4 GTD contexts to navigate the creative process

As I wrote about applying Ben Elijah’s model to replace my @computer GTD context, I noticed an interesting pattern. Creative1 projects follow a predictable trajectory through the four creativity-related contexts. It’s not always a perfect mapping — simple projects may skip stages. In general, projects unfold in a consistent way.

Using GTD contexts to navigate the creative process

Using GTD contexts to navigate the creative process

It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of work it is either. Creating a blog post, a diagram, a cost model, developing a software application, and building a guitar amplifier all follow a similar path.

1. Open:Shallow

Projects of any reasonable size begin in the open:shallow quadrant. The point of this phase is to generate ideas and options and to get them out of your head. I always enjoy this part (coming up with ideas is more fun than making hard decisions and doing the real work).

The outputs can take the form of a mind map, a sketch, or a few dot points on paper or a whiteboard, or even an audio recording. This stage is all about externalizing ideas. There is no commitment to move on any of it yet.

I prefer to start with a pen and paper. It’s easier to change things in digital tools, but starting with paper makes it feel less permanent somehow. The process feels more experimental when I’m working with analog tools.

For longer-term projects, I often transfer these results to digital tools (MindNode or Evernote). Digital tools are better for reorganizing and adding ideas as my understanding evolves.

2. Open:Deep

This is where the incredible human imagination and skills merge to bring life to the idea. The output will have rough edges, but the process gives form to something new. The outputs will obviously vary with each creative project.

Some examples include:

  • a first draft
  • recorded scenes for a movie or the tracks for a song
  • transforming timber into an assembled product

3. Closed:Deep

The transition to closed mode begins as we start removing the rough edges and polishing the final product.

Examples include:

  • editing drafts
  • editing movie footage and adding special effects
  • sanding and applying a finish to a woodworking project

4. Closed:Shallow

Just when it feels like you should be done, you inevitably find a few (dozen) little things standing between you and the real finish line. Creative projects always seem to end with an extended episode of yak shaving.

Blog publishing is a good example. Once the writing and images are done it feels like the job should be finished. Then comes setting the post category, adding tags, setting a featured image, checking links, a final review, and social media promotion. None of these tasks are difficult, but you can’t call the project “done” until you’ve knocked them off.

Other examples could include:

  • adding titles and credits to a video;
  • adding hardware (handles, latches, etc) to a woodworking project
  • photographing and promoting your work (though this could start a new cycle for a new project too)

Wrap up

What does this all mean? I have no idea, but it’s interesting all the same. If nothing else it serves as a map to guide you through the creative process.


  1. I’m talking about creativity in the broadest sense. I used to think it was limited to fields like architecture, design, and writing. Organizing an event or maximizing a client’s tax deductions can be just as creative — it just manifests in less obvious ways. We’re all creative. If you’re alive, you create. 

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2 Responses

  1. Marco Navarra says:

    John, another great post!
    Curious if you’ve seen IQTell.com? Played with it and thoughts?
    Keep up the great work!

    • John Scullen says:

      Hey Marco, thanks for the encouragement.

      I haven’t tried IQTell – I’m pretty heavily invested in OmniFocus. It’s working well and I don’t see any pressing need to change.

      IQTell appears to have a committed user base. I’ve heard nothing but good things about it and I understand it supports GTD well. Let me know what you think of it if you try it out.

      Cheers

      John

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