10 Reasons GTD is Like Karate

Written by James Elliott
on May 21, 2019

For years I have woven the martial arts metaphor in and through my writing, training and coaching about the Getting Things Done® methodology. I had the good fortune to be able to study karate for several years in my twenties, and my familiarity with that field gave me a rich context of images and concepts to draw from.

I didn’t fully appreciate, however, much of what getting my black belt gave me until later in life. Over the years I began to recognize the value of various habits and standards that training had ingrained in my personal style. They affected my approach to everything. And as I delved progressively deeper into the arena of personal productivity, similarities with karate began to resonate in many new ways. My conclusion was, and still is, that work (and life) IS a martial art—not just a reflection of it.

Though there is likely an infinite list of the similarities, the ones I find most interesting are the process replications—what’s the same in the nature of the two arts themselves.

Here are 10 reasons GTD is like karate:

1. There are no beginner’s moves.
You begin in karate learning moves that you will practice as a third-degree black belt. A roundhouse kick or knife-hand block is the same, whether you are just learning it or you are a sensei. Being responsible for your internal commitments, deciding what next physical action is required on something you want to do or change, clarifying your intention and vision—those are true from beginning to end, no matter how mature you are in life or its process. There’s no elementary way to process your inbox to zero.

2. It feels counter-intuitive and unnatural when you start.
Trying to stand and move gracefully in a karate “front stance” feels initially like one of the more unnatural things the body has ever attempted. It’s almost as weird as writing everything down that you commit to do something about, as it occurs to you. Or spending valuable time cleaning up non-critical open loops on the front end. Weird science.

3. Once you’re used to it, it is the most natural way to move.
Once you master the basic karate stances, your natural walk takes on a gracefulness you wonder why you ever did without. Once you integrate outcome- and next-action thinking into your life, not doing it seems both awkward and backward.

4. It handles basic movement and resource allocation masterfully.
In order to be able to break bricks with your hand and manifest a pinpoint of power in an instant, you learn to move the whole body with extreme efficiency. And once you’ve mastered the five steps of workflow, you don’t complain about your volume of e-mail nor mind putting everything on hold to focus on the surprise that just showed up.

5. It supports a peaceful and spontaneous way to move through the world, with minimal effort.
Once you’ve mastered the fighting arts, engaging in conflict per se becomes unnecessary and hard edges, rules, and structured defenses are much less required. With GTD maturity, a relaxed intuitive focus about what to do, when—unhindered by preconceptions and constraints—becomes the standard rhythm. Easy becomes the way to do hard things.

6. We don’t seem to be born knowing or doing it. (Or if we are, we unlearn it very fast.)
Nobody I’ve met seemed to grow up naturally efficient in how they move and generate speed and power. How many of you, in your first job, automatically asked, “What are we trying to accomplish here?” or, “What’s the next action? (And who’s doing it?)”

7. It can be learned.
Though we don’t seem to naturally inherit high performance motion, it can be learned. Everyone can certainly get better at it, if they can move at all. Everyone can learn how to better capture, decide about, organize, and review the results of their thinking.

8. It can be taught.
I’ve watched people learn both karate and GTD and demonstrate that they “get” it.

9. It can be practiced.
The more you rehearse karate and GTD moves, the smoother, faster, and more elegant you become at the art.

10. There is no end to how good you can be at it.
The more I learned about both arts, the more I realized I didn’t know, and how much more there was to experience, learn, express, and do.

So what? There’s a world of difference available to be experienced in an infinite number of worlds—gardening, golf, dance, music, love, art, investing, sales, war, peace, kite-flying, dog training, child rearing, GTD. But these worlds do not disclose themselves uninvited. They wait for the initiate to ask, to care, to engage. None of these seems easy, self-evident, or natural, though, on the front end. They all have dragons (or angels) at the gate, making it oh-so-easy to be discouraged from going further. Perhaps the easy way is the hardest way, at first.

25 %

only 20% of managers believe that their systems for managing commitments across silos, work well all or most of the time

Why Strategy Execution Unravels, HBR - 2015
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