The Science behind GTD

By Francisco Sáez • August 01, 2011

Surely you know that the book written by David Allen in 2001, Getting Things Done, has become the manual of personal productivity for hundreds of thousands of followers. The great success of this method is that it has been used and validated empirically by a crowd of supporters.

This is not a fad. In 2008, Francis Heylighen and Clément Vidal, researchers at the Free University of Brussels, published an essay 1 where, for the first time, the scientific basis that underpins the recommendations made in GTD were addressed. This is a summary of the innovations that GTD introduces over previous time management methods and their scientific interpretation.

1. Using an external memory

One of the basic principles of GTD is to collect all the stuff that hit our attention somewhere out of our head (notebook, file, computer, etc.).

Our memory, short and long term, has significant limitations, so it is not advisable to rely on it in order to retrieve important information when we need it. Using our brain to store information saturates it, since it requires a high level of neuronal activity to keep this information with no interferences. When using an external memory, we ensure we bring back exactly what we put in there and we reduce the stress associated with the need to be continuously remembering everything.

2. Actions that trigger actions

Another major GTD message is that you must define your stuff in a clear and actionable form, that is, in a way that calls to action at the time it is reviewed.

When you review your external memory, your brain reactivates a series of neural patterns that underlie every action. If this action is not well defined, your brain has to perform again a great effort to understand and process it. If, as GTD proposes, this reflection is made before, defining the next action step will be virtually clear and there will be no vagueness or ambiguity. Thus the effort, stress level and the chances of procrastination will be reduced.

In fact, the lists that GTD defines involve an action in themselves (Next Actions implies performing, Projects implies planning, Someday/Maybe implies reconsidering, etc.), which helps define the next step.

3. Acting according to situation

GTD says that the decision to perform an action should depend, first of all, on the local circumstances taking place at that time (the context).

An action is executed more efficiently if we have available all the physical and mental resources needed. There are environments that facilitate the performance of certain tasks, while others hinder them. It happens the same with your mental level, which at certain times is better conditioned to perform certain tasks.

Switching between contexts implies time and energy costs, so it should be minimized. It is difficult for your mind to regain focus after being distracted. This is why frequent interruptions reduce productivity significantly.

The two-minute rule is also based on this principle, since we have just decided what action should be carried out and we have created the proper mental frame to do it.

4. Adapting is more important than planning

Unlike other systems, GTD does not emphasize priorities, milestones or deadlines.

This sort of things are counterproductive when used for simple daily tasks because they require a significant mental effort. In these cases, a few simple reminders of what things should be done produce better and faster results.

Every day there is new information, challenges and opportunities, so plans and priorities must be adapted accordingly. GTD helps us to be ready for anything, without forgetting our past commitments. This reactive approach can reduce the impact of the unexpected, because we treat it as it appears (when it is easier).

Planning is still important, but in a flexible way. The importance of context reminds us that plans are subordinated to the current situation.

5. Organizing from the bottom-up

Unlike other approaches, GTD starts from the bottom—the specific issues—rather than from the top—high-level goals—. The rationale is that, this way, you get to have the control that is necessary to begin to consider long-term implications. If these implications are unsatisfactory, you have the time to redefine them, because your daily stuff is under control.

You need a great mental effort to manipulate the abstract symbols required by long-term planning. If you do not think about your current reality, this definition of objectives would surely be vague and unrealistic. On the other hand, having current, unresolved problems causes anxiety and lack of control, which makes it hard to worry about higher goals.

6. Using feedback to keep on track

With no planning, it seems difficult to decide what goes after every action. GTD teaches you to manage a concrete list of Next Actions, which contains the very next steps to move your projects forward. Each time a task is performed, it is marked off and you are ready to define the next action step.

This feedback-driven way of uninterrupted progress toward your goals can produce what is called flow in psychology, a highly productive mental state in which work is done without stress, with less effort and with a sense of full satisfaction.

1 You can download the original paper here: Getting Things Done: The Science behind Stress-Free Productivity

About the author

Francisco Sáez (@franciscojsaez) is the founder and CEO of FacileThings. He is also a web developer specializing in Ruby on Rails who is passionate about personal productivity and GTD as a means to a better life.

4 comments so far

David Allen
Commented over 2 years ago

Francisco, many thanks for writing such a cogent summary of that research paper. Frankly, it took me at least three readings of it to grasp all the connections they made. Bravo!


Francisco Sáez
Commented over 2 years ago

My pleasure, David. It also took me awhile to read, understand and summarize the points in plain English. There are really good arguments here for the skeptics.

I very much appreciate your comment.

John Leahy
Commented over 2 years ago

This article is important because frequently people need to know why a methodology works to fully buy into the concept. Other systems telling me to focus on the elephant while a swarm of bees are buzzing around my head just didn't work for me - and this explains why.

Francisco Sáez
Commented over 2 years ago

Totally agreed. I think most of the principles of GTD are very intuitive for most people. However, truly knowing how they fit in human behaviour reinforce their value.

Thanks for sharing, John.

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