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Trapeze Artists, A Japanese Sedan and Achieving GTD Nirvana

Trapeze Artists, A Japanese Sedan and Achieving GTD Nirvana
Car

Personally, I’ve never owned a Honda. I have many friends who own or have owned them, but I haven’t had occasion. But almost without exception, folks I’ve known who have owned them have all shared one common opinion about their cars: you can drive them until the wheels fall off.

When I imagine the ideal GTD implementation, one thing keeps coming back to me – the idea that it works so well, I forget it’s there. If you smelled another car analogy, you’re well on your way to a career in private investigation…

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Many (if not most) of us own cars. We get up in the morning, get cleaned up and dolled up, then we stroll merrily out to our vehicle. We hop in, turn the key in the ignition, shift it into gear, and push the gas pedal. Most of us don’t think much about all of the engineering and craftsmanship that went into the various mechanisms and systems that made those things possible. The great part about that? We don’t have to – the hard work has been done by people much smarter than me. The same is true of GTD – David Allen spent nearly two decades (according to the book) fleshing out the various aspects of his methodology. He did the work (and, perhaps more importantly, made the mistakes) so you wouldn’t have to.

The good news is, this type of a high-level, not-worried-about-the-plumbing existence is well within your reach when it comes to GTD. You can operate above your system, sort of like a trapeze artist floats gracefully above his safety net below. He knows it’s there on a subconscious level, but he’s generally more focused on how many mid-air somersaults he needs to do in order to get the crowd on their feet. In my mind, this is the ideal for all GTD practitioners.

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Ok, back to the car analogy. Capturing information, processing inputs and reviewing your commitments should be as reflexive as your morning commute. There are really only two instances when you should need to get under the hood and muck around:

  1. “Changing the Oil” – Regular maintenance like your weekly review, The kinds of things that don’t indicate a problem, but keep everything running smoothly. Endeavors such as these, while they can sometimes be an inconvenience, will go a long way toward avoiding things like #2.
  2. When the “Check Engine” light is on – If you car begins to show signs of breaking down, it’s time to dig in and root out the problem. Sometimes this just means a mental sweep – a tune-up, if you will. Or it could mean you need to replace your muffler bearings or get yourself a new rotary girder. The point is this – if your brakes stop working, you don’t just toodle along merrily on your way to the office. Once you manage to stop the car and change into a clean pair of pants, you deal with the problem at hand.

There is also, of course, the period of time spent getting acquainted with your car. For the first week or so after you acquire it, you’ll find yourself driving places you don’t necessarily have to, going the long way to the lemonade stand or just sitting in the car while it’s parked on your driveway. You want to get acquainted with this new “tool” of yours – find out which buttons do what and so forth.

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All this cryptic and fanciful talk of cars boils down to the idea that GTD is meant to support you in what you need to do. As long as you perform your regularly-scheduled maintenance, you’re that much closer to the elusive “mind like water”.

Brett Kelly writes computer programs and drinks coffee in southern California. At The Cranking Widgets Blog (RSS), he writes a great deal about GTD, productivity and various other lifehack-y topics. For more interesting and thought-provoking musings about the attitudes and habits that make up GTD, check out his series called “The Mind of GTD”.

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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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