Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Why GTD (Getting Things Done) Sucks

GTD is the most popular of naked Emperors to hit the personal productivity scene. I bought the book, like hundreds of thousands of others. Like my entranced brethren and sethren, I read it avidly and thought "at last". Then I collected, processed, next actioned, contexted, someday/maybed, and pretty much everythinged. But did I actually Get Things Done? Nope. Well actually, I get a lot done. I'm the CEO of a small but international consulting firm. I'm very very busy. But did GTD make a difference? Nope; not a whit.

At first, I couldn't figure out why. It's so simple, and logical (with just a whiff of Zen thrown in to make you think you're all calm and mind-like-water-ish). How come it didn't work? My first reaction was, I imagine, like that of most people: I'm not doing it properly. Then that became: I'm just not doing it. And then the more I asked about, the more I realized - very few people are doing it. It's not me; it's not us. It's the bloody thing itself. It sucks. And I think I've just figured out why.

It's all about thin slicing. Malcolm Gladwell discusses it in "Blink". Thin slicing is essentially the very rapid processes that go on in our heads, largely subconsciously, to help us process certain complex situations. One example is the ability of a famous tennis coach to predict, just prior to a tennis pro's serve, whether the serve would fault or not. But here's the point. Our ability to thin slice can be seriously undermined when we try consciously to analyze the problem at hand. The example he gives is where the Getty Museum engaged several experts over several months to check the provenance of a Greek kouros prior to buying it. The result of the analysis -- that the statue was genuine and worth several million dollars -- was rapidly overturned by several other experts who spotted that it was a forgery after only a brief glance, a "thin slice". And the thin slicers were right. The conclusion, expanded by Gladwell throughout the book, is that as we perform conscious analysis of a problem, our thin slicing deteriorates.

This is, I think, part of the problem with GTD. It kills any chance we have at being productive because it overloads us with silly analysis over what the next action is -- "Move hand forward; Pick up pencil; Move pencil over paper; Lower tip towards paper ...); or what "@Context" a given action belongs to. And so on. As a result, the real underlying source of effectiveness -- the productivity equivalent of thin slicing -- is overwhelmed.

Exactly what that underlying source of effectiveness is, will be the subject of a future post (when I get around to it, someday, maybe). But for now, remember. GTD - just say no.


  1. @Geoffrey,
    Entirely possible. But I've yet to find someone (maybe you!?) who can, hand on heart, say that GTD is something that helps them. Instead, most I've spoken to admit to the same results as me -- no real difference in productivity, but a dramatic increase in the amount of mental energy expended on trying to make GTD itself work.
    But I will admit one thing. Like classics of weight loss, like The Atkins Diet, GTD is superb at inducing its followers to blame themselves for their failure to succeed with the system. As a result, people keep buying the things and the authors keep making money. I wish I'd thought of it! :-)

    1. The Atkins Diet is scientifically validated and makes total sense. It isn't the same thing as GTD as all.

  2. Piaras MacDonnellJune 4, 2009 at 4:38 AM

    I am a GTD practitioner an appreciate your view point. I found initially I got stuck in the details and with revisiting my system regularly but I found that once I batched the different phases I could focus on the big projects and get real momentum.
    I Collect and Organise once a day, let the in-box fill up (virtual and physical) after that. Review tasks once a day (afternoon) and projects twice a week.
    The rest of the time is Do.
    Good post either way

  3. The fact that many people have problems with GTD implementation gives GTDers competitive advantage. :-)

  4. Like classics of weight loss, like The Atkins Diet, GTD is superb at inducing its followers to blame themselves for their failure to succeed with the system