Structured play and its GTD relevance

With all my OCD like behavior in terms of the proper application of GTD and my relatively rigid adherence to its workflows, do I actually get to be creative at all? When discussing aspects such as the GTD workflows with people and explaining how I implement GTD, it’s a question that often comes up.

A controlled freedom to be creative

The question is quite valid. After all, in adopting such a structured approach to both my professional and personal life, where is the freedom? Well, the freedom is there, but it exists in a relatively “controlled” manner.

Funny as it may seem, I actually block time for being creative and free. And that creativity, being really well defined in terms of when it should occur, actually does occur. Not always as good, not always at the same time, but it happens. It is a case of “If you build it, they will come.”

Now, I fully understand that this sounds extremely counterintuitive to any creative people reading this. The point is, this is not my idea. Not at all. It actually comes from the mouth and the mind of one of the most creative people of the 20th century, and probably some part of the 21st as well. It comes out of the mind of John Cleese. In this excellent speech which dates back to 1991, he explains a number of key ideas on creativity. The video is amazing, inspiring, touching and funny at the same time. As to what I want to put forward here, the following ideas are key:

  • Creativity is not a talent, it is not something you were born with – Everyone has access to creativity;
  • Creativity is not related to IQ – There are not really people that are more creative than others, just people that allow themselves to be more creative than others;
  • Creativity requires childlike play, it requires an ‘open’ mode, relaxed, expansive, contemplative, more playful. There is no pressure to get something done – Creativity is in approach and content fundamentally different from what we normally do.

He then went on to describe a closed, focused mode as the opposite of the open mode and a need and the challenge of switching between the two.

  • Execution requires a closed, focused mode;
  • We need to be able to switch between the modes, in an eternal feedback loop … but we tend to get stuck in the closed mode.

Creativity and GTD

When I’m executing concrete and clear next actions related to projects, I am very much in the closed mode, focused on execution. I discard all non essentials and focus on the deliverable of the next action, on the end result, either for the next action or for the envisioned project outcome.

However, in a closed mode, I am significantly less likely to define those breakthrough projects that will make a real difference to my business. Hence, when I am thinking about what to do and how to do it, I am very much in an open mode.

We create in the open mode, and execute in the closed mode. To me, collection requires at least part of the time spent collecting in an open mode.

Conditions to make play likely to occur

Now, all this is easier said than done. Because becoming creative is something that appears not that easy. Or is it? Getting into the open mode can be facilitated, according to John Cleese, by the following conditions.

  1. Space: seal yourself off from the world, so you can play undisturbed;
  2. Time: there needs to be a specific moment for space to start and stop: you need this to allow yourself to seal yourself away from the world. If there is no time limit, you will be taking care of business prior to being creative. But given business never stops, you may never actually get to the point where you have time to be creative;
  3. Time: the time alloted needs to be adequate (Cleese states about 1.30 hrs) but limited: it allows you to think about multiple solutions to the problems, but without an eternity to ponder. However, as Cleese stresses, you need to stick with your challenge, with your play, with your ideas, longer than you would. You need to consciously refuse to cave to the pressure your entire being is putting on you to avoid the uncomfortable feeling you have when you have “found your keys”. Creativity is about sticking with it for longer. It’s quite interesting that this is almost the same as the point made by Richard Feynman as the main reason why he was always getting into adventures: he had the ability to wait and stick with a problem. Read his excellent biography if you have the option.
  4. Confidence: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. This is interesting in a GTD context, because capture actually allows you to make mistakes. During processing, a rather closed mode activity, you can discard those ideas that are illogical or wrong. However, while you are being creative, as Cleese states, nothing is wrong;
  5. Humor: It gets us from closed to open quicker than anything else. Again, the fact we often feel we need to be very serious and solemn about something may actually impede us from finding creative, breakthrough solutions.

Creativity and GTD collection

A Linked-In group member asked me in one of the comments to a recent blog post how I actually do collection. Well, I do collection partly in a structured, relatively closed mode, using a trigger list and reviewing a number of feeds I track on a daily basis. But I also use some time during lunch and in the evening to allow myself to play, in a totally open mode.

Practically, I have two lists, two projectsreally , in OmniFocus. One is a list with play ideas for home, one is a list with play ideas for work. I note them down as they occur and park them there for the next session, where I pick and choose if I feel like it. None of the items on there qualify as urgent or required. They are just ideas, and these two lists are really the only exception to my rule to process everything in the inbox.

Whenever I have play time, I just kick back, relax and see what triggers me. It may be one of the lists. It may be something else. But it actually makes for some of the most exciting and relevant project ideas I have developed over the years. And on occasion this free thinking has allowed me to think my way out of a problem. And that, dear reader, is pretty neat.