October 5, 2020

Is Your GTD System Too Complex? (Video Podcast)

In this episode, we take a deep dive into the setup of your GTD system and how to streamline your lists, create practical and easily accessible indexes of your ‘stuff’, and reduce friction in your workflow.

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Is Your GTD System Too Complex? (Video Podcast)

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00:05 Speaker 1: So welcome everyone to another Change Your Game with GTD Podcast. Our goal in these podcasts is to support you in getting a little more done with a little less stress, utilizing the getting things done or GTD methodology. I’m here as always with Todd Brown.

00:21 Todd Brown: Hello.

00:24 S1: Hey, Todd. And today, just as we were getting ready to go on air as it were, and decide what we wanted to talk about or what felt sort of current and in the air to address. Maybe that’s a better way to put it. Is that it seems like a lot of people right now are working on their systems, they’re tooling as it were, we’re all kind of… There’s a lot of uncertainty out there. We’re trying to figure out what’s next sometimes personally, professionally, globally. And we all know that having good systems and having good tools can help us be prepared for whatever comes. At the same time, we often, as coaches and trainers, people digging into the detail with people about what their systems really look like, find that people sometimes tend to over-build, they actually tend to go a bit far with the ways in which they’re trying to utilize technology or they’re trying to develop systems in an addition to or based on just their understanding of GTD.

01:25 S1: That might be a bit complex frankly. Todd, I’m just curious as an opener here, what’s been your experience with that? Are there patterns, are there certain types of people that gravitate toward building or over-building systems? Is that a common occurrence? Is it rare? What’s been your experience with people and building or over-building their GTD systems?

01:45 TB: Yeah, I think what I’d say is, I’ve seen a lot of it, and I’ve done a lot of it over the years. I’m an IT guy by background. You and I share that, and for many, many years, I was just attracted to the tools, and so I sometimes call it, and I still do feature chasing, there’s that feature that they’ve just announced in the marketing for X, Y, Z software, and boy does that sound cool, and I’ve gotta have that as part of my system. And I think in many cases, what ends up happening in those situations is that by chasing the feature just because on the face of it, it sounds really cool, we end up not really thinking fundamentally about how is this really gonna help. In my system, what role does it play? Does it replace something I’ve already got which is not as efficient or effective? If so, fine. Does it provide me with a new feature that I haven’t had before? And I can sort of figure out within the GTD methodology where I expect it’s going to help. Is that the kind of thing that’s going on?

02:58 TB: So yeah, I think… And to your question about who’s drawn to it, again, I think anybody who’s enthused by the technology per se, I think is that risk of this. And I’m not saying being enthused by the technology is necessarily a bad thing, but I think that sometimes that enthusiasm, it can get in the way of effective implementation of some of this stuff. Christmas is coming, I’m not trying to be the Grinch here, but at the same time, I think a little bit of careful consideration of… A little bit of careful consideration of, what is this really gonna do for me, is quite a helpful way to look at it. I don’t know, what do you reckon?

03:39 S1: No, I think that’s really true, and I can also put my hand up to that. And come on, we all wish we could say, “Hey Siri, do my weekly review for me.” [laughter]

03:49 TB: Yeah.

03:52 S1: “Hey, Alexa process my inbox to zero.” But unfortunately, there is a little bit between point A and B that is our own brains, and I do find two, people that are paid to think about systems, anything, from project managers, to IT people, really anyone that’s seen the value and as you say, there’s huge value of, a lot of the features of technology are totally revolutionary, game-changing and amazing, we just haven’t found necessarily that that in any way eliminates the fundamental thought process necessary to identify desired outcomes and next steps in order to really orientate yourself effectively. So as I was thinking, as you were talking, I was thinking that of all the kind of disciplines of IT, all the different parts of the stack as it were, people sometimes call it the different components of building out software and systems, I think probably the most useful discipline to consider when considering your own personal productivity system is that of user experience.

04:58 S1: And I think very often… I know I can tend to accept, they call it, “anhedonically adapting”, which just means… It just means you’re putting up with basically over time, something that’s not really working for you, but you kind of resigned to it. But I can certainly have been guilty of just adapting to sub-optimal things and not really thinking about myself as a user and what’s my experience been. Is this what I’m doing is, am I creating friction for myself? Am I creating the fact that I’ve gotta click a lot more times to get something in or take something out? Is it really worth it? Is it really worth it for me to do all of those clicks? Is it helping me with that fundamental thing of feeling like I can trust my choices? So that was interesting, just as you were talking to kinda go, “Yeah.” It’s not database design, it’s not intense AI algorithms, it’s really… Is it intuitive or not? Is it simple to use? Is it straightforward to use? Has been my experience of when people are most successfully not overbuilding. Wondering if you have any war stories on over-building? Do you have any situations where someone just totally tried to assimilate themselves into the board and go full RoboCop with GTD or what you’ve seen out there by way of over-building?

06:30 TB: Happy to share, but I think any of you out there who managed to use the phrase “anhedonic adaptation” in conversations over the next little while, please do email us and let us know. I think you get extra points for that. Yeah, absolutely. I go back to one of the very first coachings that I ever did way back when, and it was somebody who just loved the tools and boy, the tools, and all of the tools were incredibly full of things. And kind of rolling back, the logic that he had, to the extent that didn’t use logic, here, that he had used to sort of create a system, it was pretty clear that what he had done is he’d taken new tools that he thought were really cool and needed and so sometimes these were desktop-based things or web-based things or mobile-based things, and sometimes they synced, and sometimes they didn’t.

07:23 TB: And when he hadn’t really done and, and he believed in his heart that he could make this all work somehow, but his own experience, back to your point about user experience, his own experience of it was anything but friction-free. His own experience was it just took a long time to do everything, and because the system was so complex his, what we would call The reflect phase, so his interaction with the system and the way that he used it, and the way that he trusted it or not to remind him when it was helpful to be reminded about things. That had fallen apart really in a lot of ways. So going back to your point about… I’m not using your word, but quite often I find, especially if I’m working with somebody who’s brand new to GTD, and it’s not really clear what the right structure is of a GTD system, let’s say. I’ll start really simple, right? Let’s have a projects list, let’s have a waiting for list, let’s have an agendas list, so a list of things I need to discuss with people probably a someday, maybe list, and then a fifth list that we’ll just call actions, so five lists.

08:47 TB: And then for those of you who are experienced GTD-ers out there in the audience, you’ll probably recollect that we generally speaking, end up with your next actions being broken down by what we call context. So where the action happens? Is it a phone call? Is it something I do on my computer? Is it something I can do out and about when I’ve just got my phone with me? These kinds of things, but what I find quite often is helpful, is start at a really simple level of, “No, no, they’re all just next actions.” And then as I work with a person and as the system becomes… As the contents of the system become more full, as more things get added to the system, then it’s almost… It’s really interesting to watch, it’s almost as if very naturally, the contexts appear, because all of a sudden, “Okay, well, the list is getting quite big,” if you’re talking about a list of 25 or 30 things, it’s gonna be really hard to interact with that as productively, maybe as you’d like to. Let’s talk about within this list of 25 or 30 things, can you see any sub-divisions? And most people very quickly will go, “Well, you know what, all of those things are things that really just primarily relate to my personal life, I’d like to be reminded about those when I’m at home.” There you go, we’ve got a home list.

10:06 TB: So stripping it back, and again, for those of you who are out there and who are feeling like… My system’s overbuilt, too many apps, too many lists, too many whatever, you might wanna start over and just keep it really simple. Go back to the basics, and let your own and let the contents of your system inform its structure.

10:30 S1: That’s such a great point. Yeah, yeah, I would call it organic. That the system becomes organic and very practical, whereas what I see sometimes is people, well, people getting a bit conceptual and a bit abstract about it. You’re saying, for example, believing in your heart that there’s a complicated system, we’ll do it, it’s like… Yeah, it ought to work. It ought all to work the way this way, it ought to be this incredible, complex, fancy, fancy thing, but the practical reality, I think often can be very, very different. So I think that’s a really, really good point. I think we are, at least… Our style, our approach is pretty ruthlessly practical, I would say. When we go in with people and we coach them, we go, how are we gonna give you the relief you need rather than, “This ought to work, or this should work, or this seems like a great idea, or a concept.”

11:31 S1: And one of the things I come back to with all of that is concepts kinda need to be sort of propped up over time, or practical things that work, you just don’t as much… You have to support your system, so your system can support you, but it’s almost like you don’t want that to become a dysfunctional relationship where you’re supporting your system more than your system is supporting you because you’ve got this idea of how it ought to be, and you’re working hard to make that idea happen rather than getting back the practical benefit of implementing simple, simple things. So I love that you just go right back to next actions and are they clear? Are they simple? Are they self-evident? And what are the real practical categories for you of where you wanna see that list? Where you wanna see that happen? And I think sometimes people think that going back to basics is sort of elementary and therefore unsophisticated or something, but in some way, our brains are incredibly sophisticated, but in some ways, they’re really not at all.

12:34 S1: I think we gotta recognize that, that in the heat of a crazy crazy week follow back-to-back meetings, you don’t want 12 buttons to push and six dials to whittle and whatever, to try and spit out the perfect next action, you need simple, straightforward marching orders almost, and only you can set up those marching orders beforehand to make it really, really simple. I amazed sometimes how many managers who are really good at managing other people, really good at creating operational clarity for everyone around them, “Here’s where we’re going, and here’s what it looks like, and here’s what the success looks like.” Sometimes then over-complicate their own approach to the whole thing because they are so focused on strategy and the abstract kind of stuff. Yeah, I think that’s such a good point, that’s really bringing it back to basics, and it’s tricky sometimes too. Some of the people that I find their systems are most overbuilt are people who have been largely self-taught.

13:34 S1: And have definitely found some things that are working for them that are cool and custom, but also in that process, I think have potentially strayed from just the ruthless practicality of, “Is this still working? Is this still working?”

13:52 TB: Yeah… Sorry, go ahead.

13:53 S1: I was gonna, I’m just interested in your own journey too, about are there times when you’ve caught yourself with an overbuilt thing and what did you look for, how did you know if you ever rolled something back and went, “That seems like a good idea, but actually that was terrible. That made my relationship to my system worse.” I wonder if you have any of those.

14:17 TB: Yeah, sure. One thing that cursed me was… I’ve done so many systems over the years, and I think it’s been, in some ways a really enlightening journey, at the very beginning I kept everything in the electronic mind map, okay, this is going back a long way. And it was not very long and everything was in there, all the context and all the projects and all the projects on port material, and it’s all in there. And this was back in the days when it was pretty, pretty easy to overload a PC and I knew I was in trouble when I would load this mind map and smoke would rise from my desktop PC, but it was sort of in that direction. You could just hear the processor going, “Help me, help me.” So I moved on from that and I decided I was gonna go paper, and I did that for a while, just… Well, of course, with a digital calendar and with email of course, but it was just paper. And that was really interesting and in some ways very, very helpful. I ended up in a more or less straight forward Outlook for a while on the PC, and then over the years, I’ve tried some other things.

15:36 TB: I’m now on a Mac these days. So going through a phase where I moved from a Windows machine to a Mac, and so I’m using some of the Mac software. And flirted, I think, with Outlook for Mac Plus OneNote. And those of you who are familiar with the Microsoft toolset may have experience of OneNote or may have heard of OneNote, so OneNote very tightly integrated with Outlook, and that makes life really easy, as you’re moving stuff around. And in my head, what it was gonna make sense for, and the reason I was quite excited about it was, it’s a sort of a lightly structured way to hold on to loads of information, and I thought, “This is great, this is where I’m gonna keep my project support material, and this is where I’m gonna keep the higher volume things that are part of my system.” And in theory, that worked quite well for a little while, and then what I realized was that the friction between Outlook and OneNote, even though again, they’re both Microsoft tools and they’re very tightly integrated, even that friction was getting in the way of my productivity.

16:49 TB: So yeah, I think… As I’m thinking about my own journey, maybe one other thing to say is, you know, the end of the year is coming up, if you got a little bit of time, not a bad time to be thinking about, just start over, right? Just start over with a brand new tool, and see what that does for you. Please back up and print out everything you’ve got, so you don’t lose anything necessarily, but that can be very liberating in my experience. I don’t know. What do you reckon?

17:16 S1: That’s not a bad idea at all. Yeah, no, I think that’s great. And even with the same tool, if you started over-building to some extent, you might wanna go back to zero, and I found actually the print out approach to be an amazing way to do a, what I call “a system transition weekly review”, which is a big review that involves really scrutinizing those projects, those actions to see, look, as it really stated in a really GTD-friendly way, do I really need all those six-level deep nested folders for all my areas of focus and whatever else, or is there a more slick, straightforward way to do that. And I’ve certainly been guilty of over-building. I think at this point, I have a low frustration tolerance for the system not giving me back what I need quickly and easily, so I’ve really gotten to where that stuff gets rejected out of my world pretty quickly, but one recently was that I started subdividing my inbox a little bit kinda going, “This is work-based, and this is personal,” and then I just got into a bad habit of moving personal stuff into that personal area during work hours rather than realizing quite a few of.

18:36 S1: Those things were two-minute actions and actually just taking a quick two-minute response on that, could easily cut the amount that collects to work on the nights and evenings in half or less, so then I found myself dreading this bigger inbox as it were, of personal stuff, that actually, the number was large, but when I got down to it, I realized I could have progressed that forward several days ago with a quick two-minute reply. So that was an interesting thing, even 20 years out, I’m doing GTD, you can fall into these little traps, these little things where you go… “Oh that could be a little enhancement.” Sometimes they are, sometimes they are little enhancements.

19:17 S1: But it can be insidious as well as it can be a pretty large scale as well, this kind of over-building. So yeah, I think people probably really wanna know how will I know that things are overbuilt and how will I zone in, how I hone in on at least one next step or one area that I can look at to potentially simplify my system and therefore streamline my relationship to it. If you’re coaching me, for example, and you were scrutinizing my systems and going in there, what would be your strategy to try and figure out where I’m experiencing the pain of being over-built? What would you look for?

20:03 TB: Yeah, I think it’s a really helpful question, so the first thing I think I would do, two approaches come to mind, One is use the five-phase model. What we call the workflow model, to walk yourself through each of those phases and ask yourself the question in each one of these phases, does it feel to me like “This is as effective and efficient and friction-free as it could be?” So when it comes to capture how easily and quickly can I get ideas out of my head into some place where I know I will see it again, so that I can make a decision about it. So does that feel reasonably friction-free or does it feel like I’ve got eight different inboxes or even just two different inboxes, but because I’ve got two, I’m not… To your point, just a minute ago, I’m not engaging with them, helpfully. So that would be… That would be one face, then you’d get into clarifying. Do I have the right tool sets so that as I make decisions about these things based on the clarifying questions, that I’m in a position to do that effectively and efficiently.

21:12 TB: Can I… If think about the organizing phase, does my system have clean edges, do I have the right list, do I need to be… Going back to the point from earlier. Do I need to pair back a number of list, go back to basics. So you could use… And again, just to complete the model, if I go in to reflect what’s it like for me to use my system? Can I trust that my system will be reminding me about the right things at the right times? Can I see the right dials? If you think about the dashboard metaphor, can I see the right dials at the right moment so that if I’m getting ready for a board meeting, I have the right reminders in front of me about the things I need to be reminded about, if I’m getting ready for some time at home and I’m feeling like my DIY self is showing up, am I gonna be reminded about the right things at home? And then ultimately, am I in a position to make good decisions about all of that? So that would be one, was we use that core model as a way to atomize, a bit to break apart how you’re working and make sure that everything feels like it’s as friction-free as possible.

22:21 TB: And again, that’s the kind of work… The number of coachings that we as a company do these days with experienced GTD-ers, an awful lot of the work that we do is that, it’s just trying to figure that out for people because they’ve got systems and they don’t feel like they’re working to their… Working as effectively as they could. So that’s a big part of what we do. So that was thing one, thing two, I think would be just take a few things… Capture a few things and then very deliberately walk them through the whole process, so capture, clarify, organize, reflect, engage, and just make sure… Yeah, that again, that feels as friction-free as possible.

23:04 TB: It takes me back quite often when I’m doing coaching with an Executive and Executive’s Assistant team, a team of two. One of the things that we’ll do quite often is we’ll do… Well I call them case studies, but basically it’s just we’ve set up a system, for the assistant, we’ve set up a system for the executive, and now what we’re gonna do is, Okay, an email comes into the executive’s inbox, let’s walk this through what exactly is gonna happen, how is the decision gonna get made about what that means, how is the result of that decision process gonna make its way into some sort of an organizational bucket where it’s helpful that either the assistant or the executive sees it?

23:45 TB: So that kind of more… If you think about the five-phase model it’s a vertical approach, that’s a bit more of a horizontal approach, but I think, again, can help you to come up with some realization, maybe some inspiration for change.

24:02 S1: That’s great. Yeah, no, the five-phase model is absolutely… I think really solid and comprehensive way to go about all that, I think… That’s fantastic advice. The other thing I think of is just the three-fold nature of work as well, how easy is it for you to define your work, how easy is it for you to work from pre-defined work, and how easy is it for you to know what interruptions to accept as truly important and timely. Or deal with in terms of just capturing them for later, if they want truly important and timely. And how easy is it for you to get back to whatever it was you were working on once you’ve dealt with an appropriate interruption. So I think that’s also another place where you get at the same thing, it’s where it shows up, it’s called… It’s all about input and output, ultimately, it is that input and output from between you and your system. Is that slick or is that sluggish? Basically, because I think for a lot of people, we’re used to pushing systems up hills and we’re used to dealing with something cumbersome, but for your own personal productivity system man, you have a chance to create a system that’s actually as enjoyable as possible to use. Go for it, go for it.

25:21 S1: This is your system. I think a lot of people don’t realize, yes, GTD is a methodology, you learn from someone else, from David, the wonderful inventor of this thing. But the system, as you build it, you have a chance to make it work as close to the speed of thought as you can get it.

25:38 TB: You were talking earlier and this occurred to me, I think maybe the flexibility of GTD in some ways… The downside of that is it creates this problem, we’re not selling software, if we were selling software and we were selling the GTD app, then it would be Okay, here you go, there’s the App and we’ll help you to configure it and off you go, but because we say, No, there’s… We have the thought process and we have the methodology, and the various models, and we’re gonna help you to implement that because there is that freedom. Some people end up the wrong end of the spectrum with 82 different tools that do things that overlap and don’t work well together, etcetera, so that might be one of the downsides of the freedom that’s current baked into GTD as well.

26:31 S1: Yeah, no, I think that’s a good point. Well, we’re coming near to our typical time for how long we let these guys run and how long we let ourselves riff [chuckle] about all things GTD. Just parting thoughts on taking this away and making this practical for those listening so that you can see if… Or even see if you’re over-built in any big or small way and support yourself in streamlining the system.

27:06 TB: Now, I think for an awful lot of people in the current reality, with a lot more working from home, that’s being paralleled in a lot of organizations with an additional implementation, a lot of organizations are rolling out what we used to call group-ware. So things like Microsoft Teams and Slack, and their ilk. And so sometimes these are new tools that are foisted on you, but you can use exactly the same approach, ask yourself the question, what role is this going to play in my new system, is this something I’m gonna use for capture? Is it something I’m gonna use for organizing? If so, now that it’s a team thing, it’s something I’m doing with other people, do I need to have a conversation about how the information in that is organized so that we can all best interact with it? So yeah man I think being thoughtful and a bit ruthless about what the tools are and how you’re using them, especially in an environment where new tools are coming at us and we’re adapting to new ways of working in the new reality, I think would be helpful. What do you think?

28:17 S1: Absolutely, thanks for bringing that up. I think it’s such a great point, and we could easily do a riff on the intersection of group tools with personal tools for quite a long time, but yeah, I just think it’s so worth investing in spending a little time thinking about your tool at the meta level, one of the best ways to do any kind of meta-level thinking about GTD is in the weekly review, I think so not just… Not only just doing the steps to get the system up to-date, but using that as a framework or an opportunity to look at and review, how is the system doing? How am I doing with the system? Are their lists I avoid or their lists I gravitate toward, how easy is it to do a weekly review is often an indication of, is your system over-built or not, and if it is a short, sharp 60-minute review, you’re probably doing pretty well, or it’s under represented in that. [chuckle] it’s also a possibility. But if it’s a really laborious process, then it may be that your systems are overbuilt, so look out for that.

29:23 S1: Thank you Todd, great conversation as always. For those of you tuned in, as I said, we could do all kinds of other topics, we always love to hear from you if you have thoughts and suggestions, you just email info@next-action.co.uk. That’s a great way to reach us. And if you are tuning in, if you’re not already subscribed on all the pod webs and inter-casts and tubes that we’re on, Be sure to hit subscribe, and then basically we come to you. It will be a really easy way to get notified of subsequent podcasts and other videos that we and our colleagues are putting out. For now, from me from Todd, thanks for tuning in. Hope you go and streamline your relationship to your system as best you can and get a nice breath of fresh air from doing so. And we’ll see you next time.

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