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:

  1. 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./)
  2. 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 (next, waiting, someday, 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

7 thoughts on “Getting Things Done With Game Theory

  1. For implementing GTD you can use this web application:

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote, and also comes with mobile-web version, and Android and iPhone apps.

  2. You were pretty much ahead of the curve, the idea of gamification of GTD and now the term GAMIFICATION is ow being used for enterprise apps and not just personal productivity. The folks at Bunchball have APIs that let you gamify your website and applications, and have plugins for Salesforce and even IBM.

    Folks at DealMachine also target the salesforce.

    On the personal GTD side, you should check out Workflowy, though its just lists on steroids, and I think the first step of implementing a project is always having clear plans, the depth in categorization gives it a huge plus above RTM,Producteev and Evernote. Of course these are just lists and the drive to get things done is not gamified.

    That’s where Epic Wins, the iOS app comes in. You mentioned Chore wars, add High Score House to the domestic chores list.
    Also Aherk, a Facebook app that challenges to post embarrassing photos if a task remains undone!

    But I feel as though, at this time, most of the companies in this sphere are shying away from being the solution, but want to provide the platform, which is what Bunchball and Gamify are trying to do so as to have more enterprise clients.

    I’m certain, of course, we will hear of other apps soon.

    1. Thanks. I pretty much read a book about gamification that inspired me. But in the end I mostly dropped GTD from my life because of the limitations posted here. It does help manage the 100+ emails I get on a daily basis though.

      1. Well, would it be correct to say you have only dropped some aspects of it, since you use it to handle your email, thus getting that done?

      2. Yes you are right. I was thinking over my comments last night and I’ve pretty much integrated parts of GTD into my life. For example, I have boxes with alphabetized folders for snail mail, contracts, etc. Whenever I need to organize a project, the first thing that comes to my mind is “actionable tasks.”

        I guess what turned me off is the micro-management of your life, which is just an illusion that you’re micro-managing your life (at least in my opinion, as I wrote in this post).

        The only thing I haven’t been able to integrate successfully is the gamification of GTD—experience points for completing tasks. I’m currently working on a todo-list app. (See the Reminderer tag on this blog). This will definitely be a feature now!

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