Posted by: reexaminedlife | June 26, 2010

GTD – Why It Doesn’t Work

A few years ago I ran across a web site mentioning David Allen’s  book “Getting Things Done.” The idea intrigued me so I looked into it further.  At this point in my life I was extremely busy.  I had (and still do have)  a full time job, a family, a home under construction and was teaching part time.  I felt like I was sinking in all the various things I had going on and couldn’t keep up with all of the details.  I knew that I wasn’t using my time well so I decided the book might be worth a look.  I ordered the book from Amazon and proceeded to implement the concepts.  I used emacs calendar and org-mode to do my universal capture and manage my to-do lists.  (Yes, I’m a computer nerd of sorts.)  I got busy.  Over the following weeks and months I got a LOT of stuff done.  It was amazing.  I was really gaining ground on things and the difference was obvious.

The problem was that it didn’t seem to be making any difference to me.  No matter how I organized and attacked my next actions there was this mountain before me.  It seemed like no matter how quickly I was able to take items off the top of my list, I was adding more at the bottom at an even faster rate.  By early winter I found that I was actually quite discouraged by the whole affair and abandoned the system.

In fairness to David Allen and his GTD system, applying an effective tool to the wrong problem doesn’t really mean the tool is flawed.  The reality was that my life had become entirely too cluttered with tasks and responsibilities. It was beyond my physical limits to accomplish everything that I felt needed to be done and still be a good parent and husband.  I ended up being spread too thin.  It took me several months to recognize that the situation really wasn’t reasonable.

I did learn a few things from the system that were worthwhile.  The idea of capturing your thoughts and “todo” items works really well.  I still do this.  I learned to focus my time a little better than I did before using the “next action” concept.  The weekly review has proven to be useful as well although I’m not extremely consistent with it.

The larger lessons are what have really made a difference:

  1. Life is not about productivity or optimization. Yes, being productive is a good thing in the context of a balanced life. I don’t live just to get things done, nor do I want to.  I am more than my tasks.  My desire for working efficiently is only to minimize the time wasted on these “necessities” so that I can be free for more important things like my family and friends.
  2. No system will fix your life if you’re chasing the wrong things. All you end up with is an efficient road to a place that you don’t really want to be.  My real problem was that I had allowed too many demands on my time and was compromising many of the more important things in my life.
  3. People matter, not things. Most of the tasks that were on my “todo” list involved my possessions.  Maintenance things seemed to dominate.  I think this is part of the plague that comes with home ownership – there is always something to be done on the house.  Tools and equipment require maintenance.  Things need to be purchased or upgraded.  I would guess that more than 90% of my list related to my house, car, maintenance or some interaction with the stuff we own.  I could easily have filled all of my time with this stuff.  Investing time with my wife, children and others is far more important than any of these things.  I’m actively trying to get rid of many things so that they do not require my time or funds.
  4. It is okay to slow down and say “no.” This has been the harder thing to actually put into action.  It is easy to say that we want life to slow down but it is quite another to give up on many of the things that keep us busy.  Having an extra car can be convenient but it also doubles the maintenance and upkeep time and expenses.  (I hate cars, BTW, but that’s a topic for a future post.)  Working extra hours sometimes is necessary but, from what I’ve seen, all it frequently does is raise the expectation that you will stay late on a regular basis.  Is the extra shopping trip really necessary?  There are all kinds of good things that can consume our time: lessons, classes, church and civic activities, and many, many others.

In the end, I found the GTD system to be good for organizing a small portion of my life but a lousy way to run my life.  Purging out the extra garbage that puts demands on my time makes a far greater difference than being efficient at accomplishing things that don’t really matter.

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