Sunday, November 20, 2011

Science of Getting Things Done - Allen's GTD Examined

David Allen's self-management/productivity system called Getting Things Done or GTD has during the last decade become the most dominant of such approaches, overshadowing offerings from Franklin Covey, Day Timers, and other time management and productivity gurus.

Allen's system is clear, easy to learn, and easy to implement. One of its key features is getting everything out of your head and onto paper - or into a software program, many of which now feature GTD - as a way of capturing all that needs to be be done, while externalizing it in a way which reduces both anxiety and the risk of loose ends. (Disclosure: I am an affiliate for one such piece of software Nozbe, which I highly recommend.)

But we live in a time of rigorous brain research, and growing scientific interest and information related to how we think, and how we go about achieving various goals. So I was delighted today when  I read an article entitled Getting Things Done: The Science behind Stress-Free Productivity at the newly formed My forum. Here's what I wrote on my Yahoo Getting Things Done Forum:

The article will be of interest I am sure to many of our 7,000 members here, inasmuch as it considered the validity of the ideas and processes put forward by David Allen in they Getting Things Done System.

The full 21 page PDF of the article is available here.

The article abstract appears below and, to my mind, makes the case for why this is an important article:


Allen (2001) proposed the “Getting Things Done” (GTD) method for personal productivity enhancement, and reduction of the stress caused by information overload. This paper argues that recent insights in psychology and cognitive science support and extend GTD’s recommendations. We first summarize GTD with the help of a flowchart. We then review the theories of situated, embodied and distributed cognition that purport to explain how the brain processes information and plans actions in the real world. The conclusion is that the brain heavily relies on the environment, to function as an external memory, a trigger for actions, and a source of affordances, disturbances and feedback. We then show how these principles are practically implemented in GTD, with its focus on organizing tasks into “actionable” external memories, and on opportunistic, situation-dependent execution. Finally, we propose an extension of GTD to support collaborative work, inspired by the concept of stigmergy.
I hope this paper may stimulate some discussion and, more than that, lead to a greater practical understanding of how various approaches to getting things done work.
I'm going to place a version of this post on my blog (which is here, now), which already contains a few posts related to ways of getting things done, with an emphasis on overcoming anxiety which can lead to feeling stuck and unable to move. My own emphasis focuses a lot on mindfulness practice, and creative use of breaks - or time-ins (as opposed to time-outs) - vigorous physical activity and/or mindfulness, both of which can be powerful ways to interrupt patterns which are self-defeating.
 I think this article lays the groundwork for a meaningful and exciting discussion as to why some things work, and others do not, when it comes to functioning more successfully, and with less stress and dis-stress triggered by anxiety, and the impact of mal adaptive thought patterns. 

This discussion can be of great value for those of us interested in alleviating the difficulties faced by individuals with executive function problems, resulting from traumatic brain injury, early attachment issues, or other causes.

1 comment:

  1. It's a great piece--science-based productivity/time-management is an idea whose time has come. I wrote a blog on time management from the perspective of psychological research for 18 months, and I see the major vendors are shifting that way, too; in addition to the paper you cite, David Allen's work was featured in the book Willpower (cowritten by eminent psychologist Roy Baumeister), FranklinCovey has incorporated a bunch of psychology and neuroscience into their new "5 Choices" productivity program, etc. I think it's a sign of a healthy self-awareness in the field that mere observation and assertion isn't enough evidence--if a program is worthwhile, real data and research should either underlie its structure, validate its results, or both.