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What You Should Know Before Starting GTD

What You Should Know Before Starting GTD
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As I’m sure is the case with most folks who get into GTD, I was driven to it by promises of organization and less stress, both at work and at home. Frankly, the notion of being able to accomplish everything I needed to (and even some things I wanted to, but never had time for) was music to my ears. I had missed too many deadlines, forgotten too many dentist appointments, neglected too many quarts of milk on my way home from the office. I definitely needed some assistance (and I’m sure many of you can empathize).

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Here I sit, many months later, working hard to fully integrate GTD into my daily life. I’ll admit, it isn’t easy (a notion exemplified by sites like the GTD Mastery 100 and the countless blogs) and can take a good deal of investment. Part of me wishes I had a better idea what I was in for before diving glassy-eyed into the pool of kool-aid. So, with that in mind, I came up with my own list of things I wish I’d known about GTD before I got started (not that I would’ve decided any differently – I’d still be doing it because it’s a fantastic system):

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  • It Takes Work – After reading the book, you haven’t magically unlocked the part of your brain that remembers to call your mother on Mother’s Day. There’s a good deal of work required to keep your system current and complete. At the absolute minimum, you’ll need to maintain several different lists, a filing system and a calendar. Obviously things can get more complicated from there, especially given the myriad of different implementations and tools that exist today. But no matter if you’re strictly paper or using the latest Web 2.0 web app to Get Things Done, know that it’s not a “set it and forget it” operation.
  • It Takes Time – I’ve heard various, rough estimates of how long one can spend doing the necessary weekly review, daily management of project and task lists, etc. – but it will obviously depend on the amount of stuff you’re trying to accomplish. For me, I can quite easily spend between 30 minutes and an hour per day just keeping my various in-baskets and whatnot empty and processed. Again, your specific implementation and project list may dictate longer processing and maintenance time frames – just know that you’ll spend a sizable chunk of time keeping all your ducks in a row.
  • It Takes Discipline – With a well-oiled GTD implementation, you’ll be amazed at how effective you are at knocking out tasks and projects. But there’s a flip-side of that coin: if left alone and/or not maintained properly, the system can quickly become very unwieldy and difficult to manage. I’ve encountered this situation a handful of times since I started, and I can personally attest to the fact that it’s a much bigger task to catch up on a week’s worth of stuff than it is to just spend a little time not falling off of the wagon. I believe the occasional lapse is unavoidable, but plan on setting aside an evening to get your system back on track.
  • The Benefit is Directly Proportional to Your Level of Investment – Some people feel that, for GTD to be really effective, the whole system (as described in the book) must be implemented completely. Others think that you can definitely take bits and pieces of the book and experience significant benefits in your quality of life and work. Personally, I’m a bit on the fence, but I believe there is one universal truth here : the degree to which you do this stuff will dictate the benefits you experience. If all you do is write things down, then you’ll probably forget fewer ideas you have while out hitting golf balls or whatever. In the end, it’s really up to you how extensively you do this GTD thing. But the more you do, the greater your return will be.

This isn’t meant to scare anybody into not doing GTD – I can’t recommend it highly enough. But you need to bear in mind that, for the system to work, you’re going to have to work at it. Is your peace of mind and a general lack of stress worth it? I would say, yes, definitely.

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Brett Kelly is a Computer Programmer from Southern California, where he lives with his wife and son. He enjoys waxing philosophical (as well as giving practical, useful advice) about productivity, GTD and technology over at The Cranking Widgets Blog (RSS feed). For more practical GTD shenanigans, you might enjoy GTD Masters, a series of interviews with well-known GTD/productivity bloggers.

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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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