The Psychology of GTD, Part 3: Flow

This is a very special article for me because it unites two of my favorite ideas -- flow and GTD. I originally came to graduate school to study positive psychology because of Csikszentmihalyi's book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. At that time I had already been practicing GTD for a couple years but I hadn't yet realized how the two are united. Over the past year I've come to realize just how closely they are intertwined.

Intro to Flow

I've written about flow many times before so if you're a regular reader of this site you probably already have a good sense of what flow is. For the newcomers, though, I'll give a one paragraph summary of the idea.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi noticed that sometimes people become incredibly engrossed in an activity even when there is no external reward. An amateur mountain climber is not being paid to climb a mountain yet she can become so immersed in the task it seems like time flies by and every last bit of her ability is being challenged by the task at hand. Csikszentmihalyi calls this state "flow" and has elucidated numerous characteristics and components of it. In a nutshell, you need to have clear goals, clear feedback, and a balance of high skill and high challenge in the task at hand to find flow in what you're doing. When you do find flow, whether in work or leisure, you will lose track of everything else because what you're doing requires the absolute limit of your attention.

Being in flow is generally a very positive experience and has been linked to all sorts of great outcomes in terms of work such as job satisfaction and productivity.

Implications for GTD

I think adopting a GTD system makes it easier to find flow in your work. By creating a GTD system for yourself you have to create clear goals, you receive clear feedback, and you facilitate concentration -- all of these are preconditions to experiencing more flow.


As I wrote about last week regarding implementation intentions and goal setting, Project and Next Action Lists are essentially lists of goals. Each project and each next action has a desired end state, that when reached, represent completion of a goal. GTD forces you to get very clear about what "done looks like." With this clear vision of "done" you can immerse yourself in the task at hand instead of constantly asking yourself what you need to do. You know what you need to do and it's just up to you to get it done.


A good GTD system, whether digital, analog or some combination of the two, is purely external. You can see the entirety of your commitments and responsibilities at one time. Like standing on top of a skyscraper you can look down and see how your life is arranged. With your clear sense of organization and goals you receive feedback as you cross items off your lists. You create a sense of progress as you move through your lists finishing tasks and projects.


Finding flow requires the ability to concentrate on one thing at a time. It's impossible to find flow if you're constantly being distracted by external or internal interruptions. Adopting GTD requires you to think about what you are and aren't doing at all times. By batching your next actions into similar contexts and seeing the entirety of your commitments at one time you can ensure you're working on the "right" thing. Even if you're feeling some discord about whether or not what you're working on is truly the right thing, you at least know that you aren't forgetting anything because everything exists outside your brain and in your external system. This frees you up to use your concentration on the task at hand, not trying to remember what you need to do or worrying about the decision you've made.


At its core flow and GTD are about the same thing; using your attention deliberately and wisely. When you're in flow you're focusing your attention on one activity or task and immersing yourself in it. Using GTD allows you to make good decisions about where you're directing your attention and frees you up to make conscious decisions instead of purely reacting to what happens to you. It only makes sense that these two concepts are intertwined. If you're looking to find flow in your work more often -- and really, who isn't -- you could do much worse than trying out GTD.

Much of my coaching and consulting deals with helping individuals with productivity and finding more flow in their daily activities. Have you ever thought about working with a coach? You can learn more about what I do here and you're more than welcome to set up a free consultation call with me.

Photo by David Stanley