Thoughts on GTD System Weaknesses

Working with a Getting Things Done system in the past 9 months or so leads to a few thoughts I’d like to share.
Because it seems to me there is a systemic weakness in the concept of GTD. This does not mean GTD is not bringing me benefits, on the contrary. It does limit its scope of effectiveness though.
GTD, what it does
GTD is about making lists, more effective lists, to manage your time/life better.
The biggest benefit in GTD, as I understand it, is in not asking you to attach priorities or times to activities in your list, as time management systems generally do. It assumes that once you have good lists you will know what to do, based on time and energy available, as well as your own sense of urgency. This is a true diamond, as it trusts you to be human, and doesn’t demand the conveyor belt mindless behaviour other time management systems ask for (“once you have the right list, you’re on mindless autopilot”)
The other big benefit of GTD is its multiple feedback loops. The short one, shared with other time management systems, informing you about tasks, and tasks that are waiting for someone else. The longer feedback loop(s), the reviews, allow you to step away from the task units, and look at your goals if they are still valid, and if your tasks still serve those goals. This helps you prevent to be running because you are busy, without knowing why you’re busy and what it’s all for. Doing good reviews (both back and forward looking, so review is a partly misleading term), and doing them regularly however is not easy.
GTD, what it does not
The biggest problem of GTD is that it is based on lists. Because list making is an old and time-honoured information strategy. GTD in essence says: if your inbox and the amount of tasks is growing and your life is getting more complicated make better lists.
That amounts to, when someone does not understand you, repeating yourself saying it LOUDER. In stead of choosing different words to convey your message. GTD is trying to apply the list making strategy better, in response to a failing list making strategy.
However when I see what I and others are trying to do with GTD it is navigating an increasingly fragmented and complex environment. The root causes are quantitative rises in the connections between people (small world), the speed of change (world becoming a metropole), and the amount of information (information abundance). The internet, and other preceding media, as infrastructure play a very big role in these quantitative shifts.
Quantitative changes, qualitative answers
These quantitative shifts are by necessity begetting qualitative answers, because conventional methods (like making lists) stop scaling. Web2.0 tools have some of those qualitative answers (active sharing and sense making, social relations as information filter, networks of meaning) as design principles. Other qualitative answers are becoming part of our information skills (pattern recognition, knowing when to stay focussed amidst distraction, knowledge as being connected/networked, learning as building networks).
I find I apply those qualitatively different information strategies before I can get to the level of things where GTD lists make sense. I hunt for patterns in my RSS feeds, and then those patterns become inbox items. The RSS feed items themselves are not suited to treat as inbox items, simply because the items themselves are not the relevent units of information for me.
I already have marked 90% of my incoming e-mail as read without reading them, before I get to seeing them as true inbox items that warrant a decision to respond to, put on my task list, send to someone else, or delete.
I also find that a very important piece of my work does not get affected by GTD at all: staying aware of my social network and context. Keeping track of the people I know and the communities I am part of is my premier source of learning, of landing projects, of bringing my goals closer, and it is all to a very large extent based on peripheral sense. It is based on not looking directly at it, nor on focussing on it, but glancing at it,. Like the way you keep track of what is happening in a pub by glancing around, while you are actually focussing on the conversation with the person in front of you. Or like the way in the dark you see more out of the corner of your eye, than right in front of you. Like with my RSS feeds this is pattern hunting. And only the patterns I find ever reach my inbox where I focus on them to decide what to do next. Tuning my antennas on my surroundings, and pro-actively define what type of patterns I am currently especially interested in also takes a large chunk of time and energy.
This creates a scope where GTD is effective but only after the problems caused by the size, fragmentation and speed of the world around me have already been dealt with using other strategies. GTD gives me very effective lists, but only after I have created a qualitatively better ‘inbox’ myself. GTD can deal with complicated stuff very well, but I have to deal with complexity myself first.
How GTD could be better
One way in which the GTD method could become more valuable is if I could get patterns from it about what I do, that became inbox items again. Another if I could shape my GTD reviews to help me tune my antennas for the peripheral vision better as I described above. Something to think about further

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on GTD System Weaknesses

  1. Oliver Gassner

    Some very interesting obbservations here. I am not sure my reaction or understanding is appropriate, but let me say some stuff.
    Allen stresses in the beginning of the book, taht the ‘physical tools’ be in order. Only if theings have a place, are nice to use and work together you will be successful in creating a ‘reliable gtd-system’.
    This is also true for your lists and inboxes.
    This also leads to adjustments of the GTD-system to ypur own needs and likings.
    e.g.
    * I DO use Priorities and tasks with dates on my Palm/Treo todolist (thus replaceing both calendar except for appointments) and 43folders)
    * Instead of weekly reviews I tend to ignore ‘someday maybe’ (except if I hit it in a plam search) and do a more ‘daily’ review of the tasks that I COULD have done today but did not. Or the tasks that I MIGHT do today but would rather decide about another day.
    * For balacing reasons and for repetitive tasks (like ‘read your RSS, check this network, comment there) I use repeating tasks with either daily, bi-daily, weekly, 9 day or x months rhythm. mening: If I check them of their date will automatically set at a later, predefined peroid.
    * If I use my ‘modified’ prio system
    1 = must be today
    2= planned for today
    3= what Stepehn Covey calls “quadrant 2” = important but not urgent
    4= all the rest
    I can usually work down my daily todolist (which also has categories besides GTD-context pretty much from top to bottom. (urgent -> client -> sales -> waiting for -> orga tasks (being my own ‘assistant’ -> all the other stuff) (tghe @home categotry is “prio” ordered by ‘morning -> day -> evening, so it is more of a ‘schedule’)
    I think you need to ‘hack’ such systems to fit your brain, circumstances, choice of paper/digital tools etc.
    Only if you do that the systems will me motivating for you. So in yozur case the challenge will be how to get the peripheral stuff into focus.

  2. Boris Mann

    Automated tools to help with pattern recognition. Serendipity flows that take your social graph as pattern inputs, but then skew them with other information to prevent echo chamber effects and promote discovery of new inputs.
    Or something 😛
    I’ve never been able to fully commit to GTD. I’m better at doing the items on the list rather than making the list.

  3. Oliver Gassner

    links for 2008-01-24

    Vorselektion von A-Blogs über Rivva – KoopTech
    (tags: icommented)
    Basic Thinking Blog | back
    23andme.com: genetik und Datenschutz.
    (tags: icommented)
    MarketingWelten 1-2-3.0 » Gutes Design ist auch gute Kommunikation
    – gutes Desig

  4. Samuel Driessen

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Ton! I posted about it on my blog. I hope I understand you correctly, but I would disagree with you that GTD is all about lists. It is also about lists. But the lists should be kept short and actionable. GTD says we should fill tasks in our agenda if they require a certain amount of time and have to be done before a certain date. So reading RSS feeds and thinking about them could be a fixed slot during the day, as Oliver also writes.
    What triggered me though, is what you wrote about lists and relatedness of tasks. I wonder if it should be possible to relate tasks in a network-ish way. This relates to what GTD calls “projects”. But projects are very list-y in GTD. One more thought is to be able to share these lists or network of tasks with friends, would be nice too. “Social GTD”! Maybe something new for the GTD plugin for Outlook?
    There’s more on your post on my blog.

  5. Dan

    For implementing GTD you might try out this web-based application:
    Gtdagenda.com
    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    A mobile version is available too.
    As with the last update, now Gtdagenda has full Someday/Maybe functionality, you can easily move your tasks and projects between “Active”, “Someday/Maybe” and “Archive”. This will clear your mind, and will boost your productivity.
    Hope you like it.

  6. Ed

    (“once you have the right list, you’re on mindless autopilot”) is mere marketing hype. Don’t believe it. Any job for which that works is performed by a spreadsheet on a clerk’s PC or a java app on a manager’s Blackberry. Otherwise, I agree with you; GTD is good for the last step of complexity reduction, but it’s no good for the whole process.
    A work environment is a set of unrelated (and sometimes unkown) tasks until the worker artificially imposes order. Similarly, a general mathematical function is imponderable until it is approximated by a continuous function. Once you have a continuous function to work with, you can appoximate every position with a straight line. The function as a totality remains imponderable; don’t believe that the function is now a straight line. My point? Lists are the straight line approximations of a jumbled reality. You can’t look at a set of lists and say that it is reality. What you can say is that these lists model reality from this point of view and those lists model reality from that point of view.
    The lists, like any models, give you perspective, show hidden relationships, and free your mind to be alert to where and when the model will fail. That’s why they must be updated.
    GTD is not a general algorithm for reducing complexity; it is the last step, reducing reality to action. It results in a model from a point of view (yours) and a point in time (now). Until chaotic funciton of reality, is approximated by a smoother function, say, thoughts that suggest projects or goals, it is not yet time to apply GTD. After all GTD is about processing inbaskets and an inbasket is a list.
    The reduction of compexity requires real work and tools that are built for that. Expanding GTD is not the best answer. Don’t break a good tool by using it for the wrong purpose. A mind map (with lists at each node and each connector) might be better. A standard analyis of graphs, such as mind maps, is to make the connectors into nodes and the nodes into connectors. This may add to clarity and insight.

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