When GTD Goes GT Wrong

Despite the virtue and simplicity of David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach, there are many places where it can go wrong. Indeed, every productivity system or platform has its drawbacks, and you should be on the lookout for them, if you truly want to be efficient and also enjoy what you do.

Here are some lessons that I’ve learned:

Capturing what is in your mind is essential and perhaps the most important part of GTD. Walking around with a moving to-do list in your head is exhausting. I’m regularly astonished by the number of working professionals (adults!) who are organization- and task management-challenged. It takes a large amount of brainpower to remember everything — and you simply won’t.

That said, it’s not essential that you capture every single thing that you might need or want to do. If you are trying to create a journal habit, you might want to include it in your list of things to do. But if it is already part of your daily or weekly routine or otherwise non-essential, you might want to leave it off. The same goes for personal hygiene or household tasks. Keeping track of brushing your teeth, for example, as I have seen on some lists, is not only unnecessary, it’s also kind of gross.

You also don’t need to be exhaustive in what you capture. A to-do list is not a notebook. You should have a separate space for your workflow. (After breaking with the still-unsightly but omnipresent Evernote, I’ve been using a combination of Bear for writing and OneNote for archiving.) The more text you capture, the more you have to read and re-read. (That is one of the principles behind the sometimes-manic quest to reach inbox zero.) If it takes you more than 30 minutes — OK, you get an hour — to do a review and plan for the next week, you might be doing something wrong.

At one point, I added my media consumption to my to-do list. But it quickly becomes overwhelming. Do I really need to be reminded to read Dona Tartt’s The Goldfinch? The book is massive, and it’s been sitting in plain sight for well over a year. I’m going to read it one day, but only when I’ve made time for it. I recommend keeping a separate list of books or movies that does not require daily or weekly engagement.

Another problem with capture is being a purist — either digital or analog. It’s not possible for you to have your tablet or phone or your beloved notebook with you at all times. You should have more than one intake point, so long as going over what you’ve added is part of your weekly review.

As someone who stares at screens for the majority of my waking hours, the importance of user interface cannot be overstated. No one wants to use a platform that is unsightly and clunky. (I’m not looking at you, Blackboard.) That said, preoccupation with aesthetics can be a hindrance, especially with bullet journals. If that is your thing, then good for you. I don’t know that you want to go all plain text, as Robert Talbert has done, but you should be mindful of wasting too much time on getting things pretty.

In addition to having too few places for capture, it’s also possible to create too many project categories. If the purpose is getting things done rather than getting things organized, you should keep your categories or projects to the fewest number possible, perhaps related to location. Having one project list for work and one for everything else is perfectly acceptable. The barbecue you are planning for next weekend probably does not need its own list or tags. One big list and your favorite Pomodoro timer might be the most efficient way of really getting things done.

Perhaps the biggest problem I have encountered with GTD is how easy it is to be unconnected from a calendar. It’s a great way to have your tasks organized, but it’s way too easy to drag and drop things into tomorrow. Unlike Dwight D. Eisenshower’s matrix system, most to-do lists keep the focus on what is urgent and important but at the cost of larger, more long-term projects. I moved from Todoist because it does too much of what I don’t need it to do — e.g., voice notes, tags, subtasks — and not enough of what I really want it to do, which is keep me on task.

My current system emerged from a desire to make my to-do list calendar based, not just calendar-integrated. Like many workplaces, mine uses Microsoft, so my workflow needs to include Outlook. But rather than sticking with their perfectly functional but Soviet-style app, I’ve moved to Spark (by Readdle, the PDF Expert people) as my email client. (Airmail is also very good.) Most important has been my investment in Fantastical for Mac (and iPad), which has been a game-changer. (Teuxdeux is another excellent option along these lines that you should consider, especially if you combine it with the Kanban system rather than projects.) The extensions feature on Mac allows all the integration I need, with a simple right-click. I’m also using the Nine Mail app on my Pixel, which allows me to access my work mail and calendar anywhere I am, along with my list of tasks.

Most of my work does not involve cross-office collaboration. But if yours does, it might be time to consider Focus, a chrome extension that allows you to combine productivity platforms. In any event, don’t let someone else’s platform determine how you work. And you should never be satisfied with the status quo, especially if the status has been set by someone else.

Finally, and this is something I have not exactly settled: You need to decide how much you care about archiving. Everyone loves crossing things off lists and looking over a massive record of what you’ve accomplished. But if this is just about nothing more than the psychological payoff, it very easily becomes pseudo-work, and you’re just adding to the amazing amount of time you spend on work that is not actual work. Keeping your resume updated is a fine thing, but chronicling every task and movement can be a massive waste of time.

GTD has provided a great reference point and dialogue about productivity. (I’ve been most appreciative of the two-minute rule and Allen’s idea for a recycling bin/quasi-archive.) But maybe we should think about it more as a suggestion than a system.

Systems are made to be helpful, but they too often include an element of the unworkable or oppressive.