The Limits of GTD 1

For several years, I have used David Allen’s Getting Things Done.  Yet, it never ran quite as smooth as I would have liked.  Recently, a friend explained why she struggled with GTD.  Parts of the conversation really struck a cord with me.  With her permission, I share her story below.

Kate York:

For many years I tried to make David Allen’s GTD system work for me. Despite a lot of dedication and effort, it failed. I finally gave up a year or so ago and did what worked for different projects/phases of my life, rather than a single integrated approach. In the meantime, I keep thinking. WHY did it fail? What did that system fail to give me. My fundamental answer is, the Big Picture on the runway. One of David Allen’s points is, you want to separate the doing from the planning. He walks you through wonderful exercises in Big Picture thinking at higher levels, but when it comes to day-to-day, he sees it as “just do it.” Call mechanic. Write a letter. Buy flowers.

I find that naturally, in all types of projects, I am constantly running up and down the hierarchy of concerns. If I am writing software, mid-key-stroke, I may be thinking about how a consumer would experience it, and while waiting for a test to load, whether what I am doing is on track with the department’s revenue goals,. I will then stop, set aside what I was doing, redraw the picture, and realize that what I want to accomplish can be done better, faster, and completely differently. I always refactor: code, decisions, approaches, thinking.

GTD is not exactly a top-down system. But it goes to great lengths to separate layers of concerns. Emotionally, it creates an unnatural state for me. Does my thinking seem haphazard? It really is. People who watch me work amaze at two things: 1) How fast I am and 2) How my all-over-the-map methodology can possibly lead to sensible, let alone amazing results that I often seem to get to.

What’s my current solution? Mind mapping. It’s not perfect. But for me, starting a day with a task list makes me want to go back to bed. Starting by looking all the way from the core through the layers, redrawing my thinking, and looking over the tasks I have, then repeating at will, feels good.

I hate it when things do not work out to be one-size-fits-all. But when it comes to my mode of thinking, I am pretty sure, the world would be a much more chaotic place if my way fit others. So – I try to understand how my mind works, and follow…


About John Drake

John Drake is an associate professor at East Carolina University. While pursing his PhD in management information technology and innovation, John learned the art of high productivity through setting difficult goals to achieve unending success. John is a student of Objectivism, an advocate of Getting Things Done, a parent of three, a husband, a writer, a business owner, a web master, and an all around cool guy. His professional site is at

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One thought on “The Limits of GTD

  • Gary C. Bayer, Ph.D.

    As a psychologist who found GTD wonderful in many ways I believe Ms. York is on to something. The brain parallel processes and does not work in a linear fashion, especially regarding complex, ill-defined tasks. It is one thing to call a restaurant to make a reservation, it is quite another to write poetry, compose a symphony, or do elegant computer code. This requires creativity, part is consciously plan–part is unconscious. The first draft is rarely the best. But one has to do the first draft, before one can get to deeper understanding of the issue and come up with something better. Much of the processing occurs while we are asleep, where memories are consolidated and daily issues are reworked. Complex issues are solved in chunks and then tied together. Life is a series of successive approximations, get used to it. She is wise to incorporate GTD, which provides great structure, but also to learn to follow her brain.