Getting Things Done: Everything I Wish I’d Been Told But Learned The Hard Way

Weszt Hart
Jun 19, 2015 · 4 min read

At this point, I’ve probably been using GTD in some form for 12 years. It’s been quite a journey. There have been some ups, some downs, and a few knock down, drag out fights. I have tried my best to find something better every step of the way.

But I’ve never found anything as reliable and comprehensive as GTD.

Like League of Legends, GTD is easy to learn, but difficult to master. And I’ve learned quite a few things the hard way on my neverending path to mastery.

Here are a few that truly stand out.

You’re not smarter than the system

Getting Things Done evolved out of 20+ years of consulting, ideation, and iteration. If you think you’ve found major flaws after using it for a few weeks, months, or even years, you’ve likely missed something. I did.

I’ve gotten in the way of the system many times. I thought I’d discovered oversights or new and better ways of doing things. In the end, I was questioning something I didn’t really understand.

Ultimately GTD is battle hardened and only as complicated as you and your life make it.

Overcomplicating your system is easy

To be fair, humans can make anything complicated. GTD is no exception. Here are a few classic ways:

  • Creating too many context lists

In short, when David Allen says simple lists will do, he’s right.

People make lists too long, not GTD

GTD does not make our commitments for us. We do that on our own. What GTD does, however, is reveal how much we’ve committed to already.

If you find yourself freaking out and doing searches for “too many GTD projects”, it may be time to evaluate your commitments. Review your goals, start cutting out anything that doesn’t align to them, or put them on a shelf for someday.

You’ll find that once you’ve narrowed your commitments, you can be a lot more creative.

GTD is actually great for creative people

It’s hard to be creative when you’re distracted. GTD is amazing at helping you park those distracting mental commitments in trustworthy places that you’ll get to when you’re good and ready. This frees your mind to be as creative as your time and energy allow.

And for creative work, as with anything, the next action is the key. Just ask Joss Whedon.

And where do you put those next actions? In context lists, right? Not necessarily. For creative work, I’ve found that project lists are often enough to remind me of priority work. Sometimes I just work from notes in a project plan. Sometimes I just work off of a paper checklist.

Paper does work

GTD works great with basic paper. Paper. No syncing, no start dates, no batteries. And you comprehend more than when you use a computer because… science.

Be careful to not fall into the “antiquated system” trap. You can still only do one thing at a time.

No GTD app gets it quite right

I can’t count how many times I’ve been excited about a new GTD app, just to find they suffer from at least one of these common problems:

  • Too many features

New ways of thinking aren’t better by default.

Apps can cause weird behaviors

One of the reasons I’ve moved away from GTD apps is because I’ve come to realize the weird things they’ve inspired in me to:

  • Spend time getting lists to “look right”

Let’s face it. All the time I’ve out towards setting up these apps could have spent on achieving my goals.

Yes, there ARE goals in GTD

GTD starts you off with actions and projects so that you can clear your head enough to see the big picture. Difficult to think long-term when you’re distracted, basically.

Despite the fact that Getting Things Done talks about goals, long-term vision, and life purpose, this gets lost sometimes.

Ticklers are a thing. A really useful thing.

These do have a place in today’s world; specifically for the things you want to be reminded of sometime but can’t deal with right now. They’re also good for “things I want on my radar today but can’t take immediate action on.”

To me app-based alerts have never been good for this because they’re active, where ticklers allow for passive interaction (so says the gamer) .

Principles behind the practices

As with any productivity system, why is more important than how. If you don’t know why you’re supposed to do things a certain way, you can’t properly judge it’s worth.

I’ve unfairly judged GTD many times, added to it, tweaked it, but diminished its effectiveness more often than not. However once I began to understand the principles behind the practices and stopped trying so damn hard, GTD really started to work well for me. Hopefully it can work well for you, too.

Okay, enough. I’ve got other things to do.

Weszt Hart

Written by

Player Dynamics/UX Lead Designer (Riot Games).