Getting Things Done & Subjective Freedom

Written on June 15, 2015. Written by .

I read David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done” several years ago and I’ve been using a simplified version of his system ever since. It feels efficient and I think it’s probably necessary to have a system like it to be highly productive.

The book doesn’t discuss the psychological implications of productivity optimization, however. At one point I took a step back and noticed that for the prior six months I had felt busy nearly every day. At the beginning of that period I had moved to a new city, so I thought it made sense that I would have a lot to do to settle in. But after six months, that excuse didn’t make sense anymore. In fact, not only did I feel busy, but I felt almost like a robot that was just executing the orders on the task list whenever I had any available time. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to get the list of important action items below 8-10 items, and that just felt like too much. It actually discouraged me from doing other activities because I felt that I would prefer to get the tasks out of the way first.

One thing I noticed was that I was putting some tasks on the list that I never needed written down before, like getting groceries, doing laundry, cleaning, and buying supplies. Sometimes these would linger on the task list for a while because I didn’t have the energy or it wasn’t convenient. All of these were things that were important to do, but the act of planning them actually made me feel more busy.

The lesson I learned is that planning something in advance actually feels quite similar in many cases to having an obligation, even if you yourself made the plan. So for example, if you make plans to meet with your friends every day, you might still enjoy seeing them, but you will likely feel quite “busy” because you don’t get the feeling of subjective freedom that you would get if you had done the exact same thing spontaneously.

Unfortunately, most people are objectively fairly busy, which means it might be difficult to have a social life that doesn’t involve making advance plans. But we can try to be more spontaneous with our personal tasks.

I think everyone acknowledges that spontaneity is desirable, but the important observation for me is that spontaneity is the primitive mind’s definition of freedom. We may think that following our own plans is freedom, but the more primitive parts of our minds might not see it the same way that our conscious minds see it.


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