In this episode, Robert and Todd discuss the latest controversial topic of anti-fragility and how it relates to your GTD® practice.
watch time: 29 mins
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0:00:05.4 Robert Peake: Welcome everyone to another Change Your Game with GTD podcast. My name’s Robert Peake, and I’m here with Todd Brown.
0:00:11.9 Todd Brown: Hello everyone.
0:00:12.8 RP: Hey Todd. In this podcast series, we talk about something called Getting Things Done or GTD, a methodology that can apply equally well to your life and to your work to support you in getting more done with less stress. If that sounds like magic or impossible or how could this be, stick around, because there is a lot to unpack on this topic and on the methodology in particular. Our hope is that in these conversations, we give you some practical insights, some things you could take away that will support you in doing just that. So, Todd, one of the topics… We do take topics or suggestions from listeners, one of our listeners latched onto this fairly somewhat I guess new or newly in the zeitgeist concept called antifragility, and we talk a lot about resilience, which is the ability to bounce back from adversity. And I think we’ve spoken to some extent about how GTD can help you create greater resilience in life and work.
0:01:19.6 RP: But antifragility goes a step further, and the idea here is that some systems, and again, they were talking about complex systems like robotic systems or whatever, actually thrive in adversity to some extent, or they take situations that are negative feedback or challenging or whatever, and not only bounce back from it, but bounce further. They learn, they grow, they adapt, they improve. And in fact, the main idea of antifragility is that they actually only improve through adversity, rather than through things being at a status quo or a steady state. So I thought that was a really interesting idea, and in particular, recognising the idea that challenges or adversity could actually represent opportunity. So I just wonder if you have any initial thoughts to kick us off and finally address one of these topics that one of our listeners was interested in.
0:02:21.8 TB: Yeah, I think it’s fascinating. I think it’s an angle that we don’t address directly very often, do we, in the thinking that we do. But I think it’s so reflective of a mindset, which is… We’re speaking here in the few months since Elon Musk took over Twitter, talked about generating an incredibly hardcore environment, and if you weren’t interested in working in a hardcore Twitter as an employee, then you should probably be working somewhere else. Also in the area… In the era just after the pandemic of quiet quitting and there seemed to be these two… I’m simplifying to a certain extent, but there seems to be this spectrum. On the one hand, hey, the only way to live is flat-out work hard, play hard, that’s where truth and progress and worth lies. And at the other end of the spectrum, there seems to be this idea that, well, I’m gonna do what I need to do to get by, but not very much.
0:03:27.1 TB: And I think this whole idea of antifragility lives more toward the, as it were, the Elon Musk end of the spectrum. But that said, I think it’s absolutely worth thinking about. To what extent do we think… Well, maybe you and I can talk about, do we agree, right? Do we think that antifragility is something that’s valuable? Do we think that we should be trying not to be fragile? And do we think that living in a state of challenge, of stretch on a regular basis, do we think that’s a valuable thing, or maybe not such a valuable thing? And then secondly, how does GTD fit into all of that? I think it’s a… As you said, I think it’s a fascinating place to start.
0:04:10.2 TB: My initial… I guess my initial reaction is we spend a lot of time in GTD talking about the creation of some… We talk about enabling what we call the productive experience. And the productive experience is this state of flow, this sort of state of you’re focused, you have the confidence that you’re focused on the right things, you’re undistracted, you are not stressed, you are… You have a sense of control. And that is, I think, for a lot of people, a very attractive picture, absolutely. And I also think it brings with it this kind of calm, or an implication anyway, of calm. And yet as I think about the clients that I’ve worked with over the years, quite a lot of them would describe, despite the fact that they’re very successful people, I mean, looking at them professionally and personally, very professional, sorry, very successful, and at the same time not really living in something that many people would identify as being a state of Zen-like calm.
0:05:20.9 TB: They are focused, and they are, in many cases, not terribly stressed, again, maybe that comes from the fact that they have developed the ability not to be fragile. But at the same time, they are trying to tame the whirlwind, a lot of them. So, that’s maybe just some kickoff ideas in a very big and very rough nutshell. That imply anything to you, or does that make any sense to you?
0:05:52.7 RP: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. And I think maybe one of the things we need to define here or stake down to some extent, which I think GTD helps with a lot, is the idea that when it comes to adversity, I don’t think anyone would advocate wanting to create that for yourself necessarily or courting that, courting great challenge in terms of that being difficult or overwhelming for you necessarily. But the idea that you’re able to welcome adversity, difficulty, challenge, maybe, is hope… Is what I think a little bit more of what we’re talking about. Well, actually, prior to this, we were in a meeting with some of our other fellow associates talking about the fact that GTD helps you to not create emergencies and crises so that they happen, that it exists, that life throws that at you, but that it’s not…
0:06:52.1 RP: That GTD supports you in getting out ahead of those things by doing the thinking upfront about what’s come your way, by being able to regularly review a system that you trust. You’re not the source of unnecessary adversity, I guess, is maybe one way that I would put it. But I think welcoming challenge and also choosing to take on healthy challenge, I think, is more of the space that we’re talking about in terms of how GTD supports us. So pushing yourself maybe a bit in a particular direction but not necessarily living in chaos or that level of self-inflicted wounds, maybe, shall we say. That kind of thing. So I’m curious about maybe if there are any kind of practical examples where difficult situations made you better, and in particular around GTD systems.
0:07:49.9 RP: One that comes to mind for me is a small example, wasn’t directly me, but a family member of mine who’s a GTDer, suddenly found themselves caring for another family member, actually two family members who’ve had some challenges, had an accident. And they had very specific requirements around medication and diet and support, just ongoing support, to deal with what was essentially a bit of an unexpected crisis. And so I was working with this person who was also kind of systems-orientated and maxed out, frankly, in terms of this new thing being really intense, a really intense situation. And what we discovered together is creating systems in that moment, creating routines, creating habits, creating charts for the medication and pill boxes and various things around that, all of which really derived from GTD principles, even though they weren’t specifically project and action lists; they were following the principles of, hey, let’s figure out what the kind of the bite sized action is when it needs to happen, and how we can set up your future self, in this case, the relative who is a carer.
0:09:02.1 RP: How we can set up your future self so that even if you’re tired, even if you’ve got a lot going on, whatever, we can make this manageable and sustainable in terms of how you are dealing with what you have to deal with moment to moment, rather than having a lot in your head on top of having to deal with all the logistics of that. And the result of that, the net of that, was that then when the crisis is over, the systems around supporting this person that needed the support had improved, had gotten considerably better, such that there was more capacity, I think overall, I know I’d say to be able to handle those kind of routines and those kind of situations really well, right? It’s all documented, it’s all really set up nicely. If something like that happened again, they’d be ready for that. And being an older relative, it’s good to be prepared for that kind of thing.
0:09:58.5 RP: So it was a crisis point, a flashpoint of that, but I think it was also a moment of potentially demonstrating how systems, bringing in good systems and learning from that adversity, makes those systems that you use to kinda run your life less fragile, more resilient as a result. I don’t know, does anything come to mind maybe in your life or others you’ve coached and worked with about getting better ’cause you had to, in a sense?
0:10:26.4 TB: Yeah. I’m reminded of the quote from David Allen, “The better you get, the better you’d better get,” because as one of the things that we find is that as… And this is… You can understand that with a sort of a performance lens, right? So the better you get at getting things done, the boss notices, the rest of the team notices, and all of a sudden, you’ve got more to do, right? Because you can deal it with it in that way. But I think you could also understand in terms of, as you say, sort of practice and systems of getting things done. So yeah, I mean, I’m… Just a personal story. So when I was just getting started with GTD, really, I was working in a big financial institution and in a sort of a leadership role in the learning and development function.
0:11:10.3 TB: And I remember getting tasked with a project, was basically setting up a new office and making sure that the new office was capable, had the staff and the skills ready to go to do the things that we needed to do in that new office. And as I was having the meeting with my boss to talk about it, I have to say, I had not clue one about what I was gonna do and how I was gonna do it. I mean, just… It was a brand-new challenge to me. Nothing, I’d ever really, quite frankly, even thought about much. But one of the things that I found was having identified the outcome, and I did spend some time with my boss sort of painting a very vivid picture of what does done look like, right? What is the completion state? That not only did the things that were going to be necessary to make the project successful start to occur to me, right? We talk about in our one of the models, we talk about the natural planning model, how once you’ve identified an outcome that your brain very naturally starts to fill in the gaps between where you are now and that outcome. And that did happen.
0:12:22.1 TB: I got all kinds of ideas about things that needed then to get focused on. But I also found that it made it really clear what some of the limitations were in my system and in how I was using my system. And as I think about work that I’ve done with clients over the years, sometimes you find that people are in new roles… Let’s just pick an issue that’s fairly common. Like very, very intense email volumes all of a sudden, right? In their old role, they weren’t in management. They got an email volume that seemed to be more or less manageable. Now they’re just off the scale and they’re just feeling like they’re completely outta control. And so, the world can sort of mandate or the role that you’ve got can sort of mandate not just changes in the content of your system, but also in your system itself and how you use it. And so, I guess that’s a… Try to sum that all up in a bit of a hopefully a bit of a pithy summary would be that you…
0:13:25.4 TB: We are… I think naturally, we grow into, again, not just the evolution of the content of our system, but also in the ways that we use the system and the way that they’re structured. And in some cases, the technology that we use in our systems, that can also have, I think, an impact on it. That’d be my quick take. That’s a quick take.
0:13:51.5 RP: Yeah. No, no, that’s great. That’s great. Yeah. And I think as I’m hearing you talk about that and how… With the new challenge, you immediately started to clarify some outcomes. We’re just… Brings me back to that fundamental thing in GTD about not having problems, only projects, that you see situations that are potentially difficult, challenging, et cetera, simply as something where you have a desired outcome that’s not yet been… It’s not yet been achieved, right? And sometimes, suddenly, the desired outcome is get back to, or even potentially get better than, the place you were in before. It brings to mind, too, my wife and I were chatting just last night about, she has a friend, former colleague who’s British, living in Germany. So, you may have come across this term or concept. I know you do a lot of work in Germany and speak German. The concept of kritikfähig. It’s one of those wonderful words with an umlaut on the A, I’m probably saying it wrong. You could probably say it better than me.
0:14:56.7 TB: Yeah, well done. Well done.
0:14:58.7 RP: But the notion that it is a virtue to be able to take criticism well. And my understanding is there’s a little bit of a caveat in there in that part of the culture around kritikfähig is that the criticism that’s being offered is constructive, right? And I would say by constructive, immediately to me, constructive criticism is actionable criticism. So it’s very interesting, I think, to me that situations where, we avoid criticism, right? We don’t want criticism. We don’t want negative feedback. We want to know that things are… That we’re good girls and boys and doing a good job. But that actually anytime criticism comes in that is of a constructive nature, that’s because it is actionable. There is something to do by way of changing an outcome, putting something into your system, finding a way to support yourself in whether it’s a habit or behaviour change, or to course-correct some aspects.
0:15:56.8 RP: And generally, it involves either taking on an action or adjusting one you were planning to do to not do it or do it differently in terms of the standard of it or what it is, or even to pivot into a whole ‘nother direction. And that to me, that is a form of kind of antifragility, is that this kritikfähig concept. And that actually very much I think meshes with the GTD mindset of, “Look, this is just course correction.” There may be still the emotional component of, “Oh no, I did it wrong,” but there’s very much a practical component of, “What do I need to put into my system to support me in using this to my betterment rather than my detriment?” I don’t know. You know more about this culture than I do, so I’m very curious, your hot take on kritikfähig and GTD.
0:16:47.0 TB: Yeah, well, again, and it’s of course incredibly dangerous to generalise about any culture, but I think what is fair to say that in the time that I’ve lived and worked in Germany over the many years, what I found was that conversations between friends that I’ve… I would have conversations with friends, they would be much more likely to be challenging, right? And it was meant in a positive way, generally speaking, as you say. There’s this sort of expectation that if I bring up something which is challenging for you or someone else I’m in conversation with, that’s not a negative thing. But anyway, I mean, that’s probably a whole ‘nother podcast and probably a series of podcasts, to talk about cultural differences. And that was again, just my personal experience.
0:17:30.7 TB: But I think what you’ve hit on there is an important idea. And as I’ve been thinking about my own experience of this over the years, my sense is that I tend more, and this also might be a function of age, okay, so I just need to put that out there, but I tend more as I get older to just sort of feel like what is coming my way is just interesting input, right? So I’ll give you an example. Last night, I was in a conference call, I was going through attending a train-the-trainer thing about someone else was running on GTD and watching them deliver the content. And what I found was that as ideas were being expressed, there were about a dozen people in this online event, as ideas were being expressed, I was quite often saying to myself, “Hmm. Now that’s interesting. That’s something that I might want to adopt.” And somebody else would say something and they’d say… And I’d say, “Oh, that’s quite interesting.”
0:18:29.1 TB: What I’m getting at was, I was being much more open than I probably would have been 20, 30, 40 years ago to the possibility that I want to make change. So what I’m getting at is the critique, if you will, wasn’t external; it was internal, right? But I wasn’t viewing it as, “Oh, this is imperative,” or “I must” or “there’s something wrong with me because I haven’t already implemented this cool idea.” It’s just interesting information, right? And I think… I’m going to slightly paraphrase David Allen, but David, I’m sure, has talked about exactly this issue, right? When you’ve got… I think the quote goes something like, “When you’ve got your act together, there are no interruptions, there’s just information that has the potential to enrich your world.” And again, I think that might well be a side benefit of the work that we do, is that over time, we get more… Maybe we become just more naturally antifragile as a result of what we do and how we do it. There you go. What do you think?
0:19:36.3 RP: In the spirit of kritikfähig, I’m going to challenge you on that one. And by the way, first, I completely agree, it’s important not to over-generalise about any one culture. I think it’s just interesting sometimes that we have the assumptions of our own culture challenged when we see a different one and see, oh my gosh, they have a word, for example, that we don’t even have in our culture for something. But I don’t know that it’s always necessarily true that wisdom comes with age, as King Lear had said. I shouldn’t have been… Should not have been old till I had been wise, I think. I have had the experience of some people even in my own life and world sort of shrinking away from adversity over time or choosing to interpret difficult or challenging events as events that deterred them from wanting to take on other stretches or challenges. So, I think it depends. I think that maybe there’s a bit of a mindset that either supports seeing challenges as opportunities or potentially the opposite. I don’t know. And I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on if any of that meshes with kinda the GTD approach to the mindset.
0:20:56.4 RP: For me, one… Just another practical example, and I’d love to also hear from you what your kinda go-to… Maybe some of your go-to tools are for dealing with adversity a la GTD. One for me was that I recently was… Had something that most people would say is a great opportunity, a new kinda client opportunity come forward, but I was seeing it as a challenge. I was seeing it as potential adversity and potential detraction from some of the other things that I was doing. So there was an inner conflict of, “Do I wanna go ahead with this kinda thing?” And it almost felt like some of the other things I was already doing were potentially under threat, if you like, by having this new opportunity and this conflict of, “Well, I ought to, but what if it’s too much and what if it’s not right,” and so on and so forth?
0:21:45.1 RP: So, one of my go-to GTD practices was indeed the desired outcome approach, and specifically getting really clear. So I just did a mind map. I just said, “Ideal client engagement around this new opportunity. What is ideal?” And just started drawing spokes. Actually, technically, I think it’s a spider diagram. And spokes of all the different aspects and elements of that. And then another little exercise around the casting my mind forward into the pros and cons and how would I know it was a good decision or not. But doing that bit of work and thinking then clarified the project around negotiating what’s possible in relation to this particular new opportunity. And suddenly, the whole thing shifted inside of me from, “This is a threat,” or “This is something that is outside of my comfort zone and therefore uncomfortable,” to “Okay, I know what’s gonna work for me or not work for me, and I have a clear next step to go into that conversation prepared to share what and how things would work for me.”
0:22:50.0 RP: So, curious, what your kinda go-tos are in adversity, and also if you think that GTD supports more of that growth and antifragile mindset as we grow in life experience, shall I call it, not necessarily age, but increase our life experience that’s behind us.
0:23:11.5 TB: And I’m completely with you that I don’t think that necessarily… And I love the reference to Lear, by the way, but that necessarily wisdom and age go together. And I have also experience of people in my life and in my family even who, as they’ve gotten older, have become more restricted, in many ways. But anyway, the… To answer your question, I think it’s an interesting… My go-to, and I love… By the way, I love the idea of, let’s get ourselves a desired outcome. Let’s figure out what does done look like, because we know there’s magic in that. There’s a great quote from Goethe, and I think I’ve quoted it in one of our other podcasts, “Whatever you believe you can achieve, begin it, because beginnings have power and light in them.” I think I’m getting that more or less right, translated from the German. And I absolutely love that. But it implies, of course, that you understand what does done look like. So what is it that you wanna achieve?
0:24:15.4 TB: Speaking though about my… Sort of my go-to, it… In situations like that, it’s absolutely sit down with a blank piece of paper, very old school, and just do a mind sweep. You call the… I’m not sure, in your example, you were talking about doing a spider diagram. I’m not sure whether you’d call that an organised thing or whether that was just more or less a big capture exercise. But it’s basically just dump all of the ideas that I’ve got about this, and get ’em all down. And that brings… In my experience, it’s… I’m reminded of that phrase, “It’s important to see the monster.” Horror movies are much more freaky when you have not seen the monster yet. The classic example of that, of course, is Alien, where you see the monster sort of toward the beginning, and then you don’t see much of the monster for quite a long time. So seeing the monster. Once you’ve got it down on paper, you’ve seen the monster, in a sense. So now you know the scope of this, this rough scale and shape of this, and that activity all by itself tends to bring some… It makes… Well, it makes me personally much calmer about most situations, because it feels like now I’ve got more of a sense of what’s there.
0:25:34.8 TB: So that would be kind of my go-to. And then… And we mentioned it a couple times today, but the natural planning model, for those of you who haven’t run into it, chapter three in David Allen’s first book, in the book Getting Things Done, is a great way, if you’ve got something like this, to give some… Just some structure to your planning. And it’s a very lightweight model, if you don’t have experience of it, so it’s not like you have to go through a master’s degree to learn how to use it. It’s described in the book in half a dozen pages, I think, something like that. But it’s very powerful if my goal is to make sure that I’ve looked at whatever the situation is that I’m facing from all of the helpful angles. So I can heartily recommend that as well.
0:26:14.7 RP: Great stuff. And really, I think a rich conversation and lots more we could touch on. But I think we’re coming up near time of how long these podcasts usually run. So, slightly more philosophical. We got a little Goethe and Shakespeare in there, but hopefully also practical or at least inspiring for those of you that have been looking at, how do I… Maybe you’ve come across the concept of antifragility and kind of look at, “Well, if GTD is talking about working smarter rather than harder and relaxed or stress-free productivity, how does that fit in?” Or maybe you are just feeling like you need to either challenge yourself or you’re in the middle of dealing with a challenging situation and wondering how GTD fits with that, hopefully this has been useful context and practical experiences from us. Todd, parting thoughts in terms of how to support yourself and your systems in being antifragile, whether it’s a mindset or practical steps or any of that…
0:27:27.8 TB: Maybe just a quick… Yeah. Just a quick mindset thing, and what I would say is, hey, start with the question, to what extent is antifragility interesting to you? Because if it’s not, then don’t go there.
0:27:41.5 RP: Fair enough.
0:27:42.2 TB: If it is, great. I think some of the things we talked about today might be helpful.
0:27:45.1 RP: Yeah. Fair enough. Fair enough, and good point. I think it’s a little bit of an outlier, to some extent, but also, I think there’s some ways in which it was really quite spot-on in terms of how it meshes with the mindset of, the better you get, the better you better get, and some of those elements of GTD. So, thanks, as always, for another rich, interesting conversation. For those of you tuning in, if this did seem interesting, please be sure to like and subscribe and submit thoughts and questions. If you go to next-action.co.uk, you can just hit Contact Us and submit your thoughts, questions, rebuttals, challenge us. We’re pretending to be critique-open to some… To whatever extent. And also, very curious of your thoughts about how you found all of this. Meanwhile, from me, from Todd, hopefully this gives you some food for thought and the opportunity to hopefully go away and at least consider that whatever your next challenge might be that comes your way could also be an opportunity. From us, bye for now.