In the week that the latest iPhones were launched, I’d like to encourage you to take a mental journey back to classical Greece, for some helpful advice about modern life. Those of you who have been reading my blogs for a while will know that I’m a history buff, and in my reading, I’m always fascinated to come across insights from the past that help us manage our modern, digital world.
There’s an Aristotle quote I use in seminars: “We cannot change the wind, but we can set the sails differently.” He’s encouraging a proactive, can-do stance in the world. If you’re complaining about interruptions from your colleagues, you’re complaining about the wind. There is nothing you can do to affect the wind, it’s beyond your control. But you’re not powerless. How are you going to set the sails differently?
How about working from home, or taking your laptop down to the coffee shop? Or maybe set your email client to work offline, so you only see new emails when you’re ready? Don’t be a victim.
Recently I came across another idea from our man Aristotle that struck me as particularly resonant in thinking about how we choose to spend our time, and in achieving a healthy balance between doing and being.
When thinking about the things we engage in every day, Aristotle made a distinction between two types: there are “telic” activities, from the Greek word telos, or “purpose”. Telic activities have an end state – the point of them is the achievement of some goal. Read an article, finish the presentation for the conference, buy a new car. In each case you’re working toward the achievement of something, and once it’s complete, you can tick it off as done. You could do it again, but only if you were interested in repeating the outcome.
And then there are “atelic” activities. These are things we engage with that have no particular goal. When you’re spending time with your friends or family, you’re not being goal-oriented. At some point you’ll stop doing it, but that doesn’t mean there is no more of it to do.
The work we do in GTD® is primarily about your telic world. In identifying and managing next actions and outcomes, we’re helping to optimise our telic selves. And that’s no bad thing. Achievement is enjoyable, and we get paid for being telic, after all.
But we’re not exclusively telic beings. David Allen says, “you do your work, but you are not your work.”
And here’s where GTD brings the two pieces of Aristotle’s model together. If you want fully to engage in something atelic, without mental distraction, you need to have your telic world off your mind. It’s exactly that that GTD does. It optimises the telic and enables the atelic.
So the next time you’re up for some reflection on whether your life is balanced, spare a thought for Aristotle. There’s more to life than the things on your lists.