How Not to Get Things Done

Last month I started an advanced business training program through my employer. It's a 13 week program that includes several modules on various topics. One of the topics we covered is on Attention Management. This was a really interesting topic and required reading a couple of articles on the subject and David Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD).

One of our assignments for this module was to describe how we would use GTD. As I began to describe my system, I could not help but think about why it didn't work for me in the past. I was actually familiar with GTD and used it in the past, but eventually stopped because it was a lot to keep up with and I was not really getting much benefit from it. And, here's why.

I initially found out about GTD through Stephen Covey's 7 Habits book. In hindsight there were several things that made my previous GTD system cumbersome and difficult to use:

  1. I looked up articles and read about how other people were using GTD. I never read the book so my knowledge was limited to how people implemented the system and I didn't have fundamental understanding of "why".

  2. I incorporated Stephen Covey's concept of the roles you play in your life and planning your activities around these roles. I used Evernote and created a notebook for each role. As you can imagine, I had several notebooks and eventually weekly planning turned-into a 2-3 hour event. Even though I was being proactive, I did not feel it was an effective use of my time because it was so painful.

  3. I never created a habit of daily and weekly planning. Daily planning is often difficult because I either forget, or my mornings are often very fluid which made set planning time very difficult. This was really problematic because I was not consistently checking my calendar and missing things. And as I mentioned above, weekly planning became an arduous event.

  4. I used the Covey's concept of Focus items inefficiently. With all the roles I was playing, this bucket would fill quickly, and it was almost impossible to focus on all the actions there in one day, so I would revert to a separate hand-written list to work through the noise; essentially defeating the purpose of the Focus bucket.

  5. I did not have an effective decision making system. As I added things to my system, I would apply them to the role which they were applicable. This was not effective because it required too much thought. I had to decide what bucket to put it in, if I needed to tag it so I can find it later and what tag to use. The decision process was inconvenient and sometimes painful.

  6. I did not have an effective Reference system. Because I was relying on roles and tags to organize my things, my notes were all over the place. The lack of having an effective reference system also made the decision process harder.

  7. I did not have an effective Project system. Many of my projects were organized by role. Going through each one to plan and organize effectively became difficult over time especially when I had to prioritize which role to focus on. Eventually this system broke down because I would often neglect the buckets that were not in the whirlwind.

  8. Not getting Inbox to zero. As my systems decision, reference and project planning systems broke down, my Inbox grew out of control. I would sweep through every now and then, but it would quickly fill up and they cycle would resume.

Eventually I had a complete breakdown of the system and I abandoned it, opting instead to just periodically check my calendar (when I remembered to) and maintain a hand-written list and reminders on my phone.

Now that I have a fundamental understanding of GTD, I have decided to give it another shot. David Allen presents the idea of keeping your mind clear so you can focus your attention on what is important. This resonated with me and motivated me to make this work. I will describe my system the changes I've made to make this work on my next post.