When I’m working with clients helping them to try out GTD best practices, skeptical questions pop up pretty regularly. I don’t mind, actually. I understand that behind the skepticism are important considerations about the effectiveness of GTD, and whether it’s right for them. I’m actually more concerned if no skeptical questions come up at all. If everyone is just nodding and smiling, I’m worried that I’ve left something out.
Lately I’ve been keeping a list of the most common objections. Here are the top five:
“What’s with all these lists? I can figure out what to do without all these reminders”
That depends on your goal. Want to keep busy? That’s easy. Stop reading now and go dive in to the last email that’s arrived in your inbox. The world is evolving in ways that encourage us to react, to stay busy, but not to reflect on whether we’re focused on the right things. That’s why mindfulness is such a hot topic these days.
Busy is easy, but busy isn’t good enough. Come the end of the year when you look back, will you be able to say that you achieved all the things, personally and professionally, that are important to you? “Well no, boss, I didn’t get the new product launched, but hey, I was busy all year.”
All those reminders help you to make better priority calls, and to keep your head clear. Every time you add a reminder to a list, you’re being kind to your “future self”, the self that wants to be both fully engaged, but also as clear-headed as possible. That’s also the self that, when it’s time to stop focusing on being productive, can do that without a lot of distracting thoughts about work.
“I don’t need to be getting everything out of my head, surely”
Well, what’s your brain good at? Holding onto details reliably? Reminding you when it’s helpful to be reminded (and only then)?
We’ve known since George Miller’s work at Princeton in the 1950’s that short-term memory is limited to about seven things in the human brain. So, if there are only seven things you need to keep track of in your world, then that might be an option, but I’m guessing everyone reading this will have lives with more moving parts than that.
Well, how about long-term memory? This is pretty much unlimited, but the problem is that it’s unreliable as a reminder system. There is lots of research in cognitive science that back this up, but if you doubt it, try the following exercise: write down a bullet-point list of everything on your mind, both personal and professional. Take 10 minutes or so to do this, and then look at the list. Would it be a good idea to do all of those things in the order they came out of your head? Didn’t think so. Long-term memory is ineffective as a reminder system.
Getting things out of your head enables the two most important benefits of GTD – stress-free productivity and clear-headedness. The more of those things you want, the more I would encourage you to get things out of your head. Make it your goal only to have thoughts more than once if you like having those thoughts.
“Organising my action reminders by context and not by project seems strange and unhelpful”
This represents a big change for most people, and it’s not how most of the world organises reminders, so it’s natural that it seems a bit foreign. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, a “context” is a place where actions happen, or a tool you need to do a particular type of action.
As an example, imagine yourself in a meeting with the boss. You’ve sat down, discussed what you got up to last weekend, and you’re ready to start the meeting.
In that moment, what are the things you want to be reminded about? Things that need doing at home? Phone calls you need to make? Emails you need to send? No, you want to be reminded about the things that you want to discuss with your boss.
“In a meeting with the boss” is a context. So if my goal is to be appropriately engaged in the meeting, then that context list is a great support. Other contexts might be things like “things I can do when I’m at my computer”, or “calls I need to make”.
When you have some time on your hands, say 15 minutes free before your next meeting, your context lists provide ideal support. You’re not at your desk, but you have your mobile phone on you? In those 15 minutes you may well be able to tick a call or two off your “calls” list.
“GTD seems awfully complex. I can’t imagine it’s all necessary.”
When we do a seminar, we’re painting a cohesive picture of best practices in a lot of areas that impact on personal effectiveness. If you’ve seen the A3-sized workflow map we hand out in seminars and coaching, you might have thought “wow, are all of these things really important to my ability to act with confidence and a clear head?”
GTD has become highly evolved since David Allen began working on the core ideas back in the 1970’s, and it has millions of fans around the world, but it’s important to keep in mind that GTD is not “all or nothing”. Just implement one of the best practices, and you’ll see benefits. How about keeping a “in a meeting with the boss” list from now on? Even small changes like that will result in big advantages over time.
“You don’t really do all of these practices, do you Todd?”
I’ll let you in on a secret here: I’m a skeptic too. In some ways my journey with GTD over the last dozen years or so has been to start with a skeptical mind-set, then to experiment with some of the suggested practices and see what benefits they bring. Have I fallen off the wagon? Absolutely, and multiple times. But I’ve come back to the core ideas and models over and over again, and as I’ve done that my skepticism has faded. The ideas in GTD have always seemed sensible, but in many cases their real power only became clear with time. David Allen got it right.
Ultimately I got into this game because I’ve seen the dramatic positive impact it’s had on me, my relationships with the people in my life, my stress levels, and, yes, my ability to get things done. And I’m still in this game because I want to make all of that real for more of the world.
Still skeptical? I’m OK with that.