What GTD can't do for you - Next Action Associates


“There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labour of thinking” – Sir Joshua Reynolds

Doing a bit of a spring clean this week, I came across a book I bought back in the early days of the web called “Don’t make me think”. It was written by someone who was promoting good website design, and its main point was that too many websites required too much thinking from their users. Get the design right – the author’s thesis went – and navigation would be so intuitive that a user’s interaction with it would be completely intuitive. You could eliminate, in other words, the requirement for thinking.

This got me thinking about the scope and limits of the Getting Things Done methodology. Can GTD eliminate the need to think?

True confession time here: I sometimes find myself avoiding doing truly productive things because I know they will involve intense thinking: clarifying, planning, making priority decisions, and the like. I’ve usually got a great system with good information in it. And I resist engaging with it, because I don’t want to do the thinking. My inner three year-old says “I know it’s important for me to do that, but I don’t wanna!”, then stamps its virtual feet and convinces me to check my Facebook feed rather than get stuck into some mental heavy lifting.

The frameworks and models in GTD are designed to take the friction out of thinking as far as possible. Think about the “processing” questions we recommend you use when you’re clarifying something: What is this? Is it actionable? What’s the next action? What’s the outcome? Those questions represent a very efficient and effective way to get to the nub of what something means to you and what you need to do about it.

But at the end of the day it’s up to you to use the models, and that’s going to involve using your brain. Using the methodology can make your thinking very effective. But it can’t do the thinking for you.

As an ex-IT guy, I have to say that I find that somewhat frustrating. When I was in IT I had an underlying suspicion (and sometimes fervent wish) that if I developed the right software tools, then I could eliminate the hard graft of thinking. Click the right button and hey presto; the system will decide for you what you need to do.

Sadly, it ain’t so. The decisions we need to make in GTD can’t be automated. Only you can decide which next action or outcome is right for you. You are the master of your organisational system, and the decisions you make will determine what’s in it, how you engage with it, and what it inspires you to do. Your system can’t manage you, only you can.

When it comes to the decisions we need to make in the interest of optimised productivity, there is no such thing as “provably correct”. There is no algorithm that will come up with the “right” answer. Your understanding, your judgment, and ultimately your humanity as a decision maker are irreplaceable.

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