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GTD Refresh, Part 6: Decisiveness

GTD Refresh, Part 6: Decisiveness

Decisiveness

    For the last several months, I’ve been slowly rebuilding a more-or-less by-the-book GTD system. I’ve done elements of GTD for years, but things over the last year have gotten too complicated and my hope is that implementing the whole GTD system as close to Allen’s vision as possible will help me balance two quite different careers with the rest of my life.

    I had intended my next “GTD Refresh” post to be about reaching”Inbox Zero”. Allen advocates keeping an empty email inbox for the same reason he advocates processing your physical inbox down to empty every day – if your inbox isn’t a place where you trust yourself to get the information you need and is instead simply a place to store things that could very well be important, you’ll never be able to relax and trust your entire system. Everything in your inbox represents a potential task or project that you are not doing – and you don’t even know what it is.

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    Well, by that thinking, I’ve got maybe a thousand things I should be working on, because that’s how many emails were in my inbox last week. After a few hours clearing out unread newsletters, there are still nearly 700 emails in my inbox. Clearly, that’s not good.

    Well, I’m working on it, and I’ll report back when the job is done. In the meantime, though, I’ve realized something else important, and it’s that realization I intend to share with you today: the importance of decisiveness.

    Decisiveness is what “Inbox Zero” is really  about, after all. An empty inbox can be an assurance that you don’t have unrecognized work you should be working on, but more than that, it’s a sign that you’ve defined that work and decided what to do about it. Every message that sits in my inbox, then, is a little piece of undefinition.

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    Defining your work is at the core of the GTD method. Whether the work comes in the form of an email, a project on your someday/maybe list, a conversation with a friend, or a random observation when you walk into your house at night, identifying something as a thing to do, and committing yourself to the doing of it is key.

    NOT the Decider :-(

    Decision-making, as it happens, is really hard. Our brains just aren’t well-suited to the task. For example, while we’re quite good at deciding between a clearly good option and a clearly bad status quo, we’re quite bad at deciding between two clearly good options and a clearly bad status quo – often remaining in the bad status quo in order to avoid having to choose.

    Similarly, when confronted with two things that are both clearly good but difficult to compare, and a third thing that is like one of the first two but clearly inferior, we almost always choose the superior thing that’s like the inferior one. Somehow, the inferior thing makes it’s superior look superior not just to the one like it but to the thing unlike it. (Let me clear that up: consider a new Porsche, a new Lexus, and a somewhat battered used Porsche. We’ll almost always choose the new Porsche, even if the Lexus might serve our needs better.)

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    If it’s hard to decide between clearly defined options, how much harder is it to decide what to do when the options aren’t defined at all? And if we often settle for what we already have to avoid having to choose between two better options, how much easier must it be to settle when there are none?

    That’s why defining the work is important, and that’s why an empty inbox is important – because the only way to get there is to force yourself to define the work and decide what to do about it for every email that crosses your virtual transom. And if you can do that for email, you can do it no matter how the work comes to you. And if you can do that, then you’ll be as productive as a Very Productive Person indeed.

    As for me, my backlog of emails suggests that I’m not much of a decision-maker, and that’s got me worried. Since I doubt I can do the 0-to-60 transformation to Master Decider, I’m going to try to keep one simple resolution: from now on, I make a decision about every email. That should serve me well when I finally get my inbox down to zero, but I’m not going to wait until I get there.

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    Hopefully, this small change will help make me more decisive in other areas, which should make a big difference as I refresh my GTD system and further commit to a more productive, stress-free life.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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