Part 2 — Experience

In Part 1 of this series on the difficulties with using the Getting Things Done® methodology for productivity, I identified the top three problems people have with finding success — GTD® is complex, GTD® is time-consuming, and GTD® is not a checklist. I wrote about some of the issues I faced during my first four years of trying to install this system into my life. In this next installment, I will look at the next four years.


Success. Finally! After four years of failed attempts with GTD®, I had my Aha! moment. I now understood the complexity of GTD® and which parts I must embrace and which parts I could toss or shape to match my needs. I figured out some hacks to reduce the time required to maintain my system. I settled into my chosen tools to implement GTD® (even though they were far from perfect). Persistence paid off.

One might think that I should now be coasting along with my productivity. After all, I was actively and successfully using the best productivity system on the planet. But something was still wrong and this time it was much harder to determine the cause. Once achieving some degree of experience, it is easy to become complacent and accept the status quo. It is easy to continue to follow the prescribed steps just to keep moving. That is the path of least resistance. That is the way task management will flow in search of the elusive Mind Like Water®. That is what happens when you stop learning and optimizing.

Or is it?

Looking back, I realize that I did not stop optimizing. That was my first problem. I accepted the fact that my tools were the best ones available, yet they still did not do what I needed them to. So I would continue to tweak my saved searches. I would think of a new way to use an obscure feature to represent an entirely different GTD® concept (one that was missing from the application). And I had to remember what all of these tweaks meant.

[Problem 1] I accepted constant application optimization as part of my necessary GTD® workflow. The technical term for what I was doing is known as a waste of time! It was frustrating to want a particular behavior in my task manager and to not be able to find one that can deliver it. So there was no option but to perpetually optimize.

That was only the beginning.

One of the great things about GTD® is how every person can implement the system in a way that makes sense for them. It is a personal choice. A statement that represents how you work and how you think. No matter what tool, or tools, you choose, it is your choice to find something effective. That is a great thing, but also problematic. One look at my GTD® system as a whole reveals how this problem manifests. The first thing to realize is that implementing GTD® as a whole system means using much more than just a task manager. My system looked something like this:

Each app is specialized to do what it does best. Each app is fantastic and a welcome addition to my toolbox. I researched each one carefully before committing to it. The problem is my toolbox is too big! I found I need to manage my stuff (David Allen’s technical term) in too many places. Consolidating meant either giving up functionality or repeatedly moving stuff between apps. Or worse, not moving it and trying to maintain my stuff across different non-integrated apps.

[Problem 2] Working with too many apps is a burden that adds friction and works against the goal of reducing friction.

My last realization related to how efficient I had become at handling my day-to-day tasks. This is not a bad thing but it is a complaint I have heard repeatedly from others. I’m busy all day long, I was checking stuff off of my lists, not forgetting things, but I was not making progress on the work that matters. David Allen suggests starting with controlling your day-to-day tasks to first get a handle on the chaos in your life, and then focus on the higher horizons — your purpose, principles, values, goals. What happened to me, and I suspect this happens to a lot of people, is once I had control of the day-to-day I got comfortable with that. I did not see the need to consider the higher horizons. And I didn’t. David Allen also does not give much guidance on how to think about these more abstract concepts. He speaks of it briefly, but assumes that you will already know how to handle it or figure it out from other sources.

It is these higher horizons, however, that are necessary to help dictate which tasks you should be doing and which you should not. How one spends one’s time is an individual choice, but guidance is provided by one’s values and principles. It is imperative to make sure you include tasks in your Next Actions that will move your important goals forward and that they are aligned with your core principles. I was not doing any of this!

[Problem 3] Not defining my higher horizons and using those as a foundation for everything I do was the reason I was not doing any meaningful work. I had a great GTD® system set up that was efficient and kept the tasks flowing. Without any real support in my apps for higher horizons, however, it was too easy to be complacent with living in the lower horizons of Projects and Next Actions where all tasks look equal. I thought I was being very productive, but truthfully, I was not.

I believe these are the three advanced reasons that people get stuck with GTD® even once they are comfortable with the system. They become good at tracking everything, but they are not effective. GTD® requires a lot of work to maintain so it is important to make sure it is worth the effort.