Sun Tzu Meets David Allen: The Art of GTD is War

Terracotta WarriorRecently, I finished rereading Sun Tzu’s Art of War. For those not familiar with the work, Sun Tzu was a general in ancient China around 400 B.C. The slim tome attributed to him is an approach to warfare and strategy. Many ideas connect to the idea of Tao, such as being in harmony with nature, and understanding yourself and your enemy. One of the most important ideas is that it is better to not fight than to fight, but if you must fight, then fight with everything you have.

So, what does this have to do with us, the modern man and woman, dealing with productivity, organization, and GTD? Well, more than you might think. In my rereading of the book, I realized that many of Sun Tzu's principles apply to our own struggle; the struggle to be productive.

I'll admit that I'm not the first to take this sort of leap. The Art of War became popular with businessmen in the 80's and 90's, who thought that business struggles --mergers, acquisitions, and corporate spies-- were not all that different from war in ancient China. If you stroll through your local bookstore (or, if you prefer), you will probably find at least one or two "business" versions available.

If the idea that a military strategy book can help improve productivity, think of it like this: procrastination, interruptions, and a lack of focus are the enemies of being productive. Sometimes you can deal with them and continue your work without a problem. Other times they hinder what you want to do. At this time you must act quickly and decisively. You, as the general, must direct your forces, be they people or planners, to win the battle, and hopefully, the war.

With this idea in mind, I went through the book and found statements that I thought would help illuminate ways to combat procrastination and other "enemies." What follows are some of the more relevant ideas detailed in the book. Some have been adapted slightly to be more relevant, but without removing the underlying meaning (the first idea, for example, was originally "Combat the enemy in his own land"). So now, I give you the GTD version of the Art of War.

Combat time wasters where they occur.

I'll admit it: I have weaknesses. TV, video games, bookstores... these items can draw me away very easily from what I know I should be doing. While breaks are nice, they should not impede your work. A year from now, you won't remember what books you saw some Sunday afternoon, or if you caught your favorite show a particular week. But you will remember that the story or painting you meant to do is still not done.

When you encounter something you know can keep you from getting your work done, fight it in its own territory. For TV, set the channel to a station you can't stand, and then put the remote in a hard to access area. For video games, keep all the games stored in the desk, or if you play console games, then disconnect the console after using it and pack it away somewhere. With bookstores, go into parts of the store where nothing interests you first. I bet walking through the romance section, or mystery, or whatever it is you can’t stand, will get you out faster. The point is, if you think you can't avoid the temptation, make the temptation become work. You give yourself a chance to see if this is really what you want or should be doing.

One who excels in employing resources does not contact people twice or transport items three times.

Each time you move data, contact people, or deal with an object, you expend energy. Not just physical, calorie energy, but mental energy. While each individual action is small, they add up to a lot of lost time, lost energy, and an increase in frustration. Reducing the number of times you touch something reduces the energy spent dealing with it.

Items, either physical objects or data, should be touched twice at most: once when they are first encountered, and once when they are put where they belong. Ideas, for example, may be written on a scrap piece of paper or Hipster PDA while you're out. As soon as possible, this idea should be moved to the right place, your main hub of organizational information. I keep a slash pocket in the notes section of my planner, where I store scraps of data until they can be processed (at least once a week during my weekly review). If you buy something, put it where it belongs as soon as possible. If you have an item to discuss with someone, you should contact them only once if possible. There is usually no need to email, fax, and call a person multiple times for a single item. Of course, sometimes you do have to handle something or contact someone multiple times, but the main point is to reduce how often you handle anything so you can spend more time getting to other items.

One who knows when he or she can fight, and when he or she cannot fight, will be victorious.

There are times when you can't avoid delays, unexpected work, or even the need to be lazy. Know when to pick your battles. Don't make yourself work when you're tired and you know it will be sub-par. You just create more work for yourself later. Similarly, if something needs to get done by the end of day, don't let people interrupt you for trivial matters. Learn to say no, stop checking your email and phone mail every five minutes, and put up a 'Do Not Disturb' sign.

Almost every week, I have multiple items come to me on Thursday afternoon. I don't know why, I just know it happens. If I make plans to complete some project I already have by Thursday, it never works. So, I don’t fight it anymore. I also know that on Mondays most people I work with arrive at 8:30 am and have a 9:00 am meeting to attend, so I can't talk to anyone until at least 9:30. I don't fight that, either. I just learn to work around them and keep my pace up.

One who recognizes how to employ large and small numbers will be victorious.

Large and small numbers are your levels or resources, such as time, money, or people. Not every project is created equal. Some things take a lot of work, but have a small payoff. Others are relatively easy, but the rewards are immense. When you can properly employ large and small numbers, you can get the greatest return on the investment.

Take a good look at any project you have. Ask yourself what the benefits of the project are, how much time you're spending on it, and how much you're getting in return. Are you taking too much time on projects or duties with small returns? Or are you spending your peak energy times doing many small projects or duties, when that time would be better spent on bigger items? Be realistic in your expectations. If you’re a student, for example, an A paper may take ten hours of work, but a B paper may take five. Which do you really have time to do, and which is really important? If making an A won't raise your grade, but making a B will keep your grade the same, why spend the extra time? Similarly, if the class is really important to your degree, then see where you could save time on other projects to write that A paper.

One whose upper and lower goals travel in the same direction will be victorious.

Upper goals are long term goals, such as earning a Ph.D. or running a marathon. Lower goals are daily and weekly goals, such as writing a paper or running daily. Your upper and lower goals should compliment each other. Not all lower goals lead directly to upper goals, and you may not always have a lower goal that is part of an upper goal. But if the two are very different, you will never be able to get where you want to go.

People often spend a lot of their time working on things that won't matter in six months, let alone six years. Make sure as many of your short term goals either directly or indirectly lead you towards your long term goals. Spending time just on short term goals not only keeps you from feeling fulfilled, it also keeps you from going anywhere.

One who, fully prepared, awaits the unprepared, will be victorious.

A Chinese proverb states that no one knows in the morning what will happen that night. You might have planned that today you would complete a project or task, run an errand, or take a break. But things change, often quite quickly. A sudden new project may come up, or you might be called in from your day off because someone is sick.

If you hold on to your plans too tight, you will constantly feel disappointed when you don't finish them. You may not notice all the other things you got done; instead you only look at what is still left to do. Be prepared for change. If something you wanted to do can't be done, have alternatives available. Spending time being frustrated keeps you from looking at the opportunity available to do something else. Keep your to do list, planner, or however you track your data, handy at all times. Update it frequently with everything you need to do or might want to do. When plans change, take a look through your lists. See what else could be done. Be prepared for the unprepared.

One who is willing to let his or her dreams die will see them go away.

Dreams, goals, personal aspirations. Whatever you call them, they should help direct you on the path of your life. But sometimes roadblocks occur. People tell you to give the dream up, financial situations arise that keep you from continuing for a while, or maybe you just doubt yourself for a time. Whatever the problem, if you simply give up on your dream without a fight, you're giving up on yourself. The problems you encounter are almost always external items, items that affect any dream, and that should be dealt with as soon as possible. They should not stop your journey, but instead just detour it for a while.

Do you have something that you always wanted to do? Travel to Europe, work as a chef, make a movie? Is it on your list of goals? Why is it not on there? Well-meaning people --family, friends, and teachers-- often tell us that there are certain things we can't do. But even if they think they can't be done, that doesn't mean they're right. And they aren't the ones who have to live with wondering if it was possible or not. Give it a try; even if you don't succeed, you can at least be satisfied knowing you did everything you could.

One who is afraid to let his or her dreams die will never see them completed.

Sometimes what you want doesn't come true. It happens, no matter what you try. But don’t let that fear of failure keep you from starting. If you try and fail, you at least tried. You went somewhere. And maybe that failure teaches you that what you thought you wanted wasn't the case. But if you don't try, you can be certain you that will not succeed. You'll also waste energy wondering what would happen if you had tried. Why not spend that energy on actually trying, instead of just wondering?

Go through your list of goals and dreams, and see what you haven't started working on, or what you started but stopped soon afterwards. Ask yourself why you haven't continued with them. For some, it may be a matter of timing. For others, maybe it is a follow-up after another goal is achieved. But I bet on almost every goal you have, there is something that can be done now. Find those items, and do them. Don't let fear of failure stop you. Don't even worry about what the end goal is. For now, just take the first step. Once you've done that, find the next step you can take and do it.

For those GTD gurus out there, don't make a project out of this. Don't lay out your plan now. Just take a few steps. Once you get your momentum going, then go back and plan. Keep yourself open, see where the path takes you for a while. Once you get going, it's harder to stop that forward momentum. The planning can cause anxiety, which can keep you from going where you want. It may even be what has kept you from starting in the past. So for now, just start, and soon enough you will wonder why you every worried about starting at all.

Those who know themselves and know their enemies will always win. Those who know themselves but not their enemies will win half the time. Those who do not know themselves and do not know the enemy will never win.

Knowing yourself means knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Knowing your enemies means knowing what distracts you. If you know yourself and know your enemies, then you know the best ways to keep yourself motivated and moving. If you don't know your enemies, then you won’t be prepared to deal with distractions when they arise. If you don’t know yourself or you enemy, you won't know what it is you really want to do, so you won’t know what you should do.

Take some time to look at your goals. What do they say about you? Are they internal goals, pushed by your desire to grow? Or are they external, pushed by family, friends, or work? What about your distractions? What do they say about you? Maybe something you consider a distraction is really related to a goal you don't have. Do you work as a programmer, but really enjoy writing? Do you like to garden, but think it distracts you from your advertising work? The problem might not be that you don't know how to control the distractions, but that you don’t really know yourself.

Some people may not like the idea of waging war on procrastination, disorganization, or time wasters. It may sound a bit heavy-handed or too much like a macho guy thing. But the idea here is not simply about fighting. The way you look at the situation does affect how you react, so if you need a little more strength to stand your ground, then maybe being a little more militaristic is what you need. Similarly, if the items which threaten your time seem overwhelming, then fighting back with equal force can help keep you going.

As in the original Art of War, the most important idea here is to take action, the right action, when that action should be taken. Not all distractions require immediate elimination, and not all work should be acted on immediately. Balance in all things is the key. Be prepared to fix problems when they get in your way. Learn to use the right kind of force for the situation. And remember that losing a battle, be it a lost afternoon doing nothing or a project not finished when you wanted to, does not mean you have lost the war.

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Thanks for this excellent

Thanks for this excellent post!

I second that. A lot to take

I second that. A lot to take in if you don't have much time, but absolutely book mark worthy. I'd like to see more posts like this...


I'm glad people liked it. He he, I'm bookmark worthy. :)

sun tzu

This is the best piece I have seen on the internet so far this year. Thank you for taking the time to write this! I find it extremely timely and unique in its perspective. gc

This may just be the Testosterone, but...

Quite the opposite, I have no problem waging a full-blown war on my enemies (myself in the present, who wants that extra piece of cake and to watch 3 hours of tv, oblivious and not-caring of my future self who has to deal with the problems he created). In fact, the whole idea sounds fascinating, even romantic. This is probably just unique to me and not shared by everyone else, but I love war and war-games, the whole idea of combat is the essence of challenge, with the ultimate victory no other sport can give and the ultimate price of defeat that no other sport can match. I believe the Hurt Locker started off with the quote, "The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug."

Anyway, I found this extremely helpful, the same way I found the "Destruct-o-Matic Edition" of David Seah's Task Progress Tracker (from his Printable CEO series) much more satisfying to use by destroying tasks (especially ones I hate) by taking aim, shooting bullet holes as I make progress, and blowing the task up with an explosion cloud at the end. Or how I like to write "My Plan for World Domination" at the top of my life-goals sheet when I'm re-evaluating my goals. It just feels right.

Idk, some people may be in shock by this. Horrified, even. I've learned to accept this about myself. It does me more harm to try and resist it, I go straight into depression if I refuse to acknowledge my angry side, then I can't get ANY work done. I may just be an aggressive person, I'll accept that. There are positives and negatives to it. A big negative is if your can't control your temper, which I can, and have gotten VERY good at (to the point where other people start to get angry because I keep my cool stay calm when they're arguing with me. Kill 'em with kindness :). A big positive is you can funnel your tenacious aggression into projects you're responsible for. And think of how synonymous anger is with passion. I've noticed already I can be VERY passionate about my hobbies and life goals (career). The same goes with relationships. :) Again, there are positives and negatives, too much passion can make you obsessive and will begin to work against you.

Overall, great post, and I think I'll finally have to pick up that book.