GTD and Writing Things Down

by F.

I’m only a white belt at GTD-fu, but from my experience so far, it does seem to work really well. That is, it makes me at least as productive as my other (non)system while reducing my subjective stress. And I have a feeling it actually makes me more productive than my other (non)system. The question is, Why?

Here’s some speculation. GTD requires a lot of writing things down. In fact, it could almost be called WTD. This is also known as “capture,” or “getting it out of your head.” Once you do this, you notice something that every writer has encountered at some point: what you right down is nothing like the version in your head. In writing, this usually means that the grand theory you thought up is a platitude. In GTD, it means that the horrible task you have been ruminating about is really not so scary. Writing, as Pennebaker‘s research has shown, has a remarkable effect: it de-emotionalizes thought (I’m simplifying, of course). This is why diary writing—and blogging, which is just another form of diary writing—is so critical to mental health. As Pennebaker says:

Writing about emotional upheavals in our lives can improve physical and mental health. Although the scientific research surrounding the value of expressive writing is still in the early phases, there are some approaches to writing that have been found to be helpful. Keep in mind that there are probably a thousand ways to write that may be beneficial to you. Think of these as rough guidelines rather than Truth. Indeed, in your own writing, experiment on your own and see what works best.

What are some other nice aspects of GTD? For one thing, it’s flexible. It doesn’t treat human beings like computers. We’re not. We want to feel like we are making choices. So, part of the GTD system is to choose intuitively among the tasks you need to do, given your time, energy level, and location. That makes you feel like you are making choices. If you look at the many productivity systems out there, you see that most of them don’t assume that a human being is actually doing the doing. In other words, they are not psychologically realistic. Anybody can design a decent productivity system. Few can design one that is made for human beings rather than automata.

And GTD uses ordinary concepts the human mind is familiar with. People, places, actions (verbs). Many productivity schemes (Day-Timer, Franklin Covey) are almost comically unintuitive. They require you to become another kind of animal in order for them to work. GTD is the iPod of productivity systems: it’s like a smart friend who understands how you naturally want to do things, then helps you. (This is actually the hallmark of any good design.) Since everything requires tradeoffs, the question is, Why would you want to use a tool that requires wasted effort relative to your goal? That effort can more productively be redirected elsewhere.

But if I had to name one feature that separates GTD from other system, it would be the psychological realism. This is really its genius. My experiment continues, but I’m optimistic I can continue to make it work. We’ll see.