The Mind is for Having Ideas, not Holding Them

The mind is a fire to be kindled

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”


We don't have information overload, we just don't have a beginner's mind about what to do about all the stuff we think about. David Allen says our sole purpose on earth is to get things done, and for that, we want to use the strategic value of clear space.

In Getting Things Done Allen says:

The 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 that as soon as you tell yourself that you need to do something, and store it in your RAM, there's a part of you that thinks you should be doing that something all the time.

But there's an inverse relationship between the amount something is on our mind and how much it's getting done. In other words, the mind is for coming up with ideas, not to hold onto them. The holding is what creates logjams. Our attention is precious:

If you don't pay appropriate attention to what has your attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves.

When we switch from manual work to knowledge work, this is where we want to free ourselves from the tyranny of a divided attention and into clear space. Peter Drucker wrote:

In knowledge work . . . the task is not given; it has to be determined. “What are the expected results from this work?” is . . . the key question in making knowledge workers productive. And it is a question that demands risky decisions. There is usually no right answer; there are choices instead. And results have to be clearly specified, if productivity is to be achieved.

Much of knowledge work has a metric black hole — We don't tally the cost of using resources on one thing rather than another, and we are not so good at knowing the impact in lost productivity of making trade-offs with attention.

If we want to be productive, we need to take control by moving tasks from our mind into an external system — this is what helps us get things done, we engage with what we're doing. It seems simple, but internalizing and doing it is not easy. We can get the most value out of his system by focusing on two areas — taking control and deciding what to do about it.

Taking control

Is about assessing what is going on beyond collecting things that are out of control. It's a five-step process:

(1) collect things that command our attention

(2) process what they mean and what to do about them

(3) organize the results, which we

(4) review as options for what we choose to

(5) do

Except for, he says:

Most people have major leaks in their collection process. Many have collected things but haven't processed or decided what action to take about them. Others make good decisions about “stuff” in the moment but lose the value of that thinking because they don't efficiently organize the results. Still others have good systems but don't review them consistently enough to keep them functional. Finally, if any one of these links is weak, what someone is likely to choose to do at any point in time may not be the best option.


Many of us hold ourselves back from imagining a desired outcome unless someone can show us how to get there. Unfortunately, that’s backward in terms of how our minds work to generate and recognize solutions and methods.

Anything that makes us overreact (or underreact) can control us. Did we just respond inappropriately to an email? Are we in a meeting thinking about all the things we need to do? Do we focus on what our boss might say or do? “Most people give either more or less attention to things than they deserve, simply because they don’t operate with a mind like water.”

When we engage with things, we start to understand what it takes to get them done. Says Allen:

One insurance executive I worked with described the major benefit he derived from implementation of this system:

“Previously I would just tell everyone, ‘Sure, I’ll do it,’ because I didn’t know how much I really had to do. Now that I’ve got the inventory clear and complete, just to maintain my integrity, I have had to say, ‘No, I can’t do that, I’m sorry.’ The amazing thing is that instead of being upset with my refusal, everyone was impressed with my discipline!” 

Taking control is the side of the equation that helps us download what's going on, assess it by clarifying, and then taking the necessary steps to organize, review, and do. Some of the best things lazy people do are versions along these lines.

Deciding what to do about it

To gain perspective for the decision-making part of the process, we look at six conversations we need to have:

(1) purpose and rules of engagement

(2) vision or the high level view

(3) goals, what we want to accomplish

(4) responsibilities, the things that require maintenance

(5) projects, all the things we need to finish — most people have 40, 50, 70 of these

(6) actions, all the tasks

If any of these is incomplete or unclear, we're stuck. In a culture where there's a lot of complaining, that's a symptom that people are stuck:

Is there too much complaining in your culture? The next time someone moans about something, try asking, “So what’s the next action?” People will complain only about something that they assume could be better than it currently is. The action question forces the issue. If it can be changed, there’s some action that will change it. If it can’t, it must be considered part of the landscape to be incorporated in strategy and tactics.

Complaining is a sign that someone isn’t willing to risk moving on a changeable situation, or won’t consider the immutable circumstance in his or her plans. This is a temporary and hollow form of self-validation.

When we take the additional step to move from collecting items we want to change to clarifying what that means, we being on the path of creating action steps to get it done. Allen says:

Healthy skepticism is often the best way to glean the value of what’s being presented — challenge it; prove it wrong, if you can. That creates engagement, which is the key to understanding.

We should take the same approach to the more prescriptive part of Getting Things Done or any advice and methodology we come across — take what works for us, and discard the rest. The important part is to have the conversation, understand what has merit, adapt it to our circumstances and lives, and keep improving it. Is the thing we can do in 2 minutes useful and valid and do we need to get it done now?