Outsmarting Your Mind

I have the feeling and the hope every now and again that in 25 years what GTD teaches will be such a “given” that we may wonder what it was like to walk around with such pressure and stress from our suboptimal thinking habits.

The advent of the “knowledge worker” society has given so many of us projects and things to do that are not nearly as clear-cut as work used to be. (Can you ever create a perfect workshop, or write a perfect article for the newsletter?) It has created a world in which we’ve given our minds tremendous work to do. But we’ve also grown up trusting that our minds could (and should) handle it all from beginning to end (because, aren’t they smart!?).

The problem is, much of the pressure I witness going on for people is their mind trying to do things that it doesn’t do very well. Most people are thinking about how they should be thinking about what they should be thinking about. And then trying not to think about that! They’re not finishing the exercise of the thought process required for completing what it should be thinking about, nor ensuring that they have good trustworthy action-level systems in place to manage the task of reminding themselves about the results of what they’ve come up with in that clarifying process.

Our minds seduce us regularly. When you’re thinking of something, some part of you is convinced that because it’s so evident at that moment, it will never forget it, and will supply that information or perspective or thought at the appropriate time and place. If that were really true, that would be great. It’s not. Otherwise you would never even need an external calendar—your head would know exactly where you needed to be when (as well as having a consistently correct view of everything coming toward you in your future!).

When you make agreements with yourself about something (“I would, could, should, might, ought to, etc.”) your mind, dutiful servant that it is, will be glued to that task until it is given further instructions. With no sense of past and future in its short-term memory bank, however, it creates instant and unresolvable conflict if it has more than one thing to do. Learning how to manage this is as straightforward as learning how to scramble eggs. You just have to act from the place that is smarter than your mind.

–David Allen


How is it that our memory is good enough to retain the least triviality that happens to us, and yet not good enough to recollect how often we have told it to the same person?—Duc de la Rochefoucauld


This essay appeared in David Allen’s Productive Living Newsletter. Subscribe for free here.


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