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GTD’ing the Economy

GTD’ing the Economy

GTD'ing the Economy

    Mark Twain said, “Those of you inclined to worry have the widest selection in history.”

    We live in troubling  times, and it is a sign of Twain’s genius that his statement is as true today as it was a century ago – if not more so. There’s a lot of stuff for the chronic worrier to obsess about: global warming, economic chaos, an ever-widening gap between the very, very rich and everyone else, terrorism, unstable nuclear powers, layoffs across the spectrum of industries, decaying educational standards, and on and on.

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    At times, it’s easy to feel like no matter how neatly you draw up and categorize your to-do lists and your  project files, you are at the mercy of massive forces beyond your control – and that the wolves, so to speak, might be howling at your door at any moment.

    What can keeping your @phone and your @errands lists clearly defined do about that?

    Turns out, quite a bit. What I’m discovering as I press at the bounds of GTD and other productivity ideas in my “Toward a New Vision of Productivity” series (which I’m taking a break from this week in order to refocus – the planned end is out of whack with where the beginning ended up going) is that there’s a quieter aspect of GTD that’s somewhat hidden by the emphasis on action and productivity.

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    What’s got your attention right now?

    The takeaway from GTD for most people is the driving power of the question “What’s the next action?”. Since most people read Getting Things Done hoping for advice in dealing with an overwhelming workload that needs to get handled on a day-to-day basis, this makes sense. People have things to do, and next actions are where the system meets the doing.

    But David Allen doesn’t call GTD a task management system, or a time management system, or an action management system. He calls it a mind management system or, more frequently, an attention management system.

    The whole process of GTD is rooted not in next actions but in attention. Long before you get down to sorting out next actions, Allen has you asking “What’s got my attention right now? What’s on my mind?”

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    I think we just sort of figure that this should mean the projects we’re working on, the tasks that are languishing for lack of time, the dreams we haven’t managed to turn into meaningful action, and so on. What Allen calls “open loops”, all the unfinished stuff that hangs on us like a weight.

    But as we all know, that stuff isn’t always what’s got our attention. In fact, at times, they may be the least likely things to be taking up “cycles” of our “psychic RAM”.

    Fiddling around with day-to-day tasks while worrying about the state of the world isn’t all that productive. For one thing, it’s hard to find satisfaction in compiling sales figures from the Western sales regions for the 2nd quarter of the current fiscal year when the  rumor mill suggests that you and 10,000 of your closest colleagues may be out of a job by the end of the 3rd quarter. At a broader level, retreating into our daily next actions is a recipe for disengagement from the world; a system that only encompasses a part of what really has your attention is a system where you’re only giving productive attention to a small portion of your life – while  the rest languishes.

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    Is this item actionable?

    After emptying our minds of everything that’s taking up mental energy, Allen suggests we ask of each, “Is this item actionable?” This step is often glossed over in the rush to defining next actions – after all, we already know we’ve got stuff to do, right? If we didn’t have a bunch of stuff we needed to take action on, we wouldn’t bother with GTD at all.

    But it’s a powerful question, as much for the things that are not actionable as for those that are. For Allen, conscious decision-making about what, if anything, to do about everything that captures our attention at any given moment is the key to GTD – and beyond that, to happy, productive living. When we’re honest with ourselves and admit that high gas prices, collapsing financial institutions, the security of our retirement funds, the threat of terrorist attack, or whatever other things way outside our sphere of control are taking up a lot of mental real estate, it is important to ask ourselves if there is really anything we could be doing about it.

    Consciously determining that the state of the economy or anything else is not an actionable concern can go a long way towards easing some of the stress and anxiety of living in “interesting” times. It means we give ourselves permission not to worry, which unlocks the power of conscious non-action – recognizing that no action is possible releases us from the frustrated pressure to do something .

    Being honest about what really is occupying our attention has another benefit beyond the power of non-action. It may well be that when we face these nervous-making realities head-on, there actually is some action we could be taking, that the economy is, in some way large or small, actionable. It may be what’s really needed to push us to re-engage with a world that we’re used to experiencing more through the fear factory behind the glass screens of our TV sets than face-to-face.

    With that in mind, next time you do a review – or, if you’re getting started, when you sit down to do your initial mind sweep – muster up the courage to face the biggest problems on your mind. While you might not be able to fix the world’s ills with a task list and 43 folders, you might find that admitting that frees you up to be more productive in the things you can change. And who knows? I mean, at some level, don’t you kind of think that President Obama is just a guy with a tickler file and a project list?

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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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