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.


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