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What GTD and Weight Watchers have in common

One of the personal changes I was surprised by when adopting David Allen's work was how relatively efforlessly I lost 15 pounds [1]. In my case a simple engineering-based approach worked: Calories in < average calories burned. But keeping it off can be a challenge. What helped a lot was my wife's adopting the Weight Watcher's ("WW" from here on) program [2], which not only opened my eyes to how I thought about eating, but also kicked off some thinking about how WW and GTD are very much alike.

Following are some observations. As always, your thoughts and clarifications are very welcome.

Both are caused by a mismatch between abundance and old brains

Clearly we're not wired to to handle abundance - WW: Too much food available [3]. GTD: Too many demands and requests for our attention. As a result we make poor choices that impact our health and happiness. WW: We eat too many calories (and too many unhealthy ones), which overtaxes our bodies, causes self image problems, and cuts lifespan. GTD: We try to do it all, and don't do the highest impact work, which causes stress, hurts our lives outside of work, and can certainly cut lifespan.

The cause is our 100,000 year old brains, which aren't well prepared for these modern challenges. "Aha - here's some food. Better eat now while I have the chance! I know I'll store the unused bits for the lean times." (Filling up opportunistically doesn't apply to a full fridge.) "Gahh! Email, the phone, my Blackberry - I'm ready to tear my hair out!" (Fight or flight doesn't apply to a boardroom, a research lab, or your office.)

Sure, in another thousand or two generations we might have better brain structures to manage this (assuming no environmental changes - not likely), but that's no help to those of us suffering right now. Note: I would *love* to hear from you about minds and abundance, and recommended reading of leading theories.

Both address a huge gap: Self-management

This is the mind blower that got me into this work: Given the above mismatch, we're just plain not taught a principled method to manage these problems. And we're talking about two of the most fundamental things we do in life (eating and working). (Want another one: moving our bodies - see Reflections on Alexander Technique and personal productivity.)

So as I think of it, WW and GTD seek to provide systems, thinking, and tools to solve their respective problems.

Both are difficult, and not a silver bullet

The bad news? Quick fixes won't cut it. This includes fad diets that result in short-term gains (e.g., dehydrating) and tips and tricks to working better (e.g., a one-time office purge). Instead, changes like these require major habit adjustments, and those take time. It's a process of mastery (see George Leonard's great little book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment).

So there's a heavy requirement for WW and GTD "users:"
  1. Realize there's a problem (WW: overweight; GTD: overloaded).
  2. Be exposed to a new and principled way of thinking.
  3. Adopt principled ideas and tools for change.
  4. Form habits via practice and support, using experiences of improvement and relief to build inertia.

Both come down to transparency, limits, and choice

Both methods help to address the problems in (at least) three ways.

First, they provide information about what we let into our lives, and concrete mechanisms for tracking. For WW, this is around "points" (a combination of calories and fiber content, as I understand it). Practitioners learn about the foods they eat and the associated points, which leads to making better choices. They're tracked using various tools. For example, I was surprised by the high impact of oils in cooking (including dressings). For GTD, we decide the work involved in everything entering our lives, and track it all in lists and our calendar.

By making this information explicit, there's a kind of transparency to our world: It's all up front, and allows our being aware of our behavior - something that wasn't possible before with such clarity.

Second, both systems acknowledge there are limits, which lets us make those important trade-offs (WW: diet; GTD: action). In WW this is captured via limiting points. There are different programs to structure this, but they all involve a reasonable budget, which you work to stay within. However, in GTD this is actually a rather significant limitation. The calendar has built-in limits, but there's nothing explicit to keep us from adding unlimited work to our lists. I talked about this some in Extreme GTD: How low can you go (or: Can we 80-20 GTD?), esp. Mark Forster's take on "closed lists" in Do It Tomorrow.

Finally, they both come down to choice: The actions we take result in consequences, so we must choose with care. Interestingly, choice has (at least) two implications:

1) Self-responsibility: Making conscious choices about our lives removes the excuse to be passive and then complain about it. Example: I might need to make an important but difficult conversation, but instead of biting the bullet and doing it I might put it off and complain about relationship.

Another example: When I'm teaching clients best practices for personal productivity [4], it's highly empowering - too much so for some people. (Not too many, thankfully - plunking down money tends to motivate commitment.) For example, if I really get my act together after adopting the work, I can no longer claim it's out of my hands, or it's somebody else's fault - I explicitly take responsibility. This is not necessarily comfortable (at least initially), and can be a big change.

2) Things not chosen. Mark makes this point: deciding to do something means you've decided not to do something else. For example, spending time watching TV means not spending time with my daughter and wife. Or eating that slice of cake means I've blown some big points, and will limit the rest of the day.

Wrap up

I admit my knowledge of WW is a bit sketchy, but I like thinking about the overlap. In fact, I can't stop thinking about these things, so hey!

What do you think? Any parallels you've drawn? Are you reminded of other programs?


  • [1]"Missing: 15 pounds. Description: Heavy, yellowish in color. Distinguishing characteristics: Makes wet sucking sound when moving with curious rolling/oozing gait. Reward: None." ;-)
  • [2] Check out the Wikipedia article and the official site.
  • [3]I realize that many people in the world don't have enough food, and it breaks my heart. For something related that made me think, check out What the World Eats, Part I. I was really surprised by the big differences in how much/month different families spend, and how healthy the diets of the less industrialized families looked. Except for Chad, which didn't have enough.
  • [4]As usual, I want to be very clear that I have no association with David Allen or his company. His work has been a huge influence, but I continue to combine the best practices from many sources (which I share here) into my work.

Reader Comments (9)

They both lose money every time someone actually _gets_ their idea - ie when their product actually DOES what they say it does they've essentially lost a customer.

"You mean I need to eat less and move more? Why didn't you say so in the first place?"

"You mean I need to keep track of my commitments and have a system for dealing with new ones? Why didn't you say so?"

February 6, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterbrent

Hi Matt. Interesting post. It has triggered a couple of thoughts;

(A) Your 'heavy requirement' listing for users of these systems has an interesting parallel with the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism;

1. Suffering (loose definition!) exists.
2. There is a cause for suffering
3. The cause of suffering can be eliminated.
4. The way to end suffering is to follow the eightfold path (which in this context broadly corresponds to GTD / DIT / Weight Watchers / etc).

(B) Mark Forster talks about the difference between acting in a rational versus a reactive way. An interesting simplification of how various parts of our 100,000 year old brains got into the state that they are in...

(C) There is a refreshing approach to weight loss here - www.nosdiet.com



February 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Once again, an insanely useful and relevant post on just how big concepts can get, and how nearly everything is related. It occurred to me that the Context is the most important thing, whether you are trying to get your act together in the work-space, for your health, your education, whatever. Anonymous has a good point in that there truly are over-arching principles that can be applied to each situation.
The trick is determining the correct application, and sticking to it.

Another 100,000-year-old trait is laziness!

Hi brent. *Very* interesting point. I look at it as education: The goal is to teach clients something that helps their entire lives. If someone can get the ideas from a book, great! But most folks need help, and that's why there are systems, support, and consultants to help. As I said, "getting it" is actually pretty hard. (And when switching careers I *did* think about repeat customers - I've been hired back to do extended coaching, and to work with others in a company, but in the long run a single client won't need my help forever.)

> "You mean I need to eat less and move more? Why didn't you say so in the first place?"
> "You mean I need to keep track of my commitments and have a system for dealing with new ones? Why didn't you say so?"

Excellent :-) Actually, I'm working on saying so in the first place, clearly, then repeating. Crystal clear clarity is hard, I think.

Thanks for the comment.

Hey Dave,

> Four Noble Truths of Buddhism;

Very neat - Much appreciated. In general I love systems of thought that help us frame the world so that we can live and do what we think is important. Great example! There are some parts of Buddhism I've been able to take in - knowing very little of it...

> rational versus a reactive way ... 100,000 year old brains got into the state that they are in...

Absolutely. There's real evidence that we're just not wired for modern work. My Alexander Technique teacher and I have talked a lot about this. Really, really fascinating.

> (C) There is a refreshing approach to weight loss here - www.nosdiet.com

Here's their summary: three rules (no snacks, sweets, or seconds), one exception: days that start with 'S'

The first thing that comes to mind is it won't work ;-) My wife talks about WW's attitude of not being rigid in what you can eat. Want a candy bar - great! But it's going to have consequences. I like nosdiet's simplicity - I'd like to hear how it's worked for folks.

Great comment.

Hi Stephen - Very kind of you.

> ... Context is the most important thing

I'd like to hear more about this.

> The trick is determining the correct application, and sticking to it.

A great summary!

> Another 100,000-year-old trait is laziness!

Hmmm! We'd have to define lazy. We can certainly gravitate towards comfort (e.g., heated house, running water, nice clothing), and if we're not forced to move then we might tend toward less of it... Sounds like a good blog post.

Again, thanks everyone. Your thoughts make writing fun.

February 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Regarding the interaction between "abundance" and the human brain: Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore's Dilemma, talks about how abundance in an ecosystem leads to distortions throughout the environment. Specifically, he posits that the imbalance created by excess corn production leads to excess consumption of that corn.

I believe this idea is relevant to the vast increase in information storage we've seen over the past few decades. Check out my thoughts here: http://tinyurl.com/2gz3dn

February 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDan Markovitz

Dan - *Really* interesting thinking here - much appreciated. I've had Pollan's book on my radar for a while - time to check it out.

February 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Having experience of both GTD and WW I find they have some complementarity. The WW points system is an excellent metric for tracking a commitment intraday for which there is no,and I think cannot be, a built-in equivalent in GTD.

It does trigger me to think that making a trackable metric for habit change is a useful trick to apply to other situations.

February 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTimon

Timon - "... cannot be, a built-in [metric] in GTD."

I disagree - there are many ways to track how deeply you're working the system. Example: # actions added and # finished in one week.

February 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Food is containing hydrocarbon with our bodies. If you lower the quantity of calories which you return (basically depriving itself of food), then your metabolism then detects it and is adjusted by burning few calories each day.

http://www.belmos.com/acai-berry-review.html">Acai Berry Reviews

August 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAshok

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