Productive Living
David Allen

Hi Folks,

I discovered something profoundly relaxing lately: Giving myself permission to let my unconscious work on something that consciously I wasn't ready to make a decision about yet. Subtle, powerful, and yet spawned out of something as mundane as an overgrown stack of things to read. A smarter part of me needing to be ready for the information. Can you relate?

All the best,



Science once again gives us permission to relax

Every once in a while, I have some hard-copy printouts of web or other PDF-file articles in my "Read/Review" folder that have grown mold (not just old, but mold). Often I will simply recycle such things without a read—when I first saw it, nice idea to review it, when I get a chance; but, now that the world has moved on, no thanks...toss. But a (very) few linger. And every time I get around to looking at that folder of potentially still cool stuff to read—well, would be very interesting, but...better things to do, for now. And this may continue, for days or weeks on end. Every once in a while something takes up residence in there. Its title and topic are so wonderfully intriguing; I can't just let it go. But its vast expanse of plain columnar text, with rigorous academic notations and references, overwhelm my circuits on otherwise optimistically anticipated air travel catch-ups.

Recently I re-experienced some of this hard-boiled stuff—printouts of a couple of scientific papers from psychology journals, in small-point type, many pages long, with all kinds of technical citations. Intimidating. That's why they'd been in my Read/Review file for so long. I couldn't remember who'd forwarded them to me (later discovery: they were from Alan Nelson [thanks!]). They'd simply curled up in my blue plastic Read/Review folder/home, glanced at but undisturbed by me on many a plane ride. Why did they remain? They had the intriguing titles of "A Theory of Unconscious Thought" and "On the Goal-Dependency of Unconscious Thought." Serious potential fodder for a curious but lazy guy like myself, especially if they validated the relative effortlessness of ideal-outcome thinking, and intelligent decision-making done in my sleep, or while otherwise engaged.

In the last few years, with the task of leading our company into our next version of the great blue yonder, I can attest to the extraordinary number of tough decisions growing a business like ours (and perhaps any) entails; and how complex the potentially relevant data and variables can be. Roy Baumeister's "decision fatigue" research indicates that you can turn to toast in a few hours acting on and shouldering that responsibility. Give yourself a few years of this, non-stop, and see how you feel! Isn't there an easier way?!

Enough immature self-pity for the moment. (I only have a certain amount in that account, which I use judiciously and sparingly.) Back to the papers I just read. The good news from the research of two psychologists in Amsterdam (Dijksterhuis and Nordgren, 2006) is that decisions made after the unconscious has had time to process the inputs (based on unhooking conscious thinking from the problem or question) are almost always better—and increasingly so, the more complex the issue. And from the later paper (Bos, Dijksterhuis, van Baaren, 2007), the primary requisite for unconscious thinking and decision-making is a goal orientation.

The practical ramifications and aha's for me:

1. Don't force our team (or myself) to make decisions in the same meeting that presents all the data and perspectives. Purely conscious decision-making is quite constrained in its capacity to absorb and weigh complexities and more likely to employ limiting stereotypes and prejudices in its judgments.

2. Another validation of the power of the GTD Weekly Review. We have to make a lot of choices on the run, in the helter-skelter of our daily existence. You don't have time to think and ponder and consider all the factors. On the spot you have to agree or not to have your partner's partner over for dinner tonight. You have to decide whether you will talk to the unhappy customer yourself or not. You have to...well, ad infinitum. Putting all the potentially relevant data into your psyche every seven days (doing a thorough Weekly Review of your commitments, areas of focus, someday maybe's, time-based commitments, etc.) hard-wires your intuitive intelligence, which allows you trust (vs. hope) in your quick judgment calls. I've known this experientially for years. Now we have good psychological research data to back it up.

3. Positive outcome focus as a way to create what you want is not just a hope-it-works belief—it's verifiable as a tool to put your unconscious thinking to work. For years I've proven to myself the data about how the reticular activating system in the brain—the part of our neurology that gets programmed to recognize patterns, based upon our focus and identifications with images and outcomes—gets us to see and think things otherwise inaccessible. Now we have good data to prove that this not only impacts our conscious perceptions, but also (and perhaps more importantly) our unconscious integrative processes. At significant times in our lives, my wife Kathryn and I have created very detailed "ideal scenes" of what we want to be having and experiencing; and the success rate is truly in the upper-90% range. (Some results sooner and some later than expected; but nonetheless manifest.)

It could very well be, now that I've cleaned out my Read/Review folder, that the reason I didn't feel like reading these articles sooner was because of a much bigger picture dancing in my head, which used my unconscious processes to decide that I needed more time for my unconscious processes to get ready to integrate the contents, given where I'm going. There's something profoundly relaxing about that.



"We all have times when we think more effectively, and times when we should not be thinking at all."

—Daniel Cohen

"Thought is useful when it motivates action and a hindrance when it substitutes for action."

—Bill Raeder
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