Shu-Ha-Ri and GTD

This blog post is a bit of a re-write of a comment I made to the post Fractal Implementation, or, On the Dangers of David Allen’s Finger over on Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders site.

Its a funny thing, but I think that there is a mindset that its easier to play with a system than to just do the stuff the system is prescribing.

Playing and experimentation is in itself a good thing – a very good thing. But it needs a time and place, and that time and place is when you’ve really bedded down the methodology, and are using it well.

Next Actions, Weekly Reviews, Waiting Fors and leakless collection habits are all things that need to be second nature before you’ve earned the right to tweak.

At the risk of using another martial arts metaphor, in karate there is a concept of learning called Shu-Ha-Ri.

The first stage, Shu, basically entails rote learning, without asking questions. Things should be done the way that has been shown, and absolutely following both the methods and the principles.

The second stage, Ha, involves personalising the system. In this stage, it is acceptable (within limits) to modify the methods without changing the core principles to suit your individual strengths and weaknesses.  Having explored the Shu stage in depth, you should be keenly aware of your strengths and weaknesses.

The third stage, Ri, is a natural progression where one develops their own “style within a style”, deeply studying the core principles and modifying both the methods and the principles where appropriate to suit one’s own process.

In the martial arts, Shu-Ha-Ri has no set timetable. It is observed, not driven. It happens naturally – when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. But in essence, it can take 5 years to move through the Shu stage into Ha, and then another 5 years or more to move through the Ha stage. Incidentally, this means that someone of early black belt level is generaly still in the Shu stage.

I wonder if David Allen’s metaphor of black belt in his Getting Things Done (GTD) approach is coincidental – maybe his message is that people should learn and internalise the basics before getting too experimental. I am not suggesting that it should take 5 years before we adapt our GTD implementation, but it should take however long is required to internalise the methods and principles, before modifying the methods.

Lets not forget that David Allen has been doing this stuff for 20+ years.  In my books he has earned the right to modify methods and principles to develop his own system.


Photography enthusiastic, writer, hiker and diving geek from Canberra (and Sydney), Australia. Thoughts and opinions are my own.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. […] inspiration. His post on Knocking Down Walls: GTD Ownership vs Orthodoxy, which pointed back to his Shu-Ha-Ri and GTD, an all time favourite of mine, was coming just at the right time. Likewise, the long expected […]

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