Drifting away from GTD
I owe a lot to GTD. Six or seven years ago, I was an ineffective and disorganized worker. I forgot things all the time, missed deadlines regularly, and struggled to keep up with the demands of my job.
Reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done and doing my best to implement it turned my life around.
For several years after that, I did my best to keep up an ever-evolving GTD system. Organizing and “hacking” my life became a fun and rewarding hobby.
But I’ve gradually fallen off the GTD bandwagon, and in the process I’ve discovered what I consider to be the ultimate “life hacks”: habits and routine.
I’m not going to hate on GTD. I love the discipline and rigor Allen’s system imposes, and it’s ideal for people in a similar situation to where I was a few years ago. It’s like bootcamp, and it instills some basic principles like capturing things in a trusted system instead of trying to keep them in your head.
But over time, I’ve found that GTD is best for people who want or need to keep all their plates spinning, to balance myriad activities and maintain their sanity in the process.
Thing is, I don’t want to keep lots of plates spinning. I want fewer plates.
GTD does give you the tools to simplify your life if that’s what you want. A core tenant of the system is just being honest with yourself about all of the commitments you’ve taken on. When you see the mountain of work you’ve created for yourself, it’s the first step toward learning to say no. And GTD imposes a certain amount of overhead that makes you less likely to take on yet another project that you have to track and generate next actions for.
I always came away from my GTD weekly review feeling energized and ready to tackle my next action lists.
So I didn’t rage quit GTD. Instead, I’ve found that I’ve gotten less and less benefit from the core practices over the past couple of years, and since I no longer need them to maintain my sanity, I’ve stopped devoting the energy required to keep them up.
Instead of next actions, I’ve learned to think in terms of habits.
I still set goals for myself, but instead of breaking my goals into projects and next actions, I think about them in terms of habits I can build.
The trouble with the project and next action mindset is that it requires constant mental effort and internal motivation. You have to keep driving yourself: What’s next?
But when you really establish a habit, it just becomes the thing you do just because. It allows you to sit back a bit and let autopilot take over.
My major goal over the next several years is to establish myself as a self-published nonfiction author. I have some specific goals around how much I want to produce and how much I want to earn as a result.
If I were tackling this goal from a GTD mindset, I’d be looking to tackle a project, like my next book. I’d be reviewing my progress on that project weekly and deciding on next actions for research, writing and marketing. I might get it done, but then what? Carve off another project, rinse, lather, repeat.
Instead, I’m looking to establish habits that will allow me to cruise toward my long term goal of becoming a prolific author. I’m developing the habit of writing every day for an hour or two. I’m focusing on developing habits around my writing processes that will make me an effective and productive writer, such as creating thorough outlines before I begin writing and powering through a full first draft without editing.
If I was focused only on cranking through my next actions to finish a project, I wouldn’t be investing the time to work on these habits. Slowing down to focus on process only makes sense in the broader context of establishing long-term habits. It’s not the most efficient way to work in the short term, but I’m not thinking just about my current project. I’m thinking about the next 10 after that.
You can definitely get all meta about this and treat “establish XYZ habit” as a GTD project. Which is why I’m not knocking GTD. The system has a lot of merit and flexibility.
But I’m more interested in simplifying and routinizing my life than in managing a lot of complexity. And GTD makes me more likely to add complexity instead of focusing on reducing it.