Categories | Community Contributors | Features | Getting Started | Getting Things Done | Implementation
A Community Contribution by Michael Gorsline
As you know, in implementing GTD a fair number of people are going to fall off the wagon before they experience the sustained payoffs of effortless productivity. What separates those who fizzle out from those who go the distance? From a cognitive science perspective, the answer is pretty straight forward. The people who succeed, whether or not they are aware they’re doing it, tap into the power of honoring how the mind actually functions.
I’ve heard David Allen use an insightful phrase about a specific GTD technique. I’m not sure if he’s used it to reference GTD as a whole (let me know in the comments if you know). But I certainly think it applies: “…it is both easier, and more difficult than you would expect.” A combination of ancient wisdom and modern experimental psychology gives us a fascinating view into why GTD is paradoxically both easier and more difficult than you’d expect. And it involves elephants and their riders. It can be challenging to entertain at first, but once you get the hang of it, it can help you implement GTD. It can also do the same with any other worthwhile set of skills that takes sustained effort to learn.
The Elephant and Rider
If you’ve ever resolved to do something, and really meant it, and then found yourself not following through despite your best intentions, you’re already familiar with how this works. We have a tendency to think of our mind as if it is a unified whole. But as Jonathan Haidt points out in his extraordinary book “The Happiness Hypothesis” , the ancients were ahead of their time in realizing that the mind is not unitary at all. And cognitive and social psychology have experimentally confirmed this early wisdom. Rather than unitary our minds are much more like a rider on an elephant. The rider is the conscious part of our mind, and he is quite small compared to the huge animal he rides; just as the conscious part of our mind is dwarfed the the majority of our mind that operates outside of conscious awareness.
Now this is an exceedingly rich metaphor that can be mined for a wide array of insights. For our purposes in this article though, the rider may be able to coax the elephant if he’s got some rudimentary elephant training skills. But he’s in for a surprise if he believes that he can control the elephant’s every move. The giant beast he rides has a “mind of its own”, and when its desires conflict with those of the rider, the rider is wise to keep in mind that the elephant can go where it pleases. Power struggles with the elephant are laughable. The only way to have influence over the animal so the rider and elephant can work smoothly together is through training. How does all this elephant and rider image shed light on why some of us are able to hang in with GTD until the more substantial benefits start to roll in? Those who persevere are superior elephant trainers.
Elephant Training 101: Three Skills
Let’s look at an example. Say you’ve decided that you’re going to practice the GTD idea of ubiquitous capture. The part of your mind that resolved to capture all of your important ideas and next action items is the rider, the conscious part of your mind. And that part of your mind really might have had “its mind made up” to follow through. Perhaps you followed all of the GTD suggestions to use capture tools that are practical, reliable and enjoyable to use. And you were all set, or so it seemed. But if you forgot, or weren’t aware that most of the mind is in fact the elephant, and not the part of the mind that made the decision; before long you found yourself surprised by your actions taking a different path than your original intentions. After a week or two the elephant headed off to do something else it wanted, and your notepad languished, sitting blank-paged in your bag.
If you grasp that your mind is mostly elephant, the next question then is how do you go about training an elephant to practice GTD (doesn’t that last part sound like the set-up for a joke, the punchline of which is “very carefully”?), ubiquitous capture for our example? You’re going to need to practice three skills: 1) use repetition, 2) identify triggers for elephant wandering, and 3) watch out for the rider’s quirk.
Before we tackle these skills, a reminder is in order. You are both the rider and the elephant. It is very easy though to lapse into thinking you are just the conscious mind, just the rider. You are both. A clue that you have slipped back into mistaking your conscious mind for the whole deal is that now familiar resolving to do something you know is of value to you, and then finding yourself doing something else you didn’t intend. This clue should become a flashing red hazard light if you find yourself surprised that this could happen. You’re failing to acknowledge the elephant in your head.
Lead Him Back
The first training skill is to use repetition. You simply coax the elephant back to the habit you want to instill. In our example it would be just acknowledging that you dropped off with your intention, and simply starting again with writing things down. You might find yourself getting angry at the elephant. But that won’t help you or the elephant. The elephant isn’t likely to be persuaded by your anger. And further, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to get angry at an elephant for doing what elephants naturally do. Just lead the elephant back. And begin the practice of writing things down again. You can also remind yourself that it is in the nature of elephants to wander off. Just lead it back. This leading back again has a very Buddhist feel to it. And I’m thinking it is no coincidence that the elephant and rider metaphor likely has its roots in India, the birthplace of Buddhism.
Note the Distraction or Trigger
It is also important to briefly note why the elephant actually wandered off. What was happening when the elephant started off in the wrong direction? In practice, take a look at what pulled you off course. Was it that you were rushed, and didn’t feel like you had time to write down the item in question? Was it that simply stopped carrying your note cards? Did you choose a tool that is too cumbersome to use efficiently? Maybe you’re trying to use your iPhone and the keyboard just doesn’t lend itself to on the go entry the way that some 3 x 5 cards and a pen might. Stay on the lookout for stimuli that you know has distracted your elephant. It is also helpful to know something about the peculiarity of elephant riders.
Keep an Eye on Mr. Confabulator
As if elephant training weren’t challenging enough, here is a peculiar trait of elephant riders you’ll need to know about, as it’s universal. When the elephant engages in behavior the rider doesn’t recognize, or doesn’t understand, the rider has a weird compulsion for making excuses for the elephant. He’ll simply make up reasons for what he noticed the elephant doing. The rider is really just an inveterate story teller, and when he doesn’t know why the elephant behaved in a certain way, rather than admit he doesn’t know, he will just make up a story on the fly. This bizarre phenomenon in our metaphor has a very real neurological counterpart.
Back to our GTD example, the rider might out of thin air come up with the explanation , “Well I stopped writing because this ubiquitous capture stuff just isn’t practical,” or “ I wonder if ubiquitous capture is really necessary anyway. I can do GTD by just writing stuff down a couple times a day. That should be enough.” When the rider makes up these reasons, you will often find yourself actually believing that this is the real reason that things went awry. But if you’re on the lookout, you can spot the rider spinning tales. He does it so automatically, he is barely aware he does it, and sometimes doesn’t know at all.
Implementing GTD is both easier and more difficult than you might expect. GTD is easier than you would expect because the techniques are straight forward. They’re called advanced common sense for a reason. No GTD technique is in itself is all that daunting or difficult once you give it a try.
It is in sustaining the practice of GTD where the elephant will begin to wander. You might recognize this from other areas in your life than with GTD. If you’ve resolved to finally start playing your guitar, begin meditating consistently, or you decided that you’re going to get those workouts in regularly, you have already witnessed all of this. When the elephant wanders off we just need to guide him back. We also need to watch for patterns so we know ahead of time what is apt to trigger the elephant’s old habits. And finally we need keep in mind that the rider is apt to compulsively make excuses for any elephant behavior that puzzles him.
This whole metaphor described at length by John Haidt sheds light on why we want to do things that make sense, and then don’t do them. If you check it against your own experiences, I think you’ll find that both the ancients and the cognitive and social psychologists are onto something essential about how our minds work. Given the not always graceful dance of rider and animal, it isn’t surprising that we run into trouble now and again. But knowing that this interaction exists, and experimenting with the three training skills can put the elephant and rider into harmony. And that harmony leads to that sense of calm-effectiveness that David Allen suggests is in store for us when we stick with the practice of GTD.