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Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 3: The Trouble with GTD

Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 3: The Trouble with GTD

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.

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    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?

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

    More by this author

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work) How to Admit Your Mistakes How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques How to Learn Something New Every Day and Stay Smart

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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