The Psychology of GTD, Part 1: PsyCap

Introduction to the Psychology of GTD Series

Several months ago I had the honor of working closely with David Allen) and his company. In a nutshell, I helped analyze the Getting Things Done methodology and aligned it with some theories and principles of psychology. Given GTD's huge popularity we wanted to see if there were some scientific reasons behind its effectiveness and ubiquity. After we finished the project, I continued on with David Allen and produced an in-depth report of my findings. Over the next few weeks I want to share the major connections I uncovered between GTD and psychology here at The Workologist.

If you haven't read Getting Things Done or aren't familiar with it at all then these articles may not make a ton of sense. Obviously, the best course of action would be to read the book first. However, you can also get a pretty good gist of the system by checking out the various resources available online. The better you understand GTD the more meaningful these connections will be to you.

As a starting point, I should be clear that no empirical research has been conducted specifically on GTD (at least that I could find). There has been an interesting theoretical article written by Heylighen and Vidal about the cognitive science behind the system. The rest of the theories and ideas I'm going to present throughout this series have never been specifically investigated in a GTD complex but there are theoretical reasons to believe they are connected -- and I'll do my best to explain why as simply as possible.

Introduction to PsyCap

The first psychological concept I want to connect to GTD is the idea of positive psychological capital, or PsyCap. PsyCap is a "higher order construct" comprised of four other concepts; self-efficacy, optimism, resilience, and hope. Individually, each of these can predict various positive outcomes to a certain extent. However, when they're combined together into what psychologists call PsyCap you get much more explanatory power than treating them each separately. Basically, when you look at these four constructs together you are able to tap into the synergistic relationships between them, thus justifying the creation of a new variable, PsyCap.

In a little more detail, the four subcomponents of PsyCap are:

1. Self-efficacy - Having confidence to take on and put in the necessary effort to succeed at challenging tasks.

2. Optimism - Making positive attributions about succeeding now and in the future.

3. Hope - Persevering toward goals and, when necessary, redirecting paths to goals.

4. Resilience - When facing adversity and problems, bouncing back to the original -- or even better -- state of being.

PsyCap is what's known as a "state-like" construct as opposed to a "trait-like" construct. Traits (like most components of personality) don't really change over time. They are largely set by genetics and then remain at that relatively same level for the rest of our lives. On the other end of the continuum, state constructs vary from moment to moment (like mood). PsyCap isn't as variable as mood but it is open to development. The fact that it isn't a trait is quite heartening because that means it can be developed and improved with focused effort and training.

In its relatively short history as a construct, PsyCap has been connected to many positive individual and organizational outcomes such as job performance, job satisfaction, and psychological well being. A meta-analysis (a study of studies) connected PsyCap to desirable employee attitudes (job satisfaction, organizational commitment, psychological well-being), multiple measures of performance (self, supervisor evaluations, and objective), and negatively associated it with undesirable employee attitudes (cynicism, turnover intentions, job stress, and anxiety).

So what does this all have to do with GTD?

I think a case can be made that utilizing GTD can enhance an individual's level of PsyCap because aspects of the system line up with the very subcomponents of PsyCap. Let's dig into each of the four subcomponents of PsyCap as they relate to GTD.


GTD directly relates to the development of self-efficacy by enabling an individual to create and maintain a complete picture of their commitments, to themselves and others, in order to make good decisions about what to do (or not do) in any given moment. The process of identifying all "open loops" and moving them from memory to an external system while systematically identifying concrete and doable "next actions" can be seen as an exercise in developing self-efficacy. An individual utilizing GTD knows exactly what needs to be done and knows exactly what action they can take, given the restrictions of their available time, energy, and contextual restraints.


If you're doing GTD correctly you're doing a lot of front-end decision making. This "work before the work" is what you do when you figure out what the next actions are for all your various projects. There's strong case to be made that the process of front-end decision making is also an exercise in developing hope. Remember, the psychological definition of hope involves setting goals and figuring out multiple ways to attain them. The front-end decision making process involves setting goals ("What does done look like for this project?") and identifies the tasks needed to achieve those goals ("What's the next action?"). At the end of the front-end decision making process you're left with a clear sense of what needs to be done and how to best do it.


One of the biggest benefits of adopting GTD in my own life has been a more optimistic outlook on what I'm capable of. GTD has allowed me to complete more projects, take on more audacious assignments, and just generally do more than I ever thought possible. The end result of that is a growing sense of optimism regarding what I can do and what I'll be capable of in the future. The process of identifying meaningful projects, articulating the next steps needed to complete it, and sticking to the process long enough to complete it is a powerful experience.


When the crap hits the fan, the focus needs to be on action and not "figuring out what to do." A robust GTD system allows you to focus on actually doing the work at hand because you've already taken care of all the front-end decision making ahead of time (see above). While no empirical support exists for the idea that those individuals who utilize GTD would be more successful in bouncing back from failure, it's feasible to think this may be the case. Utilizing GTD gives an you a sense of calm and control over the situation that allows you to use your mental faculties on the task at hand -- and not having to remember what to do. In a time of stress or other adversity, those individuals who are able to think most clearly will be more likely to emerge from the stress in better shape than those who do not.


The changing nature of work requires that employees and independent workers be able to handle more information than ever. They need to be able to manage many projects, whether working from or at an office, to be optimally productive and satisfied. By deliberately striving to develop PsyCap in addition to economic, social, and human capital, people may be likely to be more productive and satisfied with their work. Adopting GTD may stimulate each of the four subcomponents of PsyCap, making it an ideal "mini-intervention" that has lasting effects. Given the impressive research already conducted in this area, the relationship between GTD and PsyCap seems feasible and is worth exploring further.

For the next installment of this series, I'm going to share how the research of Peter Gollwitzer (and others) on "implementation intentions" is connected to GTD (edit: You can read that article here). You can read Part 3 here.

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Photo by Adam Kuban