Toward a New Vision of Productivity

This is the third part of a 12-part series I am posting through the end of December and into January 2009, examining the current understanding of productivity and where the concept might be heading in the future. I invite Lifehack’s readers to be an active part of this conversation, both in comments here and on your own sites (if you have one). I will also soon announce some other venues where I and several others will be discussing some of the issues raised in this series. Stay tuned…

It’s fair to say that David Allen’s Getting Things Done has been the most influential work on productivity of our generation. People who are struggling to get a grip on their day-to-day duties – let alone make progress with big, life-changing projects – find in the book a relatively straight-forward approach to managing their time and work that they can dive right into, and often find their lives measurably improved when they start to put Allen’s ideas into practice.

For good reason, too. GTD is, in its purest form is quite simple. You capture thoughts as they occur to you, spend a set time every day deciding what to do with those thoughts, make lists of actions you need to perform, and do those actions. Every so often you set aside an hour or two and review what you’ve thought and done and what you’d like to do in the future.

What could be wrong with that?

The short answer is “nothing”. GTD helps. Implemented with any kind of discipline, it provides the clarity and control that too many of us feel is lacking in our daily lives.

And yet, as simple as GTD is, as easily grasped as its central precepts would seem to be, people still struggle with it – and struggle mightily. This site and dozens of others have devoted countless thousands of words to helping people “get” GTD. David Allen himself has continued to produce lectures, audiobooks, articles, and other material revisiting and re-explaining the basics of GTD. Clearly there’s something missing, some key point that people find too hard to grasp.

What’s more, people resist GTD in various ways. There is a powerful urge to create GTD-free zones, usually in the home – we apparently find it distasteful to reduce our non-working lives to a set of next actions and project lists. Or we mix-and-match various parts of the system, for example by creating projects without worrying about the objectives (while according to Allen, the most important part of a project is being able to visualize the objective). We create action lists and then, because Allen’s priority-free system leaves us still unsure about what to do next, we prioritize our list or create separate lists of Most Important Tasks (MITs).

And we don’t do the weekly review. We do “mini-reviews” sporadically throughout the week, or we do major reviews “once in a while”, but we simply cannot manage to find an hour or two a week to sit down and review our lives. In the GTD > Weekly Review audiobook, all of the coaches involved listed this as their clients’ most significant stumbling block – and they admitted it had been for them as well!

What’s going on? Why is GTD so simple to grasp and so hard to put into practice? What is it not doing that makes it hard to trust completely?

I want to suggest a few issues that each play a role in the failure of GTD for many people. I should note that this is not meant to be a blanket condemnation of the system, but hopefully to open up the ground for thinking fruitfully about what is needed beyond GTD (or similar systems; GTD is what I know, but I would venture that systems like Covey’s and others’ fall short in similar ways).

1. It’s the System, Stupid.

GTD’s most powerful strength – it’s guidance in creating a system that one trusts – is also one of its biggest shortcomings. It is no mystery why GTD’s biggest audience has been a) corporate business people, who Allen slanted it to in the first place, and who are used to working within established procedures and under imposed schedules, and b) technical people such as programmers, who are likewise comfortable with rigidly defined procedures, and who are masters of breaking complex processes into simple, discrete tasks.

For the rest of us, though, GTD feels a little too much like the kind of work we picked the book up to help us manage in the first place. That is, it feels like business, and for people whose business is not business – creative professionals, for example – it feels “external” to our real work (and identity). Which may well be why so many writers, designers, artists, and other creative folk maintain a firewall between their GTD’d lives and their “real” lives – GTD seems appropriate to our non-core tasks, like keeping appointments and handling our bookkeeping (the stuff we’d really rather not be doing), but feels all wrong in our studios, favorite writing haunts, and creative home lives. This is probably also why so many people balk at extending GTD into their family life – it feels wrong to delegate tasks to your spouse or children or to treat decorating your Christmas tree as a “project”.

2. No Priorities = No Direction

Perhaps Allen’s biggest innovation in GTD is getting rid of priority-setting in favor of context-awareness. In GTD, you don’t look at your list to see what the most important task is, you look to see what’s most easily performed given where you are and the resources you have at hand.

And yet, while this might work well in an office environment where most of your work is pretty clearly prioritized even if you don’t think about it, it is harder to apply to non-work environments, as well as for solo workers and entrepreneurs who are dealing with the fuzzier requirements of a job that may not have such clear priorities.

For many, then, instead of limiting worrying about what to do at any given moment, GTD often increases stress as people try to figure out which tasks really are the most important ones to work on.

(Ironically, Allen often says the central question you should be asking yourself is “Is this the most important thing I could be doing right now? Is this task fulfilling my destiny in the world?” I have to believe that the contradiction here is unintentional, some kind of vast oversight on Allen’s part that he intends somehow to resolve.)

3. Do, do, do!

At the core of Allen’s GTD is the next action. Put simply, the next action is the very next thing you should do to move a project ahead. GTD eschews planning for most things, preferring instead to limit your lists to only those things that can and should be done at the moment you’re checking your lists. Once an action is completed, it should either naturally flow into the next action, or you should add the next step to take you closer to completing your goal to your next action list.

The task-oriented, in-the-moment-ness of GTD is effective for most people, which is why if nothing else, most people come away from reading Getting Things Done with at least a good next action list. It’s also attractive to us because it resonates well with one of the core value of modern Western culture (despite it’s Eastern-y, Zen-like feel): work.

The Protestant work ethic – which is hardly limited to Protestants! – can be said to dominate Western culture. Work is a value in-and-of itself for us – think of how many variations there are on the concept that “idle hands are the Devil’s playground.” Among Quakers, Shakers, and other Calvinist off-shoots, work itself becomes a form of prayer; through work is achieved communion with God. (It’s no coincidence that F.W. Taylor was a Quaker.)

GTD is a ground-up system, meaning that the system focuses on getting your day-to-day tasks in order, not on higher-level goal- and priority-setting. That stuff’s there, but it’s not at all intuitive how you get from Allen’s “Runway” view to the “50,000-foot” aerial view. The assumption is that if you focus on action, on doing, the higher meaning will emerge – much like prayer.

The Big Picture is Cloudy

None of this is intended to be a dismissal of GTD. The system works for a lot of people, and I’ve nothing against it as such. The problem is that there are gaps, that while GTD should be a way of clearing up space in people’s lives so that they can think about and fulfill their higher-level goals, it fails to do that for many people. Maybe for most people. We balk at the kind of self-reflection that, while built into the system in the weekly review, is the least practiced part. The reality is that, for most people, the organizing of tasks and projects somehow does not lead naturally to the Big Picture view – something is missing. My goal here, then, is to clear the decks, to pull at least some of GTD’s flaws out into the open, so that we can find the likely places that need to be filled. Having done that, the rest of this series will focus on those likely places and suggest ways to move from merely getting things done to making meaning.

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