have to implement it with an eye to finding and fixing leaks that may be specific to them. That is, he or she will have to use—as Allen used—the goal of getting the mind to “empty” as the criterion in applying and trouble-shooting its application.

It may be that the real potential here is in an extension of his system—an extension just discernible if that system is viewed from the perspective of meditative development, an extension not yet worked out. Even so, Allen’s book seems genuinely different, well worth a look by anyone, and especially relevant to meditators.

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Notes:

  1. There are ten impediments given: a dwelling [responsibility for a building and its contents], a family [relatives or supporters to please], gain [livelihood], a class [of students to teach], building [responsibility for new construction], travel, kin [responsibility for family or other monks, who may be sick or in need], affliction [worries about outcomes; a regimen of treatment requiring tracking], books [here, responsibility for the memorization and preservation of suttas—analogous to what is required for professional exams?], and supernormal powers.
  2. It may be that our language centers, as well as our short-term memories, are in a state of chronic hyper-stimulation. Alongside the need to remind ourselves of too many things, writing has involved more parts of the brain with language: its visual as well as its auditory centers. Jill Bolte Taylor recorded her observations when a stroke temporarily disabled one of the language centers in her brain’s left hemisphere, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, 2008.
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