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GTD as algorithm

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  • GTD as algorithm

    I just started reading Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea. I mention this not because I wish to start another thread about religion--I don't--but because I believe that some insight can be gleaned about GTD from Dennett's work.

    Dennett (pp. 50-51) defines an algorithm as having 3 characteristics:

    1. Substrate neutrality,
    2. Underlying mindlessness,
    3. Guaranteed results.

    When I read this, I heard sirens blaring and saw lights flashing. This sounded so much like what so many people want GTD to be.

    Substrate neutrality

    This means that it doesn't matter what material you use to run your algorithm. Dennett gives the example of the long division algorithm. It doesn't matter if you use a pencil or a sharp stick. It doesn't matter if you write on paper, or use the stick to make marks in the sand. The material substrate is irrelevant.

    The connection with GTD is so obvious it hardly needs stating. But I will state it nonetheless. GTD is substrate neutral. You may use paper or parchment. You may write on a Palm or on your palm.

    Underlying mindlessness

    This means that the algorithmic procedure runs without there being any thinking involved. The paradigm of an algorithm is a computer program. The computer follows a simple set of procedures. It doesn't know that it is balancing my checkbook. It just takes the number from line 2 and adds it to the number found in line 3.

    Dennett mentions that the analogy most frequently used is a recipe for a novice cook: Go to a store. Buy a package that says "1 lb butter, unsweetened." Buy a package that says "1 dozen eggs." Go home. Put a frying pan on the stove top. Turn the dial on the front to "medium." Take the butter out of the package. Count two tablespoon hashmarks from the right. Cut the butter. Put the butter in the pan. . . .

    The analogy with GTD is striking. David Allen has said that he thinks only once a week--at his weekly review. I think in the GTD Fast series he analogizes GTD to factory work. A factory following the principles of Scientific Management, also known as Taylorism. In Scientific Management, each physical action is specified in advance and standardized. David says doing GTD is like following the instructions on a factory punch card. Pick up the piece of metal. Put it in the chuck. Bring the drill press down 8 inches. Remove the metal. Place it in the cart. Put a check mark on the chart. Repeat.

    Guaranteed results

    Dennett writes, "Whatever it is an algorithm does, it always does it, if it is executed without misstep. It is a foolproof recipe."

    This is never stated as a characteristic of GTD (other than the result of achieving stress-free productivity). But it's hard to see why not. If you can reduce your job to a factory punch list, why not guarantee the outcome?


    I think the key characteristic is the second one: mindlessness. Many of us (me!) would like to find a cookie-cutter recipe for achieving greatness, be it athletic, financial, creative, social, or political. GTD dangles the promise of accomplishing lots of things--perhaps some of them great--without stress and without thinking most of the time.

    My experience has been that GTD has drastically enriched my life and increased my accomplishments. But my life is not a watch. I do not wind the mechanism once a week on Friday afternoons during my weekly review and then stop thinking as I execute the set of instructions I gave to my nonthinking self.

    I am a purposive, thinking thing for significant periods of time every day. But with GTD, maybe I am a purposive, thinking thing for less time than I was pre-GTD. And that's made me a better, less-stressed, thing.

  • #2
    great insight!

    Very very nice.

    Comment


    • #3
      Mindfulness

      I think the Dennett analogy falls down on the mindlessness part. David Allen may *say* that he only thinks once per week, but that's a bunch of horse hockey. He has to think every time he scans his action lists. When his decision about what to do next is a balance of importance, context, time available, and available energy, I would submit that he is thinking all over the place.

      Another part of the system that causes David's neurons to fire is processing. When he is asking and more importantly answering questions like: "What is this?", "What does it mean?", and "What am I going to do about it?", he is thinking quite a lot.

      Following a good GTD implementation merely makes all of this thinking faster, easier, and more effective.

      I agree that many people are looking for a mindless system, not to mention *guaranteed* results. I just don't think GTD is one.

      Comment


      • #4
        Sounds convincing to me

        I think your point is well taken. Just look at the flow chart in the book or on the website; GTD is absolutely an algorithm. This may come out a little jumbled in an attempt to be clever, but I think GTD tries to make "mindless" (i.e., runs without significant thinking required) tasks that ARE mindless.

        Things like paying the bills, making phone calls (well, making the decision to make the phone call -- etc.) So much of life is tedium that, if possible, should be done with as little thinking as possible. Not because thinking is bad, but because that is an exhausting way to get through the day (I think we've all experienced that?). This way we only have to think about things that are "worthy" of some serious pondering

        At least that's the goal, I think Very cool tie-in, moises. Thanks!

        -Dan
        Last edited by dfarmernv; 11-08-2006, 01:09 AM. Reason: To clarify that mindless does not mean no thinking at all

        Comment


        • #5
          So much of life is tedium that, if possible, should be done with as little thinking as possible.
          What an utterly miserable way to live!

          And certainly not how I interpret GTD.

          DA doesn't say "don't think about what you're going to do." Rather, he suggests that you do your thinking up front -- while processing or during the Weekly Review -- and write down the results. Then you don't have to do the *same* thinking over and over again, and you've freed up mental space for more interesting and challenging things. But you're still doing plenty of thinking.

          As I read GTD, the whole point is that it should allow you to do *more* thinking than before, not less, and that DA sees more thinking as highly desirable, or even essential, for modern individuals and organizations. (If you don't believe me, please reread the last three chapters of the GTD book before replying.)

          I'm with Scott Lewis. The idea of GTD as a mindless procedure that delivers guaranteed results is horse hockey.

          Katherine

          Comment


          • #6
            I don’t think moises associates GTD with algorithm primarily by restricting GTD to “a mindless procedure.” GTD and algorithm may not jibe perfectly, but there are undeniably similar characteristics. While algorithm follows a defined set of procedures, GTD has its five stage method for managing workflow. GTD definitely has procedures, although not constricting and mindless as algorithm. “What is this?”, “Is this actionable?” “What’s the next action?” – that’s following a series of “thinking procedures”. IMHO, it’s better captured as “procedural thinking” than pure “mindless”, implying that you don’t have constantly rethink “How should I think?” or “How should I go about this?”, because there are predefined steps to follow, although that would mean less thinking to an extent… or rather more timely thinking. It would be “mindless” only to the extent that you won’t have to think about what to think, and constantly rethink them.

            Overall, that was a nice little analysis, moises.

            Comment


            • #7
              I get it

              I totally see what you are saying, Moises. In fact I have been messing around with the same thing---but using other words---for years. So many things in life---are mechanical---if---you think them through, and then take the next action, etc--and the outcome can be mechanical a lot of the time--enough of the time that it is well worth my while to do the thinking and planning and taking of action. I just have at times called it being alligned with the universe...or being alligned with the ways some thing works, sort of like your cooking analogy. Simplify, simplify. And cut out as much as you can the stuff that doesn't work on the front end. Hey, we got dreams to realize. I want to get to it.

              Comment


              • #8
                Mindless should not be taken literally

                Originally posted by katherine
                DA doesn't say "don't think about what you're going to do." Rather, he suggests that you do your thinking up front -- while processing or during the Weekly Review -- and write down the results. Then you don't have to do the *same* thinking over and over again, and you've freed up mental space for more interesting and challenging things. But you're still doing plenty of thinking.

                Katherine
                I think you took that one quote out of context. To quote myself:
                Originally posted by Dan
                So much of life is tedium that, if possible, should be done with as little thinking as possible. [...] This way we only have to think about things that are "worthy" of some serious pondering
                Which I believe is essentially what you were saying when you wrote:
                Originally posted by Katherine
                [...] [H]e suggests that you do your thinking up front -- while processing or during the Weekly Review -- and write down the results. Then you don't have to do the *same* thinking over and over again, and you've freed up mental space for more interesting and challenging things.
                I don't think that we disagree at all.

                -Dan
                Last edited by dfarmernv; 11-07-2006, 01:51 PM.

                Comment


                • #9
                  What drew me, in part, to GTD, was the algorithmic nature of the flow chart. As many before me have pointed out, the flow chart is effective for processing and organizing, but not for doing.

                  What draws me, in part, to Mark Forster's work--particularly his systems called 'autofocus'--is their algorithmic nature. Forster's work centers on the development of algorithms for doing.

                  There might be a unified theory of productivity here, in which the disparate algorithms are integrated.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Try Leo Babauta's Zen To Done (ZTD).

                    Originally posted by moises View Post
                    What drew me, in part, to GTD, was the algorithmic nature of the flow chart. As many before me have pointed out, the flow chart is effective for processing and organizing, but not for doing.

                    What draws me, in part, to Mark Forster's work--particularly his systems called 'autofocus'--is their algorithmic nature. Forster's work centers on the development of algorithms for doing.

                    There might be a unified theory of productivity here, in which the disparate algorithms are integrated.
                    Try Leo Babauta's Zen To Done (ZTD) - more time-structured approach to goals, projects and actions.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by moises View Post

                      Dennett (pp. 50-51) defines an algorithm as having 3 characteristics:

                      1. Substrate neutrality,
                      2. Underlying mindlessness,
                      3. Guaranteed results.
                      I've read some of Dennett's stuff before. He is a professional philosopher, and sometimes tries to define things so the world works the way he (currently) thinks it does. Take 3), for example: leaving aside the halting problem (algorithm may not terminate), there is a large literature on algorithms with random components, from the theoretical, e.g. Turing machines with a 2nd tape consisting of a random sequence, to the practical, e.g. Monte Carlo simulations. Any useful idea or invention will have its enthusiasts (and its hucksters), but the trick is to strive for better rather than perfect, meliorism rather than utopianism.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        I think the criticisms made by you and others of Dennett on all 3 points are fair. Let me start over.

                        The idea is that with a relatively simple set of instructions (forget the word "algorithm") one can construct systems that appear to be quite complex. What drew me back to this thread was my recent reading of The Superorganism by Hoelldobler and Wilson. It is a detailed examination of the "eusocial" insects like ants and bees. Some colonies have millions of individuals. These colonies have a division of labor with different "castes" carrying out different jobs. Each caste member follows a rather simple set of instructions. But at the level of the colony, there appears to be very subtle, complex behavior.

                        Some castes function the way our sensory organs do, they provide the colony with information about the environment outside the colony. Other castes receive this information and adjust their behavior (foraging, nest-building, reproducing, etc.) accordingly.


                        The GTD flow chart is something quite elegant. I know when I first laid eyes on it, it was like a revelation. I see a lot of people, after they experience GTD, trying to get some simple set of instructions for doing. Of course, doing is usually not simple. I think that Forster created instructions for doing that have a nice balance. They are simple enough to get the job done, but no simpler.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          re: Simple Instructions

                          The GTD flow chart is something quite elegant. I know when I first laid eyes on it, it was like a revelation. I see a lot of people, after they experience GTD, trying to get some simple set of instructions for doing. Of course, doing is usually not simple. I think that Forster created instructions for doing that have a nice balance. They are simple enough to get the job done, but no simpler.
                          I actually think doing has less to do with the simplicity of instructions and more to do with overcoming the impediments to action. What GTD does is cut through the mental clutter and expose the excuses for inaction. Why am I not doing action X? Because I'm never in context Y which is where it has to be done. Why does this task stay on my list and never get done? Because it's not really a task. It requires a combination of actions to complete and therefore should be put on my projects list for further planning to surface the next action. Why do I just keep staring at my lists and never get anything done? Because there's more items on the list than I can handle looking at. Time to move a bunch of them over to Someday-Maybe so I can focus on the few I can get done today.

                          Don't get me wrong. I certainly agree that the flow-chart is elegant. And I would attribute that to how in touch that flow chart is with the natural processes of our thinking. But ultimately what that flow-chart does is remove obstacles to action. You no longer have the following excuses for inaction: e.g., "I don't know what it is," "I don't know where to find it," "I don't know why I'm supposed to do it," "I don't know where I would need to be in order to do it," etc. All of these excuses have been eliminated. Indeed, most of the excuses have been eliminated, which is why people see such an increase in organization and productivity.

                          However there are still forces to contend with, and Forster's strategies (along with others) help with many of them. Without any excuse left for inaction, GTD helps expose our stubbornness where we can counter the more subtle (and mostly psychological) obstacles. As mcogilvie points out, the perfect can be the enemy of the good. The strategy is to focus on better instead of perfect, to start before you decide you'll never finish. Thus a full application of GTD eventually propels the veteran into the realm of introspection where the more subtle excuses remain. But with most of them gone, the distance between inaction and action has been significantly closed; and with such a little gap to jump, often the only thing we have left is to "Just Do It."

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