Getting Things Done (GTD) has been a framework that’s been in and out of my life for a decade or more, but it has never quite worked!
It has the promise of getting everything out of your head and into a “reliable system”, since “your mind is for having ideas, not holding them“. This is not a dig at David Allen who formulated this system building from others’ learnings. His most concise set of insights I have found is this post “Managing your projects with GTD”.
Parts of GTD that work for me
- Reference material. I have digital notes sorted by two top-level categories: Active Project Notes, and Reference Material. This means I do have one place where I know I can store information, and be able to find it later. That’s any mix of link, quotes, thoughts, projects plans, etc.
- Todo lists of next actions. GTD has a good insight, and that’s that a natural todo list doesn’t get done, because it’s a mix of actionable points, outcomes, and ill-defined ideas. Having a list of next actions means that you’ve thought ahead to what you should do next for all your open projects.
- Projects as outcomes. You don’t think of projects like “Car maintenance” but specific outcomes like “Car serviced”. It forces you to think about what the finish line for the project might look like.
Parts of GTD that don’t work for me
Many of these points may well be my own failings rather than the proposed GTD system. They’re about energy and motivation. They’re affected by the many times I let myself get distracted.
- Weekly review overwhelming. I’ve avoided the weekly review. It’s a point of pain. When trying to do one, I’ve mostly failed to get to the end, lucky if I’ve reviewed all the next actions in my lists. In other words, I don’t do a weekly review.
- Lack of priorities. I could have a list of next actions for my “work” context which has fifty next actions in it. GTD advises you to pick a next action based on your time available, energy available, etc. This is too much to ask for a list of fifty items, the overhead being too big. Since it’s too much to filter the list for a suitable next action, I default to not even looking at the context list, and instead running on the default mode of “who contacted me last?”.
- Scattered focus. The projects list is recommended to bit a list of all the active outcomes you’re going after. A project is any multi-step outcome you’re after. That results in the projects list being mixed with “New site launched” and home projects like “Floor cleaned”. Large projects like “New site launched” can go on for months, and it’s not clear at what line a project spawns off as a new sub-project.
- Universalism in practice. GTD is based on the belief that really does seem to make sense: that your mind is not a good place to store structured information of projects. The logical conclusion is that everything you ever think of possibly doing should be written down. The system over-relies on moving non-active projects to the “Someday / Maybe” list, which in itself has gotten out of hand for me in the past. The result is that I couldn’t even get through this list in one sitting. The list would be a non-contextualised list of projects ideas.
- Over-simplification of everything being a next action. I’ve discussed how Cal Newport pointed this out.
- Assuming you have to process every piece of information constantly. Ryan Holiday in the book Stillness Is The Key talks about managing your inputs (see Tim Ferriss’ point on that). In my day job, there are more notifications that I could ever keep on top of. If I were to respond to each one, I would never reach a state of focus to get stuff done. This points me to possibly having something like a “sitting on it” place where I’d store references to projects that I might check back on in a week’s time… Ryan Holiday’s points on delaying processing information is an interesting one, but even then his approach points to prioritising info on where it came from to try to guess how important it is.
All of this has only resulted in being a failed practitioner of GTD, and thus feeling like a failure! GTD’s over-arching beliefs such as needing to have everything written down in a certain place implies that if you’re not following its fundamental rules that you’re not doing it again and that there is no alternative.
Mini-GTD working for me, to a certain extent
At work, I have managed to have a slice of GTD that looks like this:
- In one place, I have:
- Next Actions list
- Waiting On list
- Projects list, which I can drill down into my projects reference material (using the Workflowy tool). This breaks away from the GTD system in that my projects list and projects reference material are in one place.
- And I do have project reference material (not simple next-actions) for certain coordination contexts (that is one for my own team, and one for the higher team I’m part of). It’s a place where I can use structured hierarchical information and references to build up a picture of sticking points that I need input from others. I can see how I could distill this down into a more GTD-pure system, but having this structured info in one place works for me, rather than being only grouped by project reference information and simple next-actions.
My main point is that GTD is working out for me all this time later, in helping me structure what I want to get done, but the restriction is that a universal system that covers my entire life seems at this point out of reach.