Around September 2011, I decided to replace my existing system of personal organization with a new, much-publicized system known colloquially as GTD for Getting Things Done, developed by David Allen over a decade ago.

In GTD, Allen describes a personal organization system which purportedly increases productivity in a stress-free manner. (I’ll succinctly summarize the main points of that system below.) I write “purportedly” because it is in my nature to almost always assume a skeptical position when reading and examining a particular matter. Allen’s writing is based on an experientialist approach wherein the phrase “trust me because I’ve seen it” seems to be clued at incessantly throughout the flow of the book. (In fact, at some point, Allen does write: “…but in the meantime, trust me.”) Thus, I wondered whether there could be any scientific (neuro-psychological) basis behind the foundational claims of superiority of such an organization system.

I didn’t find a plausible answer to my question until I came across Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s seminal book “Flow.” It is my intention to elucidate on that answer in this post. First, I’ll illustrate Allen’s GTD system along its structural points. Next, I’ll attempt to use some psychological results from Csikszentmihalyi’s work to rationalize to a degree some, if not all, of Allen’s points.

To motivate the reader into his system, Allen introduces the concept of “incompletes” or “open loops” (pp. 12–15), which entail essentially “stuff” (thoughts, ideas, intentions, created or discovered information) that one has in mind that is occupying one’s mind. This stuff (or, commitments) need to be thoroughly identified (for one may not be fully aware of all of them) and manifested into some sort of tangible system (electronic or physical) so that one may then take the necessary action(s). Thus, the basic principle behind the GTD framework is to corral all the stuff that bugs your mind and decide whether and how to act on it. The trick to effectual organization is to keep reminders about such actions and consult (review) them frequently so one doesn’t miss doing any “incompletes.”

Furthermore, on pages 15–17, Allen discusses why “incompletes” are on one’s mind. In particular, he states (p. 16):

Until those thoughts [incompletes] have been clarified and those decisions [to act on them] made, and the resulting data has been stored in a system that you absolutely know you will think about as often as you need to, your brain can’t give up the job.

It is precisely the latter statement that I intend to rationalize moving forward.

Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system consists of five phases:

  1. Collect. One must always collect everything that is deemed as an incomplete in one’s mind. Every thought, desire, intention, extravagant idea or opinion that has a “…’should,’ ‘need to,’ or ‘ought to’ attached to it” (p. 26) needs to be expelled from the mind and written down somewhere outside the mind. On page 29, Allen allegorically states that one’s mind is like a computer’s RAM — it can only hold and process that much. Thus, one needs to “get it all out of one’s head.” Naturally, getting them out is not sufficient and efficient unless one processes them, which brings about the next phase.
  2. Process. Now that one has their stuff out of their mind, one needs to process what each elicited item means. Allen provides a nice, intuitive flowchart of this “algorithm” of his on page 32. In simple terms it works as follows: Take an item from your system and ask yourself what you can do about it. That is, what’s the next physical, unitary action you can take to do that item? If there is no action, trash it or incubate it for prospective use. If there is an action, determine what it is and if it takes less than 2-3 minutes, do it; otherwise, put a reminder somewhere in your system to do it in due time. How does one organize reminders, though? That’s the next phase.
  3. Organize. Here you want to separate actionable from non-actionable items. The latter can either be trashed if they have no value or incubated/referenced otherwise. The referencing should be general (e.g. file-folder-based). Actionable items posit a gimmick: if an incomplete you’ve taken out of your mind takes more than one action step to complete, then Allen refers to it as a project. Thus, you can’t “do”  a project, but you can only “do” the actions associated with that project. For instance, if item “Save the world before I die” was on your mind and you took it out, it most certainly needs more than an action step and is, therefore, a project. Allen advises one to keep projects in a separate list and the actions associated with them in another list for frequent reviewing, which yields to the fourth phase.
  4. Review. Now that you’ve organized your stuff, you must review them so that you actually do them. Reviewing starts from the most exigent element — the calendar — and proceeds with the next actions that you intend to do. Also, a weekly review of all you’ve got (including your list of projects) is essential to keep your system up and running.
  5. Do. The final phase of Allen’s GTD system is to actually do things, mainly based on your intuition, but also on the contextualization of your settings. For instance, if you’re on a plane using your laptop, you’ll most probably do things that can be done only on your laptop (e.g. email, write a poem, etc.).

The rest of the book goes at length to describe the actual implementation of this system and to get projects going through several tricks and tips based on the author’s expertise as well as on other practical knowledge.

Now, if you look back at the most critical point of this five-phase system, the first point, you might naturally ask: Why is it that one needs to get things done by first getting them out of their minds? That is, why won’t the brain give up the job? Why would one want to free up one’s psyche of stuff that bugs one? What’s the rationale behind this? Should I just trust the author and invest my time in implementing a system of personal organization with utter skepticism and risk to end up not leveraging it? These questions were sitting at the back of mind as I was reading and implementing Allen’s GTD system. These questions were the only “open loops” that thwarted me from assembling the system back when I finished reading the book months ago. But I answered them comfortably as I was reading Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow” and I can reassure you that after implementing GTD with less skepticism it does work smoothly, overall. Here’s why.

The essence of Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow” is about positive human experiences that enable one’s life to flow, i.e. to be exhilarating, vivacious, enjoying life, and so forth. Csikszentmihalyi (whose name sesquipedalophobics might want to eschew pronouncing) provides rigorous psychological arguments (based on decades-long research) on what flow is and how to attain and preserve it using a phenomenological, rather than anatomical/ biochemical, approach to the functioning of the nervous system and the mind.

After revisiting happiness in the first chapter, Csikszentmihalyi elucidates on the anatomy and limitations of consciousness interestingly in light of the information-theoretic concept of entropy (p. 25). On page 24 he writes:

A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening ‘outside,’ just by changing the contents of consciousness. […] To develop this trait, one must find ways to order consciousness so as to be in control of feelings and thoughts.

According to the author, information theory is relevant to apprehend what goes on in one’s mind through such a model of consciousness. This could be a valid undertaking because after all: “The function of consciousness is to represent information about what is happening outside and inside the organism in such a way that it can be evaluated and acted upon by the body” (p. 24). As such, consciousness may be construed as the central “clearinghouse” which handles sensations, thoughts, intentions, desires, etc., noting that intentions are what provides and keeps order in the consciousness (p. 27). And these intentions are organized in a hierarchy of goals/ outcomes (p. 28). Hence, we can freely control which outcome to pursue based on our subjective prioritization of objectives. In David Allen’s sense, these outcomes could be viewed as project outcomes, but also as the next actions to take to do whatever incomplete has been collected.

That being stated, consciousness has indeed a major limitation: it can process only that much information. The empirically observed bound of the amount of information consciousness can process at a time is at most 7 bits. According to Csikszentmihalyi (and, independently, Robert Lucky), the mind can discriminate these 7-bit chunks at every 1/18th of a second, which implies that an average human can process up to 120 bits of information per second. If we assume that a human is awake (“conscious”) for 16 hours a day and lives on average 70 years, the lifelong amount of information the mind can maximally process is roughly 185 billion bits (p. 29). Pretty fascinating!

To understand what that limit on the mind’s information-processing bandwidth implies think of the following scenario. If it takes a person 60 bits of information to comprehend what another person is saying, then theoretically one could be listening to two persons at the same time and understand both of them readily, since the total processing power of the mind is 120 bits (per second). Yet, we all have experienced such a situation and we all are aware of the practical impossibility of such an event. The reason lies in the fact that one’s consciousness is already occupied with existing thoughts, feelings, “incompletes” or “open loops”. Consequentially, if one liberates one’s mind by controlling one’s consciousness, then one could achieve flow. It exactly this conclusion that supports the ostensibly efficient system of personal organization put forth by Allen. In other words, if one frees up one’s mind by means of controlling consciousness (the processing unit of information), then one gives it the chance to process even more information (discovered or created), which one wouldn’t otherwise process. In Csikszentmihalyi’s words, what Allen refers to as “incompletes” are, as a matter of fact, “things that occupy the mind and reduce its capacity of processing information” (p. 30).

This brings about the discussion on attention, whose intentional ordering of consciousness averts increased (psychic) entropy, thus reducing the chances of yielding disorder in the mind. On page 31 we read:

It is attention that selects the relevant bits of information from the potential millions of bits available. It takes attention to retrieve the appropriate references from memory, to evaluate the event, and then to choose the right thing to do.

Hence, learning where to direct attention implies controlling one’s consciousness. That is to say, one’s personal productivity could be flowing incessantly if one induces order in one’s consciousness. This is exactly what David Allen alludes to throughout his GTD book. (“The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” is, in fact, the book’s subtitle.)

In all, “The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life” (Flow, p. 31). If we can at least control what we want to get out of our brains and efficiently manage it through a working, actionable organization system, we should attain not only flow, but also professional productivity. Based on my preliminary evaluation of the GTD system, this has been indeed the case in my professional and academic life.

The main point to remember here is this: The reason why Allen claims you want to get things out of your brain is  what Csikszentmihalyi concludes: to free up your mind so that the information-processing power of your consciousness increases. If you (learn to) control your consciousness by steering attention attentively, then you bring about order in your mind (increased psychic energy). And, thereafter, flow comes into play and psychic entropy dissipates. Flow, in turn, provides for a stress-free life, which consequentially yields efficient personal productivity through an effectively implemented organization system, such as Getting Things Done. But the prime step to take is to corral “incompletes” in one bucket, whence processing, organization, reviewing, and doing follow. I highly recommend the reader studies both books, especially Flow.

Revised 2015.11.07

With the advancement of science, we have collected facts about the universe and have explained them through formulated mechanisms called theories. We have observed the universal laws and constants, and have been mesmerized by how fine-tuned they are with respect to make life possible. We have concluded that the entirety of these laws, constants, properties is a vital necessity, for there would be no life otherwise and, as such, we, the living, would never learn of their existence. This is known as the anthropic principle. We are mesmerized by this principle to the extent that the pious among us invented creationism to argue for the existence of a capricious designer, as Hitchens used to put it.

Yet, a visible minority, which does not fall in either the category of creationists or in the rest of us, is mesmerized in a different way. Robert Lanza, with his theory called Biocentrism, posits a different viewpoint on the explanation of the universe. I found his theory intriguing and, at times, disdainful of certain scientific principles I hold. Here I summarize some key points from Lanza’s perspective, and ask some questions from my own perspective.

In Metaphysics, Aristotle originated the adage “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Think about the human body, a complex system of complex subsystems of complex sub-subsystems down to the particle systems, which is alive, i.e. gives us life and is nurtured by life. Could a human as a whole be just the sum of its parts? Where does the mind and consciousness come into the equation, if at all? Are space and time real physical quantities, or are they merely perceptions? How is it possible that the universe is precisely fine-tuned to accommodate life? Or, is it the other way around?

Following an unconventional way, Robert Lanza, M.D. attempts to tackle these questions in his Theory of Biocentrism, a philosophy which puts Biology and the living, conscious organism in the forefront of explaining the existence of the universe and life. In a nutshell, the main thesis Lanza propones is that physical, chemical theories cannot explain everything because in the end they fail to explain the existence of one very hard phenomenon and philosophical problem — consciousness. Biocentrism addresses this gap by “putting life (conscious experience, particularly) into the equation,” thus adding more to the simple “mechanistic logic” with which most of us are familiar. Hence, Biocentrism may be construed as a putative Theory of Everything competing with the putative counterpart in Physics that physicists and mathematicians are trying to devise.

According to a biocentric universe, which is the mechanistic universe as we know it plus the conscious experience as per Lanza — it is not the universe that has given rise to life, but it is the living organism’s consciousness which, through perception and information processing, has created the universe or the reality we live in. The premise of this conclusion lies primarily on the space-time duality in the sense of modern physics. That is, both space and time are perceived by our mammal consciousness and they cannot be realities.

Lanza takes on a non-dualistic stance with respect to space-time by illustrating Zeno’s Arrow paradox and the quantum uncertainty principle. The paradox starts with the premise that nothing can be at two different places at the same time, whereas the principle states the opposite. Consider an arrow moving in a projectile. Based on the premise, an arrow can only be at one place at a given time. Yet, if the arrow is in one place, it cannot be possibly moving. Thus, the perceived motion of the arrow in a projectile seems to be a contradictory phenomenon. The key here is to realize that from a biocentric perspective, time is not a physical quantity, but a perception of our mind created as such.

On the other hand, the quantum principle of uncertainty states that one cannot know the position and the velocity of a quantum particle at the same time: you can either know one quantity or the other, depending on which one you choose to observe at any given time. What drives human attention to perceive and process information is consciousness, as Csikszentmihalyi nicely explains in his seminal book Flow. According to Lanza, consciousness of the observer is thus decisive in determining what a particle does. For example, the two-hole experiment states that when a barrier of two holes is bombarded on one side with quantum particles and we observe on of them, then it either gets into one of the holes or in the other. However, when we don\’t observe the system, then the quantum particle behaves as a wave and thus can enter the two holes at the same time. Biocentrically speaking, there is no paradox in here since it is our consciousness that chooses or decides what the quantum particles does. In other words, our consciousness creates the desired reality.

But this raises a question. If I decided to create a reality and you decide to create yours, doesn’t this reduce to solipsism (the philosophy that one’s mind is all there is)? Thus, if one dies, does Biocentrism suggest that reality ceases to exist? What Lanza seems to argue with respect to this point is that each living being (consider humans without loss of generality) perceives a reality around them. Any two humans in mutual proximity should have overlapping spheres of reality perception, assuming their minds are not compromised by some mental disorder and their senses are equally intact. In his article, he gives the subway scenario: If you and I are stuck at a subway car due to some electrical fail, then you and I will have overlapping spheres of reality (or, ranges of perception) since you and I shall be perceiving some, if not all, of reality around us: lights flashing, darkness in either end of the car, someone crying, someone working to get the car going, etc. What I think Lanza is trying to suggest here is some form of “collective solipsism” or “neo-solipsism,” which quite frankly I don’t think qualifies as a philosophy yet. As such, Biocentrism seems to claim that everything outside the conscious observer’s “range of perception ceases to exist,” or at least exists obscurantistically in the form of being mathematically probable (see below).

Let us turn back to consciousness. Biocentrism states that time is an inner perception of animation, a way to perceive change in the universe. For instance, if you throw a stone in projectile motion, your sensory inputs are guided to collect information its momentum. Yet, if you want to learn the stone’s position, then you have to “pause” the stone’s motion. At that instant, if some other observer comes into the picture, then they’ll just learn about the stone’s position, but they have no information about its momentum. What this observer is seeing is only one frame of the multitude of analog frames that constitute a moving stone as processed (or animated) by our brain. In all, time is a byproduct of our consciousness and not a physical, real quantity. Once humans are gone, time is gone.

But what about the particles that make up the universe, are they gone, too, when we’re gone? Lanza’s explanation for this lays on the wave-particle duality of quantum physics. “In short,” he writes, “if observed, particles behave like objects; if unobserved, they behave like waves and can go through more than one hole at the same time,” just to borrow the two-hole experiment mentioned above. In addition to the space-time duality, the wave-particle duality as counter-intuitive as it may sound to physics, is explain by biocentrism as follows: An object cannot exist unless the mind sets the object’s scaffolding in place. Thus, if the observer chooses to frame the sub-atomic particle, then it behaves like an object and can be seen in motion (with time being perceived by our mind, as illustrated in the stone-throwing experiment above). If unobserved, then the observer is uncertain as to what position(s) the particle will take on, which brings in the concept of probability waves: Without consciousness, particles exist in uncertain states.

Thus, time and space are perceptions. Time is perceived within our minds in order to understand change in the externally perceived (or processed) space. Both these constitute a perceived reality, or universe. Our mind processes information collected through our senses, and translates this information into some reality with colors, sounds, motion, etc. We perceive trees are green, but we may in principle modify the gene to perceive them as blue. The analogy Lanza gives is that of a movie stored in a CD and the computer circuitry that “translates” it into a 3D reality. Do we see the 3D space generated by the computer while looking at the CD? That is, does that space exist before it is processed by the computer? Similarly, does space exist before it is processed by our mind, as conscious observers? It could exist probabilistically (cf. probability wave), if we don’t observe it directly, but not as the absolute reality we are induced to think of: as some physical space-time quantity out there.

Lanza’s arguments were later pressed upon in his 2009 book: Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe.

In all, Biocentrism is posited as a theory of everything by granting that “space and time, and not molecules and proteins, hold the answer to the problem of consciousness.” It is the spatio-temporal relationship we, as conscious observers, assign to our experiences that creates an orderly thought process in our mind. As such, mind cannot exist in space, for space is generated by animal mind, along with the inner perception of time, in order to live the experience. However, what Lanza proclaims with Biocentrism is not really new, “it’s just that quantum physicists refrain from saying it all,” as Prof. Henry writes.

Implications and Criticisms of Biocentrism

At one point near the end of his article, Lanza mentions schizophrenia and its power to create new physical realities. If we consider Biocentrism a powerful explanatory theory, then schizophrenia cannot be classified as a mental illness. The reason is simple: solipsism. According to solipsism, the schizophrenic mind would be the only one to exist. Thus, it would have no benchmark mind to determine sanity or insanity. But, Lanza’s stance on neo-solipsism may at first overcome this, until the moment we realize that the sane mind cannot possibly perceive what the schizophrenic mind has created due to the fact that the latter illusion is perceived inside the schizophrenic mind affected by some broken process of spatio-temporal relationships. What Lanza intends to show here is that the human mind is the one that creates space and time.

But how can the conscious, biological observer exist if the universe does not exist to begin with? Since we create the universe, which comes with the vast space, then how did we end up here before we even existed, in which case the space could not exist? What reality were our phylogenetic ancestors living in at a time when consciousness was probably not conceived?

In addition, I’m afraid that Lanza either misunderstands the anthropic principle, or tweaks it to his own argumentative advantage. With respect to explaining consciousness, Lanza fails, as expected, given how hard the philosophical problem of consciousness is.

I wonder what renowned astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss has to say with respect to Biocentrism. Krauss’s recent book, A Universe from Nothing, is all about how everything came to be from nothing, which does not seem to comply with the biocentric view that the conscious created the reality.

Others argue that Biocentrism cannot be qualified as a theory since it doesn’t seem to be falsifiable in the Popperian sense. Philosopher Daniel Dennett is one of them. In response, Lanza claims that falsifiability can be attained by the quantum experiment of super-imposed entanglement. Looking forward to that.

In the meantime, I’m sticking with the beautiful, yet intriguing, view of quantum mechanics, as well as to the evolutionary psyche we’ve gained through our minute time on earth, rather than in some mystical, quasi-religionist viewpoint of reality.