Getting Things Done Is Bigger Than GTD

There has been a lot of great conversation surrounding GTD this week. Is GTD relevant? Is it necessary? Is it for creative people? Is it indistinguishable from a religion? David Allen’s work is being put under a microscope, mostly by those who live or have lived by it. Since much of this examines how GTD works in the age of more modern tools and technology, I thought I’d add my own thoughts considering I’ve only started applying many of its tenets to my life over the past two years for both my creative and logistical endeavors.

Overall it seems that there are two major debates going on here. “GTD vs. Creatives” and “GTD vs. Modern Tools”. Let’s examine them both…

The GTD vs. Creatives Argument

When it comes to the importance of Getting Things Done for “creatives”, I think Shawn Blanc hit the nail on the head (although he may have done so unintentionally):

I use OmniFocus every day, but the vast majority of its to-do items are not for any current projects I’m working on. Rather I use it for keeping track of the administrative and logistical things I need to do. In fact, if I had someone else to run my business for me and all I had to do was write, I probably wouldn’t have a need for OmniFocus.

Getting the things you want to do done is never the challenging part. Forcing them into GTD can often end up crushing creativity. However if you find yourself struggling and don’t have a process for getting all of those other little things done, it really won’t matter how creative you are1. There are tons of excruciatingly talented artists who never get anywhere, oftentimes that’s because they are so focused on the creative side that they forget how much everything else can matter. For those who undertake creative pursuits2 it isn’t a matter of using GTD to get everything done, it’s a matter of using anything to get the things that wouldn’t get done otherwise.

I never have to be reminded to write for this site, I also wouldn’t have the freedom to do it if it weren’t for the space that my own personal GTD system gives me (note the importance of “my own personal GTD system”, we’ll come back to that in a minute). The system ensures that we aren’t overwhelmed by the pressure of everything we could be doing while being creative. As David Sparks suggests:

My life doesn’t easily break into creative work and other work. In fact, my life is a big, smelly mess of commitments and responsibilities that, if not beat down with my GTD club frequently and with great malice, would rise up and smother any remotely creative project out of my life.

All I can add to that is an amen.

The GTD vs. Modern Tools Argument

When GTD was first released, it was a concept and a system. As the world has changed, it is beginning to feel more like a philosophy or framework, one that allows me to fill in or adjust the details to suit my own needs and personality. When I first started getting my act together, I was terrified by the vastness of that system. In fact, I ran screaming from the book and returned to it much later in my own journey to suck less. When I read it and it suggested how I might best handle a VHS tape, I realized that I just might be OK to tweak it to suit my needs without prescribing to every last aspect of it.

Understanding the fundamentals of GTD is a great step towards getting things done. Not taking those ideals and making them your own, isn’t. The only wrong way to get things done is to stubbornly do it someone else’s way rather than finding your own. And that even includes people like David Allen. In the case of GTD, concepts like Brain Dumps, Next Actions, Waiting Lists and Horizons of Focus, Projects were eye-opening for me. Things like Someday/Maybe Lists and excessive Contexts, were useless. I took the good and integrated it into my own systems. I tried and tweaked or eliminated the things that didn’t. I found the technology that best helped me take advantage of it and understood that I may have to abandon a GTD tactic in order to actually get things done.

Sven Fechner puts it best:

It is true that there are a number of improvements applied to GTD over the last 10 years. But they were done by the users of GTD rather than by its inventor. David Allen’s “Making It All Work” was more of a clarification – a needed one in some respect – than an evolution of GTD. Meanwhile its geeky users forked the methodology (with various hacks and variations like ZTD to name one) as they are used to from open-source software.

Did David Allen’s work single-handedly change my life? No. Neither did any other one thing3. Did David Allen’s framework contribute to my own process? Absolutely. Was it time well spent and does it include tips and tactics I use every single day of my life? Yes. Do I think it can help you? You bet.

As I find the tools and technology that help me do my best work, my system for getting things done looks less and less like canonical GTD, but without it I wouldn’t be getting much of anything done at all. My advice for those trying to get better at doing more: learn GTD, but like anything else in life, don’t let it hold you back. Take and adapt the things that work, leave the rest and get back to work.

Let me know if you feel otherwise. Where does (or doesn’t) GTD fit into your ability to get things done?

  1. Unless as Shawn mentions, you’re creative enough to have a personal assistant do it all for you, of course.  

  2. And I’d argue that to some extent we all do, even those of us with “more straightforward jobs”.  

  3. Although getting introduced to Merlin’s Inbox Zero talk comes close.  

5 Responses to Getting Things Done Is Bigger Than GTD

  1. I would not say that GTD “changed my life” all by itself, but it certainly did change the way I look at how I do things and apply some critical thinking to what is coming my way. It also taught me some valuable vocabulary terms, and things that I didn’t know that I did not know.

    It has evolved over time, and while it is a very good starting place it is not for everyone.

    • It’s funny, that was exactly my point with the next post. Although I couldn’t use it as a starting point, I needed something a bit more localized and then grew into using GTD as the over-arching structure.

  2. I have introduced two people to GTD in the past couple of weeks. One downloaded a GTD app for the iPhone. Another partly adopted my way of using Evernote. Both these people found a GTD system that worked for them.

    I have tried SO many many GTD systems. They didn’t work for me even though others love them. I use Evernote and tagging and it’s a dream come true for me.

    So yes, I totally agree with your sentiment that everyone has to come up with THEIR own GTD system. I think that’s why it is working for the two people I introduced GTD to. Amen to your article 😉

  3. Recently I was extremely low on money and debts were eating me from all sides! That was UNTIL I decided to make money on the internet. I went to surveymoneymaker dot net, and started filling in surveys for cash, and surely I’ve been far more able to pay my bills!! I’m so glad, I did this.. With all the financial stress these years, I really hope all of you will give it a chance. – fryn

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