Why GTD (Getting Things Done) No Longer Works For Me.
Over the winter break, I began a full review of my productivity and time management system. It was comprehensive and for the first time in a long time, I questioned a lot of my assumptions. Things like why am I using contexts? Why do I need to organise things by projects? My answers surprised me. I very quickly came to the realisation that I don’t actually need these at all.
Let’s step back eleven years for a moment. Back in 2009, I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD). It’s a fantastic book for a productivity nerd like me and it catapulted me away from an analogue system (an A5 Franklin Planner) into the digital world. And over a two year period (yep, it took that long to fully implement the best practices of GTD) I refined and re-engineered my whole productivity system.
I completely bought into the idea I could only perform tasks in either a particular location, with a particular person or with a particular tool, and if I was not in the right location, with the right person with the right tool I could ignore those lists and only look at lists that gave me tasks I could perform based on where I was, with whom and with what.
I also loved the idea of organising anything that required two or more steps becoming a project and could be added to an organised list of projects. To help manage these projects I divided them up into “home” and “work”. It was great. Quickly I built up a list of personal projects from organising my summer holiday to making an appointment to see the dentist. And work projects often ended up recurring with projects such as prepare for next week’s free talking classes and hand in the monthly student attendance lists.
For a productivity nerd like me, this was nirvana.
Over time, as the digital world changed, I noticed my carefully curated lists of contexts were no longer working. Writing blog posts like this did not need for me to be sat at my desk with my computer. I could very easily write using my iPhone. Checking my bank accounts did not need me to memorise a series of complex passwords, I could use the app on my phone anytime. Speaking with my parents did not need any co-ordination via email, I could simply send a text message to my mother from either my iPad, iPhone or computer asking if she could FaceTime. Barriers to doing different types of work were collapsing, but I was holding on to old, tried and tested ways of doing things from a different age.
Increasingly, I discovered I was not working from my projects list either. As I moved away from OmniFocus to Todoist, I found myself working from my today list — a list of tasks I had assigned to be done on a specific day — and rarely, if ever, looking at my projects list. Sure, I was using a project list to send tasks I had collected in my inbox, but all that was doing was slowing me down and putting me at risk of missing something important because I was not going through my projects list every day — I mean, who has time for that anyway?
Not only had contexts become meaningless, so too had projects.
So, how was I doing my work every day? How was I deciding what had to be done on specific days? When I analysed this I noticed I was doing work based on time. I was using my calendar to see where my deadlines were, and then assigning work to do for the day based on time sensitivity. If I had decided a course was to be updated in February, I would assign a date to the task required to work on that project. My tasks were written as “begin preparing outline for course update” and “continue working on course update outline”. The details of what needed to be done were in my notes. It was in my notes I wrote down my ideas, sketched out diagrams and added links to research. Increasingly, my long list of projects — the things that were helping me to feel constantly busy — only contained one or two obvious tasks.
When I completed my system review at the end of last year, I realised my project folders had become obsolete. What I needed was “time boxes”. Not the productivity system called “time boxing” — where you allocate boxes of time on your calendar to do specific work (AKA time blocking IMHO). This was a series of folders in my to-do list manager based on when tasks needed to be done by. All I needed were six folders:
- This week
- Next week
- This month
- Next month
The way this works is when I process my inbox, all I need to decide is when a task needs doing and when am I going to have time to do the task? If a task needs doing this week, I will look at my calendar to see where I have time, add a date and drop it into my this week folder. If I do not have time and a task can wait until next week, I will not add a date but will drop it into my next week or this month folder etc.
This system has also dramatically reduced my weekly review time. When I plan my week, all I have to do is review my this week folder to see which tasks have not completed (and ask myself why?) and move next week’s tasks into this week’s tasks and add a day based on what my calendar looks like for next week.
If I have time, I can go through my other folders and make sure there are no hidden tasks needing attention and once done I am finished. A weekly review used to take me anywhere between forty-five minutes and an hour. Now it takes less than twenty minutes. That’s a huge time-saving.
My annual review last year opened my eyes to the way technology and the way we work changes the dynamic of how we do things. It is very easy to hold on to old ways of doing things even though technology enables us to do things better and more effectively. I still follow COD (Collect, Organise and Do) That is the foundation of my whole system. COD also forces me to make sure I am spending more time doing my work and less time organising my work and this new way of managing my to-do list folders compliments this. It is time-based and knowing when I will be working on my tasks reduces the feeling of being busy because I know I have enough time, I know when I will be doing the work and in between, I can get on and enjoy my life.
Back in 2001, when GTD was published, you needed to be at your desk with your computer to reply to your email. Today, you can respond to email anywhere using multiple different devices. Times have changed and now, so too has my whole organisation structure and this has given me more time to do the work and requires a lot less organising.
Thank you, David Allen, and Getting Things Done. You’ve been wonderful. Now, as we enter 2020, it’s time for this former GTDer to move on and use a system designed for the era we live and work in today.
I shall be explaining my new system in more detail over the coming weeks on my YouTube channel. And if you want to see an overview of the setup, I have a video below explaining how you can set this up using Apple Reminders.
In the meantime, perhaps now would be a good time for you to step back and ask yourself a few questions about how you organise your tasks. You may surprise yourself on how you can improve and become faster and more effective.
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