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Getting Things Done

Managing Your Mind, Not Just Your Time: The Getting Things Done System and the Neuroscience of Attention

Friday, March 20th, 2009, 12:30 PM - 2:30 PM, Uris 301

Practical Skills:

Wayne Pepper, Senior Trainer, David Allen Inc.; entertainment industry executive

Science Commentary:

Malia Mason, Assistant Professor of Management; social neuroscience researcher


The Getting Things Done (GTD) System developed by the David Allen Co. is the most influential time and workflow management method in the past decade. It has been embraced by leading companies such as Google and by knowledge workers around the world. Dozens of products have been introduced to implement this system on paper, PDA, PCs, or web based platforms. A central tenet of this system is freeing ones attention from reactive responses to incoming information and continual processing of "to do" items by creating a reliable external memory of ones workflow. Many of the GTD ideas about how our minds work best resonate with recent insights from social neuroscience research that uses fMRI scans to see which brain regions become active under different conditions. Path breaking research by Malia Mason (Mason et al, 2007, Wandering Minds: The Default Network and Stimulus-Independent Thought, Science, 19, 393-395) has identified mental systems related to planning and creativity that only activate when minds are freed from incoming stimulation. Her research highlights that one primary brain mode is "opportunistic processing" -- monitoring the environment (e.g., the beeping Blackberry, the blinking email notifications) for information signaling that action is required. While certainly adaptive for our cavemen ancestors, this sensitivity to goal-relevant information gets us into trouble by setting us up for distraction and preventing the deeper processing needed for insight and "big picture" thinking. Paradoxically, this important deeper processing often occurs in the relaxed state of mindwandering or daydreaming, something that busy people often don't allow themselves. By bringing together a practical workshop on workflow management and cutting edge insights about the brain science of attention, we expect a lively conversation about personal management and productivity.

About the Speakers

Wayne Pepper is a Senior Presenter and Coach with the David Allen Company. Since 2005 he has presented the Getting Things Done methodology to audiences in the public and private sectors all over the world.

Malia Mason is an assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School. Professor Mason currently has two lines of research, both of which she has explored using a combination of behavioral, functional imaging (fMRI) and patient-based (split-brain) approaches. Professor Mason teaches the Leadership Development. Learn more about Professor Mason.


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Frequently Asked Questions

Here are the most frequently asked questions about PSI

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The Program on Social Intelligence (PSI), led by Professor Michael Morris of the Management Division, draws on the School's growing expertise in psychology and related research areas such as social network analysis, behavioral economics, and neuroscience. It provides frameworks for understanding the social dynamics of working relationships and opportunities for students to improve their behavioral capabilities in managing these dynamics. By understanding what drives people's behavior when they are acting as individuals, teams, organizations, or networks, students will be better prepared for the leadership challenges of 21st century, including understanding, influencing and empowering diverse colleagues across the globe.

Capabilities are honed in experiential learning simulations in the classroom and in extracurricular workshops. This is complemented by three waves of coaching to guide students'; learning from their actual work interactions with study group members, their interactions with recruiters at events and interviews, and their interactions with summer internship colleagues.

More information regarding independent studies can be found in the student guide, and you can pick up the required form, as well as additional information, in Uris 105. Students may register for up to 3 credits of independent study per term (the study can be either 1.5 or 3 credits). Independent studies are designed to be independent of the classroom experience and may not be used as a means of adding a seat to a full course.

No. PSI is not a degree program; it is a series of integrated courses and extracurricular activities woven throughout the MBA and EMBA programs at Columbia Business School.

Membership on the dean's list is awarded at the end of the first term to students who achieve a 9.0 weighted GPA. In subsequent terms, membership is awarded to all students who achieve a 9.25 weighted term GPA.

Integrating the expertise of many parts of the Columbia Business School community, including the Management Division and the offices of Admissions, Alumni Relations, Student Life, and Career Services. It is largely delivered through a series of extracurricular activities that span the entire MBA experience, from first-year orientation to alumni reunions. These activities focus on different aspects of leading, starting with managing one’s career and managing peers and teams, then shifting toward the challenges of larger organizations and wielding authority. Three streams of extracurricular activities are

  • Navigating Careers: Assessment feedback on personal interests, motivators, and strengths is provided in orientation. Experiential workshops provide practice in networking and interviewing successfully. Coaches prepare students to succeed in and learn from management challenges in the summer internship.
  • Leading Teams: Assessment feedback on teamwork styles, experiential exercises, and peer advisor coaching are used to help study groups develop effective team processes.
  • Advanced Leadership: Continued training and practical experience are offered to second-year MBAs serving as club leaders or peer advisors.

The method of PSI teaching comes from the perspective of leadership as a set of capabilities in understanding and managing interactions. The PSI method is a cycle of individualized assessment, experiential learning activities, and executive coaching. Assessment provides a sense of one’s strengths and gaps in an area, experiential activities demonstrate how this plays out when working with others on a business problem and coaching provides an arena for planning change. Then, further assessment helps the student see change, further experiential activities provide an opportunity to practice new capabilities and further coaching helps students monitor progress.

Lessons from the PSI extracurricular offerings are reinforced in two Management core classes — Creating Effective Organizations and Leadership Development. Assignments in these classes “loop back” to the PSI assessment feedback that students received in orientation, challenging students to consider the feedback with academic scrutiny as they are coached in light of it by second-year peer advisors, Career Services staff, and external executive coaches. PSI frameworks will also be built upon by related elective courses such as Managerial Negotiations, where the combination of assessment, experiential activities, and coaching has already been implemented with success.

The leadership of Columbia Business School — faculty as well as alumni — recognized the need to integrate leadership capabilities into the management education. Much of the impetus for PSI came from Dean Glenn Hubbard, who is focused on building curricular and extracurricular innovations that leverage the research expertise of the Columbia Business School faculty.

The distinctive features of PSI are that it identifies important capabilities through the lens of cutting-edge psychological research and it inculcates them with a blend of pedagogical methods that go beyond the standard lecture and case-discussion formats.

Many programs teach leadership primarily through case studies of leaders past and speeches by current CEOs. The limitation of the “biographies and war stories” pedagogy is that students take away battle plans suited to the last war rather than to the next war. Generation Y managers will be leading different kinds of people in different kinds of organizations. Our program is organized around the psychological capabilities involved in collaborating with, motivating, and leading others. Columbia has the strongest faculty in psychology of any top business school and thus can teach leadership in terms of capabilities in this new way. The MBA program and extracurriculars become a laboratory for learning leadership; students are required to consider their current working relationships in light of the abstract lessons. As a result, PSI focuses on what leadership means to students currently, in the near future and in the new challenges that their generation of leaders will face.

Though other business schools use pieces of these methods, they don’t combine these three tools in a coordinated way, spanning extracurricular programs and the core courses. Our involvement of the research faculty ensures that valid assessment tools are used and the results are interpreted soundly and rigorously.

The claim that people’s social judgment and facility is distinct from IQ is not new. But new evidence documents this claim and has renewed urgency in the desire to teach it.

The concept of “social intelligence” as distinct from abstract intelligence was first proposed by Columbia University psychologist Edward Thorndike. In 1920, Thorndike made the case that the capabilities required in managing others in the workplace are distinct from the abstract intelligence on which most academic training focuses: “The best mechanic in a factory may fail as a foreman for lack of social intelligence.” His proposal of multiple intelligences was debated for decades.

Recently, several new fields of research have contributed stronger evidence for the distinctiveness of social intelligence. Researchers have increasingly moved to studying behavioral performance rather than just answers to test questions. For example, in the field known as behavioral decision making, experiments find that people solve negotiation problems by exchanging nonverbal emotional cues (e.g., Morris and Keltner, 2000; Drolet and Morris, 2000), so social emotions serve an adaptive role. This research area is having a large impact on economics, as evidenced by the awarding of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics to a psychologist working in this area. In management research, studies have highlighted that people’s satisfaction is not just a matter of economic outcomes but of fairness concerns about process, concerns that vary in their forms across cultures (Brockner, Chen, Mannix, Leung, and Skarlicki, 2000). More recently, neuroscience research has begun to map out the brain regions that regulate social interactions, showing that the psychological mechanisms are different from those used in the solving of abstract puzzles (Lieberman and Ochsner, 2001). The writing of Daniel Goleman, especially his new book Social Intelligence, has been instrumental in synthesizing the insights from different research fields about the distinctness of social judgments and social facility.

The new urgency in finding ways to teach social intelligence to business students comes from the changes in the business world. The faster, decentralized nature of modern firms means that leadership is required earlier in one’s career. The enlarged global talent pool described by Thomas Friedman (2005) in The World Is Flat means that American businesspeople cannot rely on technical skills for career advantage. They will succeed or fail to the degree that they are able to motivate, empower, and lead colleagues and partners around the globe.

It is no coincidence that the campus where the concept of social intelligence was born is also playing a leading role in its renaissance. From Thorndike’s day to the present, Columbia has been place where psychology research meets real-world problems, particularly those posed by urban, cosmopolitan life. The importance of social intelligence may be easier to appreciate in New York, given that it is a center of relationship-based professions, such as investment banking, and that it is a diverse community constantly recharged with fresh waves of immigration.

Columbia Business School has built a uniquely strong group of research psychologists. A number of faculty members are jointly appointed at the University’s psychology department. An area of emerging strength, together with the Columbia psychology department, is neuroscience studies of decision making and social judgment. Lastly, Teachers College has strong programs in more applied fields relevant to social intelligence, such as the training of executive coaches.

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