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My Scandelous Confession and A Royal Rant About GTD

I have a confession to make. Actually, I’m pretty sure most lovers of GTD have a similar confession, but first I need to start by expressing some assumptions about most of us who are reading this right now (and feel free to challenge any of these via comments).

Most of Us…

Most of us have read Getting Things Done by The David and most of us loved it immediately. Most of us injected the principles into our work flow as quickly as possible. Most of us felt a sense of peace and control as a result.

Most of us found Merlin Mann (how couldn’t we?) Most of us bought 3×5 index cards to capture thoughts and created Hipster-PDAs to hold the cards. Most of us bought Moleskine notebooks to manage our lists because that was the cool thing to do and that’s what Merlin Mann liked best.

Then most of us went digital and bounced between Omnifocus and Remember the Milk and Things and Backpack for a while because this software was supposed to help make managing our lives digitally a lot easier. Most of us realized that bouncing between each of these pieces of software was a huge time investment just to trade one problem for another, yet most of us ignored it and kept switching anyway.

Most of us have tried our best to regularly process our inbox, maintain our project lists, maintain our to-do lists by context. Most of us saw the GTD honeymoon period come to an end and became frustrated by the overhead it took to keep our GTD system happy. Most of us got annoyed that the stuff had to go from our different inbaskets, like paper, Gmail, rss or Evernote, to Google Calendar and Remember The Milk or Things or Omnifocus or Backpack for doing. Most of us got fed up with needing to use 4-5 different systems to in order to follow GTD.

And then at some point most of us found ourselves procrastinating. Most of us stopped being diligent about promptly processing every last piece of stuff in our inbox. Most of us stopped doing the weekly review because it was really just too hard to find the time to sit down for an hour without distraction to evaluate our lists and our lives every week. Most of us know we should be processing and reviewing regularly. Most of us replaced the forgotten feelings of stress and being overwhelmed with guilt.

Most of us sung the praises of GTD to anyone who will listen, then secretly found it to be a pain in the ass in practice. Most of us want an easier GTD and/or a better way to productively manage what life throws at us.

My Confession…

I am like most of us. Yes, I just took the wheel of what had historically been a GTD oriented blog. And yes, I’m openly admitting I’m not very good at staying at the top of my GTD game.

The fact is that my life makes it damn near impossible to do so with the set of tools currently at my disposal. I have 3 email in-boxes (2 different Exchange accounts and 1 Gmail account), 3 calendars, scanned PDF files at home, scanned PDF files at the office, documents that sit on my HD at the office, documents that sit on my HD at home, useful articles that I read in Google Reader, then there are documents or CDs that I can’t scan so they are still in my filing cabinet at home… Or maybe they are in my cabinet at the office? I’ve tried or evaluating most everything available to try to put the pieces together, yet boundaries still become blurry and my system ultimately breaks down.

Brett Kelly also had a similar confession, but he was holding it in for fear of losing Cranking Widgets readers (more on that later). Call me a heretic, but I’m happy to lose readers that I cannot help. If you are 100% happy with how you are currently Getting Things Done then you probably should just go get things done. Cranking Widgets, or any other productivity blog, can’t really do much to help you.

I’m betting most of us are wishing for something better. The productivity echo chamber has been filled with a lot of negativity recently. Productivity systems get beat up by one blogger, then another defends them, then a few more beat them up. Opinions are fine, but they don’t solve anything.

Where Does This Leave The Cranking Widgets Blog?

My interest lies in us working together to find a solution. That means we acknowledge what isn’t working, along with what is, and we work together to figure out the best alternatives. It is my opinion that my problems stem from my inability to stay on top of all the moving parts. (some will be thinking “That’s why I just use a simple list and plain old paper!” All paper can do is simplify list management, productivity is about how you manage all of the stuff in your life. It’s bigger than lists, and today most of your life’s stuff is digital.)

Believe it or not, as of right now, I still think GTD is the best productivity theory out there. However, the best available is rarely the ideal. Its practical implementations need to be improved.

The Mission…

For a while, some of the the focus of The Cranking Widgets Blog will shift towards finding the better way to get things done, and I’ll need your input. My goal is for us to take a step back, break down what works well and what needs to be reconsidered so we can understand if there is anything that can be done to find the better solution.

I hope this will be the last time in a long time that I offer a rant without starting a dialog to find a solution. If we’re lucky, maybe, just maybe, we’ll come out the other end of this with a better implementation or derivative of GTD that works for us in the long-run… One that can’t fall victim to productivity pr0n because there is no excuse for doing so. That is what I need and I know I’m not alone. (You can follow along by subscribing to the feed or following me on twitter.)

For now, I’ll leave you with some more food for thought. Brett posted the following on his personal blog and he has given me permission to re-post it here. Each paragraph highlights a potential point of exploration and discussion. Enjoy and I encourage you to chime in on this one… That is if you haven’t just ragequit The Cranking Widgets Blog :) .

Bitching About GTD, By Brett Kelly

The following was written by Brett Kelly, the former host of The Cranking Widgets Blog.

Having been a fairly vocal proponent of GTD for some time, this is one of those things that I’m happy to write after having removed myself from the throngs (and I mean *throngs*) of productivity/GTD bloggers. Ever since I launched The Cranking Widgets Blog, I’ve been singing the praises of this productivity methodology to any jackass who would listen.  Now, after developing a little bit of discontent with the whole thing, I can bring it to you folks without having to fear a decline in readership.  Here goes.

First of all (and probably most importantly), I’m starting to feel like GTD is really effing hard.  The amount of time and effort it takes to (according to the book) manage a list of tasks, a calendar and some filing shit has become prohibitively long for me.  I look at a scrap of paper in my in-basket, and I’m positively put off by the effort it will require to add it to the project list, choose the next action, pull out a blank folder, label it and file it away.  Perhaps I’m just being lazy, but that’s the freaking honest truth.

Built-in anxiety is almost a guarantee.  Unless you’re a poster child for GTD, you’re going to have shit slip past the defenses of your system.  Hell, David Allen himself has confessed to “falling off of the wagon, repeatedly” on several different occasions.  And if you’ve become such a loyal adherent, the very act of *not* doing the GTD thing will create stress.  This might just be my own dumb brain thinking about this stuff the wrong way, but I’d bet the contents of your wallet that this type of mental spasm is more common than you think.

Call me stupid or thoughtless or a sheep or whatever, but I like direction for certain things.  If somebody tells me they have the recipe for the best Snickerdoodle I’ve ever had, I expect some pretty explicit instructions.  GTD gives you the list of ingredients, a vague idea how to combine the ingredients, then says “and just cook ‘em however you feel would be best!”.  This annoys me.  Execution is unequivocally the most important step in any productivity system/methodology/thing, yet it gets almost zero play from the David (other than the 2 minute rule).  While I can understand his wanting to keep the whole thing flexible (so as to make it useful to a substantially larger audience), there needs to be a little more time spent on “doing” than just “pick your context and trust your intuition.”  Assigning priorities to tasks, etc. is a completely natural extension of the “think now so you can act quickly and efficiently later” idea.  If I have a list of shit that I can do at a computer – a list that I should have made no more than seven days before, mind you – I should have already decided what the important things are, too.

The whole airplane analogy is nice, but in all the time I’ve done GTD, I’ve almost never even though about the shit that’s “higher” than the project level.  Frankly, I think a great deal of the stuff beyond that (long-term goals, purpose on the planet) is kinda dumb.  Personally, I don’t have many long term goals that don’t already play a pretty up-front role in my decision-making already.  I want to own a house, which means I need to get out of debt, which means I can’t go spending money on new computers all the time.  Do I need a list that says “buy a house” on it to keep that in an influential spot in my brain?  Nope.

The calendar philosophy is archaic and is not even close to universally applicable.  My daily calendar almost never has more than 2 things on it, so why shouldn’t I add things to it that I’d *like* to do on that day?  Seems perfectly reasonable that I can use this suitable tool to have ideas forcibly percolate right to the front of my mind on a day when I will very likely have time to do something about it (and when it would be a good idea to do so).  This may not be the kind of thing that the CEOs could reasonably do when they have a half-dozen meetings on a given day, but for the rank-and-file jerkoffs who fill the world’s cubicles, this sounds like something that might actually work.

Having said (or, “spewed”, if you like) all that, I’m in the midst of a serious reevaluation of my personal productivity stuff.  GTD (or, at least, some of the major tenets) could very well go the way of the dodo when all is said and done.  But in the spirit of reducing my responsibilities and commitments where possible, GTD is starting to look like a very viable candidate for Antoinette’ing.  We’ll see.

Be sure to also check out the full post at Brett’s personal blog “Bullcrap” to read the discussions that followed there (And other entertaining Bullcrap :) ).

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