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As I’m sure is the case with most folks who get into GTD, I was driven to it by promises of organization and less stress, both at work and at home. Frankly, the notion of being able to accomplish everything I needed to (and even some things I wanted to, but never had time for) was music to my ears. I had missed too many deadlines, forgotten too many dentist appointments, neglected too many quarts of milk on my way home from the office. I definitely needed some assistance (and I’m sure many of you can empathize).

Here I sit, many months later, working hard to fully integrate GTD into my daily life. I’ll admit, it isn’t easy (a notion exemplified by sites like the GTD Mastery 100 and the countless blogs) and can take a good deal of investment. Part of me wishes I had a better idea what I was in for before diving glassy-eyed into the pool of kool-aid. So, with that in mind, I came up with my own list of things I wish I’d known about GTD before I got started (not that I would’ve decided any differently – I’d still be doing it because it’s a fantastic system):

  • It Takes Work – After reading the book, you haven’t magically unlocked the part of your brain that remembers to call your mother on Mother’s Day. There’s a good deal of work required to keep your system current and complete. At the absolute minimum, you’ll need to maintain several different lists, a filing system and a calendar. Obviously things can get more complicated from there, especially given the myriad of different implementations and tools that exist today. But no matter if you’re strictly paper or using the latest Web 2.0 web app to Get Things Done, know that it’s not a “set it and forget it” operation.
  • It Takes Time – I’ve heard various, rough estimates of how long one can spend doing the necessary weekly review, daily management of project and task lists, etc. – but it will obviously depend on the amount of stuff you’re trying to accomplish. For me, I can quite easily spend between 30 minutes and an hour per day just keeping my various in-baskets and whatnot empty and processed. Again, your specific implementation and project list may dictate longer processing and maintenance time frames – just know that you’ll spend a sizable chunk of time keeping all your ducks in a row.
  • It Takes Discipline – With a well-oiled GTD implementation, you’ll be amazed at how effective you are at knocking out tasks and projects. But there’s a flip-side of that coin: if left alone and/or not maintained properly, the system can quickly become very unwieldy and difficult to manage. I’ve encountered this situation a handful of times since I started, and I can personally attest to the fact that it’s a much bigger task to catch up on a week’s worth of stuff than it is to just spend a little time not falling off of the wagon. I believe the occasional lapse is unavoidable, but plan on setting aside an evening to get your system back on track.
  • The Benefit is Directly Proportional to Your Level of Investment – Some people feel that, for GTD to be really effective, the whole system (as described in the book) must be implemented completely. Others think that you can definitely take bits and pieces of the book and experience significant benefits in your quality of life and work. Personally, I’m a bit on the fence, but I believe there is one universal truth here : the degree to which you do this stuff will dictate the benefits you experience. If all you do is write things down, then you’ll probably forget fewer ideas you have while out hitting golf balls or whatever. In the end, it’s really up to you how extensively you do this GTD thing. But the more you do, the greater your return will be.

This isn’t meant to scare anybody into not doing GTD – I can’t recommend it highly enough. But you need to bear in mind that, for the system to work, you’re going to have to work at it. Is your peace of mind and a general lack of stress worth it? I would say, yes, definitely.

Brett Kelly is a Computer Programmer from Southern California, where he lives with his wife and son. He enjoys waxing philosophical (as well as giving practical, useful advice) about productivity, GTD and technology over at The Cranking Widgets Blog (RSS feed). For more practical GTD shenanigans, you might enjoy GTD Masters, a series of interviews with well-known GTD/productivity bloggers.

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