First published by David Allen in 2002 “Getting Things Done” or short GTD has been my personal productivity methodology or even mantra for many, many years.

Earlier this week I debated with myself and my Twitter followers whether GTD is still entirely valid after more than 10 years without any real “update”. The debate was triggered by David Lee’s post about GTD not being suitable for creative work, which was originally spread by Rands in Repose and then linked by myself. It resulted in comments from people I value very much, including Merlin Mann, David Sparks and Shawn Blanc.

While most comments are defending GTD, I thought the fact that we are all willing to discuss this is pretty remarkable to start with. Is it conviction that makes us defend our productivity methodology of choice or do we just want to avoid any self-doubt?

The same people who pre-order the new iPad, count down the days to any Apple event and eagerly update software once the red circle badge shows up (or in case of Mountain Lion even before that), are using a productivity methodology that has not been changed by any substance in 10 years. I find this pretty amazing. And have no doubt, I am a member in this club.

There could be many reasons for this:

  • GTD simply still works perfectly. Period.
  • People do not like change and rarely change proactively.
  • There is no better alternative.

GTD is for everyone

The aspect of GTD that makes me think most is the fact that it is for everyone. It is so generically defined that the graphic designer, the sales manager, the nurse, the CFO and the property manager can all make use of it. Their roles, schedules, activities and lifestyles are entirely different yet they can leverage the same personal productivity method.

It also does not matter if you travel a lot or work from home, whether you use analog tools or digital ones, whether you work in a team or on your own, whether your are on the manager schedule or the maker schedule.

The universal applicability of GTD is likely down to the genius of David Allen, but it makes me think.

It makes me think because our working environments have also substantially evolved in the past 10 years. Things generally move faster, there is a lot more ad-hoc communication and work, collaboration and creativity have gained in importance in any industry (not only the creative one) and we work on flexible schedules from flexible locations.

Painting over the cracks

When GTD was the “thing” all over the web and thousands of nerds fell in love with it, everyone immediately realised how analog GTD was designed. It clearly had its origins in the 1990s where you had paper task lists and Filofaxes. This offered a great opportunity to build digital tools - and boy, there where many and still are - that moved GTD forward in to the 21st century and created an adjacent, profitable market. We chose going down this road over the question whether or not GTD was made for the future. And that’s perfectly fine.

It is until today that we keeping looking for new tools or updates to existing ones helping us improving our efficiency and effectiveness. We never ask ourselves whether the underlying methodology is still valid. And that is wrong. It is not wrong because I think GTD is wrong, it is wrong because true advancement only happens if you keep challenging the status quo. When you do that, the result may well be that there is nothing to improve about the status quo and you can carry on for a couple of years more before checking in again.

But it may also turn out that your are driving a car that needs lots of gas in a time where energy prices are rising steadily, that features a top speed you are not allowed to drive anymore and actually does not offer enough space for your family. Unless there is some emotional relationship, lots of people would just go and get a better and more appropriate car. With our productivity methodology we do not even seem to check its appropriateness, ever.

Tuning, but not changing the engine

Further expanding on this analogy 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. But the core remained unchanged. Again: All of this might just be okay.

Most of the forks are practical in nature and were designed by people scratching their own itch, improving their workflows and adding a tad more automation. Only a few went and looked at the methodology itself like Leo Babauta with Zen To Done. I also gave it a try by redefining the famous GTD contexts for the age of ubiquitous access to most of your tools. But these are just variations of the same theme.

Choice and Accomplishment

While I am still reflecting on the aspects of GTD which appropriateness I’d like to critique, it is evident to me that productivity methodologies are all about choices and accomplishment. While you can argue that no productivity methodology can make choices on our behalf, there are certainly ways to make these choices easier or more difficult. While David Allen talks a lot about choices, particular in the “Process” part of the GTD workflow, I believe GTD makes choices more difficult. Only the fact that it is considered a best practice to have between 60-100 active projects is an evidence for too few choices. Or too many, depending how you look at it. It is like a Chinese menu with a 100 dishes: You do not make a choice, aka procrastinate, because there are too many options.

Because of the lack of choices made, we end up with a large list of things that we are subsequently trying to move forward, each one inch by inch. It is an inch by inch progress as you look at all your projects during your Weekly Review. At least for me this does not happen without frustration as I, like most people, enjoy miles of progress over inches of progress.

There is very little that provides more energy than the feeling of accomplishment. Due to too many projects and too little progress, GTD is not always helping you to obtain that feeling of accomplishment.

“Make better choices then, review and cut out projects from your list.”, you might be saying now. And you are right. But, just for sake of provocation, since so many people have a challenge doing just that, is it their fault or a crack in the methodology they are applying? Or, which could also be the case, their misinterpretation of the methodology applied?

It’s really choices, accomplishment and the help with them that make people long for personal productivity methodologies. It seems that many like to see something that forces choices on them through means of constraints, e.g. you can only have five projects active at a time, and thereby automatically trigger better focus and more progress, ultimately resulting in more notable accomplishment.

The lack of alternatives

No, I am not jumping off the GTD bandwagon. I just decided to not only do critical reviews of my project and action lists, but also of the methodology I am using to build and manage them.

We all should be fairly conscious and critical of the instrument we use to make your career goals and life’s dreams happen. And if this post makes some people reflecting on this, independent of the actual outcome, I have accomplished a lot.

I could also not jump off the GTD bandwagon due to lack of alternatives. Most other personal productivity or time management methodologies have been developed even before “Getting Things Done”, like in the 1980s. Since I already have doubts whether GTD reflects today’s work and lifestyle, I would certainly not turn to methodologies that were developed when fax was still the fastest and most convenient way of communication.