Why GTD Isn’t Working For You

Getting Things Done (GTD), the time management system based on David Allen’s best-selling book, is loved by many. It’s also no secret that not everyone finds it smooth sailing. GTD can become a cause of pain for some people, maybe for you.

I often work with people who have tried GTD and after a while quit using it. Some drifted away, others deliberately dropped it because it wasn’t working for them. Where does the use of GTD fall short? Let me just share three common problems that I’ve observed.

GTD relies on the use of “contexts” to use time more efficiently. The idea is that it is better to make phone calls all in a batch, then handle email in a batch, and so on, rather than switching from one “context” to another. For someone with more than a hundred items on their daily task list, this may be true. For example, imagine an interior designer working on multiple client projects at once. It may be helpful to keep track of what needs finding by store and by client. Or imagine an executive in charge of two regional offices, spending some time each week working in each – they need a way to sort for what can be done now, in the place they are. But most people have, not hundreds but maybe a dozen or a few dozen items on their daily list. The time it takes to track the contexts – entering them into the system with each and every task – actually doesn’t pay any dividend. And having to look at multiple contexts rather than just one list creates pockets where tasks can be overlooked. My suggestion: use contexts only if your work warrants it.

GTD calls for a weekly review of outstanding items to let go of tasks that may have seemed useful once but no longer have a good claim on our time. This is good hygiene: it keeps the list “clean.” It’s sometimes not enough for the many people who struggle with letting go of tasks and admitting that those items won’t ever get any attention. GTD is not helpful for people who have a hard time dismissing tasks whose “use by” date has passed. If this is a particular problem for you, I suggest looking at Mark Forster’s SuperFocus system. It is the most effective way I have seen yet to train a brain to sift, sort, and let go of old tasks that may be hanging on, crowding out new and more interesting possibilities.

GTD calls for one or more “collection buckets,” tools into which you put tasks to get them out of your head. Many people find it too hard to maintain their GTD system because they have too many such buckets, and they don’t empty them often enough. Suppose I have my master list in the calendar program on my computer. As I’m out walking I think of another task not on my list, so I get it out of my head by putting it into another collection bucket, in this case by calling my office phone and leaving myself a message. That will work just fine provided that I check that secondary “bucket” (my voicemail) and empty it into my master list. If I collect notes on the back of business cards, voicemails, emails, and scribbles on index cards, I must have a reliable way to dump those into my main collection bucket. The only solution for this is a bit of discipline in order to make the system work. To my knowledge there is no task management or productivity system that can get around the need for one main collection point and the willingness to use it.

Have you tried GTD? What did you observe? If you’ve stopped using a system, why? What does your productivity system need that it doesn’t haven now? Leave a comment here.

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