The Psychology of GTD

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

The Psychology of GTD, Part 2: Implementation Intentions

Last week I released the first part of my series on the Psychology of GTD. This week, we move on to the idea of "implementation intentions" and the science of goal setting.

At a very basic level, success with using a GTD system is all about setting and achieving goals. Both Projects and Next Actions could be considered goals. Projects are obviously larger and more long term (usually, but not always) than Next Actions but they are united by the fact that they are goals in the sense of describing an end state that you're trying to achieve. Given the reliance on goals and goal setting it makes sense that some of the research done in the field of psychology on this topic is relevant to GTD.

Implementation Intentions

The research on implementation intentions is all about how to best set and then take action toward meaningful goals. It's one thing to set a goal and a completely different thing to take regular action toward that goal. I only have to look as far as all the failed goals and habit changes I've ever experienced to see the difference between the two. Implementation intentions are all about how to get yourself to take "goal directed behavior" even when you may not feel like it or even realize you should.

How Implementation Intentions Work

You have some sort of goal that you wish to achieve, say, losing 15 pounds. You decide that an action you can take toward that stated goal is no longer eating a bowl of ice cream as a bedtime snack. You've basically set the intention to stop eating ice cream after dinner in the hope that it will support your ultimate goal of losing weight. The missing piece, according to the implementation intention researchers, is the details around how you're going to take that goal-directed action.

Instead of just setting an intention you have to also set the details around that implementation. This takes the form of an "if-then" statement that includes the positive behavior change. For example, the person in our ice cream example could set the implementation intention of, "IF I feel hungry after dinner THEN I will eat a piece of my favorite fruit." This statement helps create a cause-effect link in our ice cream eater's mind about when he is going to take certain goal relevant action. Now, instead of using his willpower to fight the urge to eat ice cream every night he simply has to enact his implementation intention ("eat a piece of my favorite fruit") when the proper environmental conditions are met ("it's after dinner and I'm hungry"). Over time this cause-effect relationship becomes even stronger and is enacted almost automatically.

Implications for GTD

When you're first starting GTD you have to use a lot of willpower to keep it going. There's all these lists and checklists and frameworks and it all seems so tedious and overwhelming! I think that's why a lot of people never really see enough success with GTD to keep it going. GTD doesn't really start "clicking" until you get the behaviors that promote it to happen automatically. Using your inbox to capture all information in your life, using some sort of ubiquitous capture tool, doing mental RAM dumps, doing Weekly Reviews, reviewing checklists... there are a lot of behaviors that need to be taken to make GTD successful for you.

Using the implementation intention idea can help these behaviors become automatic. For example, you could set an implementation intention like, "IF I have an idea when I'm not in front of my computer THEN I will pull out my smart phone and write myself a note," or "IF it's Sunday afternoon THEN I'm going to sit down and do my Weekly Review." Using the physical artifacts of a GTD system can also serve as the IF statement, "IF I'm looking at my Project list and I see a lack of Next Actions THEN I will take a moment to figure out what the Next Action is," for example. Forming implementation intentions is similar to creating a productivity system like GTD in that it's an external system. In the same way that GTD is an external system to hold tasks/projects/goals, implementation intentions are an external system for taking the actions to make those tasks/projects/goals actually happen.

Next week we will discuss the idea of how Csikszentmihalyi's idea of flow is connected to GTD.

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Photo by Angie Torres

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