GTD is Broken – Focus on Results, Not the System

GTD is too complicated. Leo Babauta over at ZenHabits compares his productivity system with Dave Allens. The result? Leo’s is far simpler. Leo might not need quite as much organization as Dave does, but my guess is Leo’s strategy of simplifying creates a much more effective productivity system.

This brings me to another point. Why are you wasting so much time on a productivity system anyhow?

I get a bit of a chuckle when I see yet another article about how you can use this web app or piece of software to become even more organized and efficient. To quote lifehacker: “Computers make us more productive. Yeah right.”

Productivity is important, the system is not.

The problem isn’t with using technology or GTD. It’s with focusing on the details and missing the bigger picture. Now I can’t say I always give perfect advice, but I’d like to believe I try to focus on that bigger picture. Focusing on the questions that actually mean results:

  • Why am I doing this?
  • What should I eliminate?
  • How can I prioritize?
  • How can I chunk this down?

I don’t use GTD. My “system” for productivity is incredibly basic. One notepad, one binder for my daily goals (which I actually learned from Zig Ziglar, months before reading GTD) and Google Calendar. That’s it.

I believe once you reach a point where you can adequately handle 95% of the input into your life, stop focusing on the system. Effectiveness trumps efficiency. Once you get a baseline level of “getting things done” spend the rest of your mental effort ensuring the right things get done. In my experience, that has always been a much more difficult question.

The most productive people I know don’t have complicated system.

Many of them haven’t even heard of GTD. Organization (what GTD is essentially about) only goes so far. The real components of productivity are drive, energy, prioritization, goal-setting, simplification and focus. These ideas all focus on the forest and not the trees.

Years ago in Peter Drucker’s best selling book, The Effective Executive, he pointed out that efficiency is only critical for manual workers. Knowledge workers, of who most of us are, should be concerned with effectiveness. Effectiveness means focusing on results, not work.

Don’t confuse organization with productivity.

I think the problem stems from where people began to use both words to describe the same thing. Organization is important, but it is a completely different discipline than productivity. GTD is about organizing your tasks and input.

If you want to master GTD, go ahead. But at least admit that what you are mastering is your ability to order everything not productivity. Beyond a minimum threshold of organization, it may get more things organized, it may even get more things done, but it has no bearing on whether the right things are getting done.

GTD isn’t really broken, but some of the uses are.

I can’t blame GTD. It isn’t a system designed for every aspect of life, just for improved organization of your tasks and input. The problem isn’t with the system, but people who assume the system is designed for handling everything – and therefore deserves a lot of time in refinement.

If you haven’t read GTD, I’d still suggest giving it a look. Get the basic ideas, form a system that will handle 90-95% of your input. Then stop. Don’t tweak. Don’t spend any more time focusing on efficiency instead of effectiveness.

Focus on getting things done, not GTD.

Some people would rather read fitness magazines than go to the gym. Some people will pick up a self-help book to feel better about themselves without doing anything. Substituting the feeling of achievement with the real thing, people take easy steps to avoid actual work.

I think the same thing happens with systems like GTD. They are cool and interesting, so we read them and get a jolt of happiness by thinking about becoming more productive. Then we set up systems, read online articles and endlessly tweak them to get similar bursts of feeling productive.

If that’s all you want from GTD, tweak away. But if you are like myself, devoted to actual improvement instead of just the feeling of it, stop. Get the basics and move on.

  • Jeff


    It needed to be said, and someone finally said it.

    I never really understood the fascination with GTD. As far as I’m concerned, energy management is the most important aspect of productivity. Organization is a fairly intuitive thing. I mean, when you’re working at your peak energy, you don’t need to know HOW to be productive, you just are — you just flow.

    Learn to take naps, learn your circadian rhythm, exercise, focus on your passions, adopt a high-energy diet… productivity is just a by-product of these things.

    GTD is probably perfect for some people (those with a high volume of easy-to-do tasks). But I think most people fascinated by GTD are really just OCD about having a routine in life.

  • Yuri

    It’s never ending process – you keep enhancing the system you use indefinitely. I don’t know many people who would use GTD in “pure form”. Most of them, including me, simplify it to the level we are comfortable with. I don’t use 43 folders system, yet I use “next action” approach in my every task. I try not to focus so much on the system but rather focus on particular results I can get from using part of the system here and now. In fact, I don’t think David Allen was ever presenting GTD as “complete system” that will only function if you use every part of it. So my advice after all is in line with your post – focus on productivity and actual things done, not on system itself.

  • ZHereford


    I was wondering with all the productivity articles being written and read all over the place – who’s actually doing anything?

    I like how you point out to focus on getting things done, not the system.

    Good stuff!

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the thoughts everyone.

    I suppose optimization will be endless. My issue is that people spend a lot of time thinking about how to optimize a system that should be as simple as possible.

    Perhaps it’s a function of my personality as well. I lean more towards the kind of higher level ideas broken down into practical solutions by people like Steve Pavlina, Tim Ferriss and Leo Babauta.


  • Rick Overholt

    For those who are already fully organized and even optimized, they probably don’t need something like GTD. However, there are those like myself that have tried different things over the years, with little success. I read GTD thru quickly once, and set it up somewhat like he advised. I quickly slipped back into my old ways.

    After a second read, a slow read, with pen and highlighters, it made sense. I did modify it, but not much. My productivity is now beginning to soar.

    For those who struggle to keep up, and still fall behind, I say give it a good shot. Once it starts becoming a habit (like excercise did for me two years ago), you’ll be glad you invested the time. The payoff for me has been great.

  • son

    how do you ace a history final without studying?

    you associate the things in a web that somehow relates to the material…what about the actualy reading? I am reading psychology right now for example…and I am not ‘connecting’…am I supposed to connect as I go?

  • Scott Young


    By studying I don’t mean avoiding reading the material in the first place. No matter how good I am, I still must do that. What I am referring to is the constant re-reading of material.


  • DanGTD

    I devised an approach at, and you are welcome to use the application.

    You first need to set Goals in each of your life categories. Although David doesn’t call them categories and goals, but “levels of focus, altitude views, areas of responsability etc”, it’s the same thing.

    Then you create Projects in each goal, these being sub-goals that when completed move you forward to the completion of the goal.

    Then you have Tasks, actionable steps in each project. Here you can set the famous Next Actions, and also associate the tasks to your Contexts.

    Checklists section is great for your repetitive tasks (daily, weekly, monthly or yearly). It generates a series of checkboxes and you check them off as you do the tasks.

    Schedules are for the scheduled blocks of time. Even if GTD does not promote scheduling we all have schedules (at work, at school, self-imposed etc). The activities here can be associated with the existing projects.

    Calendar section is for events that need to be done at exactly a specific date.


  • Walter

    I know this article and discussions were from years ago in 2007.
    However, I wanted to comment.
    1.). My reading of the original GTD book (audio) states utilizing aspects of GTD as we wish and is less prescriptive than when I used Franklin-covey.

    2.). The main principle of clean and clear as a knowledge worker is the best reason for this approach versus a priority based ABC, 123 system. I think the original article agrees with GTD principles but then misses why implementation of a “complete” system is useful or even important,

    3.). In this knowledge world a full system that keeps things out of your face without the need to prioritize everything is VERY important. Many assignments are deemed “hot” or “high priority”. A system that organizes allows you to focus on your creativity with your drive and energy.

    4.). Finally, and somewhat to repeat, it is too easy to lose focus or perspective with all the inputs. Some are more easily distracted than others, but in general clarity in where we are working is something we all need to approach from a “continuous improvement” perspective.

    A hybrid of GTD can be helpful for many of us!!

  • Tom

    I certainly agree with dot number 3, today it’s all about differing between the main and bland, and making a clear priority.