Episode #23 – GTD and The Organized Mind

Join David Allen for a fascinating, wide-ranging conversation with Daniel Levitin, author of The Organized Mind. Daniel is a professor of psychology, a cognitive scientist, a musician, an entrepreneur, and more. He brings recent cognitive research to bear on GTD, validating obectively what GTD users know subjectively — that getting things off your mind frees your mind for more creative and productive thinking. David and Daniel discuss why the brain pays attention to some things and ignores others, the limits of short-term memory versus long-term memory, and why the Mind Sweep is not just a good idea, but a critical part of dealing with our modern lives.


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ANDREW MASON: You’re listening to Getting Things Done, the official podcast of the David Allen Company, with our featured conversation between David Allen and Daniel Levitin.

Welcome everyone to Getting Things Done, GTD for shorthand. My name is Andrew James Mason, and this podcast is all about helping you on your journey, practicing the art of stress-free productivity.

In this episode, we join David for a fascinating wide ranging conversation with Daniel Levitin, who’s latest book is The Organized Mind. They discuss why the brain pays attention to some things and ignore others, the limits of short-term memory versus long-term and why the mind-sweep it not just a good idea, but a critical part of dealing with our modern lives.

Now this conversation is just a small slice of a larger one that appeared previously on GTD Connect, and we’d love for you to join us over there at GettingThingsDone.com/podcast and click on GTD Connect and keep listening to the end of this podcast to receive a significant coupon code when you decide to join.

And now from the archive, here’s David Allen, talking with Daniel Levitin.

DAVID ALLEN: So let’s go forward to external brain and let’s go back to you had mentioned already and it’s one of the most interesting things also that I’ve seen from my little bit of research in the cognitive field is the cognitive overload and you explain so elegantly in there how limited the bandwidth of our cognitive present tense mind actually is. So explain to the folks a bit about that. Give us a paragraph about how limited we actually are in terms of the mechanism itself, in terms of information, etcetera.

DANIEL LEVITIN: As far as we know, long-term memory, your ability to acquire experiences and store them throughout your lifetime is virtually unlimited. It’s not like you get old and you suddenly don’t remember what you did yesterday. I mean, you might not – that’s for different reasons. The memory system is capable of storing a lifetime worth of experiences. The problem is that the conscious mind at any given moment can only pay attention to a very small and limited number of things.

DAVID ALLEN: Did you say 120 bits. Is that something I saw in the book somewhere?

DANIEL LEVITIN: Which I got from [inaudible 00:02:13] and then independently corroborated by an electrical engineer who’s studying the same problem. What this comes down to David is really three or four items. So if you’ve got a bunch of chatter in your brain, if you’re thinking, “Oh I’ve got to – I have to remember to pick up milk on the way home and I forgot to return Aunt Mary’s phone call from last night, and I owe Jim an e-mail about the Pensky file and – oh, that’s right! I’ve got to pick up the dry cleaning. I remember that I got a notice that my insurance bill somehow didn’t get paid, even though it’s on auto-payment, I’ve got to deal with that …” There’s five things right there crowding your head and when you sit down at work at your desk or you sit down with your family to have dinner and be engaged, your head’s already got more in it than it can handle reasonably. And this is why I think the mind-clearing exercise is not just a good idea, but I would say it is essential. I would say it’s a critical part of dealing with life these days and the huge difference between now and say 10,000 years ago, if I could digress – evolution takes time. The brains that we have now are pretty much evolved to deal with life as it was 5 or 10,000 years ago. You know, back then, things came at us rather slowly. Probably the first things the humans did is they harnessed fire and then it was maybe another 5 or 10,000 years before we invented the wheel and another 5 or 10,000 years before we had language, uh written language, I mean, writing. Information was coming along slowly and there wasn’t that much to attend to at once.

It’s a very different world now, because the numbers of items can attend to is limited, we need to get things out of our head, into the external world, so that we can really allow our brains to flourish and to think clearly.

DAVID ALLEN: One of the things, has there been any research, and if not, wouldn’t it be cool to do research – to notice what actually changes in the brain once you do unload it all, you know, kind of before and after, you know. That would be a fabulous – I’ve thought for years, wouldn’t it be great if we could run across somebody who could say, “Hey David, let’s go do this experiment”, and actually set that up and see what actually changes in terms of the neurology or the frequency of the mind, in terms of what’s going on.

DANIEL LEVITIN: I guess. I wanted to do that too. There is no experiment that I know of that addresses that specifically, although there are a thousand new experiments a month and I am not always able to keep up, but the evidence suggests that here’s something tantalizing piece of preliminary evidence and then you and I will have to do this experiment ourselves if someone else doesn’t do it, the experiment as you lay it out. But we do know from work in my laboratory and others that if you can enter a second attentional mode that we call the mind-wandering mode, or the default mode network, if you can get yourself in a state where you’re disengaged from the task at hand, so if you try to control your thoughts, your thoughts are just sort of going wherever they want to go and if you stay in that mode for ten or fifteen minutes, it creates slow low frequency brain waves, which are the brain waves that help us to consolidate information and consolidate memories. It’s the slow wave sleep that actually helps you remember the experiences of the day before, not the rapid eye movement sleep, but the initial stages of sleep where all of that’s consolidated.

So the data David, suggests that the mind-clearing exercise, which is part of this free associative thinking, helps to promote this slow wave brain state and when you go back to a task, you’re more refreshed and energy supplies in the brain have been restored.

DAVID ALLEN: You know, there are two points on that: one is that I want to make, probe you about as well, you know it’s so great to read of all of this in a book, because I’ve had 30 years of thousands of hours of anecdotal validation of this. I mean, I remember one executive came and I was coaching him desk-side, one on one and we did the whole first day, dump his head, made a lot of decisions about stuff, parked him appropriately, I came back in the next morning the guy was absolutely ticked off. He said, “David, oh my God, I did not sleep a wink.”

And I’m going, “Oh my gosh, what happened?” like some awful thing had happened.

He said, “I was so stoked!” He literally could not stop his brain from creative ideas and all kinds of stuff.

And there’s just hundreds and hundreds of such anecdotes of people that we’ve worked with who actually just had that experience, where it wasn’t just that they were able to consolidate, or maybe it was just kind of like the little moron that stops hitting himself on the head and suddenly feels fabulous.

BOTH MEN: Ha, ha, ha.

DAVID ALLEN: So I don’t know just the relatively of wow – what it’s like to actually have none of that pressure on your head that just creates an ecstatic experience, but that would be interesting to see, whether there was also a positive spin on that – that occurred, if you had the right balance of those two things.

DANIEL LEVITIN: Yes. I think that’s exactly right. I mean, the evidence is pointing in that direction. It’s worth doing the study, but you’re right. Anecdotes aren’t experiments but you get enough of them and it begins to seem as though you’ve got something there.

DAVID ALLEN: Well, as I say, it took me 25 years to actually figure out that what I’d figured out was unique and that nobody could poke any holes in it.

DANIEL LEVITIN: And it has a scientific basis.

DAVID ALLEN: Yeah, well now – now it’s like whew! Thank you! You know I am not totally crazy, but maybe at least the world is now full of equally crazy people, you know [inaudible 00:07:18]

DANIEL LEVITIN: Well so I think the thing to recognize is that written language, just to touch on this earlier point and to get to the science of the mind-clearing exercise, written language has only been around for 5,000 years. That’s a relatively short time in the history of our species. We believe homosapiens are at least 50,000 years old. So for 90% of our existence as a species we didn’t know how to write things down and yet, it would still have been important for us to remember things for all those eons. I mean, we would have had to remember don’t use that well over there because three generations ago one of our tribe went over and the neighboring tribe killed him because that’s not our well and you know, this is how you boil these plants so that they’re not poisonous and this is the root that you take to the fruit trees in the summer time. All these things had to be remembered but we couldn’t write them down. So the brain evolved exquisite place memory and mechanisms for reminding us of things and that reminding mechanism ends up today as a bunch of chatter in your head, not literal voices in your head, for most of us, but you know, chatter: “Don’t forget to pick up milk on the way home; don’t forget to bring your umbrella tomorrow, it’s supposed to rain …”

The mind-clearing exercise works because if you write it down, your brain knows that you’ve written it down and it can stop reminding you.

DAVID ALLEN: Right. Okay.

DANIEL LEVITIN: That’s the power and the freedom of it.

DAVID ALLEN: Let’s go back to – I don’t want to lose this other point, because this is really critical now, especially as we are sort of framing GTD at our GTD education for global consumption and I think it’s an important thing, a new image and metaphor that we’re using, a visual one in our initial seminar is about a rubber band and the rubber band image is that a rubber band needs to be loose and flexible and at the same time, if you’re gonna try to point it at something and shoot – you know, pull the rubber band back and shoot a fly on the wall, or something like that, or you know, the rubber band needs the capability to be stretched and focused, but it also needs to be relaxed and not brittle. So it’s a fabulous polarity that you’ve described extremely well in the book and the research has described, which I think is really, really critical, which is that you need a combination of cognitive focus, but at the same time, a balance of the day-dreaming mode and the lower brain wave mode, and those things need to be balanced together. And if you’ve got chatter in your head, you can’t do either one. So the whole idea of having cognitive ram filled up and still trying to spin, you can’t totally relax and daydream as free as you can be and you can’t totally focus on something as well as you can be.

And so we wonder why people are winding up with this huge stress factor that just seems to be endemic in the culture and I don’t think it seems to be getting much better. I mean, I’m trying to sell as many GTD books as I can to try to work with it. But, talk some more about that Daniel, I think that’s just such an incredible piece of information for all of us to be aware of.

DANIEL LEVITIN: Yeah, so I think what’s happening is in this over-caffeinated world we’re living in, so many of us feel like if we were to just stop work for five minutes, we would fall irretrievably behind and so we don’t. We force ourselves to stay on task and the brain isn’t really designed to stay focused without break. I say the brain designed, I mean the brain isn’t equipped.

What we really need to have is alternations between focus and a kind of daydreaming or mind-wandering or mind clearing – period. It’s no accident, you know, speaking of anecdotes, two of the most stressful jobs in the world are air-traffic controller and simultaneous translator for the U.N. They’re stressful because the consequences of even a small mistake can be calamity. Simultaneous translator gets one word wrong, you’re going to war.

And so over years of observation, it’s been recognized that these people can’t work more than an hour and a half or two hours without taking a break. And in the case of air traffic controllers around the world, those breaks are mandated. It’s part of the regulations. You cannot be an air-traffic controller for more than 90 to 120 minutes, without taking a 15 to 30 minute break. Local regulations vary, but that’s sort of the duty cycle; same with simultaneous translators and we now understand the science behind this.

A lot of it gets down to something called decision-fatigue. The biology of the brain doesn’t distinguish between making little decisions and big ones and in several experiments this has been born out. So for example, you ask people to make a trivial decision like whether to have corn Chex or wheat Chex for breakfast, whether to write with a green pen or a purple pen and after a sequence of such decisions, trivial ones really, the people are less able to exercise impulse control and they are less able to make sound decisions, even when those are really important decisions. Suppose you just found out you had cancer, do you want the radiation or do you want the surgery? Here are the facts and the figures. Or, do you want to put your retirement money into stocks or bonds. These are important decisions, but our ability to make them is compromised by having made trivial ones first. So …

DAVID ALLEN: So, gee dear, let’s watch a movie.

Great. What do you want to see tonight?

Nah, I don’t know – what do you want to see.

Well, we could see this …

So by the time you actually pick a movie, it’s probably not the best choice.

DANIEL LEVITIN: Right, actually better to make important decisions early in the day …


DANIEL LEVITIN: … when your gumption is highest and you’ve got the most neural resources. The problem is – you know I said the biology of the brain doesn’t distinguish between the little and the big ones, so after an hour or two of multitasking or doing a bunch of e-mails or just doing your regular job, our neural resources are quite depleted and taking that break to go for a walk, to look out the window, to listen to music, read a book, exercise, anything for 10 or 15 minutes that will put you in a mind wandering mode, is tremendously restorative. These two modes of the brain function like a see-saw. When you’re in one, you’re not in the other and they balance each other. That’s why when the air-traffic controllers take a break, they’re not supposed to be doing e-mail and checking Facebook, and they’re not supposed to be looking at their colleagues screen at the planes landing. They’re supposed to really take a break.

Mind-clearing is one such type of break.

DAVID ALLEN: There are a couple of things about that. I ran across the researchers in now organizational psychology at Claremont. They’ve come across and are doing work in something called psy-cap, psychological capital and they apparently have now found significant studies that show how performance really is significantly enhanced, not by changing an individual, but by changing the state they’re in, so I think that’s a fascinating thing. That’s called, you don’t have to be a better person or a transformed person or you don’t have to go out and do some major life improvement kinds of things, all you have to do is change the state you’re in to really enhance performance. And I think you and I both are talking about that sort of from different angles; sort of the same thing.

DANIEL LEVITIN: And you make this wonderful point. I won’t be able to say it nearly as eloquently as you did in Getting Things Done, but so many of us these days feel as though when we’re at home, part of us is still at work. We’re thinking about things we didn’t finish, we’ve got these nagging voices about things we might have done differently. When we’re at work, we’re thinking about home and all the things we didn’t get done there and as a consequence, we end up really being in neither place fully.


DANIEL LEVITIN: And I think the state change that you and I are talking about is the state change were if you use the GTD system and every moment in the day you know that what you’re doing is exactly the thing you should be doing, which means you are really fully engaged in the task, whether it’s a work task or a social task or a hobby, leisure task. How many times have you been to dinner with somebody in the last couple years where you were really looking forward to spending time with them and then they’re on their cell phone texting somebody else that they wanted to spend with, who isn’t even there – right? They’re not really in either place.

DAVID ALLEN: You know that – tied to these, all of these are so tied together, but I love the work that you have been describing and the way that you have created a – well a whole treatise about the decision making process and the brain itself.

One of the things that has been fascinating to me over the years and I didn’t make it up. I had a mentor who trained me in the next-action concept. I attributed Dean in my book. He taught me about emptying my head and making next – the very specific visible next action and over the years I’ve watched that become such a powerful trigger for people and to really change their state once they made that decision.

My working hypothesis of this, and I’d like to hear your point of view on it is that without the next action decision on a commitment, whether that’s mom’s elder care – or anything, if you haven’t got it down to the very next physical thing you need to do, you haven’t finished the decision making about it to keep your agreement with yourself.

DANIEL LEVITIN: This is a great point David and I think it’s also related to something that might seem unrelated which is procrastination.


DANIEL LEVITIN: If you find that you’ve got something that keeps popping up on your to-do list and it never gets done or you never deal with it, as you say, often the problem, the block is that what you have on your to-do list isn’t itself actionable.


DANIEL LEVITIN: You’ve got to break it up into smaller pieces. A contractor doesn’t show up at a construction site and say, “Okay, it’s Monday, I’m gonna build a house today.” That – you can’t do that. What you can do on Monday is you can grade the land with a tractor and then on Wednesday maybe you start putting in the forms for the foundation and on Friday you put in the rebar so that on the following Monday you can pour the concrete. Each day has something that’s actionable, and we often procrastinate – all of us procrastinate to some degree. Often it’s because we don’t really know where to start. And so if you break up a complicated thing into doable bits, and this applies not just to action of doing things like building houses, but it applies to decisions as you say. Maybe what you’ve got after your mind-clearing exercise is: Is it time to put Aunt Mildred in a home? That’s pretty unwieldy and there’s no real starting point, but you can say: Well, okay. What do I actually have to do to push this forward? Well, maybe I should talk to Aunt Mildred, see how she feels; talk to her doctor, see what he thinks her prognosis is; talk to some other family members – talk to my sister, talk to her sister. Maybe visit a few rest homes. I mean those are all actionable things.

DAVID ALLEN: Yeah, you know, I’ve over the years have wound up saying and finding out that people are usually avoiding decisions because they need more data.


DAVID ALLEN: The data can be externally generated or internally generated. External generation is talk to them, find out – whatever. Internal generation is: I either need to sleep on this, because I’m not ready to decide yet, but then I’ll always ask whoever I’m working with, “When do you need to be reminded of that?”


DAVID ALLEN: You know, as long they make that decision and then park an external trigger in a place they trust, then they have the freedom to then not have to decide and let it ruminate around and let it some from the inside.


DAVID ALLEN: As long as they trust that they will have a trigger to rethink it again at the right time.

DANIEL LEVITIN: Rumination’s important. This is why judges will often no render a decision after a complicated trial. They’ll take a couple of days just to let it sit and neurologically what’s happening is that at night when you sleep, or in the day when you take a nap, these low frequency brain wave processes are changing the chemical structure of your brain. They’re increasing acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter, they’re decreasing cortisol, they’re modulating other chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, which I think are more popularly known, as a way of dealing with all the information that’s come in in the previous day or the previous few hours, reprocessing it by making links between these bits of information and each other and between them and other experiences you may have had; the neurophysiology of information processing. So your brain really is doing stuff with the information that came in and trying to sort it out and then after a day or two, especially after a good night’s sleep, we say, “We’ll sleep on it”, that’s a kind of an idiom. We’ve only understood the scientific basis for that in the last five years.


DANIEL LEVITIN: Thanks to the work of Mathew Walker and Robert Stickgold and others, neuroscientists, who show us the function of sleep among other things to help with this kind of processing of information in preparation for decisions.

DAVID ALLEN: There’s an interesting translation of that into the business world. You know one of the admonitions we’ve been sort of learning and working with is: Avoid decisions until the last responsible moment.

DANIEL LEVITIN: Ah, very nice – yeah.

DAVID ALLEN: You know? Because you might be premature.


DAVID ALLEN: There might be more data, but the last responsible moment’s a pretty pregnant phrase. So …


DAVID ALLEN: How long can you wait on your elder care decision for Aunt Martha …


DAVID ALLEN: … and still be responsible for that event?

DANIEL LEVITIN: You know, as we’re talking a lot of the people that you and I encounter for both of us are in business and they want to be more productive at work. I don’t know if you had this experience but I run into people who say, “Oh I don’t want to have an organized mind, I’m a creative person and I want to have more time for spontaneity in my life. I don’t want to have to deal with systems.”

DAVID ALLEN: Yeah, oh no – I run into it all the time and you know, if I get interviewed like you are, I’m sure and will be, even more so, if there is any push-back on GTD, that’s probably the most common one. “While that sounds so sort of left brain and linear and whatever, but I’d like to be free and spontaneous.”

And I always say, “Well what do you think about the center line in the middle of the road?” Right?


DAVID ALLEN: Because that’s a constraint and that’s structure.


DAVID ALLEN: You don’t want 75 lines in the road that you have to keep deciding which one to be in, but two gives you the opportunity to be free to not have to think about somebody hitting you and then let your brain go other places.

I use that as my analogy and again, lots of anecdotes now, I mean, major radio announcer and major TV and movie producer and a major rock star, I mean these are all big champions of GTD and they said: Before GTD I thought I had to wait for the chaos to produce my creativity and now I realize that no – the chaos just created this situation where I just blew it all up so I got clear. But then I had to eat the back end of the chaos …


DAVID ALLEN: … and letting it fall apart. Now I can get to that freedom without having the crisis or the chaos force it. You know, that’s a huge change and I think it’s an important point for people to address or to counter that criticism – potential criticism anyway.

DANIEL LEVITIN: I like that. What I’ve been saying to people is, “You know look, if you could be more productive in your workday and you felt at the end of the day that you really got done what you needed to do, that creates space for you to be more spontaneous and to be more creative and to spend more time doing the things you love, outside of work, because you can really close the door on that to some degree and also because you’re actually gaining time.”

DAVID ALLEN: We started this talking about the strengths of the brain in terms of how it evolved and it’s weaknesses and building strategies around that. Is there any way you can sort of encapsulate that, maybe wrap around – put a wrapper around our whole conversation here about that and especially things that might be of interest to people listening to this?

DANIEL LEVITIN: If there are three big ideas, they are to externalize the brain, get stuff out of your head and into the world and let the environment help remind you of what needs to be done and help structure what needs to be done, externalizing the brain.

Second is to prioritize what you have to do. I would say that that means really figuring out what the most important things are and doing them first in the day or on the day that they need to be done, so that at the end of the day, I think almost all of us feels that at the end of the day they haven’t done everything they wanted to do. The key is to get done the most important things.

I think a third thing is to use time structuring as reminders, and maybe this is a little bit of the other two. It’s kind of a mix of prioritizing and externalizing.

I had interviewed a number of CEOs and more interestingly for me, their executive secretaries. And one of them was a woman named Linda, who didn’t want her last name used or her company’s name used because she didn’t want to embarrass her boss, but she was the executive assistant to the CEO and president of one of the top 50 companies in the U.S. and she used a calendar like nobody I’ve ever seen and I learned from her how she did it and I started doing it. And it’s tremendously powerful, especially now that we’ve got electronic calendars. So, I’m not talking about high-tech stuff, I’m not talking about investing in anything fancy, but my favorite example is when her boss Michael had a medical appointment – you know, he’d come back from the doctor and he’d give her a little slip that says: The doctor wants me back in six months and I’m supposed to do this lab work and so on.

So she would put into the calendar, you know doctor’s appointment in six months. But then she’d go this extra step. She’d figure out, okay he needs lab work. She calls the doctor’s office, finds out how does it take to get information from the lab to your office after Michael’s been seen? And we say, okay two weeks. So now, she puts a second entry in the calendar, he’s got to get the lab work done at least two weeks before the visit, otherwise the visit is a waste of time – the whole reason he’s going in is to have the interpretation of the labs.

Then she calls the lab and figures out how long in advance she needs to call them to make an appointment. Well, maybe that’s a month ahead of time. So now there’s a third entry reminding her to call the lab to make the appointment – right? And then the appointment gets in the book and then the doctor’s appointment’s in the book, two weeks after that. All of this stuff.

If Michael had a report due, she’d ask him, “How long do you think it’ll take you to do it?” So she’s got now in the calendar the due date for the report, an advance notice that he needs to start working on it and then usually a week ahead of that another notice to say to him, “Michael you’re going to have to start working on your report in a week, in order to make the deadline. Here’s a one week advance notice that you might want to start thinking about it, or acquiring the materials you need or …”

DAVID ALLEN: Yeah, fabulous stuff. You know Daniel as you’re saying that, I think one of the key – key things that I’ve gotten from the cognitive science research from you and from some other folks is that our brains are absolutely brilliant at accessing long-term memory recognizing patterns. So that it recognizes things extremely well, much better than a computer can, even still, so you walk into a room you go, “There’s a room, that’s a light, that’s a person …” whatever. Your brain automatically does that. It cannot help recognizing that and putting patterns together, making sense out of it, if you well – the Gestalt of whatever it is.


DAVID ALLEN: But it can’t recall worth crap.


DAVID ALLEN: In other words, what the GTD system is all about in externalizing the brain is being to build recognition triggers out there. So for instance the executives that you talk about and I think you do that brilliantly in the book and sort of reflect how the executive consciousness really they aren’t allowed to be totally present because their world has been structured around them, to then present stuff for them to recognize, so they don’t have to remember.


DAVID ALLEN: So they freed all that up and you make the great point, which is, we need to do that for ourselves.

ANDREW MASON: It’s so cool to hear the research and data back up something that we’ve experienced in practice. Now to hear the rest of the conversation, as well as to be the first to hear others, why not join us over at GTD Connect, plus you get to save some money when you sign up. You can redeem the coupon code Podcast over at GettingThingsDone.com/podcast and clicking on GTD Connect.

That’s it for this episode and until next time, I’m Andrew J. Mason, asking you, now that you’ve listened to this podcast, what’s your next action?

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1 Comment

  1. What a mind blowing podcast! Having those best practices backed up by science may be the last missing piece to win the day and get those around you into productivity. They are the ones who should really be applying the GTD system, but unfortunately keep saying all that stuff is overkill.

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