My GTD reboot, part 1: Rethinking the system

My GTD reboot, part 1: Rethinking the system

If you read this website for long enough, you'll see a lot here about the Getting Things Done (GTD) philosophy of personal management. I wrote a whole series on GTD for Academics last year, for instance. And given how much about GTD shows up here, you might think that I've got GTD completely figured out, with a mature and fully-developed approach to GTD driving my productivity at work and in my personal life.

And you'd be wrong. Because it turns out that recently, I had a realization that told me in clear terms that my use of GTD wasn't working, and that I needed to make ground-level, wholesale changes to the way I thought about and used this system. It's not that I was "doing GTD wrong" the whole time. Rather, I was using a version of GTD that I adopted in 2008 when I first read David Allen's GTD book, whereas I am not the same person as I was in 2008 anymore.

I've been using the 8-week recovery period from my recent heart surgery, during which I've been on medical leave from work and had a much smaller workload than usual, to revisit the foundations of how I think about using GTD. In doing so, I've learned a lot and made some significant changes to the way I use GTD in my life and work. This is the first of three posts I have planned to document this process. In this post, I'll describe three basic shifts I discovered in how I think about work and how that relates to GTD. In the second post, I'll write about how those three shifts in philosophy led to changes in my practical workflow. And then in the third post, I'll connect the changes in my workflow to concrete changes I'm making in how I "do" GTD on a daily basis, including changes to the apps I use.

If you're familiar with GTD, I hope this mini-series is informative. If you're new or curious about GTD, these posts will hopefully help you realize that GTD is a lot more than just apps and rules. If you are bored by GTD... well, there's always my Thursday posts.

The realization

Coming back from sabbatical last Fall, I had a lot to do, not just in terms of tasks but in terms of getting acclimated. I had been out of teaching for 15 months and suddenly back in the classroom, and I was starting a new challenge of being assistant chair of my department. Fortunately I had my trusted GTD system to lean on, to help me navigate my way through all the morass of stuff to do. As I demonstrated in this post, I had my task manager, ToDoist, set up like a nimble and robust database of things to get done, so that no matter what my energy level, time and tools available, physical context, or any other variable in my situation, I could do a simple query using ToDoist's powerful search feature to dial up a manageable to-do sublist of the right tasks to get done for a particular moment.

Except what I was finding was that, whenever I'd do such a query, the perfect-for-the-moment to-do list would be sitting there on my screen --- and I'd have no motivation to do any of it. I would just sit there, looking at my list.

So I realized that I had built and optimized a trusted system that was extremely good at organizing my tasks, but provided no impetus to actually do those tasks. Instead, I was having to exit my system and entire an entirely new system to execute the tasks I needed to do. I wrote recently about the three productivity strategies that I had found to be highly effective in that execution phase, but I realized that none of those strategies was naturally connected to my system for organizing tasks. Exiting the organization system to enter the execution system was producing just enough friction to let all of my motivation leak out.

The moment this clicked with me, I knew that something was wrong at the core of my GTD approach and that I needed to go back to the beginning and question everything. Normally this is a terrible idea; messing with your GTD system can cause tasks to get lost in the cracks, and you can end up spending more energy screwing around with apps than on getting things done. But I also knew I had heart surgery coming up and 8 weeks of a relatively empty schedule to play with. So I made plans to do a complete GTD Reboot during my recovery period.

I'm still doing this reboot (and have a couple weeks before heading back to work), but early on in the process I learned that my basic thinking about work and GTD had experienced three significant shifts.

Shift #1: The need to connect organization and doing

Just a couple days after the surgery, I took an entire day and re-read Leo Babauta's Zen To Done from cover to cover. Leo makes this statement early in the book, where he distinguished his approach from "canonical" GTD, that really stuck with me:

While it's called Getting Things Done, often what we end up doing most of the time is Getting Things in Our Trusted System. [David Allen's book on GTD], while presenting an excellent system, focuses more on the capturing and processing stages than it does on the actual doing stage.

The first time I read Leo's book, I stopped and thought about that for a while. This time around, I stopped and said: Yes. That's what I'm missing. As I wrote above, I had built a great system for organizing my data about actions to take so that I can search and slice through those data any time, any place to find the right set of actions to consider. But knowing what to do is one thing and doing them is another. What I found I was lacking the most when I returned from sabbatical was in the execution department, and I needed to rethink my GTD approach and implementation so that organization and execution are much more tightly integrated --- to the point of being a single irreducible motion, like swinging a baseball bat and then following through.

Shift #2: Radical simplicity

For some time now as well, I'd been wondering about how to make my life a lot simpler, in terms of a minimalist lifestyle, the ways in which I choose what work to take on, how I construct my courses, and more. But this had always been just an idea that I was investigating --- right up until the point that I was diagnosed with a possibly life-threatening heart condition that required open heart surgery ASAP. Getting that kind of wake-up call about the finiteness of your life has a way of turning the pursuit of simplicity from a research topic into a mandate.

So, another book I read in the first parts of recovery from surgery (I had a lot of time to read) was Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. Cal calls for an approach to digital tools in this book that is meticulously mindful and rooted in simplicity. Cal even pulls at length from Thoreau's Walden (and yes, I read that too) to describe the relationship between a person and his tools and using only what one needs and no more. Using only what one needs and no more, and having a reason for everything one uses, to me is the heart of what I'm calling radical simplicity.

Digital Minimalism and its message left an impression on me, particularly thinking about GTD. Maybe, I thought, I'm struggling with GTD because how I'm using it is not simple enough. This applies to the apps I use --- the "holy trinity" of ToDoist, Evernote, and Google Drive --- as well as how I think about the system as a whole. Could I find ways to live out Thoreau's injunction: Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify?

Shift #3: Flexibility in, features out

Looking back on my use of GTD, I had always thought of it as a system with well-defined rules, and to implement "canonical" GTD means following the rules. But at some point recently I realized that this isn't the case. In fact what makes GTD so useful and so successful is that it has very little in the way of "rules" and the expectation is that people will remix and adapt the general idea of GTD to fit their situations --- and that this will evolve over time with the person.

That gets us back to the top of this post, where I realized that the Robert Talbert who started using GTD in 2008 was not the same person in 2019, whereas the GTD implementation was more or less the same, because I was trying to fit my life to the rules of the system rather than the other way around. What I realized was I need to think of GTD as a flexible, adaptive system where I make the rules and fit the overall idea of the GTD workflow to fit my current way of working, and which I can keep adapting with no disruption to my work as I continue to grow and change as a person.

Although apps are not supposed to be the focal point of GTD, I definitely was playing around with different apps early on in this process to see if maybe just changing tools would give me some forward momentum in rebooting my GTD practice. It didn't, but I did notice something: A lot of these apps have a ton of features that they use as a selling point because the features make them more "GTD ready". For example, one GTD app has a "quick entry" feature that, far from being actually quick to enter stuff, prompts you to add half a dozen fields of metadata to everything you enter so that, presumably, later on it will be easier to find and slice.  But this is just a roadblock, not a feature, because every feature is an obstruction to change. So I had the realization that fewer features is the way forward (see also "Radical simplicity" above).

What's next

In the next post, I'll move from the big picture shifts in GTD philosophy to how I've experimented with working these out in my daily workflow, which will then lead to choices I've made about the apps I use in post #3.

For much more background on all this, read my posts on GTD and/or this really good 15-minute intro to the whole idea of GTD. And as always, leave your comments below or put them out on social media.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.