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When GTD Really Works


We’re all lazy. Left to our own devices, the chances are pretty high that we’d walk away from the computer right now, fire up our iPads and settle down to an iBook or a movie, or shoot birds at some egg-stealing pigs. We’d ignore all of the amazing benefits that David Allen’s Getting Things Done system could be doing for our efficiency and not get anything done at all. We’d even lose the opportunity to be more idle. That seems to be the belief among some followers of GTD — and they’re right. Sometimes GTD can work if only we made the effort to make it work. But only sometimes and only for some people.

Posting a comment on a previous GTD post, for example, “Ben,” a GTD user, writes:

“there are people with ADD. maybe it’s not for them. then there are people who are so lazy that they don’t want to learn how to be lazier, because it’s too much ‘work.’”

Ben concedes that he, too, is lazy. But the effort he invests in learning and practicing GTD pays off, he argues, because it means that he can work more efficiently. He gets things done faster and with less effort, leaving him more free time while still completing his tasks. It works for him.

Although that post actually laid out 26 reasons NOT to use GTD (and all of those reasons still hold true), he’s right, of course. Just as he’s right when he points out that there are thousands of people who “are on fire and making crazy, precise consistent headway on wide swathes of life with the GTD thing.”

Of course there are times when GTD works. It must work otherwise no one would ever do it at all, and that’s clearly not true. So who does it work for and when it is it most likely to deliver results?

  1. GTD works when it just plain HAS to work

In his comment, Ben notes that not having a system doesn’t work for him at all:

“i personally despise doing something in a non systematic way most of the time, because i know that almost everytime i do it takes way more time and effort than if i think about it and figure out a good, efficient, “lazy” way to get what i want done. so a lot of the actual time i’m doing something i’m not good at is spent analyzing it to see how to do it not only better, but smarter.”

That’s fair enough… for Ben. But most of us don’t “despise” doing things in a non-systematic way.” Not having a system can make task completion inefficient and it can require putting a bit more effort into the execution and less into the planning which can be uncomfortable, but “despise” would be putting it strongly. For many of us. We’re happy to plan each task one at a time, to lay out the main points in a blog post before we start writing, for example, or make a list of the books we have to read or the designs we want to look at when we’re searching for inspiration. We’re ready to use a system no more complex than a list and to adapt it for each task we have to do — and it doesn’t bother us to work that way.

But not everyone is like that.

When not writing a thought down and putting it in a list means that you’re obsessing about it, worrying about it and not getting anything done, or when the lack of an overriding system leads to a feeling as strong as “despise” then GTD might be a good solution for you.

  1. GTD can work in context.

Context is a big thing in GTD. It’s the first of the “Four-Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment.” Action reminders should always be organized by context, says David Allen, such as “Calls,” “At Home,” “At Computer,” and “Errands,” etc. It all sounds very organized until you realize that it boils down to recognizing that you can’t buy milk if you’re not in the shop and you can’t hold a face-to-face meeting with someone in another city.

“If you can’t do the action because you’re not in the appropriate location or don’t have the appropriate tool, don’t worry about it,” writes Allen.

That’s one of the blindingly obvious parts of GTD but context can play an important role in the system — and even for people who don’t use the system. Putting your task list on a post-it note with the name of the task at the top and you’ll be provide context for your to-dos and adapt part of GTD to a much simpler system.

  1. GTD can work when you work it.

Lots of people do that. Tac Anderson, for example, describes himself as a geek and a “digital anthropologist.” He’s also a GTD aficionado… but only to a certain extent. His blog explains in detail how he’s hacked David Allen’s system using moleskins and tabs. He’s not alone. A search for “gtd hacks” on Google turns up nearly 26,000 results.

For many people, it seems, David Allen’s principles of prioritizing, contextualizing, listing and organizing are more important than the precise methodology he teaches to do those things. They accept the idea that they should write down their tasks and goals, organize them into different categories and choose the right time to implement them. But they reject the precise methods.

Instead of using 43 folders, they’re using moleskins. Or apps. Or a whole bunch of other tools. If you’ve got the creativity to adapt GTD to make it work, it can work for you. It just might not be GTD.

GTD is incredibly complex. As one commenter put it, the system can up to a year to fully master, only the brave and very motivated will make it and the failure rate is very high. For those who do make it, the system undoubtedly works and works well. It ensures that they get things done. But actually so do the rest of us… right after we’ve put down our iPads and got back to work.



One Comment

  1. Dan Says:

    I would recommend checking out http://www.Gtdagenda.com for an online GTD manager.

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote, and also comes with mobile-web version, and Android and iPhone apps.

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