In this week’s podcast, we take a deep dive into one of the key mistakes when it comes to your building out your GTD® system: overcomplicated lists. While the value of GTD is in separating your commitments by context, people will often over-create their systems when adopting the methodology, resulting in too many places to look. We provide some useful tips for identifying – and fixing – an overcomplicated system, so you can create cleaner edges and reduce friction in your processes.
0:00:05.1 Robert Peake: So welcome everyone to another Change Your Game with GTD Podcast. My name is Robert Peake, I’m here once again with Todd Brown.
0:00:12.8 Todd Brown: Hello, everyone.
0:00:15.1 RP: Hey Todd. So in this podcast, our goal is to support you in getting the right things done in the right kind of timing with a minimum of stress. If that sounds like magic, stick around because there are some very practical things you can actually do to make all of that happen. And first and foremost, we’re talking about a methodology called Getting Things Done or GTD. Invented by a man named David Allen. That’s now become basically, the kind of worldwide leading approach to effectiveness and productivity. But also more and more we’re finding greater well-being in an increasingly complex world.
0:00:54.0 RP: So that’s what we’re here to focus on and to hopefully give you some practical inspiration, thoughts and ideas to take away. As we were getting ready to push go as it were… Push the record button we were talking about different things we could talk about. And one of the things that kinda came up in my mind recently is I’ve been noticing some of the, sort of, more inherent traits. Or the traits let’s say that people bring to the table when they come for coaching or come into a seminar for support in applying the GTD methodology.
0:01:33.6 RP: There are indications that they’re gonna go far and fast with the methodology. That they’re going to be able to really succeed with this. And then there are also a lot of indications that we see for people that have been further along in the journey with GTD that actually, they’ve kinda overbuilt. They’ve kind of gotten too complex with their implementation of the methodology. And so we wanted to talk a little bit about that. And hopefully as we are talking about that if any of these things kind of go ding inside… You kind of go, “Wow. You know that’s me.” We’ll hopefully be able to tease out some of the things you can do about that as well.
0:02:12.8 RP: But first of all, let’s diagnose the patient. Let’s get in there with what are some of the symptoms that someone may have gotten really fired up about GTD, really gotten gung-ho and really gone for it and really built out a system, but actually they’ve kinda overbuilt the system. They’ve kinda done too much or gone too far away from first practical and streamlined. Todd, what’s… What are some of the things you see out there when people come to you with overbuilt systems?
0:02:47.3 TB: Yeah, as you were talking about that, I’m reminded of one of the very first coachings that I ever did with someone who had… Again, real passion for GTD, he was self-taught, had gotten clearly a lot of benefit about it… Benefit from it. But I went and I spent some time with him on a coaching basis. And the first thing that I recognised was that he just had way too many tools… He was a bit of a techie. He was keen, early adopter, and… If one of the goals of a GTD system is that you in any given moment know exactly where to look to find the things that would be helpful to engage with… David talks about… David Allen, talks about the value of orienting reviews and being able in any given moment to find the elements of your system that would be the right ones to look at.
0:03:40.2 TB: This gentleman had… He had many places to look in any given moment. So there was… His system really didn’t have clean edges in that sense. There was an awful lot of… There was some duplication and there were just too many tools. Sort of just too many… Too many places to look. And so… It’s funny, I think about, one of the things that I say to my clients as we’re implementing a system for them is, “Look, what I’d really like for you in the future… For your future self, is that you have the ability at any given moment without hesitation to be able to see in front of you reminders that are helpful, given everything.”
0:04:20.9 TB: So given your context, where are you. Given your… The time that you’ve got available. Given your energy levels… That’s one of the models that we use in GTD, called the limiting criteria model. And that model helps us to break down what would be helpful to see in that moment. That’s a really valuable framework, I think for a lot of people. If they… They will have gotten exposed to it, let’s say in the fundamentals class, if they’ve taken one of our early… One of our level one seminars. But to revisit that, I think, is important.
0:04:51.2 TB: Because again… And just to come back to him as an example, he was way over-tooled… Right. And he was so keen. This was the thing. He was like, “I love these tools.” And this came from… I had a recommendation of this, and I had a recommendation of that and all this. And you could see that he had an awful lot of energy for the tools, which I didn’t wanna get in the way of.
0:05:09.6 TB: I wanted him to be enthused about his system and enthused about the way that he was working with it. But I think that at the same time, I wanted him to realise the limitation and the fact that having so many tools and so many places to look for things meant that he was… That there was… There was friction there. That he could drive out of his system and his ways of working. So that’s… Yeah, that’s a situation that comes to mind. How about you? What have you seen out there in the world?
0:05:35.8 RP: Yeah, no, that’s a great classic example. The kind of gear-head that gets into this. And I think there’s an underlying trait about people that are attracted to the cool kit, which is that they do believe that things can be better. That they are kind of systems thinkers in that way. But there’s another element to all of this, which is the kind of the self-awareness to factor in you, to the system. Like, yes, it’s a perfect thing to tag it 20 different ways and have it in all of these… Whatever different categories and contexts and so forth. But increasingly what I’ve come to with people that have potentially over-built in that way, have lots of different places, is being use case driven about their contacts.
0:06:19.5 RP: Saying, “Okay, it’s 5:00 PM. You’ve been in back-to-back meetings all day. You’re a bit tired. Where do you go?” And they go, “Uh… Uh… Uh… Well… Uh… This is over here and that’s over there. And I could look at this.” It’s like you need a context that’ll… You being… Zoom, right in… Possible next actions that are easy and self-evident… Right. Okay, it’s the start of the day. You wanna bite up something big and chunky, you… Where do you go?
0:06:44.9 RP: So being use case driven, I think, has helped a lot of people with exactly that. And as soon as you start to look at some of the practical cases, that factor you in to the equation, you soon realise that having six different pieces of software with 12 different [0:06:58.1] ____Zapier… And if then they’re not integrations and all of this incredible leveraging of these open APIs is maybe not the most friction-free as you put it.
0:07:11.1 RP: So that’s great. I think that’s probably one of the biggest ones I see as well. That repels people from consulting their action list and then they default to looking at their project lists and having to rethink the actions. And then on into all kinds of weird filtering too. All kinds of, “Well, I’m gonna alert myself with this. But if it’s on a Thursday and it’s blue, then I’ll…” It’s just like, “Wow, okay.” There’s a simpler approach to bubbling the right things up to your attention, and it’s gotta be practical.
0:07:39.2 RP: The other big thing I see… And one of the biggest things I ask people that are long time GTDers, who have been self-implemented for a while anyway, is how long are your weekly reviews taking. And are you doing all 11 steps when you do that weekly review?
0:07:55.2 RP: So either if people are sort of nitpicking just a little bit. Or if they’re doing it and it’s more than 90 minutes… More than a couple of hours. Certainly, to do a weekly review, that’s another clear indicator to me that while they may have great intentions, they may be great systems thinkers that they actually have probably overbuilt. And by over-built that can mean a lot of things. One thing is it, it can mean that they don’t have just really crystal clear projects and next actions in terms of how those are stated. Because it’s amazing how just a few seconds of having to re-think when you’re going down a long list, item per item can really, really add up.
0:08:37.7 RP: So that’s one thing that I really kind of… Try to drill into, in addition to… Are you consulting the lists on a daily basis. Are they repelling you? Do you know where to go in different real life circumstances or not? Is how does it go when you back up? How does it go when you back up to that weekly review? Is it pleasurable to feel at more in control at the end? Or has it been three-hour slog through five different systems and 12 different cross-reference tags to try and get some sense of what the heck’s going on?
0:09:10.4 RP: So I don’t know, that’s another one I’ve seen. I’m curious, what else you’ve seen out there. In particular, what you’ve done to help people… How do you unpick the complex systems? Where do you start when someone comes to you and they say, “I’m doing GTD. Have a look.” And you look and you go, “Wow. That’s a lot of maintenance time. How do you ever do anything?” I’m guessing… How do you even get to your inbox or to your whatever, when it takes as many… Where do you start with the kind of the obviously gentle and kind un-picking process with a complex system?
0:09:48.4 TB: An approach that might seem… Well, counter-intuitive… We’ll see. I’ll leave that up to the audience. But one of the things that I have done… I’m thinking of a coaching that I did a few years ago now in the Middle East. And I was working with this client. And again, I’d worked with him before. He had been coached. So he knew the fundamentals. Again, incredibly keen. But his system was over-build in the sense that he had way too much content. Just… The way he was using his GTD system, in essence was he was putting things in… Okay? But nothing was really ever coming out.
0:10:27.9 TB: And what was interesting was, despite that fact… So his system in some ways was just bulging. All of the lists were huge and many entries and all of that. And despite all of that, he still had a lot of enthusiasm for getting things done. But we were talking… We were talking about his weekly reviews… Quite frankly, they weren’t really happening. There really wasn’t much going on. But what I did was I worked with him almost backwards. What I said was, “Look, what we’re gonna do together is we’re gonna make sure that you have a system which is review-able in a weekly review… Right. So what that means…
0:11:04.3 TB: And that, I think, can be a really interesting question for people. And in some ways it can be a little counter-intuitive, if what you say is, “Hey, look, I’ve gotta sure that I’ve got… I’ve gotta make sure I’ve got all my commitments in my system and all of…” Which is all true. But at the same time, if what that means is that you’re looking at your system and it’s taking you, as you say, three hours to review it, then probably what that means is that there is a problem and that you have over-committed. Again, this is just one more indication of over-commitment.
0:11:37.2 TB: So we started fresh and we came up with a system, which could be reviewed in an hour. I think it was… Was what we were shooting for. And then we actually did a review together. And that he found really, really helpful. And what that did for him… I was in touch with him, obviously, after the coaching. What that did for him was it meant that as he thought about… As he was going forward from that point, he became much more… He became much more jealous in some ways of… Protective… A better word. Protective of himself and of his future ability to review and focus on these various things.
0:12:19.6 TB: And so what that meant was, that he started to… One very practical thing was he started to incubate more. More stuff went on to his someday maybe list, right. He… I think an awful lot of people when they get involved with GTD, they do it… At least at the beginning, many folks start to over-commit. So their projects list has really got projects on there that are not… Not really things in the bigger scheme of things that are… That really are commitments, that their commitment is to get it done.
0:12:52.3 TB: It’s, for a lot of people, “Hey, this was a cool idea. Hey, I know I’m supposed to define next actions and projects. I’ve done all of that.” But what maybe I haven’t considered is, where does this project really fit, bigger picture-wise, in terms of my overall priorities? And does it really deserve a place on my projects list?
0:13:11.4 TB: And if the answer is no, well, then maybe it goes on to someday maybe. Or maybe it’s just this kind of thing that I go, “You know what, in the nicest possible way, maybe it needs delegating.” Could be. Or maybe it’s just something that I’m gonna have to kiss good-bye because in the moment it seemed cool and great and all of that, but now as I look at it in the round, I’m just going, “No. Well, not really something that I really have any commitment to.”
0:13:37.8 TB: Right. So anyway that’s… That just takes me back to that coaching all those years ago. How about you? What do you… So Dr. Peake what kind of approaches do you recommend?
0:13:53.4 RP: Well, I can certainly relate to that too much content element. I think a lot of people get incredibly enthusiastic about capture and they just capture it all. And I gotta say, the someday maybe list is just the saving grace, sanity safety valve of my life. Because there’s just way more ideas than lifespan left for me. And so, yeah, definitely. Definitely getting some of that stuff incubated has been saving.
0:14:19.1 RP: You know, it’s interesting, I think in all of this, I also wanna temper our recommendations. Most of the time, what I see with people is over-building or getting over-zealous about what’s possible with tech. For example, creating integrations that are fine if they support the fundamental kind of GTD principles. If they help you get to project support faster, for example. But can be a bit of a false economy if, for example, those things are bypassing your brain. If you’re creating integrations that basically move stuff around so that it’s slightly more clarified, maybe. Categorically speaking. But not really helping you to get that into clear projects and actions.
0:15:12.3 RP: And I love the idea of building a more zero-based system around the weekly review. I’ve definitely zero-based things with people. And the place I start there is with the projects. We go, “Okay, well, let’s get these projects really clearly defined.” Let’s get that into a system. Let’s give you something that you can review, at least, at a high level, and start from there. And sometimes that’s the right move, frankly. Is to actually go, “You know what, I need to blow this up and I need to really look at what are the fundamental elements that are sustainable for me in terms of content, and in terms of where that goes.”
0:15:50.2 RP: But to temper it a bit, I think… Next actions are essential. Anything that’s actual has to have one. Next actions that you’re not just gonna do in one sitting, need projects. Or just call them outcomes, if that word hangs you up. And then there’s this third component called project support. And I was talking with someone about it recently. And basically, the guideline for a next action is in one sitting, and the guideline for projects is within about the next… Immediately to the next year, if it’s multi-step.
0:16:21.0 RP: And to me, the guideline for project support is as much as you need to feel comfortable and to get it off your mind. And hopefully no more. But I’ve been in situations… I’ve worked in government offices, for example, where they need to file their sent messages. That’s the first time I’d ever seen this. They need to file not only the messages that they receive, but the message they’ve sent because they could be audited at any time. Likewise with some financial institutions and certainly with legal institutions, working with a legal organisation where they really needed to go back and have source material to justify their rulings, their decisions.
0:17:04.0 RP: They’re dealing with precedent. They’re dealing with, “Can you back this up?” Not just with the specific instance, if we decided to do this, or we decided this was the correct legal thing. But with here is all the supporting documentation. And that’s gonna be slower. And that’s gonna take a little more time.
0:17:23.0 RP: But you know what, taking that time to make sure that the reference is filed appropriately, whether it’s general reference or project support can be incredibly important. The story, I tell is that my reference filing saved me $10,000 when the IRS, the American Revenue Service, sent us a bill here in the UK saying, “Here’s a bill for $10,000 for filing your taxes late and forgetting to put this particular item on.”
0:17:51.6 RP: And I had a dated receipt from good old Royal Mail saying that I had posted the taxes to them that they had then lost. And it took like a year to get that resolved to finally get… Not an apology letter, but just another letter saying your account balance is now zero. Thanks a lot for the pain and suffering, compensation for that. That sticker shock. But… So reference filing, doing it, having seven years of taxes in there. Reference filing, having your sent mail in the right place in relation to a project. So if someone comes knocking. If that’s appropriate. If there’s a use case for that. If there’s ever a circumstance where you go, “Yeah, 400 of these receipts that I filed didn’t matter. But the 401, someone called me up on it, and it saved me so much time and hassle that all the others were worth it.”
0:18:40.8 RP: So it’s not to say streamline your systems to the extent that you’re gonna miss stuff. Make sure it is appropriate to your job, your job role, your circumstances. But again, I just come back to be use case driven. Is there a future you, at some point, in some circumstances that’s gonna need this back in this way? Or not. And so that’s where… And it’s with some things I’m incredibly just ruthless with the delete key. And with other things I go, “No, I’m gonna take the time. I’m not just gonna assume I can search it back. I’m gonna put it in a specific folder. I’m gonna do that to be kind to the me that one day could be incredibly grateful that I did that.”
0:19:25.1 RP: So I don’t know, when you think about how to balance all of that. What are your thoughts on balancing. Or let’s say finding the necessary complexity? The as simple as possible, but no simpler. That is complex as needed, but no more kind of state. Either in your own systems or with working with others. What indicates to you, yeah, I’m at the right sort of level of mix?
0:19:51.7 TB: Yeah, I think it’s… Again, I’m just taken back to a coaching I did. Bizarrely, another coaching that I did many, many years ago with a guy who ran a medium-sized enterprise in Ireland as it happened. And what he wanted to do… He was aware of GTD. He knew sort of the basics. Quite keen to sort of get going. And he and I spent quite a lot of time designing a… Designing a reference structure. More or less a reference tree structure, so that he knew he would have the right level of… Sorry, not the right level. He would have… Good places to put all of these things. Okay.
0:20:36.9 TB: And we went through that exercise. And then as we were working together practically to put it into place, what he realised was that we’d really just overbuilt. That we had… I was pushing back. He wanted to have folders within folders, within folders, within folders. And I was gently pushing back on, “Hey, I just wanna make sure that this is navigable number one. In a sense that you could put things in folders very quickly. And number two, that you can find things quickly when you need them. So I was trying to be the advocate for his future self.
0:21:07.7 TB: Anyway, long story short what we did was we basically went back to let’s start with… Let’s start with a folder or a very small number of folders. I think he might have done personal versus professional, something like that. And then let’s just build… As we see the data come in. I think quite often people who’ve over-built their systems have thought, “I know how much complexity I need…” And it’s generally a hunch. And in some cases… And I would say many cases, they don’t need that much complexity.
0:21:47.3 TB: So again, with my stethoscope around my neck and my doctor’s approach to this, what I would say is start with… Start with the bare minimum structure, and then just let your system… Sorry, not your system. Let your own experience and what’s coming at you, help to determine what additional folders you create, if we’re talking about… If we’re talking about reference. Or if we’re talking about… If we’re talking about a context list, it can be quite freeing, quite liberating, really, to just start over. Take away all your context, just have one list called next actions and then let the… And then let the lists evolve as you add new next actions to that list.
0:22:37.0 TB: And you see very naturally what would be helpful. That can be… And again, we’re doing this recording in the middle of August, a great time of the year to be thinking about tidying up restructuring your system. So yeah, that’s what comes to mind for me about that. How about you?
0:22:56.4 RP: That’s great. I’ve always found that the organic build rather than the theoretical build tends to win out. It tends to win the day, ’cause the practicality is built in all throughout that rather than imposing… Imposing some structure. We’re so good at taxonomic and categorical thinking. We’re so trained into putting things into buckets. But when it comes to us and having awareness of what our future self is gonna want and need, for some people, this is such new territory that they fall back, I think, on the more theoretical sort of data structure approaches to things.
0:23:33.6 RP: And so I think that’s so much why the organic… The organic wins. So hopefully, for those of you out there listening and watching that… Hearing us hash some of these war stories out as it were, has been useful as we unpick some of the specific things you can do to simplify and streamline your systems to potentially go back and zero base it. To build it around the weekly review, so that the elements, the practice of GTD is doable in relation to the system rather than the system being this beautiful, perfect theoretical thing that you never use. I hope that was helpful.
0:24:14.1 RP: We do this on a fairly regular basis. About once a month, we have these podcasts coming out. So if you’re getting this in a podcast feed for the first time, be sure to click subscribe. If you’re seeing this on YouTube, you can hit subscribe. And if you hit that helpful little bell, YouTube, will then let you know when another one of these comes out. Also on our website, next-action.co.uk, you can get out newsletter, which not only includes this monthly podcast, but about a… Once a week, some really great articles from our wide network of associates. Just like this. Stuff that will hopefully help you, inspire you, keep you in the game, keep you going, keep you reaching for that continual practice.
0:24:54.2 RP: Because it is a practice of learning how to be effective, how to appropriately balance the complexity of your systems, and to get more done with less stress. That’s the goal. That’s the point. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.