Getting Things Done (2.0)

Perhaps in common with other people who run their own business, I am mildly obsessed by productivity techniques.  From apps that help organise work, manage attention, to ways of filtering emails and using technology to help limit the impact of technology – I am always a bit obsessive interested.

One of the best productivity systems is David Allen’s Getting Things Done, where he explains why we need a system (a ‘second brain’) which we trust if we are to work without   distraction.

It’s great stuff, but I think ACT has much to add to his system, in particular two key ideas:

1.  Clarify values.  The distinctive problem with knowledge work is that it is difficult to know what the ‘right’ work is at any given moment.  There are so many competing priorities; should I be writing this blog or perfecting a proposal?

For knowledge workers, how we define our work is our most important task, so a clear understanding of what matters to us – what we want to stand for – will help.  I certainly want to stand for more than winning commercial contracts, hence me finding time to contribute to this blog.

2.  Acceptance.  So often productivity is not actually at the mercy of external factors, but our own thoughts and emotions.  For example, I know that if a task makes me anxious or bored then I will find a sudden urge to clean the shiny handles on my kitchen cupboards.

This is where all the advice to do work you love or find your passion is so dangerous.  If we focus on how we feel during a task, we start to hand control of our lives over to our emotions.  And our emotions – even the ones we want – are not really in our control, or reliable bellwethers of where to head next.

The most quotable psychologist in this area is Shoma Morita –> who always makes a point of separating how we feel from what we do:

“Begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect, or a procrastinator or unhealthy or lazy or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself. Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die”.

Ultimately it is only by holding our emotions lightly – by committing to our values in the presence of anxiety and boredom if necessary – that we will build the kind of working life we want.  Or, as Morita says:

When running up a hill, it is all right to give up as many times as you wish – as long as your feet keep moving.

(And as my mind says ‘check this post one more time’ with my finger I press…PUBLISH).

6 thoughts on “Getting Things Done (2.0)

  1. Thanks for the post. I too am having another go at this same issue, and reviewing my two GTD books as part of this – and my ACT books too. And also Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Finding Flow,” which is the most succinct of his various narratives on what makes a meaningful life & how we might learn to choose more freely from that which is given to us without choice.

    It’s interesting that Allen’s system is, in part, a mechanism for dealing with certain kinds of anxiety – primarily that stemming from cognitive overload, rather than from other possible sources, e.g. values conflicts, issues with our view of ourself, etc.

    One of these deeper issues that I am confronting right now is how a syndrome I will call “many dreams started, few difficult things completed.” It’s definitely related to values – but more as I have failed to fully define or acknowledge them. And also related to avoidance of difficult tasks that seem to bring up painful truths. We can’t do everything we would like – a theme Steve Hayes has often brought up in passing in his presentations of choice – and sometimes we may recoil from that. It smacks so much of mortality.

  2. Thank for this post and how true it is and how freeing it is. I write this as my emotions and thoughts are telling me your not smart enough of clever enough to express your thoughts about this great article, so I am responding and shared it on facebook and twitter….AHHHHH! you lose again brain and feelings…. and I win.. i think

  3. Rob, as a fellow obsessive I really enjoyed this post: for managing my to-do list and projects, I use Wunderlist (I adapt it GTD-style with categories) and “focus time” app on my phone for pomodoro technique. I also use an email management system called “” which enables you to bulk unsubscribe in 5 minutes or so, and it’s really streamlined my inbox. I’ve even considered doing a few chair squats during the pomodoro breaks but sadly I don’t have an app for that yet!

    However, as you point out, these helpful productivity techniques can only get you so far – recognising that some tasks stay on my “to do” list for weeks or more (classic procrastination/avoidance on my part) I recently started using a specific exercise on the phone app called “ACT Companion” – I’m sure you’re familiar with it – the app has 24 exercises around the 3 themes of Mindfulness/Acceptance/Commitment, and every day I’ve chosen one of these slippery tasks that I’m putting off, and apply the “facing your fears” (exposure) exercise in the Acceptance suite of ACT exercises. The task may be very small (e.g. a phone call) but I’m hoping that daily practice will reinforce the habit of “turning towards difficulty”.

  4. Hi Rob,
    GTD in my view is a plausible productivity-enhancing system. The barriers for me in implementing it are twofold:
    1) The initial review – I forget what Allen calls it, but it’s almost like a 12-step style “searching moral inventory” – but physical, not moral. Who has time in their schedule to go offline for 3 days and achieve that? [I’m not kidding – it would easily take me 3 days to do this at work, probably more at home. And I know Allen’s counter-argument: “How much time per month/year are you losing to all the ‘friction’ in your current system?”]
    2) Unwillingness. This is what your point about Acceptance targets and why these ACT processes could turbo-charge the implementation and uptake of GTD. For me it’s the unwillingness to:
    – unwillingness to let go of all the ‘junk’ – junk email, junk conversations, junk documents (“What if I need this later?” or “This looks interesting. I might do something with this one day.”), junk activities & habits
    – unwillingness to take on the complexity – or whatever other aversive aspects – of some tasks. So Margo’s point about “turning towards difficulty” applies
    – unwillingness to submit to the discipline of doing what my list tells me to [I recognise there may be a need to make room for my inner child in there somewhere]

    But I like Allen’s emphasis on ‘mind like water’ which to me is the essence of acceptance and defusion processes. He’s applying it though to the external world of things, communications and tasks, whereas ACT people apply it to what’s happening inside the skin.

  5. Love this post. It’s true what they say “once you go ACT you never go back”. Every time I see advice on anything, especially productivity, and it doesn’t include values, it just doesn’t cut it for me!

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