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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

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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