As I mentioned in my review of Getting Things Done, David Allen has outlined a wonderful framework for organizing and efficiently acting on the vast amount of information in our lives. I use a modified version of Allen’s GTD system as an integral part of my personal approach.
The book has some practical shortcomings, but of particular interest to this post will be the spiritual issues of Getting Things Done. Is the book suitable for Christians?
GTD is utilized by pastors and great men of God around the globe (including even Wayne Grudem). Yet there are a few subtle things within Getting Things Done that need to be brought to the surface.
I want to warn you that this is quite a long post, but I think a proper examination of the spiritual aspects of GTD warrants it.
Initial Impressions: Slightly Eastern in Philosophy
At first read, Getting Things Done seemed rather tame – although there was a hint of eastern philosophies. Allen refers to a calm, focused state of productivity as having a mind like water – a term he claims comes from his karate training.
The book contains dozens of quotes in the margins for accents – and one is a quote from Buddha:
“Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart give yourself to it.”
In my opinion, that’s a rather vanilla quote that could easily be attributed to just about any random time management guru of the past – so I don’t feel that there’s any eastern “evangelism” going on here. There are a few other quotes that come from those related to eastern philosophies, such as a modern-day Chinese author who is Taoist. But these quotes are mixed with dozens of others from executives, authors, and politicians from all walks of life – even the token Catholic priest.
The quotes are really just filler material to provide color. And, as a whole, they don’t really present an obvious and intentional Eastern philosophical bent.
David Allen’s New Age History
I received new perspective, however, when I learned more about David Allen himself and his New Age beliefs.
The good news is that this New Age material doesn’t gush forth from the book (I only found this out with a fair amount of research). The bad news is that, even still, it’s pretty concerning.
Allen has a decades-long background with a particular New Age cult known as MSIA – the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (pronounced Messiah). In his acknowledgements at the beginning of Getting Things Done, Allen thanks his “spiritual coach, J-R” – a reference to John-Roger, the founder of MSIA.
I don’t know how else to say it – but these people are seriously kooky. John-Roger claims that after a nine-day coma suffered during kidney stone surgery, he was inhabited by a divine spirit known as the Mystic Traveler Consciousness – the reincarnation of St. Francis of Assisi, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus.
Psychic abilities, channeling the dead, an evil spirit known as the Red Monk – it’s part humorous and part creepy. The most well-known manifestation of MSIA is their program of Insight Training Seminars.
And for 30 years, what has Insight Training specialized in teaching?
As David Allen recalls in a Wired Magazine article, he met John-Roger in the mid-1970’s – after Allen had become addicted to heroine, lived on the streets, and spent a brief time hospitalized in a mental institution. Allen became an instructor for Insight and spent many years consulting on productivity – experiences which he references often in his books.
Allen is unapologetically still a minister for MSIA and very involved with the organization.
New Age Thought in Getting Things Done
So does David Allen’s New Age background spill over into Getting Things Done? In a very subtle way, yes. I didn’t realize it at first – but there’s a slight New Age flavor.
It’s hard to really pin down for certain because 1) the New Age undercurrents are often so subtle and 2) Insight Training is very secretive of their material. (They instruct seminar attendees not to disclose their methods – they want others forking over the thousands of dollars it takes to attend.)
But from what I can gather with research and reading Getting Things Done, here are my thoughts on how the book is influenced by New Age philosophies:
Releasing Your Open Loops
Allen talks a great deal about the importance of getting things off of your mind and into your system. Rather than trying to remember your obligations, get everything captured and into an organizational framework – or else you will be unable to truly focus.
These thoughts and commitments (even vague commitments to yourself) are referred to as “open loops” that take up “mental RAM.” And this occurs regardless of the size, importance, or recentness of the open loop – even if you’ve forgotten that you made any commitment at all. These open loops lurk in your subconscious mind, draining your precious mental energies and preventing full effectiveness.
When I first read Getting Things Done (and didn’t know of Allen’s background), I didn’t fully buy into his assertion. Sure, it made sense to write things down instead of trying to remember everything. But I didn’t (and still don’t) believe that your performance will be affected by subconscious worry about “open loops” – at least not to the degree that Allen believes.
If I forgot to repay five bucks that I borrowed from a friend ten years ago – that’s going to keep me from working at optimum effectiveness? Even if I haven’t thought of the debt in a decade?
Allen talked again and again about this. Particularly in his other books, he repeated this premise ad nauseum. It was as if he felt the need to convince the reader of his point – and then attempted to do so by stating and restating his position from every conceivable angle.
I used to think that it was just him having a blind pride in his own theory. Maybe he was reaching to see something that really wasn’t there so that he could validate his expertise and sell more training programs and books. Or maybe it was just his particular outlook on things.
But now I can see that this philosophy of his has roots in New Age spirituality and the “mystical power” of our subconscious thoughts. MSIA is heavily into “releasing negative thought patterns” and other such New Age drivel.
Getting Things Done may use the secularized terminology of “open loops” and “mental RAM.” But the idea is just a rephrasing of classic New Age kookiness: negative thoughts pile up and drain our psychic energy.
Allen’s closing remarks in Getting Things Done include:
I hope this book has been useful… And I really hope you have tasted the freedom of a “mind like water” and the release of your creative energies that can come with the application of these techniques.
Another unique aspect of Allen’s practical approach is how he goes about the beginning implementation of his system. GTD utilizes a bottom-up method of organizing and clarifying small, daily actions before moving up to the higher levels of goal-setting. This stands in stark contrast to most other approaches which advocate a top-down approach of starting with major goals and letting those decide daily actions.
There is a portion of practical wisdom in Allen’s approach, but his New Age thoughts have very possibly contributed to this particular methodology. In his mind, dealing with the daily actions free up the spiritual and mental energies which can then be applied to loftier levels of existence.
In an MSIA online newsletter posted shortly before the release of Getting Things Done, Allen speaks of his intentions with the book:
David is publishing a book next January on the “science and art of managing the physical and focus levels of consciousness.” He added, “If we handle these levels, it frees up our creative energy to focus on higher levels. It also gives us the ability to express and experience ourselves on the incarnated levels with greater manifestation.
Go with Your Gut
The greatest practical weakness I can see in the GTD system is also where it is most strongly connected to New Age philosophies.
While GTD does a good job of organizing all the things I want to do, it does a poor job of leading me to choose the right thing to do at any particular moment. The GTD method is to regularly review my action lists, job descriptions, goals, etc. – and then to just decide in the moment what to do. How do you make this decision? Basically: go with your gut.
That didn’t work at all for me practically, and I found myself churning away at things that weren’t important.
I can understand Allen’s point when he talks about the practical reasons for this (basically, that there are so many variables at play in our complicated lives that we aren’t capable of accurately deciding ahead of time what action is best to do). But I still don’t think he has the right solution, and that’s why I’ve modified this particular part of the GTD-like system that I use.
But I believe that this approach from Allen is also strongly rooted in his New Age spirituality. In Getting Things Done, Allen says:
When it comes to your real-time, plow-through, get-it-done workday, how do you decide what to do at any given point?
As I’ve said, my simple answer is, trust your heart. Or your spirit. Or, if you’re allergic to those kinds of words, try these: your gut, the seat of your pants, your intuition.
In a footnote on the same page, Allen continues:
Surrendering to your inner awareness, however, and its intelligence and practicality in the worlds you live in, is the higher ground. Trusting yourself and the source of your intelligence is a more elegant version of freedom and personal productivity.
Though it’s difficult to find much information on Insight Training, their website does contain very brief descriptions of what their seminars teach. And the stated benefits are things like:
– Learn the dynamics of manifestation, alignment, and living in your heart
– Align with your authentic Self, engaging your intuition and “natural knowing”
– Cultivating greater ability to access and trust your inner wisdom, intuition.
– Learning a process for accessing, trusting, and acting on the guidance of your heart.
– Learning to listen to, and strengthen your attunement to your inner wisdom and intuition.
The New Age influence on Getting Things Done is, in this case, stunning.
Focus on Feelings
Running all throughout GTD is not only the theme of releasing negative energies to be more productive but in releasing negative energies to feel better. In fact, it could easily be said that Allen’s central focus is not on accomplishing anything but on the emotions that one experiences when being productive.
The book is, after all, subtitled The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.
Every page, it seems, talks about GTD as a relief for stress, anxiety, overwhelm, and frustration. The best way to be productive is to achieve a certain relaxed mental state – and the best way to get there is to deal with your open loops.
It’s so subtle that it easily blends in to our pop-culture psychology (well, it IS pop-culture psychology), but Getting Things Done basically has the New Age message of: 1) Living your life with peace and joy is the most important thing and 2) Your subconscious negative thought patterns are what prevents you from living that joyous life.
The author of the Wired Magazine article I referenced earlier feels that Allen makes forays into another branch of New Age though: the Law of Attraction. This is the movement behind such dangerous works as The Secret.
Briefly, adherents to the Law of Attraction believe that by repeatedly filling our thoughts with visualizations of our desired outcomes, the spiritual energies of the universe will bring that outcome into being.
David Allen has this to say in Getting Things Done:
The truth is, our energy as human beings seems to have a dualistic and teleological reality – we create and identify with things that aren’t real yet on all the levels we experience, and when we do, we recognize how to restructure our current world to morph it into the new one, and experience an impetus to make it so.
That’s the only quote I could find in Getting Things Done which really dealt with concepts of the Law of Attraction – and Allen seems to align himself with a more practical version of the Law of Attraction rather than the spiritual version preached in The Secret.
Allen does mention clarifying what exactly it would mean for a project to be completed, and he also talks about very specifically defining next action steps.
But in my opinion, these aren’t really related to the Law of Attraction. I would say that, in this particular category, Allen doesn’t have the New Age beliefs that some would suggest.
How Should Christians React?
So what now?
Now that we have all this information and perspective on Getting Things Done, what do we do with it? How should we react to this book? Is it wrong to use the GTD system? How should we view Christians who use GTD or those who advocate GTD?
Receive, Reject, or Redeem?
We need to look at Getting Things Done like we look at anything else in our culture. As Christians, we have three options: receive, reject, or redeem.
We can receive GTD as a gift from God and use it to his glory.
We can reject GTD as unwholesome, corrupted by New Age beliefs, and devoid of value.
Or we can redeem GTD: Remove the negative elements and replace them with positive, Christ-focused elements.
I believe GTD can be redeemed.
Redeeming GTD for Christians
The steps to redeeming things from our culture are simple:
1) Identify the good and the bad.
2) Keep the good
3) Replace the bad with that which is good.
I’ve spent the better part of this article detailing what “the bad” is in Getting Things Done. So let’s take a look at what “the good” is and how to replace the bad with that which is good.
What’s Good about GTD?
As we seek to be good stewards of our time, the GTD system can be used powerfully towards that end. The organizational concepts and framework have been found highly beneficial by many and could lead to (and I hope will lead to) increased effectiveness for Christians everywhere.
Those positive applications are not to be ignored. And even if the system doesn’t work for every particular individual (you may find another system works better for you), these aspects can still be declared good since some people obviously benefit in a positive way.
How Do We Replace the Bad with the Good?
I will address this in the order that I addressed “the bad” in the earlier part of this article.
Slightly Eastern in Philosophy
We can recognize the eastern slant of constantly referencing a mind like water and replace this with taking every thought captive to Christ and seeking to attain a Christ-focused and Christ-honoring mental state.
David Allen’s New Age History
We can recognize that Allen is no superman. He may have written a best-selling book and may have had some interesting ideas on how to label manila folders and organize our Email inboxes – but he is far from perfect. We also need to remember that Getting Things Done is not some super productivity bible – it’s just the thoughts of one fallen man. (You’d be surprised how many put Allen and GTD on a pedestal.)
We can replace this with confidence in the scriptures and confidence in Christ – that what our God says trumps anything written in any other book. We can look forward to the redemption of GTD but need to understand that David Allen may be flat out wrong no matter how many times he repeats his ideas.
Releasing Your Open Loops
We can recognize the practical benefit in capturing our ideas and organizing them in a system. This may even help us to feel more in control and more capable. But this isn’t because of any mystical energy release. I believe individuals are free to believe in the practical concept of “mental RAM” as long as we’re not dogmatic and don’t begin to drift into a spiritual component.
We need to replace the mystical notion with the idea of finding our peace in Christ and our effectiveness in Christ, not from our open loops or from a mind like water.
I know for many that a bottom-up approach has been practically useful. There’s nothing wrong with this approach in and of itself. However, we need to recognize that its benefit does not come from the release of our mystical energies.
We need to replace this with an understanding that the approach we take, whether it’s bottom-up or top-down, is simply just our practical preference. As we strive to be good stewards of our time, we may find it best for us to use methods that happen to agree or happen to disagree with David Allen’s approach.
Go with Your Gut
We need to recognize the stench of New Age thought on this particular belief of Allen’s. As Christians, we don’t want to “trust our inner wisdom” or follow the “guidance of our heart.” We’re sinful beings, and we realize that “The heart is deceitful above all things.”
We need to replace this with an understanding that this is also just a practical preference. I have personally found this approach to not work for me. But if a Christian finds that the best practical method for him is to decide in the moment, as Allen advocates, then that’s fine.
Focus on Feelings
Christian resources, of course, talk about getting rid of negative feelings and thoughts like unforgiveness or guilt. Christian resources also speak a lot about positive emotions – the fruit of the Spirit, after all, includes peace. But we need to recognize that, in the Christian worldview, these feelings of relaxation are not end results in and of themselves. They are the byproduct of a Christ-centered life.
Instead, we need to replace this focus on peace and relaxation with a desire to find our joy in Christ and in bringing him glory.
A Redeemed GTD
With conscious attention to our perspectives, Christians can redeem the practical aspects of the GTD system. These can then be combined with Christ-centered views, goals, and priorities to create a powerful methodology. The practical approaches are open to individual preference, but the system has vast potential to assist Christians as they try to be good stewards of their time.
As I’ve said many times, I personally use a GTD variant. I’m eager to explore the ways that this redeemed practical approach can help Christians – I look forward to learning together how we can live the life of a steward.
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