Is GTD Showing Its Age?

And very much well thought out opinions, delivered well! :slight_smile:


This has been an interesting thread and I’ve appreciated the opportunity to reflect on what I get out of GTD and where I’ve found friction.

I think a key place GTD has felt challenging for me is navigating between “shoulds” and “wants.” Even David Allen suggests these are still at play for him:

For me, GTD breaks down when it reduces to a set of lists of obligations that I feel resentful towards. As others have noted in this thread, the ease with which certain aspects of GTD are instantiated in software processes (capturing ideas, displaying and filtering task lists with associated metadata) makes these aspects take on an outsized importance in practice, overshadowing the other aspects (the natural planning model, the importance of keeping in mind what “wildly successful” outcomes one is working toward, navigating the multiple “horizons of focus”).

What I have been most interested in over the last several years are tools/methods for increasing the importance, visibility, and ease of engaging in these less formalizable aspects. How do I avoid simply recording obligations? I tend to go back and forth on whether the frequent work and updating I need to do on this front is a limitation of GTD itself or a weakness in the community’s lack of interest in developing and sharing tools/methods for doing this broader reflective activity. Of course, there’s also the more idiosyncratic aspects of my own tendency to get stuck at the more existential-angsty levels of the horizons of focus rather than the “cranking widgets” levels.

At any rate, there have been a few tools which have updated GTD for me. Often the creators of these tools suggest they are offering something better than GTD, but from my perspective what they offer is simply better than the existing tooling but often still in keeping with the basic GTD principles (which others have outlined succinctly in other messages above).

The key tool that has shifted my relationship to my task list is Complice. You can hear the creator of this tool (Malcolm Ocean) discuss how he thinks it differs from GTD in this interview with Khe Hy, or you can listen to him monologue about the tool’s principles in this video (which was part of a series where David Allen also presented). Basically, Complice works by asking you to form key goals, then every day you define what you’d like to do that do to move those goals forward. At night you review what you’ve done and reflect on whether you’ve “done enough” on that goal and then choose what to do tomorrow. If you don’t complete what you planned, the tasks don’t stick around–you start fresh every day. As you can see, this isn’t a system for folks who want checklists or to remember all the widget cranking aspects of their complicated jobs. You can, as I do, use the Complice goal focus alongside the task manager memory tools. While I don’t use Complice itself (I don’t like the web app and I have customized most of the reflection questions), I have used the methodology it represents for a few years now and have found it a good antidote to the tendency to get resentful of lists of obligations.

Even this Complice method, though, can sometimes feel too formal and obligatory and so the other method I’ve found incredibly useful lately is Kourosh Dini’s “anchor and sail” technique. You can learn how to do it by signing up on Kourosh’s site, where he will email you a PDF about it. Basically, you just use a notecard and write down all the stuff you want to do. It could be something from the task list, it could be something from the Complice goal list, it could be to watch TV or go for a walk. Write it all down. Then choose one. When I find myself in conflict about what I want to do, this technique has been teaching me how to trust that what I want is what’s best for me and for my goals. Too often I have used my task lists as a way to beat myself up, to suggest that I can’t be trusted to do what’s right and I need to use firm discipline. This has only created more resistance for me in the end. At the end of the day, I think this is totally in line with David Allen’s core GTD tenets–that you need whatever level of formality to help yourself feel fluidly engaged with whatever you want to be doing and achieving.

The place where I’m still feeling a lot of tension with GTD is in the capture / open loops frame. You can read an interesting thread with a bunch of people discussing that from back in may. If I really write down everything that is on my mind in order to “close the loop,” I end up with a minor part time job managing all that stuff. There’s a fear that if I don’t write it down then the idea or “cool thing to check out” will be forever lost and it might have been exactly what I needed at some point and I won’t have it. Like a kind of existential FOMO. I’d love better tooling / process for navigating that. I’ve been trying to just throw more and more into the black hole of DevonThink and hope the serendipity search mechanism will turn it up when needed, but that just feels like a band aid sometimes.


Complice sounds like what I do almost every day in Obsidian or on paper. As an app, Things also sort of seems to encourage that behaviour (but obviously throws certain parts, like a daily stress start, right out the window). Either way, I like how it sounds.

Complice offers a generous free trial and it doesn’t delete your data when the trial ends, so you can always go back and grab stuff. I think it’s totally worth giving it a whirl.

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Yeah, that stuff is the GTD Holy Grail. :slight_smile: Very easy to dump tasks and NAs onto a list. Much more challenging to actually figure out what you want to do with your life.

DA actually acknowledges this several times, with the estimate (I seem to remember) that it takes something like half an hour to an hour a day to do the “manager” aspect of GTD. The claim, of course, is that you get increased productivity due to the mental state, and that you’d need to be putting the time spent on GTD somewhere - whether it’s tracking tasks or panicking because you’re not tracking tasks and you’re missing things.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard say to just let things go, and the ideas will come back - and that has the advantage of being a completely non-falsifiable assumption, since you have no idea whether something you never wrote down a month ago is the same idea that you just got again.

But your questions splits two ways, and I think the distinction matters. If you don’t write it down…

  • Will it be “forever lost”?
  • Will it be “exactly what I needed at some point, and I won’t have it”?

I would suggest that the answer to the first question is “possibly”, and thus things should be written down somewhere.

But when we get to the second question, ultimately you need to trust your intuition when you’re sitting down later and looking through your notes. DA would call this part of “inbox processing”. You don’t note everything directly into your task system, unless it’s (a) a task you’re actually committed to, and (b) already so well-defined that there’s no point putting it in the inbox. E.g. “get milk at store” can go right on the task list. :slight_smile:

So you note to your inbox, then once a day or so you go through everything you noted. What makes sense to you? What doesn’t? More importantly, what are you committed to actually acting on? What are you going to file for future reference? Take appropriate action.

And then you regularly circle back and cull. For task lists, you evaluate whether you still have a commitment to each of the things at your periodic reviews.For files, DA suggests doing a once-a-year purge.

That culling, I think, is what’s important. Even “someday / maybe” lists aren’t just a dumping ground for anything and everything you think of - they’re something that you think you might actually want to do at a future point, but you can’t commit to or can’t possibly do now.

And none of that, of course, prevents you using any of the systems you mention for sorting out the day-to-day.

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My conflict with GTD is more of an analog vs digital mindset. GTD was developed as an analog workflow before the information explosion created by the Internet. When followers of GTD moved into a digital workflow with easy capture combined with an absurd amount of information coming at us, the system breaks down.

A key concept of GTD is to capture everything. The brain is designed for thinking, not storing. To achieve “mind like water” requires getting random thoughts and tasks off your brain and into a trusted system.

In an analog world, there was natural friction in this process as well as the ability to drop a captured thought that proves to be of no value by simply not migrating it forward during a weekly review.

In a digital world, capturing everything puts it into your system, and over time (at least in my use case) my task manager became a mess with hundreds of now meaningless tasks, notes, reminders. I was overwhelmed, which discouraged me from doing a weekly review (because it took a long time), and ultimately my system would break down. This led to declaring bankruptcy and seeking to start over, usually with a new and shiny app.

I have found the Bullet Journal method to be a good initial step for capturing rather than digital. Even if I capture something on my phone, in Drafts, I will transfer it to my bullet journal. I try to keep my task manager (Todoist) focused on tasks that are related to larger projects or reminders for specific dates. For the day-to-day tasks, I keep those in the bullet journal.

This is my experience. It took a while to figure out that following the GTD method in a purely digital environment (for me) led to a bloated, unmanageable task list.


Yeah, I think your response highlights for me that this is again a problem likely caused by instability at the higher horizon levels. If I’m not sure I’m “doing what I’m supposed to on earth” then I need to capture a much broader range of material that seems interesting, because it “might” all be valuable. If I’m more sure, then I am more confident in my narrower band of attention. In other words, it’s less likely a wider range of materials will be “just what I need” at some later point.


As an old retired guy, I can tell you that they don’t all come back.

I’ve moved on from a getting things done approach to a stop and smell the roses approach in a digital Bullet Journal that I keep in the NotePlan app. Maybe something to look forward to for all you youngsters. :slightly_smiling_face:


I think a lot of people read David Allen’s treatment of the nitty gritty as a suggestion that that’s what is important and should demand the focus. It’s easy to forget that he regularly refers to the purpose of one’s life as a guide in making the decisions that need to be made. Once you know your “job”, it’s easier to determine what is not your job.

The friction created by the processing of ideas onto something more concrete is great for eliminating thoughts that don’t add into the concept of self we all carry around. My best days at GTD were after trying a dozen apps and settling on a stack of notecards. Not exactly a Merlin Mann copy but enough that I could get ideas I had out and get ideas about what to do next back in. There are a lot of reasons I’ve gone back to digital tools but I’ve designed my setup with enough friction that I am forced to think through what I am gathering onto my plate before I sit down and try to eat it all. This includes three tools (Drafts, Obsidian, GoodTask) that I have purposely left without automation so that I have to think through, sift if you will, what makes it to the next step.

David Allen explicitly promises that GTD will not take the difficulty out of hard problems but that it will clarify which problems are yours to work out.


That’s about the ONLY thing I actually try to time block. But in general time blocks in the way that most people implement them do not work for me at all.

" Making It All Work" is the book that to me hits on those aspects of the GTD system more than the others.

I think it’s mor that once you get above the project and perhaps goals the rest is so individual and subjective that it’s hard to discuss. For me it’s partly that the topics are too personal and partly it’s fear of ridicule from others about what I feel is so important.

My tactic is to figure out a faster way to capture, and a simple organization system of dumping all the cool things into files roughly ordered by AOF and context and type of work. It’s a fluid arrangement. Once a quarter I go back through those lists and prune them.

That sounds to me like you did a couple of things I would do differently:

  1. Didn’t make liberal use of someday/Maybe lists
  2. Tried to review EVERYTHING on a weekly basis.
    Both of those are mistakes I’ve made and have finally trained myself out of.

To the anti-context people out there:

While listening to Cal Newport’s most recent podcast (Ep. 201, June 20, ~1:21), when referring to cognitive residue while switching deep work contexts, he mentions how he tries to batch tasks like scheduling tasks, email replies, etc. Sounds a lot like David Allen’s contexts of @phone, @email,…

Food for thought.


That’s my intuitive sense of my experience as well. The more I write down, the more I remember. DA even mentions this in one of his talks. He says that if he’s on stage presenting, and he remembers something that should be written down, he physically stops and writes it down. Otherwise his brain would be trying to retain that item until he’s off the stage, and that’s not fair to the people he’s presenting to.

Of course it helps that it’s totally on-brand since he’s presenting about doing that very thing. :smiley:

I heard DA talking about this once. He said that the initial book focused more on the “getting control” because that’s the pain point / source of friction for most people. It’s hard to even think about the bigger stuff when the runway is out of control, so that’s where he started. But the point is to get control, then work your way up.

I’d be curious as to how you’re using them, if you’d like to share.

This is exactly what I have a hard time with as well. Are there any resources that you’ve found helpful?

Did you ever make any attempt to cull the meaningless ones? Or was that the point of friction for you?

But that’s batching by task type, not contexts, because it’s not GTD. Everybody knows that if you invent a new way of describing something, it can’t possibly be the same underlying thing. :wink:

@phone, @errand and @waiting are 3 contexts I use all the time. So I’d call it modified GTD (or exactly as DA intended? This thread has me thinking). Most of my work day is spent in time block segments with a focus on a particular project for 1-2 hours at a time. During that time I don’t look at contexts at all. Just my project notes and tasks related to that project.


That makes all the sense in the world, because all contexts do is subcategorize your task list to help you narrow down what to work on. If you’ve made the “what to work on” decision, you wouldn’t need a context list until you have to make that decision again.


Based on the thoughtful responses, and the quantity of responses, this topic might be worthy of an MPU or Focused episode. @MacSparky @ismh


I currently use a combination of 12 Week Year planning, Personal Retreats, Covey, some things from Shawn Blanc and more to plan and do my quarterly reset. I’m starting the Summer Solstice one now.

For inspiration I look at or re-read , “Contrary Farmer”, “Starship Troopers”, “Farnham’s Freehold”, Discover your Purpose,“Do More Great Work” (a really useful workbook), Holistic Management by Savory, all 3 GTD books, Pragmatic Programmer among others.


This is exactly why all my attempts to use a task manager failed so far. The moment I started using them I didn’t need them anymore.

I do use reminders b.t.w. But these are more used as “alarms”.


Yes, there were attempts to clean up the database, but to be honest, many times it was simply responding to a (foolish) desire to try a new app. :slight_smile:

When it comes to productivity apps, if I could give one piece of advice to someone starting out in their work-life, it would be this: avoid the impulse to switch apps. There is always a new app or a major upgrade that captures our attention and starts us down the road to switching apps. Imagine planting a tree and every few months you dig it up and replant it in a new location. Not only is this a complete waste of time, but in the end, the tree will never mature because you are always planting it and then digging it up.

I think this is one of the big wins of all of the plain text apps available now: it gives those who like to tinker with apps the opportunity to do so, but keep their data in place and not have to start over every time the urge hits to try a new app.


Yes to this. Or if you really want to you should be selective and not jump on a version 1. Give it a couple of years to see if it sticks. In my case, I watched Obsidian develop into a flourishing, reliable ecosystem before making the move.

Good idea. I used to evaluate software for my users and probably did a clean install on my Mac as many as three or four times some years as a result.