Is GTD Showing Its Age?

This thread got me wondering if GTD is showing its age. I conduct a weekly review consistently similar to Forte, though it takes me an hour, not 30 minutes. He is more efficient than I.

In the 80s I attended one of David’s workshops and I’ve read every updated edition of Getting Things Done. But, I only follow two of the GTD practices consistenly—the weekly review and next actions. But, even my implementation of next actions deviates from the recommended only one next action. I outline as many next actions I can think of at the time of creating or reviewing a project. I never use contexts of any sort—location, device, time, or energy level.

Given new productivity models and tools, do you think GTD, while still helpful to many, is showing its age?

Yeah - I think many of the original contexts may not make sense anymore. Like @office or @computer - when are we ever NOT close to a computer, right? I mainly implemented the contexts, and still find them super useful for non-urgent tasks.

Day-to-day tend to keep bringing surprises that superseed the best laid plans.

1 Like

I don’t think so.
GTD is a tool, where you explicitly can adjust the recommendations from the book and workshops, to fit your needs.
It is a growing business model for a lot of people to sell their own productivity models.
But the most of them, I observed in the past, are based on GTD, with more or less deviations.

In the area of Task Management, and personal development, there is a wide range of approaches.
And while some of them are completely worthless for everybody, but the „Guru“, a lot of them make sense to a lot of people, as everybody who is in this has to find the approach best fitting on his special personal situation!

2 Likes

My answer is no, I don’t think it has aged. But now you’ve made me want to read the book again. And I’m interested in reading about how others view it.

I do think the examples of possible implementations that David Allen used in the book and in his talks have aged in places, but I don’t believe the foundations of the methodology have aged at all.

Contexts

He includes context as one of four primary factors to use when deciding what action to do next at any given moment. You don’t have to look very hard to find people talking about how communications technology has taken a lot of the value out of using contexts in any meaningful way. That’s true for me. I find that the Agenda context is the only one that has any real value in my system these days, but I’ll bet it wouldn’t take much effort to find a way to ditch that context and find a different way to make sure I get those actions done.

But I also don’t think not using contexts is a significant deviation from the methodology. The other three factors he lists are time available, energy available, and priority. Those don’t age. They made sense for thousands of years before context mattered, and they have outlived context as a useful factor.

Everyone still has to consider and abide by those other three factors when deciding what to do next, even if they don’t know that they’re doing so. You don’t have to practice GTD to know when you don’t have enough time to finish something, when you can’t think straight, or when you need to consider which thing will get you fired if you don’t get it moving right now. GTD just gives you a tool for being honest with yourself about how to consider that mix to decide where to direct your attention in the moment.

Also it was pretty obvious that Allen’s own implementation was tailored heavily toward a job that requires a lot of travel, at a time when contexts mattered a lot. But I know that was never a need that I had, and I had (and continue to have) no difficulty using his methodology to manage a largely travel-free existence.

Deciding what to do next

When I look at the workflow chart, which I consider the spine of the methodology, I don’t see anything dated in there. It’s just a way of making decisions about managing sources of input and then processing inputs into actions, reference material, or trash. That’s still relevant and universal, regardless of what form the input takes, what tool you use to process it, or what form your reference material takes.

(I just thumbed through my print copy of the 2001 edition very quickly and found at least four instances of that flowchart — just the exact same full-page diagram, repeated in multiple places in the book so that you always have it handy. That tells me that the author also believes that that flowchart is essential to the methodology.)

People sometimes say that the details of their job or their life are such that that flowchart doesn’t apply to what they do, but I’ve never heard or read a convincing case for this. It may not help you to know that you run your decisions through a flowchart every day, and you may not care to know what the flowchart looks like. But we all do it. Our internal flowchart may often look like a bowl of spaghetti, but ultimately, we’re using some kind of a flowchart. Allen just gave those of us who care about understanding such things a general and standardized way of understanding it so that we can try to repeat it reliably.

That doesn’t mean that if you use GTD you have to include an action for every single thing you ever decide to do in work or in life. (Put toothpaste on brush. Move brush over teeth vigorously. Spit.) But I think people often assume that. The methodology is generalizable enough to allow you to decide what you break down into actions and what you can trust yourself to remember to do.

And this is a difficult point to agree on for many, which I think is understandable. When I started using GTD, I had to make quite a few mistakes about what to include before I understood just how customizable it is and how much I could leave out. Some things just need to be experienced before they make complete sense.

Weekly review

He describes the weekly review as “whatever you need to do to get your head empty again” (emphasis mine). He gives an example list of what to consider in your review and uses a weekly frequency as a good starting point, but as always, he’s not telling you that you have to do it that way, and he’s absolutely not telling you which app you should use to do it. He’s suggesting a framework, based on what he believes works. And, from my experience, he knew what he was talking about: If you’re not reviewing your inventory of your commitments in a thoughtful way on some regular basis, you’re not being honest with yourself about where you stand on anything or what you can reasonably expect to add and accomplish. None of that feels aged to me.

One next action

I don’t recall a “one next action” rule/recommendation and couldn’t find anything in the book. Does that mean you should never plan more than one action ahead on any project, or does it mean something else? If it’s the former, I’ve never followed that rule.

11 Likes

You have to adjust the examples from the book and the workshops (and so on) to your personal needs.
If you are sitting 24/7 in front of a computer, the list @computer maybe makes less sense to you, but maybe you are only surfing for a hour a day in the Net between 15:00 and 16:00, in that case it could make sense to have a list @internet, that shows up, at 15:00?

See the recommendations from David Allen more as a guideline, to put your individual system in place, that works just for you.
They are offering e.g. the 1-on-1 sessions, not because those people booking those sessions are not able to read a book, but because those people do have a setup, that is unique to them, and a trainer could adjust the GTD-Methode to work for them in the best possible way.

4 Likes

Amen, brother.

Post must be at least 20 characters.

3 Likes

I’ve wondered this a few times. Every time I come back to GTD and OmniFocus with my tail between my legs, having let something slip that should not have been forgotten. I’m not a GTD purist, my contexts don’t mean much to me honestly, and I often blow off weekend regularly scheduled tasks (like scan paperwork). But what matters a ton to me is dropping everything in the inbox, and then processing the inbox on a regular basis.

Next actions help give me clarity when I have multiple difficult, complicated projects that I need to make progress on simultaneously. As long as I know that I’ve got everything in OmniFocus, I know that I’ll be fine and nothing will slip by.

1 Like

Yes, I believe Cal Newport captured the problems with GTD really well in this article

I say this as someone who used GTD for several years and accomplished a lot. So I think there are a lot of important ideas there that still help (for example, full capture), but I think times have changed and Newport’s idea (which @MacSparky also advocates) of using Time Block Planning makes more sense. You can read more about that here: https://www.timeblockplanner.com/

I still use Things and contexts to help organize and keep track of all my commitments, but each weekend, I make a weekly plan where I set aside time each day for the “Big Rocks” that will really move the needle on my important projects. I will also schedule admin blocks where I do the more traditional GTD style of opening a context and knocking out a bunch of phone calls or emails.

This approach has worked better in the sense that I don’t feel some days are lost in trivial tasks. It’s easy when only following GTD to knock off a number of small tasks that aren’t that important for moving the needle on projects that matter.

6 Likes

The New Yorker article is essentially what is in his books, which I’ve found to be beneficial. The advantage of the article (thanks for posting it!) is that it provides a nice synopsis of Cal’s suggested systemic, organizational focused approach to productivity, which he combines with personal time blocking, in contrast to the autonomous productivity approach. It has been the reading of Cal’s books, plus personal experience, that has caused me to become less infatuated with fiddly productivity systems. I’ve moved toward the KISS method for my productivity. :slightly_smiling_face:

3 Likes

I was on board the Newport train and picking up speed: I had bought a nice notebook for a planner, signed back into Trello, and even blew off my email and physical inboxes for some time.

Then I wanted some clarity on how to define, organize, and manage my projects. I thought about tying together Mindnode and specifying which “bucket” each item belonged to. But things were always kinda squishy and I found I was relying on my memory a lot more. That’s when I decided to open GTD again for help in building something of a project template in Obsidian like one I had previously used on paper.

Frankly, I was blown away at not just the similarities between the two but the high level of detail and refinement that Allen had and Newport does not. The key difference is that Allen’s approach helps someone escape from the fire until they have the time to look around and shift their efforts toward their priorities. Newport comes from the perspective that one should never have been caught in the fire in the first place. That’s simply not a reality for most of us.

And you @Bmosbacker, your Reminders workflow sparked a Konmari-like overhaul of my systems and kickstarted my reengagement with GTD in the simplest form I can engineer. You’re probably closer to the right spot than you believe.

4 Likes

I’ve read / listened to just about every official GTD product / book / lecture, and AFAIK DA never demands only one next action.

This is especially true when there are multiple parallel next actions. If you can take three different actions now to move a project forward, you want those recorded.

What is cautioned against is burning the resources to plan too far ahead. There’s no need to specify the whole list of dependent next actions to get from “call Fred” to “launch new online course”, and doing so frequently is an unproductive waste of time. People tend to do crazy things like waterfall plan whole projects, and that’s not the point.

Ultimately, next actions are flags in the ground to get you started where you left off - nothing more. :slight_smile:

I genuinely wish people would stop referencing that article in the context of determining that GTD is obsolete / dated / not useful. I don’t even think that’s Cal’s intent. Cal is arguing, at a very high level, that peoples’ work lives shouldn’t be so complicated that they need super-detailed systems to manage them. And that’s a perfectly-valid point.

In fact, the core of that article is this (long middle of paragraph removed):

Most of us are not our own bosses, and therefore lack the ability to drastically overhaul the structure of our work obligations … This vision is appealing, but it cannot be realized by individual actions alone. It will require management intervention.

Basically, “if we didn’t do this stupid thing, people wouldn’t need a system to manage the stupidity.” Bravo on the conclusion, and I agree 100% - if you can escape the system, then do that!

But that’s not talking about whether something like GTD is useful to somebody stuck in the crazymaking system. And to the extent that we are in the system, I’m not sure that there’s any better tracking method than GTD.

At the core of productivity, you always have the basics:

  • Track everything that you’ve decided needs to be done (GTD’s task lists)
  • Know what you need to do next to move each item forward (GTD’s next actions)
  • Have a way to kick things out to “future self” to reassess later (tickler / digital defer / calendar)
  • When you have time (which can be either 2 minutes waiting for a doctor or a whole morning time block), pick something, however you do that, and do it
  • Make a note of where you need to pick that up when you want to start it again (create your next next action)
  • Periodically go through and make sure you’re not missing things (weekly review)

And that’s all GTD really is. Everything else (including contexts!) is minutiae and implementation tips.

If you’re looking at GTD and expecting that it’s going to be a way to get everything done that every random person throws at you, you will be sad. This results in gripes like:

“I tried GTD, and it didn’t work because I have 10,000 tasks and five bosses and there’s not enough time in the day to get work done so I don’t have time to keep track of any of my tasks”.

Ultimately, that’s not a failing of GTD, because GTD never promises (or even suggests) that it’ll solve that problem. DA freely acknowledges that you can’t do everything. You have to make choices, and no system is going to solve that problem for you. And if you have more work to do than you can possibly do, no system will magically make that work possible.

But if you do have things to keep track of, I think the fundamentals of GTD are as good as it gets. And if you can simplify your life to the point where you don’t have things to keep track of, well hey - that’s cool too. :slight_smile:

14 Likes

Here are just a few brief thoughts. Many of this, I know you know and understand well. I’m just kind of laying it out to make my larger point. I’m going to use my own practices as examples. I’m not trying to sell anyone on GTD or be a GTD zealot. I like GTD and live by it, so let my bias be known. My thesis is: GTD is not showing its age.

  1. GTD is not a rigorous productivity methodology. It was not an invention of David Allen, as he will readily say. He made observations about methods that enable us to be “in the moment,” without ever neglecting the things we need to complete in order to accomplish our projects and goals and build a life. He codified, if you will, those principles into what we know of as GTD.

  2. GTD, again as Allen will tell anyone, can be implemented in many different ways depending on the persons needs. David has a unitary project list that combines both personal and work spheres of life – he sees no difference between them in his life. But neither he nor his coaches recommend that for everybody. He repeats this point a lot in his seminars and podcasts.

  3. GTD is built around (1) capturing all the “important” things in your life at a variety of different levels and (2) putting them in a place where you can be reminded of them when you can do something with them. Any productivity system fails if it doesn’t do the capture step right. The GTD concept is right that if you do not have a system that you can put your complete trust in, you will use your mind to manage your tasks. That creates stress. Maybe people don’t realize it when they never felt things the other way, but after having practiced this methodology of making sure I capture everything and funnel it into one place (today that’s OmniFocus; when I started it was a Day Timer), I can relax when I’m not working because I know that I’m not failing to do something that I should be doing. More importantly, I know that I can go to one place and know everything that I could or should be doing at any given moment. Any productivity system to be effective must do this. Any productivity system that does this, probably is at its heart GTD.

  4. GTD manages the quotidian aspect of doing the things that need to be done by batching tasks into contexts. This is probably the part of GTD that may be difficult for us today–as others have noted, for many of us we have a computer with us every day and most of our tasks are done on that computer. I think there is some re-thinking that needs to be done with how one defines one’s contexts. But that’s an “implementation detail,” the concept of batching tasks into contexts is just a wise today as it ever was.

  5. GTD helps clear clutter by making practitioners (1) make a decision as to whether something is actionable, and (2) if not, getting that thing off your mind by filing it or discarding it. That part certainly remains valuable. I used to keep things lying around because I didn’t know what to do with them. Now I have a file system that has evolved over the years. Even if I might need something “soon,” but it’s not actionable, I can file it and know that I’ll be able to find it. It does not burden me, and keeps me free to focus on what is on my proverbial plate.

  6. The next action concept is designed to make sure you get at the thing the task requires you to do without having to think about it at the time you are going to do it. It’s like putting your running shoes and shorts out at night before you go to bed, so you don’t have think about that when you wake up in the morning. This is probably unique to GTD, at least initially, but any productivity system should give you principles to decide on what your work is so that you can do it. (Even when I do not “do GTD” (sometimes in the heat of the day-to-day battles this happens) this part of the process is immensely helpful. My flat lists on a legal pad still read like next actions because it works (for me!).)

  7. GTD–the system itself–is just based on a series of lists. @computer, @agendas, Someday/Maybe, Projects, etc. are all just lists. But the lists are designed to keep information grouped together in certain ways to make it easier to deal with. This part is the result of all the capturing and clarifying. This is the part of the system, I think people feel married to but don’t need to be. Capture, Clarify, and put the information somewhere you can access it. If one does not like lists, one does not have to use this kind of system. Maybe this whole next action thing could be modeled with mind maps. I don’t think that way, so I wouldn’t know where to start.

As I look back at all of this, GTD at its heart seems to be just a bunch of sound principles. The form in which you execute those principles probably does not matter. I’ve seen a variety of methods crop up over the years, most of them today seem to just have a different gloss on handling the various GTD principles. Except those people who push the “only use your calendar.” I’m sure that may work for some people, but it doesn’t make sense to me. HOWEVER, even that probably does still adhere to the GTD principles. It’s just that you have one list and that list is your calendar.

Did I prove my case? Or at least move the ball forward a tiny bit? Or have I just drunk the Kool-Aid and I haven’t realized it?

16 Likes

There are a lot of excellent points in here defending the principles underlying GTD. I think I’ve just absorbed these over the years and don’t really think of them as GTD anymore. The idea of thinking about the next physical action to accomplish a task is still useful. “Write email to Bob about next week’s trip” is a lot more useful than “Bob”, Bob might be how it first appears in my Inbox but that longer action sentence is how it appears on my list.

Having said that, I think that GTD can tend to throw you off track by having you “cranking widgets” on a bunch of unrelated tasks on an @computer or @phone list. So in an hour you might cross off 5 tasks from your @computer list, but that hour might have been better spent working on a single important project with tasks from 5 different action lists.

Let me give a concrete example, my job involves writing software. A typical project would be something like “Create new screen summarizing data from profile data”. In my new way of working, I will block off 2 hours of time on my calendar where I decide I’m going to work on this one project. This might involve just spending 2 hours in my code editor writing code. Or it could involve writing an email to ask some questions plus a phone call with a fellow engineer to understand the database schema. The important thing here is I spent 2 hours focusing on 1 project that might involve 1 or many classic GTD contexts.

If I were to spend that 2 hours just crossing off tasks from my action lists, maybe that 1 10 minute phone call for this important project would happen, but I would more likely do 10 unrelated tasks on many other less important projects.

Now if I’m stuck in an airport lounge for an hour waiting to board a plane. That @phone list would be the perfect thing to cross off some tasks while I can’t do much else.

GTD is still valuable to me for capturing and clarifying, but less so for planning out my day and working on the most important projects during the parts of the day where I have the most energy and concentration.

3 Likes

As with many things on this forum… all of the above :wink:

I agree on GTD being more of a set of principles than a fixed law, though. And honestly: if it works for you, who cares if you’re not doing it “correctly”? The point is that it keeps you organized, not to meet some gold standard of GTD-ness.

2 Likes

Yes, I realize I misread the original intent of the posters questions. I was thinking back to how I implemented GtD back around 2003’ish when I first read the book. There are numerous examples in there that DID make perfect sense 20 years ago, but that has shifted and moved on to require some adjustment. In these areas, the book does indeed “show its age”.

However, I do agree that the core principles and techniques still are very helpful and continue to bring great value today.

1 Like

Your summary of GTD is excellent. As usual, a thoughtful response from you. :slightly_smiling_face:

I must have read someplace about “just one next action.” I may have misrepresented GTD, if so, my apologies.

As to Newport’s article, his main argument, as I suggest above, is that organizations need to move away from reliance on autonomous personal productivity to a more organizational-focused one. But, recognizing that we are not there, and may not get there for a while if ever, he offers advice for personal productivity-primarily time blocking.

I’m not arguing that GTD is showing its age, I’m raising the question because with the proliferation of “productivity systems” floating around–and all manner of analog and digital tools designed to help us be more productive— I’m wondering if, while GTD is still useful as I acknowledged in my original post, there are better overall systems available to us. I’m also wondering if we sometimes make things more complex than needed, e.g., extensive context tagging.

I’m starting a dialog more than I”m making an argument. :slightly_smiling_face:

My main problem with GTD is that it’s at once too defined to be a framework, and too little defined to be a step-by-step guide.
It requires some level of interpretation or “getting it to work for me”, and that both make it incredibly hard to start using and mean that a lot of people will use it “wrong”. (If we can agree that there is a “right” way, of course.)

My assumption has been that GTD is a good starting place, rather than a complete system you must use. It’s also more principles or elements you need to include in your system. I think David Allen helped us think about GTD and his material contains some timeless principles that have over the years been re-interpreted and implemented differently. I think the essence of what he said is there in most systems:

  • Inbox
  • Projects
  • Support material
  • Next actions
  • Deadlines
  • Contexts
  • Reviews

Every productivity system must include these in some way. Calvin Newport’s system also has to take these into account. He would just take the next actions and slot them into his weekly timetable until the week is full. However, he still needs an inbox and project list and project support material, etc. These things cannot be avoided.

I would therefore argue that GTD will never be obsolete.

4 Likes

Cal Newport’s stance on how organizations should work is shaped by his background as a computer science academic so he sees what works in his field and idealistically argues for its proliferation. I would expect to see the influence what he writes and this works well in a lot of work contexts, but there are many in which this set of principles is nearly useless. Seems easy to implement but the hardest part of any of this is making the decisions about what to do and what not to do. I have a career in the military behind me and pulling tickets is not a reality in organizations so largely driven by the “commander’s intent”. Political offices, executive assistants, and even parenting are driven by the demands of another, are rapidly changing, and often quite complex. Making those big decisions about what to do is significantly easier when you have a complete understanding of everything on the proverbial plate.

This is gold:

4 Likes

You are correct, he never demands this but I just went through my research highlights from his books. He nearly always uses the singular, “next action”. He may not be intending to imply that one only focuses on one next action during the review process but that is his emphasis, and probably for good reason.