Learning productivity is a journey. We have a good map of the territory, in the form of the Digital Productivity Pyramid. Often, when we embark on this journey – learning digital fluency, task management (GTD), personal knowledge management (BASB) and beyond – our motivation is primarily one of utility. We want to stop procrastinating, to get more things done, to excel at our work, and have a vibrant, flourishing career. GTD and BASB will absolutely help you meet those goals.
While on this journey, however, we start to realize that GTD and BASB can serve another purpose: sheer pleasure. We accomplish what we set out to do, and check items off our list of actions and goals; a sense of achievement, fulfillment, and satisfaction arises. We add notes to our collection of knowledge related to our projects, responsibilities, and interests, summarizing them and organizing them; it grows over time into a vast web of meaning, like creating a museum tailored exclusively to our interests. Through action and learning, a sense of pleasure, joy, and wonder arises.
When productivity is both useful and fun for us, it can become a way for us to cultivate virtue¹. These two primary methodologies, GTD and BASB, each have their own virtues, integrity and creativity that are cultivated with practice.
Getting things done and completing tasks more broadly allows us to cultivate reliability, integrity, and honesty. Integrity can be summarized in the following maxim: Do What You Said You Would Do (DWYSYWD, dwizzywood). There is a simple, cause-and-effect relationship between doing what we said we would do, being perceived as trustworthy, and how likely we are to succeed at what we set out to do.
If you don’t DWYSYWD, others will trust you less, and you will trust yourself less. When difficult things arise, you will be less confident that you can rise to the challenge, and will be less likely to succeed. If you DWYSYWD, others will trust you more, and you will trust yourself more. When difficult things arise, you will be more confident that you can rise to the challenge, and will be more likely to succeed.
When we realize the importance of this relationship, it becomes paramount that we follow it more and more closely. We become afraid² of not doing what we said we would do, and consider how we can make it more likely that we do what we said we would do. When we are presented with doing something, we consider how likely it is that we can actually do it, before we commit to it. And we assiduously track what we have committed ourselves to doing, so that we can ensure we do it.
GTD is an invaluable tool for DWYSYWD and building integrity. GTD ensures that you actually do what you said you would do. It breaks one word – do – into five steps: Capture, Clarify, Organize, Reflect, and Engage.
By keeping track of what you’ve said you would do (capture), processing the relevant materials as actionable or reference (clarify), sorting the output into to do-lists and other storage systems (organize), regularly looking over and reviewing what you’ve agreed to (reflect), you can be prepared to actually do what you said you would do (engage). With a solid GTD system in place, integrity becomes increasingly feasible and consistent.
With GTD, you say to yourself what you want to do, and it stares at you until you do it. You can quantifiably track whether you’re doing what you said you would do, or not. You get more things done, and it’s easier to prioritize what builds up on your task list. You track and learn how you spend your time and energy.
Without GTD, people usually don’t track or know what they’re committed to, so their sense of cause and effect is subtle and cloudy. With GTD, this becomes quite clear. You also develop a felt sense of integrity – noticing how you feel when you DWYSYWD, and when you don’t. You see that you feel good, proud, and accomplished when you DWYSYWD, and there’s a sense of suffering, guilt, and fatigue that comes with not doing what you said you would do. You also become more careful about what you put on your task list, knowing that you are making or breaking a commitment to yourself.
When we implement and use a reference system with BASB, we also have the opportunity to cultivate a specific set of virtues: creativity, flexibility, and adaptability.
BASB provides a system, structure, and occasion for creativity to emerge naturally. Our notes and files form a “network of ideas” – ideas that may not have anything in common other than our interest in them. This can provide the raw material for new projects, approaches, and ideas; the basis for completely unanticipated, novel, synthetic approaches to problems we’re facing.
Past learnings are resurfaced years later for similar projects. An article on a historical political movement can impact how you structure a project at your day job. A poem you read in a college course might change how you approach a problem in your side project, in new settings and contexts.
As creativity emerges more and more consistently, we learn to live, think, and act in ways that allow more and more creativity. Creativity feeds on itself, creating a perpetual flywheel that improves our results not just at one company or in the workplace, but across the many areas and epochs of our life.
As our creativity arises with increasing frequency and depth, a related set of virtues arises: flexibility, adaptability, curiosity, and humility.
We see that there are many perspectives on every issue, and gain the ability to see others’ perspectives, and to move between them fluidly. We become curious navigators of the sea of myriad perspectives, exploring from the small raft that is our own library of experiences, knowledge, and wisdom.
As we sail, we feel a broad, open hope, a sense of curiosity; but we also see how small we are, an invisible dot on an infinite ocean. Pierre Bayard points out that “the act of picking up and opening a book masks the counter-gesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening all the other books in the universe.”
For every book we pick up, for every skill we master, for every discipline we explore, for every quest we begin, there is another we do not. We see that there is more that we don’t know than that we do know, both as individuals (i.e., experts in one or more domains) and as humans more broadly (i.e., one species in a vast universe). With our curiosity and flexibility, comes a deep humility.
For some, this humility may be painful at first, but we can find some peace in knowing that it is the cure to many of our problems. Many humans, on discovering or creating something new, err tragically, becoming overconfident, brash, and arrogant, thinking that because they know one small thing, they know everything.
Take, for example, the quiet but giant leap between science and scientism, characterized by Alan Wallace in The Taboo of Subjectivity. Science is “a discipline of inquiry entailing rigorous observation and experimentation, followed by a rational, often quantitative, analysis; and its theories characteristically make predictions that can be put to the empirical test, in which they may turn out to be wrong, and the theory is thereby invalidated.” Its ideals are objectivity, skepticism, and pragmatism. Scientism is “the doctrine that science knows or will soon know all the answers and has been said to judge disbelief in its own assertion as a sign of ignorance or stupidity.” Science as a useful discipline is transformed into a religious dogma.
As explorers of the realm of knowledge, equipped with the cutting-edge tools BASB provides us, we can instead take the attitude of Charlie Munger, to avoid “intense ideologies”:
“I have what I call an iron prescription that helps me keep sane when I naturally drift toward preferring one ideology over another. And that is I say ‘I’m not entitled to have an opinion on this subject unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people who are supporting it. I think that only when I reach that stage am I qualified to speak.’”
At first, we might seek to develop our skills in digital productivity for pleasures or gains, for a promotion or idle pleasure. And there’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever. But as we do that, it becomes increasingly possible to use productivity systems and second brains for another, higher purpose: the development of virtue and moral character. GTD and sound task management cultivate honesty and integrity; BASB and reference systems can help us to cultivate a humble creativity. And, perhaps most importantly: in this pursuit, we see that the cultivation of our virtues can be fun and playful.
¹ In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes three kinds of friendship: friendships of pleasure, utility, and virtue.
² In Buddhism, moral shame and fear are considered virtues, wholesome states. These are regret about past actions, and fear that we will do something harmful in the future. This is separate from an unwholesome sense of worry.
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