The Beginner’s Mind

Search for the bullOften we must come full circle –to return to the very beginning– in the efforts to renew ourselves. To do this, the years of rubbish accumulating in our minds need to be emptied periodically, lest we find ourselves with little room to move and breathe.

This is a little post about Zen. I’m not talking about the clichéd trend of recent years to denote every little amusing bit of human nature as Zen, nor the smug satisfaction of thinking one’s excellence in a particular area is Zen, nor am I referring to the misconception tied to the existential angst of nothingness and futility as Zen. These are ridiculous, and only demonstrate one’s ignorance of the philosophy. While I don’t wish to define Zen here (and it defies verbal description anyway), I want to mention an important way it can help folks whose minds are cluttered by years of intellectual analysis. (Well, it helped me.) I’m talking here about the beginner’s mind.

In response to my Simpleton and the Grail post, I’ve gotten a few email like the following, asking exactly how I went about “reducing” my system from one of inherent complexity to one that worked in its simplicity:

You mentioned you’d write about your system later on — but I’m more curious as to how you approached the process of it figuring out. I’ve been productivity tweaking since Jan ’04 (my first read of GTD ), and have tried all sorts of things. Frustrated, I occasionally engage in the exercise you describe, but always end up more frustrated and muddled than if I’d stuck to my 17-step, 4-system, daily-review process.

What was your mindset? How much time did you devote? How did you pare down to the essentials?

Many people, myself included, get caught up in over-analysing everything. If you’re creating a top-notch piece of software, or a bridge, or a space shuttle, this isn’t a liability, and is often preferable. After all, you want to account for every usage, process and contingency when so much is on the line, when so many people are involved in the equation. To many, the mental challenge is exhilarating, and to see one’s well-ordered and well-thought-out plan being implemented is a far greater reward than simple financial gain. And so, many of us attack every issue in our lives with the same sort of intellectual gusto, thinking that there’s nothing wrong with applying complex flow charts, cutting-edge technologies and detailed quality assurance methods to every proposed solution.

Last summer, I realised I had to do something about my time management problems. I had stretched my days to the limit, I was losing track of bills, I constantly forgot tasks from one hour to the next, and found my stress levels approaching critical. No problem, I thought. I’m an IT professional, and like most of the breed, I’m wont to fantasize about ways of increasing my efficiency using a powerful and systematic series of tools. Having recently finished Getting Things Done, I was inspired to leap into the fray and somehow come up with a technical system that could revolutionalise the time management arena (which –I believe– many of us geeks see as a completely feasible undertaking).

Uh-oh. You see the problem coming, don’t you?

Well, to make a long story short, I got caught in the “must track everything” mindset. I got trapped in a never-ending circle of figuring out the ultimate methodology for containing the ebb and flow of each and every little bit of information, and I involved every tiny byte of technology I could wield, cajole or duct-tape together. Not only was the sheer complexity of the system overwhelming –and thus not likely to be used– but my constant rejigging (including weekly replacements of core applications) meant that nothing was stable or long-lasting enough to be useful. The downward spiral of productivity tweaking wasted my precious time, drained my energy, decimated my efficiency, consistently distracted me, and consequently drove my stress levels to soaring heights.

Fifteen years ago at university, I did a whole lot of soul searching. While things like existentialism, behaviorism and various shamanistic concepts soon staled the neurons and trickled out of my brain, I did find Zen Buddhism interesting enough to pursue. One day this past fall, I was rummaging through my boxes of books and stumbled across a book on the subject (Zen for Beginners, to be exact — an excellent and easy-to-digest introduction). I flipped through it in an amused sort of way, remembering the years of study and meditation, and then it hit me: I needed to leave behind the complexities of my thinking and return to the “beginner’s mind.”

The beginner’s mind is one of clarity unencumbered by the years of ego, rules, social experience, worldly knowledge, bad habits and other baggage that accumulates and weighs us down. It is the original face, the one we each had before we were born. It is primordial, and free of imposition. It heeds no resistance, and is aware only of the natural flow of things.

I released that my biggest problem was trying to contain all the information, constantly trying to shape an unnatural flow as one might attempt to contain or change the course of a river with only one’s bare hands. Time after time, this caused my tension and frustration to build to the point of needing to abandon my fledgeling systems. You see, my cherished systems were the result of my accumulated knowledge and many years’ experience in IT work; they had become a series of intellectual challenges, and not a natural way of looking at or managing my life. I had to leave this mind-clutter and baggage behind, at least temporarily, and forget about my unholy communions of wikis, web-based project management tools, PDAs, server-synced calendars, sitebars, databases and 20-step flowcharts.

But how does one return to the beginning, and forget about technology? Simple: I took out a piece of paper and wrote at the top, “Things I actually need to track and use to be effective”. How very primitive, right? Well, that was the intention.

I started listing only those things I thought I absolutely needed.

“Email”. After all, about 90% of my communication is email. Right-o, not a problem. Gmail has labels and archiving, and I can set up @Action, @WaitingFor, @ProjectName, @Review, and so on. That was easy.

Here, I stopped, though: I decided to make a conscious effort not to think yet about how to manage the information, but just discern what information was needed in the first place. Beginner’s mind, no process yet. Okay, move on.

“Next Actions,” of course. Have to keep on track, keep going forward. “Waiting For,” because I don’t want delegated tasks to stall.

“Calendar Appointments and Deadlines,” since I have to remember to do certain things on certain days. Likewise “Birthdays” and “Anniversaries.”

“Daily news.” I wanted to tote news so I could read it during my lunch hour or in line-ups.

“Contact Info.” “Logins/passwords.” “Car Loan Information.” And so on.

It took about an hour. When I was finished, I was amazed how much information I was trying to track and use that was –in the grand scheme– utterly useless to my productivity. Many of the things I had been trying to contain didn’t even make the first cut. Then I started crossing out everything I didn’t need, and minimising everything I had deployed in multiple formats. For example, why did I need to keep track of daily finances when almost everything appears in my bank statement and online banking? I only needed to track when payments were due. (Onto the calendar they go, then.) Why did I need to have several versions of a contact list, in three different forms? One is enough. Did I really need two ways of tracking projects, and did I really need a web interface for them? Why did I need four different calendar-based ways of keeping time? Did I need to make all my project files text-searchable? Was it necessary to have my IM lists tied into my contact lists?

I put each item in its proper context, attempting to simplify matters as much as possible: I needed the bare essentials only. I went through the list. Cross that out. Nix that. Forget about that. Strike that. Uh-uh, nope. Drop that. No, that isn’t needed. And so on….

I was left with about a dozen things I needed to track and/or use daily. Another Zen precept is based upon the notion of intuitive understanding. I’ve seen enough of my successes and pitfalls to implicitly understand how my flow best works (at least, with a minimum of variables). And so, based upon my list, I could see fairly clearly how to manage my time and information.

The tools were then matched to these necessities. Eventually, it came down to a Palm (for contacts, daily news, MP3s, alarms, encrypted docs, and pictures of the family), my up-and-coming D*I*Y Planner (still in the inaugral stages, but suitable for the calendar, actions, short reference lists, brainstorming and project tracking), and a computer note-taking/reference application (DEVONthink Pro is perfect for containing all my digital dribs and drabs at the moment, though I’m told Zoot is great for Windows users). To that, I’ve now added a Hipster PDA set, mainly for “on the go” errands and the like. The new system was fairly streamlined, and worked well. No resistence anywhere, just a natural flow and an obvious place for everything.

No process is perfect right out of the gate, of course. Thankfully, mine was only incremental from there: small changes —kaizen as the Japanese call it– to continually enhance the flow. For example, I’m integrating a bit more Covey for the top-down thinking, but it still fits with my basic GTD setup.

Step one, simplify to the bare essentials. Step two, seek out the flow of least resistance and effort. Step three, choose the best tools. Step four, simplify some more, and steamline.

For me, I’ve learned that the whole key to my success is in staying away from technology unless it’s absolutely necessary. Ironic, coming from an IT professional, but it saves me from from trying to systematically incorporate everything, attempting to contain too much, giving into the temptation of shiny toys, and subsequently hitting the downward spiral.

There’s something to be said for stripping off the world, facing the mirror as a newborn babe, clear of mind and thought — if only for a moment, before we face worldly matters once more.

16 Replies to “The Beginner’s Mind”

  1. Really enjoyed this (and as usual, I like your approach).

    OT: I wonder if anyone else keeps looking at the line drawing above and seeing “Zen Family Circus” (complete with a Zen Jeffy). My once-beginnerly mind has clearly been polluted by Bil Keane.

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  4. I would also like to recommend a book titled The Art of Loving, by Erich Fromm. I have read it several times. What I have gained is an understanding of myself, of my fears and why we do what we do and think what we think. The book helps you gain humility, something we all lack in great quantities.

    Be mindful–of yourself, of others. Turn off the TV. Sit silently and attempt to empty your mind. Do not pick up a magazine, or put something in your mouth. Try to gain a sense of I-ness. Now you may begin the task at hand.

    When all your tasks seem daunting, and you’d rather list them over and over and assume your GTD system is to blame for all these problems, trust me, it’s not to blame. You are afraid. It’s okay, all people are afraid. Now you need to have faith. Faith in yourself, and in others. It will be hard at first, like a baby learning to walk. But over time your faith and courage will build. And when a new task, problem, obstacle faces you, you’ll know what to do. You’ll know just where to put it in that organization system. And the system will work, because it came from within, from your own motivations, rather than imposed from the outside, as an attempt to rationalize away your fears.

    At least, that’s how it’s been for me, trying to GTD.

  5. I really liked this, my own efforts have been haphazard of late. I will reflect on your system, it is attractive. It appeals to my desire to keep things simple, but no simpler than required, sort of a law of diminishing returns.

  6. Really enjoyed your article, have been there and back a number of times,. I end up trashing as much as I dare and begin again, each time trying NOT to pile on the unnecessary but tempting extras. I think it is part of my packrat mentality – the part that likes to collect things, just because.. Nothing like a good spring/fall cleaning of my house, desk, mind, etc. The KISS principle can set you free.

  7. Very good reading, simple is beautifull ! It’s a nice way to rethink things you present here. I am building my system those days and I really think I need to keep things to the bare minimum. Ban duplicates, ditch what not needed, and have a good filing system to store everything. Being lazy myself, there’s some things I do naturaly (never tracked my daily finances 😉 ), but there’s other things I should do which I don’t for sure.

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  9. Provocative post! But it put my mind to critique, thinking that truly getting organized works best in a closed system, one with boundaries. Something can’t be empty unless it’s a container. Air, for instance, isn’t empty. Water isn’t empty. You cannot organize air or water unless you contain it. You can empty the air from a tire (a closed system) or the water from a bucket (a container).

    But, at the root, however, do we try to organize ourselves as the closed system we really are? I don’t think so. Rather, we organize our little ponds because we are goaded on by oceanic expansion. We want more…and more. We are closed tires who want to be unboundaried atmospheres.

    As a student of my own mistakenness, I’ve always erred in past by using organizing as a way to “make room” for even more stuff to organize! “Oh look! Now that I’m organized I can take up yoga, spend more timing on business planning, learn French, floss everyday, do X, Y, and Z!” This is an “organic” system of proliferation, of growth, of expansion. The problem is that it demands ever more discipline, study, and vigilence to maintain the pre-existing organizational system. The acquisition mania, whether for things or things to do, goes untreated.

    So, like, the vilest temptation arising after a thorough cleaning and tidying of one half of our two-car garage, is the seductive thought of a second car. Filling up the container like this stressing the organizational system.

    The approach I’m trying to take now combines some simple GTD “containers” with attempts to reduce of the number of things contained. If empty mind is truly the peace we seek then the best outcome of the organization effort should not be freedom to do more things with our time, but the freedom to do less.

    Empty mind would have it that there is nothing to organize. Ultimately, of course, I will fail. But in our epoch of accelerating amassments, I’d venture that we need to recognize “reduction” as a mission-critical synonym for “simplicity”.

    The ultimate end here would be just to sit, like Buddha, then sit some more.


    Getting simple

  10. rib, great comment. I certainly agree with the need to use discipline and a closed system to get things done. I’ve read that Zen monks go through hours of Zazen (sitting meditation), but one of the inherent problems is the high risk of falling asleep. That is why there is a monk delegated to the task of roaming with a stick (sorry, I forget the title). If one of the monks is in danger of drifting off, he or she asks the roamer for a quick whack with the stick. To me, that is discipline, and demonstrates the need to use external methods to focus, not to mention that the often rigid lifestyle of a monk seems to indicate a fairly closed system to work within.

    What I advocate here is not to exist in a perpetual state of “Beginner’s Mind”, sitting like Buddha beneath the bodhi tree –this is not practical for most of us– but rather a need to clear away the clutter and return to our original face, free from the baggage of a thousand different ways to handle our lives. We need to start there, again, I believe, and try to see what our life and situation actually demand. It’s essentially starting from point zero, then building up the system and discipline to face things effectively. Hopefully, that will amount in a significant reduction in one’s convoluted and complex organisational strategies, one that is far more simple and more intuitively followed within our imposed boundries. Defying those temptations to “fill the container” (an excellent metaphor) is an ongoing struggle, but one that should be much easier given the occasional return to the Beginner’s Mind and its wiping of the board: the question ultimately to be answered is, “What do I really need?”


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  12. As Zen Buddhism has been the chief influence on my life and thought, such as they are, since 1975, I was pleased to see the word “Zen” used in a way that for once did not cheapen it.

    Very interesting article, which I stumbled upon while researching how I might return to paper data-keeping in view of perhaps having to abandon my longstanding Palm handheld usage.
    I’ve always taken more pleasure in using a fountain pen than in using a palmtop, so I guess in a sense I’m halfway there.

    I haven’t had a chance to read all the comments here, so perhaps somebody has recommended the classic “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. It was my first “serious” introduction to the Zen way of living. I like it so well I’ve read it, I think, four times, and I keep a photo of Suzuki Roshi in my living room.

    Thanks for a most interesting site that I’m tickled to have discovered.

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