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Blog // Productivity
October 18, 2012

The Psychology Of Getting Things Done

I’m not a poster boy for productivity and the Getting Things Done system doesn’t seem like a good fit for creatives. And yet, we live well together. Here’s how.

I’m not a very well organised person. I’ll admit to being lazy, tardy, terrible at finishing what I start and prone to forgetting where I left everything from my wallet to my shoes.

So my love for David Allen’s GTD (Getting Things Done) approach to personal productivity, might seem a bit contradictory. After all, GTD is associated, in many people’s minds, with the extreme end of productivity fascism.

For me, GTD solved a number of problems I’d struggled with for years. Conventional time management systems were not comprehensive enough and anything based on ranking priorities was a disaster for me. By contrast GTD gave me a framework for capturing all my commitments and has allowed to simultaneously stay organised, focussed and creatively fluid.

Criticisms of GTD

But, not everyone likes GTD. To be fair, GTD claims to be a universal system and its followers tend to be fairly zealous and fanatical at times. So, we should expect some kind of backlash.

The starting point for GTD is the idea of capturing everything in your life; your work, projects, commitments, dreams and organising those into lists; project lists, action lists, context lists, someday/maybe lists and so on.

For some people this feels like a colossal waste of time. I can’t do it, they cry. Or maybe they protest that they haven’t needed to do it in the past to be productive. Both answers are, of course, evasions and any system is only as good as your willingness to give it go.

A more substantial version of this critique would be to say GTD is too focussed on curating and managing lists and that organisation is not the same thing as productivity. It’s a good point. In fact this echoes the reason why I no longer like super-tidy minimalist kitchens. When you have to spend five minutes opening and closing cupboards and drawers just to fry an egg, then organisation has won out over productivity.

The Psychology Of GTD

The true power of GTD is not found in the lists you make, but what you can do once you have those lists and you can see the whole of your life in a clear and candid way.

It takes courage to honestly look at all our commitments, to investigate the promises we’ve made, to ourselves and to others and to look closely at the dreams we have for our lives.

The way I see GTD, it is a personal responsibility system. I really believe this part of what freaks some people out. GTD, fully implemented, pushes you into some pretty deep self-reflection. Not everyone wants to go there.

Is GTD For Managers Rather Than Creatives?

Some critics suggest GTD is more suited to managers, to those in the corporate world, than to creatives and those live by making art. The argument goes that management is all about aligning thousands of small tasks, whereas creativity demands extended focus on a smaller number of tasks.

An example of this is the in-depth critique, Dethroning GTD where we find the following contrast between the worldviews of the manager and the creative

“…the creative-maker’s mental world is alien to the manager’s. The creative’s mind is stimulated by related ideas; the manager’s by relative priorities. The maker’s mind stimulated by shape and form and fit and function and flow and connectedness and wholeness; the manager’s by task and commitment and priority and personality and command and demand and vision.” Loryn Jenkin

Jenkin’s distinction is a fascinating one. I do believe the creative is driven by form and flow and the manager by priority and command. But, when we look at the experience of being a creative, of running a small creative company, or just fulfilling a creative project, the distinction breaks down a little.

Don’t we embark on a journey of a thousand tasks when we build a music studio, or create an album? Don’t photographers have thousands in tasks in a year’s work, from buying and maintaining gear, to processing images, handling clients and delivering prints? When a writer pens a book, aren’t they aligning thousands of little writing tasks into one tome?

On Fragments

The people I know who mostly keenly adopted GTD tend to already be quite successful. Amongst them I’ve noticed two clear kinds of self-awareness. First, they worry about the commitments they make and the promises they. Second, they realise their success in their career is not entirely compatible with commitments in other areas of life.

Not surprisingly, GTD seems to appeal to high-achievers with families. I don’t agree that career success comes at the expense of family (necessarily). But, the demands can often be incompatible. GTD is just one approach that leans you toward the truth of your situation, when you have to make stark choices between work, family, friends and health.

At it’s core, GTD is an answer to the fragmentation of life, to the feeling of being held captive to many conflicting priorities. Fragmentation is the real enemy of GTD. It’s a way to address the dark corners of our psyche, the mental rooms we’ve shut down in order to cope with life’s constant fluctuations.

And, it’s a way to manage the cost of task-switching. In fact, this for me, as a creative, is one of the key benefits of GTD. I can’t do any of the things I do, if I’m constantly checking email, or worrying about things other than what is directly in front of me. Creativity does demand deep monotasking and GTD allows to let go of concern for all the things I need to do, but cannot do right now.

Does GTD Need To Be Hacked?

Some critics of GTD suggest the system is flawed because in order to work for individuals it needs to be hacked, modified or customised. I’m not sure its wise to implement any system without customising it. Context matters, especially in something as individualistic as personal productivity.

And, I’ll be the first person to admit that without Omnifocus, and the way that software allows me to switch between project and context views of my lists, I would have struggled to implement GTD at all.

Honesty, Alignment And Harmony

Some people look at GTD and see control and organisation. There’s an element of that, for sure, but the appeal for me doesn’t lie there. If there are three words that define the ongoing appeal of GTD for me, they would be honesty, alignment and harmony.

First, GTD helps me be honest, about my limitations, my commitments and my responsibilities. I’m prone to over-commitment and I find it hard to say no to opportunities. GTD helps me be honest about what I can, realistically achieve and what to really will cost to do it.

Second, GTD helps me align what can appear to be irreconcilable obligations and duties. I’ve always struggled with fragmentation and wanted to avoid living my life in silos. GTD, helps me make informed decisions about how to bring wholeness to my life and get all the bits of my existence pulling together.

Finally, GTD gives me a sense of harmony. Life is not static; circumstances keep changing. In music, harmony is partly about the way notes relate in each moment (chords), but also they way they work over time (chord progressions).

I like the word harmony because as much as it implies peace and order, it also suggests an image of life fitting together well, even when the individual pieces of that life change, evolve and drop in and out of experience.

And, harmony also reminds us of the variability of life. Even carefully composed music never quite sounds the same in real life as it does in the mind of the composer. Different instruments, rooms, conductors and musicians will mean each performance and interpretation of a piece of music varies slightly from the other.

Whatever system we use to organise ourselves is, ultimately, a tool to help us perform.

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