The Difference Between Getting Things Done and GTD

Have you noticed that productivity tools, such as David Allen’s Getting Things Done, seem to work at first but then become less effective the more you use them? Are the productivity tools the problem or is it the way we use the tools? I think it’s more than that. Let’s see how we can change this.

Have you noticed that productivity tools, such as David Allen’s Getting Things Done, seem to work at first but then become less effective the more you use them? Are the productivity tools the problem or is it the way we use the tools? I think it’s more than that. Let’s see how we can change this.

What Does It Mean To Get Things Done?

The first question is why do we need productivity tools?
After all, we’re all reasonably smart, know how to do our jobs, and know what works for us, probably better than other people do, right?
However, when I look at why I use productivity tools, it comes down to a few things:

  • Bestsellers – I generally buy books on productivity that are on the best sellers list. Why? I guess I don’t want to get left behind and if it’s on the NY bestsellers list, it must be doing something right. Or is this simply herd mentality at its worst?
  • Others Recommend It – Endorsements are powerful tools in any marketing effort. When others started talking about GTD, I paid attention. If I didn’t, I felt I could be missing out. Maybe you feel the same.
  • Authority – When someone becomes an authority in a field, it’s hard to dismiss their efforts regardless of how flaky it might seem at first – you feel compelled to pay attention. So, even though I don’t agree with Dave Allen (sometimes) I keep reading his productivity blog.
  • Didn’t Look At Other Tools – I left this to last as it’s slightly embarrassing. But, the reason I looked at GTN was because I was too lazy to examine other systems! And this habit, if I’m honest, determines why I choose (or ignore) most other tools, systems, and ideas. Sound familiar?

What It Means To Get Things Done

I asked one of my friends what it meant to her to Get Things Done.
Her take was that it helped her to organize things, especially by capturing information on lists. And, I would agree. The cornerstone of Getting Things Done is list building.
Write it down before it’s gone.
GTD focuses on list building. If you want to control your time, write it down, and then prioritize, and track to completion. This makes sense, at first. But it has it’s weaknesses.
Let’s look at the problem with lists.

  • Lists v Tasks – List aren’t tasks. Let’s say you want to improve your career. You decide to do an MBA. This means you need to complete a course, which has different modules, all of which you need to organize, right? Lists will help you identify what you need to do but you must first identify the tasks.
  • Tasks v Goals – Before you identify these tasks, you need to look at your goals, such as why are you doing the MBA. If you’re not clear on this, then you may drop the course or not apply yourself to the modules.
  • Goals v Strategy – While goals are important, you need to look at decisions from a strategic perspective. How will this decision impact the performance of my business, change the way we build products or alter how we position ourselves in the market?

The point is that you need to work through different levels first – strategy, goals, tasks etc – before you start executing these plans, which is where GTN comes in.

Why Getting Things Done Loses Impact

This leads to the question of why Getting Things Done (GTD) stops working.
I’ve asked some good friends this question and it comes down to the following.

  • Emotional Drivers – What motivated you to control your time, schedule, life, or business changes. Maybe this is down to fatigue or, if we’re honest, the novelty factor wears off. You’ve tried GTD but now it’s time for something else.
  • Priorities Change – What seemed important when you started is no longer so critical. Paradoxically this may be because GTN is working and helping you get on top of things.
  • Shiny New Objects – We’re all guilty of this. Take a look at diets and you’ll see this all the time. Or Bebo then MySpace then Facebook… we all get hooked on the next shiny object, which for me is often just laziness in disguise.
  • Familiarity – You lose sight of why you bought Getting Things Done in the first place, so your commitment begins to wane. It’s relegated to nice to have, but not essential.
  • Satisfied With Partial Results – While Dave Allen didn’t make you taller, thinner, or better looking… that wasn’t the goal, was it? The system works but not as effectively as you expected. But, what did you expect?

Could the problem be you and not the system?

Alternatives to Getting Things Done

So, how can you put aside other systems and create something of real value for ourselves?

  • Examine Alternatives – At one point the world’s greatest thinkers thought the world was flat.
    In 100 years from now, others will look back at us and wonder how we didn’t see what has become so obvious to them. It’s easy to get caught up in the momentum and join the team making the most noise.
    And it’s also easy to bite your tongue even though you know there’s a better way of doing something. The risk is public ridicule and no-one wants that. But the price you pay is pretty expensive when you think of the consequences.
  • Break it down – You can’t build a house in one go. Instead, break it down into smaller tasks, and the micro tasks until you have each task identified to an atomic level.
    Once you have all the parts in front of you, begin to execute safe in the knowledge that you have all bases covered.
  • Identify Synchronicity – EM Forster, the author of ‘A Room With a View’, suggested that all we need to do is ‘just connect’.
    Monitor those moments in your day where things come together without any great effort. Notice what happened BEFORE you had that ‘aha!’ moment where the most difficult things are suddenly resolved.
  • Think for Yourself – I’ve keep the best until last. Instead of reading another book on productivity, web marketing, or business planning, step back and examine your own thoughts.
    I’m certain that if you apply yourself to the matter at hand, you’ll come up with ways just as creative, if not more so, than what you’ll find on the best sellers list.

At what point do you have enough information to start?
The purpose of this article isn’t to dismiss or ridicule the Getting Things Done methodology but to examine why we choose to follow other systems rather than think for ourselves.
I’m convinced that if you sat down and thought it through by yourself, you’d come up with a system just as effective as Mr Allen’s. And I have a feeling you agree with me.
So, what stopping you? Now, that’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?

3 thoughts on “The Difference Between Getting Things Done and GTD”

  1. Ivan, aloha. So true. For me it all boils down to desire, discipline and accountability. As we know, many things that need to be done are easy to do and easy not to do. Having the desire for something, the discipline to make myself do what needs to be done and being accountable be it to myself or to members of my mastermind team, makes a huge, huge difference in achieving the results I want. Aloha. Janet

    1. Aloha, Janet,
      I’d second those points. Someone told me that the ‘second’ step is always the hardest, not the first and that stuck over the years.
      What she meant was that you need to build up willpower, bit by bit like a muscle, so you can stick the course when things don’t go according to plan.
      And accountability, like you said, is huge. Once you take responsibility, you own it. That changes everything in a positive way,
      PS – saw a program on Hawaii last night, David Attenborough documentary, and it looked pretty incredible 🙂

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