For sufficiently generous interpretations of "Daily"

What’s so great about getting things done?

Posted: June 12th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Principles, Productivity | 3 Comments »

Each of these contains months- or years-old tasks that now exist solely to mock me

One of the fundamental principles of marketing is to sell relief from pain. So it’s no surprise that Getting Things Done has become a perennial phenomenon.

It offers the promise of freedom from the feeling of being buried beneath a task list that grows faster than you can cut it down.

It’s a nearly ubiquitous pain point. We have more things to do than we can keep track of, let ourselves get overwhelmed, and give up before accomplishing our goals.

And for its adherents, GTD seems to deliver. They are finally able to climb up out of their to-do-list deficits, feel less overwhelmed, and regain a sense of control over their work.

As for me, I could never finish the book. Maybe it’s the corporate-speak delivery, or more likely my own life situation, but I just can’t seem to get into it. I have studied it through vicarious means, via podcasts, cheat sheets, tutorials, etc.

Organizational systems are overrated. There, I said it.

Every organizational tool, system, or book I have tried has either failed me or I have failed it. The tools on paper, computer, and smartphone I’ve used comprise an elephant graveyard of dashed hopes.

My track record over the past 15 years proves this out, from Franklin Planners, to notepads, to desktop software, to writing my own pomodoro-based todo web app, to GTD, only to expose my own lack of discipline by giving up and going back to my old ways.

I ran through the OmniFocus tutorials and implemented the whole system: setting up contexts, projects, assigning next actions, toggling context based on my location, and it all seemed great, but it just didn’t click for me. I just couldn’t get emotionally invested in the reward cycle for accomplishing stuff past a month or two in GTD or any other system.

And yet, my life is not an aimless train wreck of unaccomplished goals. So what gives?

I’m a bit concerned about the “things” part of GTD.

I’ve now spent the last several months doing nothing but getting things done. Tasks checked, issues closed, code written, yaks shaved, and I’m pretty proud of what I accomplished in that time.

But for all the stimulation I got from this time of hyper-productivity, I’ve also created a tremendous emotional debt by ignoring friends and family, and have been blind to other opportunities in my life. I’ve managed to become so dependent on the mental “cookie” I’m awarded for productivity that I’ve forgotten to be present for the rest of my life.

It’s ironic that many of the most important activities in our life don’t seem to fit in our todo list backlogs. Things like truly listening to a friend, helping out with the dishes, or taking time to build a lego fortress with your kiddo don’t stack up against “call Janet to get forecast numbers for Q3″

Short-term vs. long-term optimization

Life is about a lot more than the buzz we get from short-term accomplishment, yet we tend to torture ourselves over leaving near-term tasks unchecked. Or, we pat ourselves on the back for all the things we accomplish within a given workday, not realizing the decades-long effects of what we’re ignoring in favor of these near-term goals.

Clay Christensen explains better than I could about this optimization for “near term” versus the “long term” (check out the video at the end of this post).

Achievement = purpose + effort

I believe people are capable of profound productivity when driven by a sense of purpose and desire. For me, when I’m in “purpose mode”, things are crystal clear, and I’ll plow through uncertainty and obstacles to accomplish something. But often in my work, I shuffle around and pick at things without feeling like I am making progress.

To me, GTD is too often about trying to reduce the amount of perceived effort to accomplish things we don’t necessarily care about. I can take these things I’m shuffling around, apply GTD, and suddenly have a plan of action to accomplish this thing I don’t feel like doing.

But long-term, meaningful achievement means directing your effort to things that are truly connected to your own sense of purpose.

For me, the solution has been to figure out how to go back to the root and care about what I’m doing. Sometimes that means crumpling up the work I’ve done on things I don’t care about to start from scratch on something I do.

Overcoming overwhelm (without neat little boxes)

But what about that sense of being overwhelmed that GTD solves? In my experience, GTD’s main benefit is that it helps you make a perspective shift: moving your view of things to be done from a vertical wall (now) to a horizontal path (over time).

It’s not easy, and it’ll have to remain a subject for a future article. But suffice it to say, I don’t believe it requires the implementation of a “life management system” to achieve this perspective shift.

How about “Getting Thing Done”?

Maybe instead of beating ourselves over the head daily with all the things we *must* do, we should pick up one, exactly one, thing we would like to have done or have made meaningful progress toward by the end of the day.

I have tried this pattern in my life, each time to a surprising amount of success. A lot of the meta-stuff will take care of itself (checking email, responding to calls, getting my oil changed, etc.), but allowing myself to focus on only one significant accomplishment a day actually causes me to get more done in the course of weeks/months than when I’m trying to check off properly-broken-out tasks all day.

Some friends of mine (I found out, coincidentally, after writing several drafts of this article) are creating a new iPhone app, tentatively called One Thing. It won’t be ready for a little while, but it certainly sounds like a better fit for me than tools that promise to become a wellspring of focus, until they become a stagnant pool of tasks begging for my attention.

I can’t quit you, ubiquitous capture

One component of GTD will stick with me for the rest of my life: I love ubiquitously capturing thoughts, desires, goals, and fragments of information in tools like Evernote. It’s just the “getting things done” component of GTD that didn’t work for me.

Not that writing todo lists is useless! I do think that writing down all the important stuff you need to get done is a good exercise. Then, a few years later, go back and look at it, and have a good laugh at all the things that seemed so blasted important at that moment in time.

Lastly, please watch this video of Clay Christensen speak about living a life of purpose by moving our focus beyond the near term.


  • Michael Ries

    I have been feeling a simliar sense of productivity buzz != personal fulfillment.

    My solution has been to set aside a certain amount of my day for productivity time and a a separate time block for non-productive activities (ie things not on a to-do list). My personal happiness seems to be highest when I have a good balance of measurable productivity and doing the important stuff.

  • RML

    Great post but I think you missed something important that didn’t sink in with GTD that addresses your statement “But long-term, meaningful achievement means directing your effort to
    things that are truly connected to your own sense of purpose.” One of the major and most important parts of the GTD is the HORIZONS OF FOCUS .. deciding whats important to you in life and then all the to do lists and actions should be towards realizing those principals, goals etc. So this is actually the bigger more important message of the book.. that all the actions you’re doing mean nothing unless they fit with what you really want out of life aka your bigger picture. The newer book Making It All Work explains this concept of HORIZONS OF FOCUS better but it was still in the first GTD book.

  • http://about.me/annakaliska Kala

    I also had problem with organization systems, the same as for you, I was disappointed about the system of I faild while implementing it. But then my friend recommended me GTD and I started with Evernote. It was quite hard to achieve effects I expected but I found SmartTM app and now it works great for me.