Evolving GTD: A life design system that takes you into account

GTD is incredible and the best thing I’ve done to increase my knowledge-work efficiency over the past 2 years. In this essay I analyse it from a cognitive function point of view and find a crucial limitation. I then suggest a way of improving GTD to deal with this crucial limitation. (This essay assumes familiarity with GTD.)

GTD and what it is missing

GTD claims to be an attention-management system but really it is a distributed cognition system. It externalises your memory by having Capture take care of everything, it takes advantage of situated cognition by forcing you to write down information in an actionable format and having context lists, and so on.
Distributed cognition is the key to doing whatever you want to do. That is the way you work – according to Misnky – as a bunch of agencies each with a really small task each. This is the way that  governments and companies work, where increasingly a single agent performs a small task and an administrative bureaucracy grows to take care of agents below it at every level.
Now, GTD is the result of trial and error and you need to use it and to learn to use it and adapt it to yourself. But there is low hanging fruit in the fact that few people comprehensively think about it and it’s results versus what they want to achieve. By doing so I believe I got a significant piece that GTD is originally missing that improves it immensely.
The piece is that GTD is not an evolutionary system. It does not evolve. I mean it does, when you adapt it a bit, but in a totally haphazard way. What is needed is a system that forces GTD to evolve, for your needs.

The solution

Keeping in mind that everything that is needed for evolution is Variation of organisms (variation of GTD setups), Selection of organisms (selection of GTD setup characteristics) and Retention (selection of GTD setup characteristics), here is a first pass at a solution.
Define design constraints (selection criteria). In my case these are:
  1. Areas of concern must map to real areas
  2. Projects must move areas of concern forward
  3. Actions must move projects forward
  4. Actions must lead to a nice experience
The first constraint ensures that my written down areas of concern map to my felt senses of the things I actually care about, and not the things I could in a socially accepted fashion care about, or things that are easy to put down into words or verbalise. The second constraint ensures that projects map to the things I care about. The third constraint that my actions move projects forward. These three constraints together ensure that what I do on a day to day basis is directly relevant to my ultimate concerns. The fourth constraint limits my day to day actions to those that lead to a nice felt experience – it is a poor result either if a) I have a nice experience but the things I care about are not moved, or b) The things I care about are moved but my life (feels like it) sucks.
The totality of these constrained are aimed at avoiding both those scenarios and moving me into the “My life is pleasant and the things I care about are being handled” scenario.
With the constraints in place you can create a full evolutionary system. Again, recall that evolution only needs Variation, Retention and  Selection. The criteria of selection have been defined.
Variation & Retention is taken care off by choosing (Variation) areas of concern, projects, and action; taking into account the results of the selection process (retention).
Putting it all together, in an abstract form, the system looks like this:

Components of an evolutionary system

  1. Variation & Retention – Hypothesis
    1. I choose (Variation)
      1. areas of concern
      2. projects
      3. actions
        taking into account the results of the selection process (Retention)
  2. Selection – Test
    1. How actions fulfil life
    2. How actions fulfil projects
    3. How projects fulfil areas of concern
    4. How the selection process is itself


My actual implementation is as follows:
– Every day I diary on how my day was like (this keeps records of my lived experience)
– Every week I summarise my daily experience and think about how my actions mapped to projects, how projects mapped to areas of concern, and how those areas of concern are what I care about
– I save all of this knowledge in a knowledge repository (Retention)
– Then I choose action for the next week, taking into account the original constraints plus the knowledge in the knowledge repository (Variation & Selection)
– Every month I choose areas of concern and associated projects taking into account the original constraints plus the knowledge in the knowledge repository (Variation & Selection)
– Every month I review the whole system, especially the selection constraints: what is my felt sense of the past month, of the past day, of the past week? Am I moving forward in the right direction, is my life where I want it to be?

Final thoughts

Notice how powerful this system is, flowing with you, changing itself as your felt sense changes, constantly responding to new information instead of discarding it. It is not a “work system” or a “productivity system” not even an “attention management system” but a constantly-updated-respondant-to-your-felt-sense-experience-and-knowledge life design system.
It is lighter than GTD, and it evolves with you and your self-knowledge. You can see each actions/projects/areas of concern choice as a hypothesis and each daily and weekly review as a test for your set of hypothesis. Over time the system allows you to evolve theories about yourself that accurately match your desires of how life feels like and what you are about, the somethings that you do.

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