GTD and Cognitive Science - The Power of the Key Principles - Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2003)

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2003)



The Power of the Key Principles


GTD and Cognitive Science

SINCE THE FIRST edition of Getting Things Done was published, significant research in the field of social and cognitive psychology has documented and validated the efficacy of the principles that underlie the methodology. Until recently these practices could be confirmed only experientially and anecdotally. Anyone who had ever applied the GTD techniques of capturing, clarifying, organizing, and reflecting on the resulting inventory acknowledged the same results: greater clarity, control, and focus, along with all the resulting personal and organizational benefits associated with that experience. If you have to any degree begun to implement the practices I have put forward so far, you will no doubt have noticed some positive increase in your own demeanor.

Rigorous studies compiled by experts in the field of cognitive science, ranging from personal to organizational aspects, have begun to provide data that gives foundational support to this methodology and why and how its improvements are produced. In some sense this may seem like someone’s proving that gravity exists after we’ve all been experiencing it and dealing with it since we were conscious. But from another perspective it gives perhaps needed credence to the advice for mastering workflow I’ve put forward here, and to why such seemingly simple processes and behaviors described in Getting Things Done have such a compelling result.

The supporting research has emerged within several frameworks and categories:

· Positive psychology

· Distributed cognition: the value of an external mind

· Relieving the cognitive load of incompletions

· Flow theory

· Self-leadership theory

· Goal-striving via implementation intentions

· Psychological capital (PsyCap)

GTD and Positive Psychology

In 2000 Martin Seligman took on the presidency of the American Psychological Association. For his presidential address he challenged the profession to shift its focus away from simply describing, studying, and diagnosing the negative aspects of the human condition and to begin devoting more attention to the positive aspects of what it means to be human. Of course, his message was simply a more mainstream embodiment of Abraham Maslow’s ideas from the mid-twentieth century of personal fulfillment as the richest arena of psychology. But since Seligman’s call to action, positive psychology has blossomed into a full-fledged component of the field.

The research generated by this change in perspective has been conducted at both the basic and applied levels. It has added to our understanding of a myriad of psychological constructs and has been used to improve the lives of many. Positive psychology is a vast discipline, but a sampling of its relevant aspects includes happiness, psychological well-being, flow/optimal experience, meaning, passion, purpose, authentic leadership, strengths, values, character, and virtue. Graduate education programs in these areas have emerged across the world and continue to expand.

How is this relevant to Getting Things Done? GTD is more than just a way to manage tasks and projects. In many respects it is more concerned with fundamental issues of meaningful work, mindful living, and psychological well-being than simply offering methods for being more efficient or productive for their own sake. The emphasis (and requirement) of outcome thinking concerning the stuff we encounter, as well as achieving a functional way to capture, clarify, organize, and assess the results so we can think more clearly, describes the core practices that truly make the actual experience of life better.

That said (and experienced, if you have!), it is still quite interesting to examine some of the various theories and studies that have focused on the more specific aspects of the relationship of our psyche, our well-being, and our performance—all with close correlation to the principles and practices of Getting Things Done.

Distributed Cognition: The Value of an External Mind

Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them.

In 2008 a fascinating paper, “Getting Things Done: The Science Behind Stress-Free Productivity,” was published in a professional journal by two researchers in Belgium who analyzed my methodology specifically from the perspective of verifiable data and working theories from cognitive science.* Their brilliant and detailed assessments and conclusions extend far beyond what I can do justice to here (the paper is worthy of multiple reads), but suffice it to say that its thesis is profound: your mind is designed to have ideas, based upon pattern detection, but it isn’t designed to remember much of anything!

Because of the way the mind developed, it is brilliant at recognition, but terrible at recall. You can glance at today’s calendar and in the course of a few seconds get a coherent sense of the day and its contents and contexts. But you’d have a terrible time trying to recall the contents of the next fourteen days on your calendar merely from memory.

A wonderful exposition of the new discoveries in the science of cognition, related to our limited capacity to manage and maintain awareness of relevant data in the information age, and the necessity of building and utilizing an “external brain,” was put forward by Daniel Levitin in his book The Organized Mind.*

The bottom line is that when you use your memory as your organizing system (as most everyone on the planet still does, for most of what they’re doing to manage their lives), your mind will effectively become overwhelmed and incompetent, because you are demanding of it intense work for which it is not well equipped.

If, however, you are able to bring its attention to bear appropriately and efficiently to create the optimal triggers for later thinking and action (such as reading an e-mail, then setting a meeting on your calendar to deal with its issue or opportunity), then it gets to relax and rely on the automatic and elegant thinking it can do when presented specific things on which to focus, in the proper context. You trust you’ll see that meeting on your calendar sufficiently in advance to be prepared for it.

GTD provides the methodology for identifying those things that need focused attention, applying it efficiently on the front end and organizing the triggers for appropriate thinking at the right time. The Belgian researchers crafted an elegant exposition of the science behind efficiently maximizing what our minds are good for and what they’re not, creating a framework for how we can more effectively produce profound results with minimal thinking!*

Relieving the Cognitive Load of Incompletions

Much fruitful work has been done in the early part of this century by Dr. Roy Baumeister et al. in determining the effects on consciousness of unfinished items—goals, projects, outcomes, etc.—that have been committed to but not yet completed. His conclusions simply verify what I’ve experienced for decades: uncompleted tasks take up room in the mind, which then limits clarity and focus.*

But interestingly, in alignment with the GTD practices, Baumeister has also proven that completion of such items is not required to relieve that burden on the psyche. What is needed is a trusted plan that ensures forward engagement will happen.*

In Baumeister’s model merely determining the next action to fulfill a commitment is a sufficient end result of “planning”—as long as the trigger or reminder is parked in a place that we trust we’ll look within a reasonable amount of time. My thinking and model were heavily cited in his wonderful book Willpower, which positions them within a rich context of managing the mental “muscle” we must continually employ, especially in knowledge work.*

Flow Theory

One of the more popular concepts in this field, which has often been associated with GTD, has been the idea of “flow”—the state of optimal performance and engagement. Flow is what the athletes refer to as being “in the zone,” and it can be closely correlated with the idea of “mind like water,” which I introduced in the first chapter.

The flow experience is marked by various distinct components, several of which are already implemented by the GTD approach. To experience flow, it is necessary that your skills in a given task match the challenge at hand. If the challenge exceeds your requisite skill level, you will experience anxiety, and if your skills exceed the challenge, you will most likely feel bored during the activity.* Flow is usually accompanied by complete concentration on the given task, and you typically feel in control and have clear goals in sight. Individuals in flow generally have an idea of what is coming next and receive immediate feedback throughout the task. They also experience a merging of action and awareness, during which they lose both their self-consciousness and their sense of time. They are usually intrinsically motivated, performing an activity for its own sake and not for an external reward. Those in flow often are performing at an optimal level and are completely absorbed in what they are doing. Once individuals have experienced flow, they are often compelled to repeat the activities that enabled them to experience it.

You can only put your conscious attention on one thing at a time. If that’s all that has your attention, you’re in flow.

While flow was originally conceptualized by investigating leisure activities (e.g., rock climbing, painting), Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre* found that individuals are engaged in high-skill, high-challenge activities more often at work (54 percent) than at leisure (18 percent). Csikszentmihalyi explained that many jobs inherently contain the type of goals and feedback structures that would allow one to experience flow at work, a phenomenon that is associated with higher levels of subjective well-being.*

The GTD approach includes several conditions of the flow experience—namely, having clear goals and receiving feedback. GTD’s emphasis on focusing attention on one task at a time is closely associated with the crux of the flow experience: being completely absorbed in a singular activity, in which one’s stimulus field is limited. Adopting GTD enables individuals to find flow more easily in their work and personal lives. By getting tasks out of the mind and into an external system, they can more easily see and track progress, which is a form of feedback. Having a complete picture of one’s commitments in work and life can help individuals make better decisions about what to pay attention to in any given moment, which, in turn, will allow them to engage more fully in the task at hand, making flow a more likely outcome.

Self-Leadership Theory

Self-leadership can be traced back to the mid-1980s as an expansion of the concept of self-management. According to Neck and Manz,* self-leadership is a process through which individuals control their own behavior, influencing themselves through the use of specific behavioral and cognitive strategies. The popularity of self-leadership has soared via a large number of practitioner-oriented books, theoretical and empirical journal publications, inclusion in management and leadership textbooks, and the growth of self-leadership training programs.

The strategies that comprise self-leadership are commonly separated into three categories: behavior-focused, natural reward, and constructive thought pattern.

Behavior-focused strategies are usually centered on raising individual self-awareness with the goal of facilitating behavioral management. In the context of work, these strategies commonly place an emphasis on doing necessary but unpleasant tasks. This family of strategies includes self-observation, self-goal setting, self-reward, self-punishment, and self-cuing.

Natural reward strategies are intended to create situations in which an individual is motivated or rewarded by the activity itself. These strategies revolve around reshaping unpleasant tasks or activities to make them more enjoyable and deliberately focusing attention on the inherently rewarding aspects of the activities.

Providing yourself the right cues, which you will notice at the right time, about the right things, is a core practice of stress-free productivity.

Constructive thought pattern strategies relate specifically to creating ways of thinking that can positively impact performance. Examples of these strategies include self-talk, mental imagery, and replacing dysfunctional beliefs and assumptions.

There are aspects of GTD that connect to each of the three overall types of self-leadership. One of the most evident is the concept of self-cuing. A well-constructed GTD system provides for a physical artifact that spurs future action. The GTD methodology also embodies the component of natural reward strategies. There is a sense of pleasure in identifying small yet annoying tasks and taking care of them—something a thorough mental RAM dump and some free time certainly make possible. Finally, a key element of GTD is the mental component of thinking of your work not simply as a series of large projects but more directly as concrete next actions. This shift from a defeatist/overwhelmed attitude to the motivational state that enables you to move forward on such tasks is a great example of shifting your mind-set in a positive way.

Using self-leadership strategies has been shown to improve people’s sense of self-efficacy, and self-efficacy is one of the most well-researched constructs when it comes to organizational psychology. It has been connected to job satisfaction, job performance, and other positive organizational behaviors for both traditional employees and entrepreneurs.

Goal-Striving/Attainment Via Implementation Intentions

Goals (desired outcomes) are a vital part of life, and GTD can serve to facilitate both personal and professional goals. Gollwitzer and Oettingen have conducted a major line of research on goal achievement, incorporating the idea of “implementation intentions.”* In a nutshell they argue that the best way to ensure goal striving (taking actions toward a stated goal) is to create a cause-and-effect link in your mind about when certain goal-relevant actions will be taken. When you make plans (implementation intentions) ahead of time and decide what actions will be carried out in which contexts, the proper behavior is nearly automatically enacted instead of being drawn from your limited reserve of willpower. In other words, if you can trust that something you will more or less do automatically will provide sufficient direction and juice to move you toward your outcome, you’ll have that juice when needed. It won’t be depleted by your constant worrying or thinking about what you should do and when.

GTD and implementation intentions are linked through using the system as the trigger or prompt for taking outcome-directed action. For example, you could set the implementation intention, “When I’m in my office with more than an hour of free time and a high level of energy, I’ll look at my task list and select something challenging and important to work on.” Or, “When it is Sunday afternoon I will conduct a Weekly Review.” Or, “When I’m feeling flustered and overwhelmed I’ll do a mental RAM dump.” The number of such possible implementation intentions is truly endless.

Psychological Capital (PsyCap)

Psychological capital (PsyCap) is a relatively new framework within which organizational psychologists are beginning to evaluate the overall resourceful state of workers and its effect. It consists of four definable aspects: self-efficacy, optimism, resilience, and hope.

· Self-efficacy is the confidence to take on and devote the necessary effort to succeed at challenging tasks.

· Optimism involves making positive attributions about succeeding now and in the future.

· Hope means persevering toward goals and, when necessary, redirecting paths to those goals.

· Resilience involves bouncing back to an original—or even better—state of being after facing adversity and problems.

Individually each of these variables can predict various outcomes to a certain degree. For example, someone’s degree of optimism can correlate statistically with particular results or behaviors. However, when these four components are considered together in what psychologists now call PsyCap, you can predict much more than merely the sum of the effects of its component elements. In its relatively short history as a construct, PsyCap has been connected to many positive individual and organizational outcomes, such as job performance*, * and psychological well-being.*

PsyCap is more of a description of a state than a trait itself—that is, it is something that can change or be changed, developed, or undermined, almost minute to minute, as in the example of one’s mood. In familiar terms it would reflect the difference between your experiencing a good day or a bad day. Are you feeling on top of your game, or buried by it? The good news is that such states are malleable—you can do things that can change and improve them without having to change some inherent aspect of yourself.

Getting Things Done relates directly to all four ingredients of a high PsyCap and its intended results. By enabling people to create and maintain a complete picture of their commitments to themselves and others in order to make good decisions about what to do (or not do) at any given moment, it automatically builds a sense of confidence and control (self-efficacy). Simply identifying all open loops and moving them from memory to an external mind while systematically identifying concrete and doable next actions is a pure exercise in self-control and directedness. An individual utilizing GTD knows exactly what needs to be done and exactly what action he can take to achieve it, given the restrictions of available time, energy, and contextual restraints.

Adopting GTD sets people up for greater optimism because it enables them to draw connections between the successful completion of projects and their own purposeful and goal-directed efforts. Individuals identify meaningful projects, articulate the next steps needed to complete them, and then ideally follow through the process until the project is completed. As each “win” is achieved, it produces greater capacity for making more positive commitments.

In addition, the focus on front-end decision making in GTD—doing “the work to define the work”—can be viewed as an exercise in both aspects of hope (setting goals and identifying pathways to those goals). Individuals set goals (“What does ‘done’ look like?”) and identify the tasks needed to achieve those goals (“What’s the next action?”) during this front-end decision-making process.

While no empirical data yet exists for the idea that those individuals who utilize GTD are more successful in recovering from failure (resilience), it’s certainly been validated anecdotally for me from scores of the best and brightest individuals on the planet. Dealing with serious family emergencies or tumultuous changes in their jobs and careers, people have provided abundant testimonials to attest to their retained sanity, stability, and productivity by utilizing GTD practices. The methodology gives an individual a sense of calm and control over a difficult situation that allows them to use their mental faculties to address the task at hand and recalibrate multiple vectors in real time, as needed. In a time of stress or other adversity, those individuals who are able to think most clearly and process the results more efficiently will be more likely to emerge from the stress in better shape than those who do not.

The PsyCap model also provides a framework within which to understand why groups who have integrated GTD as a cultural standard experience a significant degree of “moving up the food chain,” relative to how their organization responds, interacts, and produces results. Whether or not PsyCap develops further as a definable, verifiable, and developmental arena in organizational psychology, it’s a great way to describe the mental, emotional, reflective, and even physical benefits of what you get from using GTD.

Undoubtedly during the coming years we will see a continual stream of new scientific data that will validate what I’ve known was true from day one of my experience with this model, and what has been shared by countless others: when all of our potentially meaningful things are captured, clarified, organized, and reflected upon, the more mature, elegant, and intelligent part of who we really are can show up at the table. That produces experiences and results that can’t be beat.