Getting Things Done With Game Theory
Several months ago I bought the book Getting Things Done. I was utterly disappointed. It has the smell of hokiness and psuedo-science. How is that? No matter how you organize your life, your time and energy are ultimately limited. And if you do too many things at once, you fall into the “jack of all trades, master of none” trap—where you “do” a million things but do none of them well.
In fact, at my job, that’s what I see—coworkers who use Getting Things Done (GTD) or a variant of this system often lull themselves into a false sense of productivity. “Yeah, we can do a million things at once.” When in reality, they do them all really badly, or as what often happens, they end up doing only the projects they care about.
Still, I kept seeing “GTD” in the Internet, so it must be doing something right. And then I read Reality is Broken—a book that takes everything that makes games so successful and tries to apply it to hacking life (improving reality). It became apparent that GTD has elements of a good game—that’s why it’s so popular! But we can use game theory to make it much better:
- GTD needs a compelling story. We already know about the need to organize our lives, so we just need inspiration to use GTD. Unfortunately, as I said above, I wasn’t impressed by the hokey psuedo-science Allen uses to sell his method. What if we tried realism? No matter how you organize yourself, your time and energy resources are always finite. What this means is that you have to be honest with yourself—what is it that you want to do with your life? How do you want to spend your time and energy? GTD will help you organize these dreams (because that’s really what we’re talking about) and at the very least, help you keep track of everything else. (So yes, you still might forget your son’s birthday—/if that’s not important to you./)
- GTD needs clearly defined and easy-to-understand rules and objectives (satisfying work). In GTD, tasks must be clearly defined and actionable. So far so good but then there are at least four types of tasks (
started) and a tagging system and a separate categorization system. The result is a complex system that well, is too complex to use effectively. So let’s keep it simple—/one/ type of task, a simple tagging system, and a simple categorization system.
- GTD needs unnecessary obstacles (it needs to be fun). The problem I had with GTD is that I never processed the inbox, so it turned into a type of “black hole”—tasks went in but never came out. Paradoxically, I found one of the most important parts of GTD boring and a waste of time. So why don’t we borrow a page from Chore Wars? In Chore Wars household chores become World-of-Warcraft-type levels—players run around doing things like completing secret “missions” (chores) and gaining experience points. It turns out that these unnecessary obstacles spur creativity, turning boring chores into fun. So why don’t we do the same with GTD? In the interest of privacy (you don’t want to broadcast sensitive tasks to the world) and efficiency (you’re using GTD because you’re strapped for time), what if we give ourselves “experience points” every time we complete a project or process the inbox? We could even reward ourselves for every certain number of experience points.
- GTD needs to make failure fun (give us the hope of doing better next time). A well-designed game does a good job of motivating you to keep trying when you fail. Reality is Broken argues that failing becomes an invigorating experience when it is accompanied by a feeling of “agency”—if we feel that our actions produced failure (agency), then we will also feel that our actions can produce success, so we keep trying. In GTD, as long as keep the rules simple, then this feeling of agency becomes stronger. So far so good. Now we just need to some positive feedback—what if we reward ourselves when we fail? The sting of missing an important task is punishment enough. We might as well turn it into a positive experience.
- GTD needs to be social. Well, not really, but if we want to keep “playing” GTD, then it will need to be a social game. So why don’t we borrow another page from Chore Wars and compete with co-workers or family members to complete tasks?