Getting Things Done®. It is hard. Very hard.

Getting Things Done® by David Allen is one of the most popular productivity methods in use today. The benefits of using it are clear:

  1. Your tasks are well managed and in your control (not controlling you).
  2. Your projects are well-planned, tracked, and not forgotten or ignored.
  3. Your mind is free from trying to remember everything so that you can think about the hard problems.
  4. You feel less stress.
  5. Your life is better.

These are the things that we all want. It sounds perfect. There are many more benefits that I could list, but these cover some of the primary ones. The problem is that all of these benefits come at a very high cost. Achieving Mind Like Water® — the martial arts analogy that David Allen uses — is not free.

Getting Things Done®, or GTD®, as it is known, is a complex system. There are a lot of different concepts first to understand, processes to implement, and systems to maintain. If you only follow a partial GTD® plan, then you do get some benefits, but you will never fully realize the real potential of the system. You know what it can do for you, and you want that. It is just that it is out of reach.

Why is it that so many people try to use GTD® and give up? What are the problems with implementing it that are a barrier for the uninitiated? Or even for the initiated?

I first learned about GTD® in 2007 when I purchased my first iPhone. I was so thrilled to finally have my iPhone so that I did not have to carry around my 1) cell phone, 2) MP3 Player, and 3) Palm Pilot. It was all in this one, very cool little device. Imagine my surprise when I begin to set it up, and I discovered that the iPhone does not have a todo list!

What? Really!?!

I could not imagine that this essential feature was simply missing from such an impressive, attractive, and expensive piece of electronics. This phone was supposed to have everything I need. It did not take long for me to realize that in the App Store there are many, many, many to-do list apps for sale.

Lightbulb goes on. This unthinkable omission was a calculated design. Okay, so I began to explore the world of productivity apps for the iPhone.

The app that I finally settled on was a fabulous solution. Better than I ever had with my Palm Pilot. The app synced automatically with their web server. I could access my tasks online. There were saved-searches and lots of other bells and whistles. Most importantly, the product page claimed it could support this thing called Getting Things Done®.

This was my introduction to GTD®.

Four years later I finally implemented GTD®. Again.

During that four years, I bought the book and read it several times. I invested my energy in trying to setup my system to work with the concepts I learned in GTD®. I tweaked my system endlessly. And then I quit GTD®.

I repeated this cycle several times. I understood the benefits of GTD® and wanted to make it all work. Unfortunately, there were three main problems as I see it that prevented me from a successful transition into the promised life of stress-free productivity:

GTD® is complex. To fully realize the potential you need to use all of the parts of the system. Understanding this made the task of implementing GTD® simply overwhelming. There were so many changes I had to make in my life and work all at the same time that ultimately I made none of them.

GTD® is time-consuming. Even if I managed to implement aspects of GTD® successfully, maintaining the system was just too time-consuming. For example, the weekly review commonly takes about 2 hours per week. I can force that to happen a few times maybe, but then eventually I had to skip it one week because I just did not have the time. One week slipped into two weeks. Before long, my system was out-of-date, out-of-control, and ineffective. And when one part slips, the other parts of GTD® seem to follow.

GTD® is not a checklist. Too many simple checklist apps will use one or two GTD® buzzwords, maybe they will offer some predefined lists such as Next Actions or Someday/Maybe, but they are not truly designed to support GTD®. This is what happened to me with my first introduction to GTD® before I knew better. I spent countless hours tweaking my system, building saved searches and fighting the application to try and force GTD® behavior onto a non-GTD® application. Sure, there are some applications today that do much better at providing needed GTD® functions such as automatically promoting project actions to the next action list as they become available, but I have yet to see an application that makes implementing GTD® easy. By easy I mean “I do not have to spend the time to create complicated and confusing workarounds, using features for purposes they were not designed for, just to make the application behave sort of the way I want. The way GTD® says it should behave.”

It is my opinion that these are the three primary reasons that most people either give up on using GTD® or only use a small part of it. I believe that GTD® is a fantastic methodology and used correctly it can have a huge, positive impact on people’s lives. I also believe that there must be a way to overcome these problems.

Part 1 — First Attempts