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