Getting Things Done & Reflexivity

I increasingly find myself obsessed by David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. In part this is because, through the almost indescribably useful Omnifocus and Omnioutliner software package, its introduction into my life has started to diminish a near constant feeling of information overload (and sometimes emotional disorientation) which had developed over two years of juggling an array of very different roles and commitments (PhD student, university teacher, freelance researcher, website editor, private tutor, researcher). However my interest also stems from the increasing realisation that GTD, as well as the extent of its popularity, actually deals with the themes of my PhD research in a more direct way then pretty much anything I have come across outside of an academic context.

My research is a longitudinal study of the internal conversations of 18 undergraduate students over two years. Drawing on the recent work of Margaret Archer, I’m interested in internal conversation because it is the medium through which human beings exercise their most characteristic (and yet under researched) faculty: reflexivity, understood, with Archer, as our capacity to evaluate our selves (desires, emotions, concerns, commitments) against our contexts (structural, relational, cultural) and form plans of action. Part of being human is working out what matters to us, what practical consequences are entailed by this and putting these into practice in an environment which intrinsically eludes our capacity to plan or control it.

Giving conference presentations on my research has sometimes been a bit tricky because Archer is getting at something very specific here and, within an academic context, it has rarely been studied in its full specificity. In the context of empirical research, once you get a grip of the concept, you soon realise quite how analytically powerful it is: it gets to something omnipresent which is at the heart of human experience.

It is not human agency as such but rather the cognitive (and non-cognitive) processes which undergird that agency and make it possible. Her work argues that this trait is universal but not uniform. Different people exercise it in different ways (e.g. for some it depends on trusted interlocutors to talk through ‘issues’ and decide what to do, whereas for others it is largely an internal and private focus) for complex reasons relating to the structural and social circumstances they encounter throughout life. Our practice of it changes throughout life but not in an entirely plastic way, as a result of many different sorts of factors, with causal consequences that impact at different levels of the human person in a way that is inherently temporal.

Furthermore, as a corollary of this, different societies at different points in time will tend to give rise to different balances of reflexive practice amongst the populace. When there’s a great deal of contextual continuity – similar circumstances and similar day-to-day experiences giving rise to similar mental topographies – the easy availability of capable interlocutors (those who understand our internal conversations because theirs are broadly similar and thus the effort involved in translating between inner and outer thought is minimised) gives rise to a more dialogical practice of reflexivity. Whereas in the increasingly differentiated, hyper-mobile, culturally diverse conditions of late capitalism, there’s an ensuing tendency towards the practice of monological reflexivity, often shaped by the ideas we have taken on board and made our own as we cut our own pathway through both low and high culture. Furthermore, the pace of social change undermines the possibility of habitual responses to everyday life: if the choices we face in daily life aren’t routine, such that ‘tradition’ and ‘common sense’ provide easy and practical guides to action, then we’re increasingly thrown back on our resources to decide what to do, how to live and who to be. A big aspect of my research is the emotional burden this places on individuals, particularly the adolescents who are the topics of my research, as well as the sources of guidance they turn to in their attempts to negotiate a satisfying and sustainable path through a social world increasingly characterised by flux and uncertainty.

I’ve long been interested in ‘self-help’ books on this level, with the massive expansion of the market (and its transformation into an enormous global industry) being, in my view, a reflection of the increasing necessity of autonomous reflexivity in conditions of modernity. I’ve seen these as ‘reflexive technologies’, tools designed to aid and support the increasingly necessary practice of reflexivity in everyday life, distinguished from older formers of moral & existential guidance with their tendency to either turn away from the stuff of daily life and/or offer what are frequently ossified traditions inapplicable to the questions of daily life.

What fascinates me about GTD is that it’s the first reflexive technology which directly concerns itself with reflexivity as such:

It is “not a system but a systematic approach” which addresses itself to a “desperate need to learn how to manage – not information but rather what things mean and how they all relate to each other”. The desperate tenor of this need stems from “how frequently everything is new”, as widespread “adoption of new technology has permitted al kinds of things to be landing in [our] e-mail and [our] voice mail, any of which could undermine what [we] think [our] priorities should be”. The unceasing flow of novel experience, the pace of human communication, makes it difficult to sustain life projects and plans simply because the inputs we rely on to formulate them tend to have much shorter time horizons than has ever been the case. GTD offers itself as a means to “deal with it in a positive, sustainable way, without it simply overwhelming you and your systems, and that you can integrate what it means to you as you recalibrate all of your commitments on the fly”. It is quite simply a blue print for precisely the sort of autonomous reflexivity which the circumstances many face in late modernity demands to live life in a productive, sustainable and satisfying way.

Will probably blog some more on this to get the thoughts out of my head. Not sure how clear the above is but at present am completely preoccupied with both how much GTD (at least as David Allen is presenting in his last book) deals explicitly with reflexivity but also how explicitly he sees the system as geared towards overcoming precisely the sort of pathologies (what I write about as the emotional burden of reflexivity) which my PhD is looking at empirically.

About Mark