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What They Don’t Tell You about Getting Things Done

11 Jan 2018

Every few months another article pops up teaching you how to quickly and easily implement David Allen’s popular productivity system, Getting Things Done (GTD). The author of these posts read the book, write down the major points, and publish. And all that makes sense on its face. GTD falls squarely into the category of business/productivity books, and every book in that genre is full of an almost unfathomable amount of fluff. Most of these books can benefit from being summarized by someone less self obsessed then and author, and GTD is no exception. Where I have a problem with these posts is the ida that GTD can be implemented into someone’s life quickly or easily.

Sure portions of it can be set up in a couple hours. It’s not really that hard to write down all the projects your working on, or clean up your calendar a little bit. Even consolidating everything entering your life to one or two inboxes is generally achievable. The difficult part of GTD is actually using GTD, and that can take years to master.

The central tenet of GTD is that your brain is for thinking, not remembering. In order to get your brain out of the remembering business GTD tells you to write everything down as it enter your head, and put those thoughts into as inbox. Latter you’ll go through that inbox and decided what to do with the thoughts. The problems with this is that you need to realise when you’re having an important thought, and write it down. Even when this should be easy, it’s not.

If you’re scrolling facebook and realise you can’t remember your last doctor checkup, you think “Oh, I should schedule a doctor’s appointment” and then go back to looking at your friends cat pictures. That thought fades into the back of your mind and will come jumping back out at you again randomly later. This is exactly what GTD is trying to get you to prevent. You need to train yourself to think to write down a note about the doctors before going back to the cat pics. This is just highly unnatural, and not what your brain has been doing for your whole life. It takes discipline and practice to form this sort of metacognition, and that’s for the simples case where there is a clear action.

This just becomes harder when your thoughts become more abstract, or less ationable. Everytime you put your cup on a particular coaster, that coaster sticks to the cup? You need to write it down. Your friend mentions the data of there birthday? Write it down. While you’re sitting in traffic you realise that you actually don’t know why the sky is blue, but want to learn? Tell Siri to write it down. The easy part is dealing with this stuff once you have it out of your brain, the hard part is realising you need to get it out.

This is what can takes years to develop. The practice of instinctively recording thoughts that enter your head, and not just moving on and forgetting them. It takes constant self awareness to be able to do this. I’ve been using GTD at varying levels of seriousness for almost three years and I am still not very good at this.

I don’t mean to be discouraging, but I do want to make it clear that when people chant cult-like about how GTD changed their lives, they are not talking about setting up a tickler system. They are talking about how they were able to change there cognition in a way they believe makes them better. You can certainly get some quick and easy improvements ideas from GTD, but the true power of it, and what has made it stick for so long, is much harder to master.