“Getting Things Done” as a productivity tool

I’m constantly working on my personal productivity. It’s an ongoing battle with myself, my toolkit, and the urgent but not important attempts to steal my attention away from important work. This post is the first in a series in which I’ll describe some of the ideas that have helped me; perhaps you can learn from my experience.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done (“GTD”, Amazon books), is a core component of my approach to managing tasks, goals, roles, and vision. I have a lot to say on that broader topic, but I’ll start with the basics of GTD. David Allen talks some about it here (about 22 minutes of video).

 “Your head is for having ideas, not for holding them.” – David Allen

GTD’s central premise is that the human brain is terrible at a specific kind of remembering, namely supplying information at the time we need it. As an example, say your spouse calls and asks you to pick up milk on the way home from work. You are happy to do so, but you’re not leaving for a few hours, so you have to remember to do it. You want your brain to supply the information when you need it – ideally just before you drive past the store. As you may have experienced, this is an unreliable mechanism (i.e. you often forget the milk).

According to GTD, your brain has only one means to “remember” a task – think about it constantly, keeping it in short-term memory. In this sense, your brain is constantly using resources, saying “Did we get the milk?” and “Don’t forget the milk.” GTD asserts that this kind of remembering, in addition to being unreliable, is a background buzz that consistently distracts our attention from the productive tasks we need to be doing. Neuroscience and our own experience show that we do our best work when our attention is completely focused on our task (don’t even start with me on “multitasking”, humans simply cannot do it for meaningful work – look for a specific post later). So, how can we get that brainpower and focus back? GTD’s solution is to get what we need to remember out of our brains and into a trusted system.

The idea of a trusted system is: once your brain recognizes that you will be able to find the information or task in the system, it will stop reminding you of upcoming tasks and other information. Your brain will eventually start thinking: “I don’t need to remember the information or task. I just need to remember how to use the system where the information or task is stored.” In this sense, you experience fewer internal interruptions and can utilize that brain power for greater productivity. Advocates of GTD use the term “mind like water” to describe the feeling of freeing up this part of your brainpower. In an upcoming post, I’ll describe the kind of trusted system GTD recommends.

Personally, I find that I no longer worry much about where information is and that I don’t forget as much as I used to. To me, this is indeed a relief. You may decide to use some of these thoughts, or use some others, but as a knowledge worker (see the homepage), your attention and brainpower is your most important asset. Don’t let it be wasted.