Getting Things Done is one of the most popular productivity books of all time. Published in 2001, it has sold over 2 million copies, been translated into more than 30 languages, and affected the work of hundreds of thousands of professionals.
Naturally, you’d expect the man behind the phenomenon, David Allen, to be a swift and efficient person. A ‘corporate suit,’ if you will. In a 2017 interview in his Amsterdam home, his appearance couldn’t be further from that.
As he casually sits in his chair, the top of his shirt unbuttoned, sleeves rolled up, he admits he wrote the book in part because he is “lazy, frankly.” Diving deeper into the origins of his fascination with the topic, he continues:
“I got into this methodology primarily because I was into clear space. How do I get clear space? I love clear space. [Through] my training in the martial arts, meditational practices, spiritual practices, [I] discovered how productive it was to be able to actually have nothing on your mind other than whatever you wanted on your mind.”
That doesn’t sound very systematic, does it? When we learn about GTD, we read about the five stages, about collecting, processing, organizing, planning and doing. As the system is propagated around the web, emphasis lies on boosting efficiency, minimizing dead time and checking off more boxes.
Maybe we’re missing something. Getting lost in the manual, while the lessons lie elsewhere. Maybe, being productive is not really about what happens at the office.
Efficiency Isn’t Everything
In 2013, Israel Railways built a new line from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. To do so, they would have to create the longest tunnels in the country to date. Some time into the project, it was discovered that for several days, the drills had been digging in the wrong direction. This resulted in delays, lots of extra work, and millions of dollars in unnecessary costs.
When we’re at the office, our job is to dig too. Like drills, we keep pushing forward, hoping we’ll hit a treasure chest with our desired rewards. We know what those rewards are. Daniel Pink has identified some of them in Drive:
“Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives. Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters. Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”
No matter how we enhance or measure it, productivity remains a tool to attain these rewards, nothing more. But, like Israel Railways, we sometimes get lost. We focus so much on keeping our drill well-oiled and running smoothly that we forget to point it in the right direction first.
In that sense, work efficiency is only a small subset of productivity. We don’t know exactly how large it is, but there are other, more important factors, which determine how much we achieve.
Keeping that in mind, it makes sense that people like Allen rarely strike us as superhuman efficiency machines. Instead of optimizing for robot-like speed, they’ve figured out those other factors. They know how to point the drill in the right direction.
How can you do the same? Science has some ideas.
1. Play Tetris Everywhere
In 1984, a Russian game developer wondered what would happen if he animated the puzzle pieces of a popular game called Pentomino. The result was the most addictive video game of all time, Tetris. Luckily, his best friend, Vladimir Pokhilko, was a scientist, who promptly observed its effects on the human mind:
“At night, geometric shapes fell in the darkness as I lay on loaned tatami floor space. Days, I sat on a lavender suede sofa and played Tetris furiously. During rare jaunts from the house, I visually fit cars and trees and people together.”
It’s been 30 years since this first incident of mental residue from video games sparked a slew of research, but the underlying idea has remained the same: practice creative problem solving. Not just at work, everywhere.
In fact, our jobs often leave us much less room to do so. There are deadlines to be kept, rules to be followed, and bosses to be pleased. Even innovative solutions, like Google’s famous 20% time, only scratch the surface.
Therefore, how you tackle your problems is often decided long before you face them. However, we can improve our capacity for innovation and in that, we’re not limited to our jobs. Or video games, for that matter:
“The Tetris effect is a biochemical, reductionistic metaphor, if you will, for curiosity, invention, the creative urge. To fit shapes together is to organize, to build, to make deals, to fix, to understand, to fold sheets. All of our mental activities are analogous, each as potentially addictive as the next.”
When you grocery shop, do you push the cart, or pull it? Why? If a picture falls from the wall, do you reattach it the same way? When your kids play, do you help them fight imaginary dragons?
The more mental games you play outside of work, the better you’ll be at treating work like one when it matters.
2. Reappraise Problems
Here’s a thought experiment: You made a mistake when ordering a shipment and now an entire container worth of product is unusable. $20,000, down the drain, ugh! It’s an urgent problem and you have three options:
- Order overnight and pay for express shipping.
- Delay customer deliveries for as long as need be.
- Buy on the market for a premium.
Which solution you choose is almost irrelevant, as long as it deals with the issue in a way that allows business to continue. Yes, one option may provide marginally better results than another, but how productive you are in this scenario is determined at another time, in another place.
On your way home that day, what runs through your head? How do you deal with this failure? Are you kicking yourself? Blaming others, even? Or is this an opportunity to improve?
In his seminal work, Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman
“Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on the pessimist, but the optimist weathers them better. The optimist bounces back from defeat, and, with his life somewhat poorer, he picks up and starts again. The pessimist gives up and falls into depression. Because of his resilience, the optimist achieves more at work, at school, and on the playing field.”
“Becoming an optimist consists not of learning to be more selfish and self-assertive, and to present yourself to others in overbearing ways, but simply of learning a set of skills about how to talk to yourself when you suffer a personal defeat.”
One of the exercises to improve said self-talk is to run your negative experiences through the ABC model:
- What’s the adversity?
- Which beliefs do you hold after the event? Are they objectively true?
- As a consequence, how do you feel?
The idea is that good consequences can follow bad events, as long as the beliefs you form about them are rational. This is called reappraisal and, in the long run, will contribute much more to your career than how you solve any given problem in particular.
3. Choose Your Perspective
Imagine twin boys that are raised by divorced parents, one by the mother, one by the father. As they grow up, each is taught a different lesson by their parent. The mother tells her son that “when we open a door, we hold it for others too,” while the father tells his son to “never trust a stranger.”
Even if both receive the exact same education, health treatment, and financial support, they’ll behave very differently on their first day at work. One is likely to meet his colleagues with open arms, while the other tries to spot the fiercest among all his competitors.
This is called perspective and through its lens, you can wield tremendous power over your work. In a book about perseverance, Grit, researcher Angela Duckworth highlights this idea in a story about three bricklayers:
When asked, “What are you doing?” the first bricklayer replied: “I’m laying bricks.” The second bricklayer answered: “I’m putting up a wall.” The third bricklayer responded, with pride in his voice: “I’m building a cathedral.”
While there is a natural progression towards purpose in our work that just takes time, dismissing some jobs — maybe your job — as categorically unfulfilling would be premature. After consulting with other researchers, Duckworth concluded choosing your perspective is winning half the battle:
“How you see your work is more important than your job title. And this means that you can go from job to career to calling — all without changing your occupation.”
She even collected three exercises from her colleagues to proactively make this mental shift:
- Reflect on how your current work benefits society.
- Think about how you can connect your job to your core values more by tweaking it in small ways.
- Find an inspiring role model.
There’s another Tetris block in this vast landscape of opportunity called life: you. And how well you fit in with the rest of the world is largely determined by what you choose to see.
What It All Means
As the interview nears a close, Allen is asked about his biggest idea:
“One big idea that I still use as my driver, when I’m not quite sure what to do, or where to go, or how to do it, is “let go, let God.” That is: I need to loosen up, let go, and be open to the much larger context of who I am, what this universe is about. And so if you look at my screensaver, it just says ‘Let Go.’”
Here sits an icon of productivity, and he tells us to let go. What a creative approach. How lightly he tackles the problem, with such a wise perspective. Clearly, he understands the backdrop being efficient is set against.
It makes optimizing a 12-hour workday seem silly, doesn’t it? In contrast to common productivity advice, creative problem solving, reframing obstacles, and consciously choosing your world view aren’t limited to the office. They’re the inputs of not just a great career, but a productive life.
That’s the beauty of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. They might be the rewards of a long, well set up career, but developing them is a reward itself.
And that, you can do anywhere, any time, whether you’re digging a train tunnel in Israel or giving a book interview in Amsterdam.