When I first read “Getting Things Done”, by David Allen, I had a few “a-ha moments”. Some of them grew into bigger breakthroughs that eventually became part of my routine, but some of them slowly faded away, despite the initial excitement. In today’s post I want to write about one of these forgotten – or should I say “outdated”? – productivity approaches.
At some point in the book, David Allen talks about “you should never have the same thought twice, unless it’s a pleasant one” . This is not the exact phrase, just an approximation from the top of my head. Back then, I found this fascinating, and, to a certain extent, liberating. Allen’s point was that our minds tend to get clogged with the same thoughts that are resurfacing uncontrollably, hijacking our focus in an endless spiral. GTD solution to this was a process called “empty your mind”. In this process you take out those thoughts (or plans, or desired actions) from inside your mind and put them into an outside system that you can trust. You basically write down everything that comes into your focus. Once your mind was “emptied”, those recurring thoughts shouldn’t bother you anymore.
In time, though, I started to distance myself from this approach. Having the same thought more than once proved to be useful to me, many times. For example, by looking at the same problem from different angles I was able to devise better solutions. I eventually came up with my own productivity framework, Assess-Decide-Do, which is very brainstorming-friendly (if you want to know more about ADD, feel free to download the iPhone / macOS app I wrote on top of it, ZenTasktic, it’s free – as in free beer).
As I started to see the benefits of staying with a problem longer than I used to, I also found other perks of entertaining the same thought more than once, even if (or especially if) it’s not a pleasant one.
First of all, chasing only pleasurable things in life is a great recipe for frustration and failure. You can’t have only pleasurable things (or thoughts) in this life, it’s simply impossible. There is very little control we can exert on our environment, and even our own reactions to the environment are somehow on auto-pilot. So, numbing our reactions to pain or annoyance will only take out more “liveness” from our lives, it won’t generate, as we probably expect, a lighter and more enjoyable existence.
Second, by staying with an unpleasant thought longer, I was able to finally see some patterns, to observe how the thought arrived, why and where did it go. Had I not allowed this thought to fully form and stay with me, I would never have understood some deeply rooted unconscious behaviors – most of them harmful, as you can imagine.
But probably the most important – and surprising – perk of allowing myself all kind of thoughts in my mind, not only pleasant ones, was the value of repeating myself. Yes, you read that right. There is tremendous value in repeating yourself.
Repeated thoughts eventually become behavioral patterns and they literally shape your life.
By choosing what I was able to repeat about myself, or to myself, I designed a certain life path. Yes, some of these repeating thoughts were unpleasant, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t important. Some of these thoughts were painful, yes, but that’s how I learned resilience. Some of these thoughts were annoying, but that’s how I learned to allow a certain level of annoyance in my life, if only for a deeper enjoyment when that annoyance was gone.
Even on this very blog, I touch the same topic many times, from many angles. Lately I wrote about habits from 3 different angles: gravitational habits, reusable habits and free time anxiety. All articles are about the same thing, but they’re talking about it from 3 different places. Would this hurt my Google rankings? Probably yes, it already did. Would this be more consistent with how I see life and how I do thing? Definitely.
And this is what counts for me.