7 reasons for failing in implementing GTD and tips to overcome them

Alon Sabi
Alon Sabi
Feb 16, 2015 · 11 min read

GTD® refers to Getting Things Done. It is a time-management method, described in a book of the same title by productivity consultant David Allen.

The GTD® method rests on the idea of moving planned tasks and projects out of the mind by recording them externally and then breaking them into actionable work items. This allows one to focus attention on taking action on tasks, instead of on recalling them.

I’ve started to use GTD® over 5 years ago, and I found it a life saver, so I’ve started to introduce the book and my experiences to every person I care about that is willing to listen.

What I’ve found is that only 15% to 20% of the people that were interested and actually read the book (and were willing to listen to me ramble about it) actually ended up adopting GTD® as part of their daily routines.

Each and every one of the people that actually ended up adopting it became advocates of the methodology.

So the question is … if it is so great, how come there is only a 15% to 20% success rate in adopting the system?

At the beginning I was blaming myself, thinking that obviously I do not know how to convey the information. I decided to do some quick googling about that. What I’ve found is that the success rate I experience seems to be the norm.

I’ve decided to write this blog to clarify the reasons.


Before we begin, let me mention some legalities … I am not licensed, certified, approved, or endorsed by or otherwise affiliated with David Allen or the David Allen Company which is the creator of the Getting Things Done® system for personal productivity. GTD® and Getting Things Done® are registered trademarks of the David Allen Company. For more information on the David Allen Company’s products, please visit their website: www.davidco.com.

This blog is for the following audience:

  • Me — i needed to clarify this for myself
  • Anyone interested in GTD® who would like to understand the “pitfalls”
  • Anyone who tried GTD®, and struggle to implement it
  • Anyone who “preached” it someone and don’t understand how come the other person is not happy with it

Lets begin …

1. The overwhelming factor

This is the first hurtle, and in my opinion one of the major reasons people abandon the system. When you first start with GTD®, you are encouraged to perform a “brain dump” of all of the things that you know of that you would like to change (things that weigh on your mental energy). Most people can very quickly produce a list of 30 to 50 items. The initial feeling is elation. It feels good to clear your mind from all of this “baggage”. Since you experienced this feeling, you continue to do it enthusiastically (for the first few days at least).

At that point your list grows to around a 100 items. At about the same time you start to realize all of the things that you used to ignore simply because you could not keep track of all of them at once, and the thought “OMG I will never be able to complete all of those things” starts to creep in.

That’s where many people stop using GTD® … it is much easier to get back to our default state of mind. There is the embodiment of “Ignorance is bliss”

So you may ask “how do I get over this?”. The answer is simple:


At any given moment I have between 180 and 220 things that I would like to achieve (collected, processed and organized in my system). That’s my number, and I’ve learned to live with it. Every day I accomplish anywhere between 0 and 15 tasks, and every day I add between 0 and 15 new tasks .. it is called life.

Why is it important to know about everything if I know that I cannot actually complete everything?

By having a list of everything that you want to do, you can actually DECIDE what you want to do.

Essentially when I CHOOSE to work on one thing versus a different thing i am making a CONSCIOUS DECISION. It is not because I forgot to do something else, it is because I chose this item over EVERYTHING else in my lists.

This idea of choosing allows me to focus on what I do without having to second guess myself.

Super powerful !

2. Building habits

The second reason for not adopting GTD® comes in the form of building habits. There are four main habits that one must develop in order to get GTD® into a system that actually works (funny enough they map one to one with the system itself):

  • Remember to collect — The main building block of this system is to collect EVERYTHING that needs or takes your attention. If you do not collect something into the system it stays in your psyche (or you completely forget from it).The “trick” is to develop mental triggers.
    That’s my trigger list:
  • If I promise to do something — I add it to my inbox
  • If I ask someone else to do something for me, and they acknowledge — I add it to my inbox (to later confirm progress or completion)
  • If someone sends me a request that I cannot fulfil at this moment I add it to my inbox
  • Anything that I am not sure what to do about in this instance I add to my inbox
  • Remember to process and organize your inbox on a regular basis (every day) — get your inbox to zeroIf you neglect to process and organize your inbox on a daily basis, you tend to do one of two things:
  • Work directly off of your inbox (scour through the list for things that you remember that you need to do) OR
  • Completely ignore your GTD® system because your inbox becomes a “black whole” that you do not trust (this step usually comes after you’ve been working off of your inbox for a while, and it becomes “too much”).The “trick” for this one is this:The moment you find yourself working off of your inbox stop what you do, and take the time to process and organize your inbox (right there and than, no exception) — “I will do this later” does not work, trust me.A good related story: A guy is cutting a tree with a blunt axe, it takes him twice as long because the axe is not sharp … someone asks him “how come you don’t stop for 5 minutes to sharpen your axe?”, the guy answers “I do not have the time to do it, I have to cut down this tree”.Take 5 minutes to sharpen your tools !
  • Review ALL of your lists once a week. This is the most important habit to develop to make GTD© stick long term (and I found that it is the hardest one to develop). Essentially the idea is simple. Life is constantly changing, same has to go to your lists. Priorities change, due dates change, mindset changes. All of those changes have to be reflected in your lists.If you do not do it on a weekly basis, over time your lists will become stale, and you will stop using the system all together. You will end up with too many things that are either not important anymore, get presented to you in the wrong time, or simply missed.For me the trick was to find the right time to do it. it is usually the weekend and in most cases early in the morning.The important thing is that it needs to happen before Monday comes along. I know that if I don’t review my lists, I will “pay the price” somewhere in the near future. That’s a good motivator to actually take the time to do it. For me it takes anywhere between one and two hours.
  • Remember to look at your lists before jumping to the next thing that presents itself — Resist the ad-hock work. Work on the things that you already processed and organized. if unscheduled work comes your way add it to your inbox to be processed and prioritized against the rest of your work (excluding true emergencies).Most people are used to simply start working on the next thing that shows in their email inbox. Resist that.This will allow you to focus on the truly important task vs the most recent and loudest item that is in-front of you.Tip: Whenever you complete an item (ad-hock or not), go back to your lists to select the next item based on your own priorities.

3. Not owning the process

Many people that begin with GTD® read about a process somewhere (example: The Secret Weapon), or someone tells them what works for them. They try it, it works for a while, and when it “stops working” they simply drop the whole thing “obviously this system does not work”. What I’ve learned is that nothing works forever. You have to always question the system you use. I always ask what works, what doesn’t work and where can I improve? I adjust my workflow almost on a constant basis.

In the first few years the changes were quite jarring. I tend to do less major changes now, but I am always eager to try something completely different.

Question: How does a smart missile hit its target so precisely from a large distance?
Answer: By making constant course adjustments.

The tip I have for this one is this: On a weekly basis, while you do your review, ask yourself “what did not work for me last week? what surprised me? where did I drop the ball?”, these are the places to start looking for course corrections in your process.

Do not be afraid to experiment. If something new does not work, you can always go back to what you did before, and try something else.

4. Partial implementation

Some GTDers decide that it is OK to implement GTD® on a portion of their life (only work, or only personal or whatever it is). The usual reason is “oh I don’t have that much going on with X”. That may well work for some, but it does go against one of the basic principles of the system PEACE OF MIND. The moment you partially implement GTD® it means that your mind is no longer at peace. It means that somewhere in your life there are open loops that do not get the same level of attention as the rest of your life. I have no personal experience with this workflow, but to me it sounds like a recipe for failure of the system as a whole simply because the person cannot get into the state of mind that the system is intended to provide.

My only advice is to implement GTD® for every aspect of your life. Even if you think that an area of your life “does not need it”, by using GTD® you will get to understand how much is REALLY going on. For me work have many more moving parts than my personal life, but I still use the system on all areas of my life.

5. Lack of understanding of the tools

That’s another interesting difficulty that some are facing. “Where should I store what and when”. Many people confuse their calendar with their todo list, and their todo list with a proper reference system. This can cause confusion that ultimately result in defaulting back to one of those tools and eventually remove the GTD® process from the equation.

For me there are three main tools:

  • Todo app (in my case as it is OmniFocus for now)
  • Calendar app (fantastical)
  • Reference system (Evernote)

Each of the tools above are used in a very specific manner, and there is no confusion when an item needs to reside in one or the other, or how the information gets stored.

Todo app — Anything that you would like to change from one state to another lives here. Nothing have a due date unless it REALLY has one. If an item does have a due date, it means that the item needs to be completed BY that date.

Calendar app — Anything that will happen ON a certain date lives in the Calendar.

Example for the difference between BY a certain date and ON a certain date:

If there is a meeting ON March 14, the meeting itself will be on the calendar, but the preparation to the meeting have to happen BY March 14, so the preparation for the meeting will be in my todo app.

Preparation to the meeting can happen any time before the meeting date (hopefully not the night before), but the meeting itself will happen on that date whether you are prepared or not.

Reference system — Any piece of information that is either interesting to me or is supporting items on my todo list get to be stored in my reference system. These are things that are NOT actionable, they are pieces of data. It is important not to store reference material in your todo app because they tend to bloat your todo lists, and make them harder to maintain and view. Also, reference material tend to have a longer “shelf life”, the information in my Evernote may stay there for years, while tasks are completed and be done with.

6. Not taking the time to truly identify next steps

The best way to illustrate this is by a real life example (it happened to me):

I needed to replace the ink in my printer, so I wrote the following task “Buy a new ink cartridge for the printer from staples”. I was quite happy with myself. This task looked easy enough.

The next time I was at staples, I looked at my “out and about” list, and saw the item, but when I actually wanted to act on it, calamity struck !

  1. There are literally hundreds of ink cartridges in the store, I needed to know which one to get for my printer, and I did not have that information with me
  2. I new that I need to replace the black ink, but I never checked the state of the other colours (could be nice to know) — there are bundles that make it cheaper

This was a simple example, even worst is when an item seems like an overwhelming task that you keep postponing because the next step is too vague.

Example: “Write a blog post” — what about? the first step may be to simply decide what to write about. The next step may be to research the chosen topic etc …

Tip: Always imagine doing the task after you define it. If i imagined actually standing at staples in front of the cartridges wall, I would have realized that the next step is to check for my printer model.

If you cannot simply “do it in your mind” than you are still missing the real first step.

7. Expecting GTD® to magically fix things

If you have read this far, than first of all THANK YOU, second, it mean that by now you realize that there are quite a few things that you have to do in order to have GTD® work for you. You first need to work for it … GTD® will work as long as you work it. Think of it as a “symbiotic relationship” you put energy into the process, and it rewards you by giving you a peace of mind and reminding you when things need to happen.

Some people think that GTD® will magically work for them, and when they realize that there is actual work involved they declare that it is not working, or not worth it and get back to what they did (or didn’t do) before.

Closing words of wisdom:

GTD® is a process that can liberate your mind and allow you to flourish under any circumstances. It does require you to fully adopt it (half doing it does not produce the results it promise) and nowhere in the book does David Allen declare that it is easy (because it is not), but the rewards are astounding.

Another thing to realize is that since we are human beings, we make mistakes and we are not perfect, there will always be things that we miss, forget or do not do right, practising GTD® simply allows to minimize those instances.

I hope that this blog will help at least one person to better implement this process and gain what David Allen calls a “Master & Commander” state.

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