Dethroning GTD

by Bryann Alexandros. Average Reading Time: about 12 minutes.

Flickr: PixelPlacebo

I’m a refugee of GTD.

Believing that I could surpass the honeymoon phase, I had to end the experiment abruptly after many trifling months of trial and error. Processing everything through the GTD lens had become too taxing to endure.

It took some chaos and mental debugging to shake off the fascination. When 2011 came around, I could finally breathe again, but not without dethroning GTD for good.

It seems the consensus with GTD is that it’s great for some, and not for others. And some would emerge in its defense saying that you just pick a la carte the principles that fit and suit you. But with all the common sense tips and mindhacks now pervading the web — even some specifically made to bandaid the “leakages” in GTD — I was finally compelled to wonder why even bother with an all-out pursuit of the system, anyway?

If veterans and defectors alike struggle to simplify parts of the system just to fit their life, then isn’t GTD just a bloated system to begin with?

My stance is that we shouldn’t organize the same way because we don’t execute life or work the same way. And that the workflow and thought processes of GTD were outfitted for one type of environment which I’ll highlight near the end.

First, What’s GTD?

GTD is an organizational methodology created by David Allen which he first introduced in 2002. He asserts that for your life to run at maximum efficiency, you must dump your stuff into a trusted collection system so that you can process and make sense of it later. What stuff deserves inventory exactly? Everything in your head and everything coming at you. Skim through this cheat sheet for a glimpse behind GTD’s thought processes.

GTD enjoys a devotional following. Resource hubs, supportive groups, and successful practitioners are everywhere who attest to its helpfulness. Even a good smattering of web apps are even built to be GTD compliant.

Here’s what it’s ultimately supposed to do for you:

GTD enables greater performance, capacity and innovation. It alleviates the feeling of overwhelm, instilling focus, clarity and confidence.

GTD didn’t flourish without some valid criticism. Defectors had accused it of being complex, difficult, and even impractical. David had a simple defense in a Wired article (2007):

He [David Allen] realizes that his system can be difficult and that he’s often accused of going overboard with elaborate schemes. He responds with a shrug. “Look, the workings of an automatic transmission are more complicated than a manual transmission,” he says. “To simplify a complex event, you need a complex system.”

What has happened since 2002?

10 years after, obviously technology has advanced. Our access to knowledge, information, and resources was beyond anything feasible than before, even beyond David’s reckoning when he first penned the book. We’ve become more digitally tethered, and the paradox is that we’re more dynamic but vulnerable to distractions, stimuli, and information overload than ever before.

And dare I mention the rise of the entrepreneur, the consultant, the freelancer, the web 2.0 startup, and the upsurge of co-working spaces?

7 Grievances Against Canonical GTD

1. Organization is not the same thing as productivity.

How much organization is needed, anyway?

The point of productivity is to produce something tangible and meaningful that inches you closer to your real goals.

Christine Chua had a concise definition in her article “The 8 Habits of Highly Productive People” for Productivity Magazine #10:

True productivity is the ability to create a lot of high impact work in a short span of time.

She elaborates that we should concern ourselves with high impact work, not “empty/busy” work.

GTD’s idea is that everything must be dumped, cataloged, and sorted into an elaborate and trusted system so that it can be processed later. This hyper organization can give off the time-consuming illusion of control, but what averting the time and advancing towards “accomplishment” and “done?”

The most incendiary of GTD woes is that more time is diverted into the organization and curation of our system over the pure execution of our next actions.

We may state what we want to pursue and accomplish, but none of it has any tangible bearing in reality until you actually execute the task that will inch you towards a tangible outcome.

When so many inputs cascade and overflow into your system, paired with the reality that everything else around you is always changing, things get overwhelming quick.

The rebound time between curating and execution is notoriously immense especially if you have large next action lists and project lists. The bigger your lists, the longer it takes to gauge and weigh it against the viability of everything else.

The time spent curating our system vs time spent executing and thus getting things done and moving things forward. High impact work vs. low impact work.

2. The Dance (and Disconnect) Between Next Actions, Projects, and Location Contexts

GTD defines projects as “any commitment that takes more than one step to complete (p…).” But the disconnect finally arises when capturing and accumulating Next Actions and Project lists into flat lists. Tying actions to desired outcomes becomes more work.

I reverted back to weaving projects and next actions closer together. When I thought through the context of projects, the fog of war lifted which unveiled a more holistic perspective of, well, the battlefield. Decisions were easier to make and I could better discern what was actionable for a project and what was irrelevant.

Without a precious link between next actions and projects, clarity was clobbered.

Contexts complicate, too. There was too much “crossover.” I found this especially valid for other entrepreneurs, freelancers, consultants, and artists whose action steps can vary wildly in priority, location, and the time and energy needed to execute and complete.

3. “Makers” use and leverage cognitive resources differently.

Vexing enough is the unpredictability of next actions which sometimes requires the “creative process.” The common pushback is that GTD is for creatives, too, but the defense is lukewarm at best.

In Loryn Jenkin’s essay, she disputes the supposed “universality” of GTD, stating that the organizational structuring of GTD is inherently unsuitable for creatives because they leverage their cognitive resources differently.

To demonstrate, she invokes an essay written by Paul Graham, co-founder of hacker startup seed Ycombinator, who distinguished the differences between the Maker and the Manager’s profile.

…Paul Graham outlines the difference between a manager’s schedule and what he calls a maker’s schedule. (For Graham, prototypical makers are programmers and writers.) Graham characterises a manager’s schedule as comprising constant change in focus and attention, necessitating minimal task switching latency; whereas a maker’s schedule consists of deep focus on a narrow task range in order to produce novel intellectual work product. His characterisation is consistent with observations made by Joel Spolsky, DeMarco and Lister, Csíkszentmihályi.

Finally, she concludes:

Makers sometimes enter a pattern of working that I’ll call “creative.” The creative pattern is even more revolting to managers than the maker pattern. It is a creativity mode that generates ideas: ideas related and tangential and intertwingled and juxtaposed; breakthrough and incremental; on-task and off. Not to be confused with the managerial faux equivalent—the ‘brainstorming session’—it is usually generated during a state of flow. Yet the creative state often comes unbidden, frequently when a manager has scheduled the maker to fulfil some goal or other, and it ranges across the countours of mental landscape irrespective of any formal goal. It’s an extremely expensive use of mental resources: yet holds massive psychological payoff, and is probably formative in the mental acuity necessary for in-depth design sessions.

In either mode, the creative-maker’s mental world is alien to the manager’s. The creative’s mind is stimulated by related ideas; the manager’s by relative priorities. The maker’s mind stimulated by shape and form and fit and function and flow and connectness and wholeness; the manager’s by task and commitment and priority and personality and command and demand and vision.

4. Time-use Analysis + Interruption Analysis

The lack of time use analysis was mentioned previously by Matthew Cornell here, where he points out David Allen’s implication that the GTD framework is applicable to all types of tasks, when it’s not.

The rift widens regarding the time needed to actually complete an action. Even if a flurry of actions must be delegated or deferred, there was no guarantee that it would be completed within the time allotted. Typical omens like “crappens” and other unintentional time-warping always threatened progress, momentum, and the viability of future projects. It usually meant tweaking or obliterating wholesale next action lists or project lists because some unforeseeable consequence had just occurred. When project lists grew or morphed faster than I could even cross them out as “done,” the overgrowth would be so hard to prune without undergoing analysis paralysis of how it’d affect everything else.

Matthew hints at another variation of this: the dreaded interruption which lures us into the dangers of a reactionary workflow.

Uncovered by Charlie Gilkey is the trouble with GTD’s two-minute rule.

The cost of switching from being engaged in creative work to something else is really high – it’s easy to lose that creative mojo in exchange for something that didn’t really need to be done right then.

It’s logical to have this safety rule to deflect an interruption that happens to seep through, but what about a series of interruptions? What if you’re in an environment with managers or teammates who have the self-assumed right of interrupting? GTD seems to avail this rule for even non-important items and thus half-heartedly embracing the reactionary workflow.

This violates the point of uninterrupted task execution towards high-impact work and the preservation of a long and steady mental flow.

What ever happened to setting up and protecting your boundaries in the first place?

What ever happened to saying no especially when it is justified?

5. Execution is Not a Strength of GTD

So far the recurring theme is that execution, the crux of actually getting things done, is not the creme de la creme of GTD, because it presumes that all tasks and projects have equal weight and bearing, and that the canonical GTD framework is optimized for it.

Once you’re organized, what then?

It’s precisely one of the top reasons that people splinter off into other methodologies or outright reform GTD into a simpler form. Leo Babuta of Zen Habits reveals in his ebook why he simplified GTD into ZTD (Zen to Done):

GTD doesn’t focus enough on doing. While it’s called Getting Things Done, often what we end up doing most of the time is Getting Things in Our Trusted System. [David Allen's book], while presenting an excellent system, focuses more on the capturing and processing stages than it does on the actual doing stage.

6. GTD Neglects Energy: Your Most Finite Resource

It wouldn’t be long until I found that it’s actually life force, mana, energy, mojo — whatever you call it — that determined whether I could execute an action and manifest something of high caliber, despite the location context.

There comes a time when an action step requires creativity, and sometimes creativity involves solving a problem. Designers know this. Even programmers know this. Anyone who needed to solve a problem knows this.

They also know that long uninterrupted stretches of time are needed to reach a temporal space of quieted thought so that a high-impact solution can be harnessed and crafted.

You don’t have to be a creative by trade to comprehend the sting of interruptions: They short-circuit and derail momentum. Switchbacking, the engaging and disengaging and inevitable stalling leads to heavy cognitive penalties.

This again is highlighted by Charlie Gilkie:

…Switching contexts from writing to email to Twitter to phone calls to going to the bathroom presents distinct breaks in engagement, and those breaks come with costs. It’s like running a marathon where the finish line keeps getting moved in radically different directions that causes you to switchback.

7. For whom was GTD really created for?

So many critiques and objections.

Who, then, was the GTD system really made for?

David Allen unveiled GTD back in 2002. His book glows with anecdotes and wisdom collected throughout the past two decades.

Invoking Loryn Jenkins’s essay again, she lays it out as to who she believes GTD was truly, and undisputedly, framed for:

Management necessitates broad thinking rather than deep, prioritisation over detail, team building rather than mental breakthroughs, reading people over intellectual creativity. The world of the manager revolves around a seemingly never-ending series of rapid-fire exchanges. The manager’s nightmare is to be overwhelmed by the plethora of minimally-related information and action, and overburdened by keeping track of priorities. It is for this world that GTD was created. GTD tracks minimal information about discrete tasks that are either independent or arranged into discrete and relatively shallow hierarchies of projects. GTD tracks commitments and dependencies and information snippets that relieve from the manager’s cognitive load the necessity to mentally retain this plethora of information.

Scott Belsky, author of Making Ideas Happen and founder of productivity think tank Behance — distinguishes how the Action Method, an organizational methodology for creatives, works differently than GTD:

1. While GTD is based on WHERE you are when you do stuff (eg: @work, @home), the Action Method is project centric (not context centric). Especially for the creative world, we believe that, in many cases, work is home, home is on the road, etc. It all blends these days.

2. While GTD is focused on the integration of email into workflow, we believe that Actions should be kept separate and center. As such, the Action Method views the inbox as a means of communication rather than a tool for action management.

3. The GTD best practices were created for an office environment – and fine-tuned for the bureaucratic cycles of organizations. In contrast, the Action Method is based on how creative individuals and teams function – and their tendencies.

4. The Action Method is an attempt to use design to boost productivity, while GTD proclaims to be design agnostic. The forces of design (and branding) can be used to push us towards action… As such, one’s productivity system should be design-centric.

Not to mention, David Allen’s recurring mention of executives in his anecdotes and his portfolio of Fortune 500 clientele.

It’s evident more than ever that GTD’s structuring, organization, and mimicking of omnipotence was created for the “orthhodox manager” and their underlings who still operated within the strict traditional confines of “the office.”

Once more, Loryn Jenkins posits this final question:

Why would one possibly imagine that GTD is in any way appropriate for a creative or maker? The task design and use of cognitive resources are literally worlds apart; shouldn’t a maker’s mental requirements be supported by an appropriately designed apparatus? GTD is designed for the world of the manager; it is a culturally hegemonic conceit to think it universal.

Part 2 is forthcoming which wraps up the review, along with my thoughts and sentiment on the problems behind a “mind like water” as presented by the GTD philosophy.