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Your GTD System Isn’t the Problem


Since starting my current job about 7 months ago, I’ve garnered something of a reputation for being “the organized guy”. A couple of the higher-ranking people there had attempted to embrace GTD (with varying degrees of success) and were ecstatic to have somebody on-board who could attempt to convert the rank and file. I got a chance to talk one-on-one to a handful of them to see where they were in terms of “implementation effectiveness”, etc. It was a rather eye-opening experience.

Much of what I saw sort of mirrored what I regularly read about on other GTD-related blogs and websites. People really like the idea of GTD and could definitely see the benefit, but were really having trouble making it work across the board (at work as well as at home). In my experience, these types of situations stem from one of the following two symptoms:

  1. The person adopted another person’s “configuration” almost exactly.
  2. The person is constantly fiddling with different tools/applications, etc. and never actually settles on anything.

First, what we’ll call “the copycat” – let me begin by saying that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with adopting the tools that another person espouses as long as they work for you. When a GTD evangelist shows up at your desk and instructs you to buy notebook brand x, pen brand y and install application z (because that’s how they do it), they’re doing their student a disservice. Almost invariably, the pupil will have an especially difficult time getting their teeth into the concepts behind GTD because they spend so much time futzing around with the specific array of tools that was prescribed to them.

Now, “the fiddler” – This is the guy (and I know what I’m talking about here – this was me about 3-4 months ago) who spends just about all of his time poking around the web, looking for specific GTD implementations that other people use. I suppose this either comes from a place of “the grass is always greener”, or perhaps they just get bored too easily with their paltry Moleskine, or maybe their current web app just isn’t ringing their bell the way it used to. These are the types that get so caught up in modifying and tweaking their system that they don’t actually do any of the things on those lists. Again, I speak from experience – I’ve tried just about every type of notebook, pen, paper and software imaginable as a candidate for the “perfect” GTD system. You know what I’ve discovered?

There’s no such thing.

The problem is not with the tools, they’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to do – the bidding of their master (that’s you). Seriously folks, this stuff can be done with a couple boxes of super-cheap folders, a pantload of blank paper and a low-tech calendar. Or, it could also be done using a $80 piece of software, a leather blotter and a pen that’s worth more than my car. It’s all about what works best for you.

So, having said all that, I offer a challenge to anybody who fits into one of the two categories described above (one for each)…

For the copycat: Start over. Do what you imagined yourself doing when you first read GTD. I’m pretty sure we all pictured ourselves hunkered over a desk covered in index cards, or over a keyboard typing into a personal wiki. Think back to what that was and make it happen. Stick to it for at least 6 weeks. At that point, you’ll know which parts of the system aren’t working for you (if any), and you can dispatch them with extreme prejudice in favor or something that will.

Fiddlers, listen up: Switch to paper. I’m talking the absolute lowest-fi system you can tolerate. Get rid of the fancy notebook, the expensive software and the pen made from the carcass of some endangered species. Go buy a couple boxes of crappy manila folders, a box of bic pens, a few reams of plain white printer paper and a pocket dayrunner-style calendar. Use only these tools (aside from your phone and your brain) and set yourself up caveman style. Force yourself to live in the GTD wilderness for awhile (which is paradise to some, by them way) and you’ll start to appreciate the way some of the higher-tech setups work. Or you’ll fall completely in love with it and never go back.

My point is this – it’s about the habits, not the gear you use. Force yourself to write things down, empty your in-basket, maintain your lists and file your junk. No piece of software, fancy notebook or pen is going to do it for you. A good doctor doesn’t become a great doctor because he has a better scalpel. :)

Good luck!

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