GTD Retrospective: What’s Going Wrong, What Might Work

GTD Retrospective: What’s Going Wrong, What Might Work

It’s time to see at how Getting Things Done is working for me!

I can confidently report that my first attempt at GTD has shuddered to a halt, kicked its left hind leg once, and crumpled to the ground with a heavy sigh. It’s not completely dead: it’s just tired, and maybe a little bewildered. Some things have worked, actually; I can say I have been a tad more productive.

Among my small-but-significant advances are:

  • Applying The Two Minute Rule. It rocks! I can actually apply the two-minute rule to more than just work. It’s an easy-to-remember principle that is my favorite take-away from GTD. I also apply it in reverse, looking for actions that can take about 2 minutes worth of effort.

  • Implementing a General Filing System. This rocks! I am at least 50% more organized in terms of having a specific place to put things, thanks to the alphabetical filing system. It is immensely reassuring to know that the random documents on my desk (currently, one from Psychology Today about Flirting, and another on using SOAP with PHP) will go into their new home folders (respectively “Dating” and “Web Development: PHP”). I also created an area on my computer called General Reference, and am applying the same organizing principles. I had previously had “categories” of folders, but it frankly was quite cumbersome and only worked well for my numbered project folders.

  • The Weekly Review. Although GTD isn’t working for me quite in the way I imagined, the system I had set up to track projects (which in GTD are just lists of tasks) has been useful for maintaining “what’s next” state. Before, I just used a ToDo.TXT file on my computer and kept notes in it, but setting up the multiple text files under one TextPad “workspace” has made it easier to keep track of multiple projects and jobs.

These advances aside, I can’t say that I’ve become super productive. On the other hand, I’m realizing that I never had a clear vision of what that meant. I’m not even sure what it is supposed to feel like. Is that where I went astray?

On Being Not Super Productive

I’m always trying to be more productive, mostly because I never feel that productive. The major factors that prevent this, as far as I can figure out, are the following:
  • Disorganization: In other words, not knowing where my stuff is so I can find it easily, and constantly having to re-synthesize what it is I should be doing next. Some disorganization is inevitable; new projects come and go, interests wax and wane, and entropy is the natural byproduct. GTD counters this by providing a system for creating and maintaining situational clarity, and even before implementing that I wasn’t doing that badly. Before GTD, I had a pretty effective project filing system, and the move to Basecamp for project management with clients helped a great deal. So disorganization isn’t as much of a factor as it had been, say, 3 years ago.

  • Lack of Focus: I’m not being great at maintaining continuity of thought and action on a single task at a time, especially for the past week. After monitoring myself for a few days, I’ve come to realize that a greater pattern behind my distraction is the desire to hang out more; I’ve been pretty isolated, socially speaking, for the past few months, and I’m realizing it’s starting to weigh on me. The July 4th holiday was great because my sis and her entourage came to visit. The weekend prior, buddy Brad was here for a short creative retreat. In the aftermath these pleasant events, I found myself constantly looking online for interesting news of people doing interesting things, waiting for emails, etc. So I think I am craving more social interaction; that’s the theory, anyway. Does it really have an effect on focus? I think it might.

  • Inertia: The lack of focus is also related to a lack of motivation. Discipline pushes me through the work I need to get done (gotta eat, right?), but this has not carried over to my own projects. The projects on my mind aren’t “for fun” projects either: they’re projects that could bring in more business opportunities or actual revenue, so I’m stealing from future self.

GTD doesn’t help with these latter two points directly, but I recognize that following the system DOES end up making me more productive because the basic tenet is not to think so damn much about what you’re doing; just focus on the next easiest and immediate thing and do it. When I have “followed the steps” of a system—really, any system at all, not just GTD—I have felt better. However, it’s getting over the doldrums of distraction and inertia that’s the real problem. I don’t think GTD quite addresses that; the allure of the system, and perhaps its very geekiness, is a strong draw, but it wasn’t enough to really hook me on the first go.

Making Corrections

My current lack of focus, if it is induced by a lack of social activity, is also predicated on a lack of things to look forward to, which has negative ramifications for my energy level. My inertia is also a form of procrastination, rooted in the knowledge that many of these personal projects will take many days to complete. In both cases, I don’t really have a clear picture of anything that is immediately rewarding. And we know from Dan Gilbert that our brains just aren’t that motivated when gratification is not immediate. But I’m still stuck even with this realization. I am having a real tough time coming up with something to look forward to. For one thing, I’m saving money, so buying things is sort of out of the question. I suppose I could go down to Boston, if I knew anyone there. Since I’m fairly introverted, I tend not to relish the idea of going to a random bar and meeting people…the thought kind of freaks me out, actually. Plus gas is over three bucks a gallon; a trip to Boston will run me about $20 bucks in transportation costs alone, factoring in parking and public transit after getting there, not to mention refreshments and so forth. I suppose there’s online dating (hence, the article on flirting I was reading), but that carries its own set of stresses with it. Actually, that might be the key…dating is supposed to be fun, not some horrible experience to fret about. You meet someone, ask a few questions and try to laugh a bit, and if it doesn’t work out you move on because you’ve both found out what you needed to know. That shouldn’t be stressful, unless you’re fixated (as I tend to be) on “not screwing up” and “reaching goals”. These are two things I tend to be a little anxious about, though I really should know better. Intellectually, I know that screwing up is, in most cases, not life-threatening. Therefore, it is a learning experience, and the more opportunities you get to screw up, the more learned you will be. With dating it’s a little different because there’s that element of personal acceptance/rejection, and therefore has a heavy emotional toll unless you’ve decided to just roll with it and keep moving. That’s an attitude worth carrying through your entire life; I sometimes forget this, but it’s good to remember. There is no reason not to be confident about screwing up…what’s the worst thing that can happen, really, compared to what one could gain? Intellectually, I also know that “reaching goals” is something that doesn’t just magically happen; reaching a goal is just the culmination of a series of steps. The GTD “what’s the next action” mantra is a handy reminder of that; if you focus on taking steps, you will have moved forward. Tools like the Emergent Task Timer and Concrete Goals Tracker help make those tiny steps visible, but you still need the motivation to even start. I’m perfectly OK with screwing up most of the time, so I’m not worried about that anymore. My real challenge is the inertia, and getting over that motivational hump. Even with the CGT to give me guidance and GTD providing the operating system, it’s tough for me to get started on those longer-term, deferred-gratification projects. They just will take so long… Here’s a glimmer of hope: the Emergent Task Timer and related tools are organized around the concept of spending 15 minutes of time on a task; that is often enough to get moving, which leads to productivity. However, you’ve still got to commit to that 15 minutes, knowing it’s just one of a long string of bubbles that will go on and on. Talk about demotivating. Perhaps if I broke that long string of bubbles into an arbitrary number of them…hm, that just might work.

A Dim Sum Approach to Task Productivity

I was using the online version of the ETT today to get myself focused, and my list today was actually quite long: several clients to contact, a few proposals to write, some papers to review, and technologies to research. I am also way behind on my blog posting, with several related website improvements pending as well. I listed everything first in my Menu of the Day, knowing full well I would never get to all those things. I could maybe get 2 or 3 of them done. I wish I could do more, but it just didn’t seem possible with the way I work. Or was it? I had the following train of thought:
  1. I know that I can’t get everything done today.
  2. I know that it will take me a long time to get some of those projects done. My website redesign project, for example, is many hours of agonizing creative design.
  3. However, I also know that, thanks to the power of GTD “what’s the next action”, that I can get something done right away. It won’t get me to the finish line in one jump, but it’s one jump closer and it feels good.
  4. Why not do all of the projects, but limit time to each one to an hour? I could work on each project, using the “next action” and “doable in 2 minutes” criteria, and see what happens; that might be just as satisfying as getting one big thing done.
The key to this insight? Dim Sum. When I go to a Dim Sum restaurant, I like to order lots of tiny dishes, not filling up on any single one of them (though there have been some notable exceptions, like that white fried turnip cake…yum). I love the variety of dishes. So why don’t I apply that same love of variety to my daily routine?

But isn’t that Multitasking?

In the past, my belief has been that multitasking wasn’t great for productivity; this is supported somewhat by some observations that Joel Spolsky and Kathy Sierra have made in the past. Joel’s stance in 2001 is that you’ll get to results quicker on average if you do one thing after the other, while Kathy’s takeaway is that doing things mindfully is what leads to getting more things done. I must admit that I was thinking that this meant that I should shoot for fewer context switches during the day, which I implemented as trying to work on fewer projects at a time, reducing the number of clients, and working in larger blocks of time. I happen to know that my biggest block of continuous work time is about 4 hours; that means I can get in maybe 2 units a day, realistically, of “quality production work”. I also believed that switching tasks for me was very expensive in terms of ramping-up and changing my mental state to match the new task. Well, maybe this isn’t the case. Firstly, I should be able to work on more than one project during the day now because I’ve got something that I didn’t have before: GTD-inspired organization systems! I have the 2 minute rule, what’s the next action, reliable general reference and all the important lists in a single place to give me the situational awareness I need to relax. As a result, context switches between tasks cost a lot less, because all the context is now stored in these out-of-the-head systems and very easy to look up. And this is one way being mindful, which is a key to productivity. Maybe even more so than “focus” and “discipline”, which are not very fun words. Secondly, though Joel suggests that working on more than one task at a time will take longer, in my case they won’t get done at all unless I do spend a little time on them every day. This is perhaps an artifact of being a freelancer, but I think it would apply to any small company that has an internal project that they’d like to do, but keeps getting put off. You know what I’m talking about. Besides, the kind of multitasking I’m talking about is not switching back-and-forth between tasks; I’m talking about switching to different tasks one after the other, not repeating any of them during a single day. I think that’s a significant difference: you don’t have to “flush and restore” what you were doing before, which is tedious and leads to mental thrashing even with the GTD tools in place. Instead, when it’s time to switch, you flush and forget what you were doing, and load up something new. This is variety, not multitasking.


This is what I did on Tuesday, and I have to say…I felt pretty productive even though I didn’t finish a single project. Instead, I made measurable progress across several tasks. It’s possible that the novelty of the idea (and association with yummy food) is what made this approach palatable, but I thought it was worth writing about in case some of you out there found it useful. I’d summarize the idea as follows:
  1. GTD Ideas, even without full-blown GTD compliance, are useful tricks in their own right.

  2. GTD processes reduce the cost of your context switches, opening up a world of more efficient task execution with less stress.

  3. With those GTD processes, the cost of switching from task to task is drastically lowered, making multiple tasks much more feasible during the day. You can pick a variety of tasks you’ll enjoy, and assign a fixed block of time to them. Because you have the “what’s the next action” and “two-minute” principles in mind, you should be able to easily pick a few things to do that are self-contained and productive for even a 30-minute block of time.

  4. Just do one task at a time and don’t repeat it during the day. That will keep you from switching in old context (which is boring) and your mind will be fresher to face a NEW task.


p>So that’s the theory. I’ll be trying it all this week. I think this may be one of the cornerstones of my fantasty productivity-inducing task tracking system!


  1. Pavel 18 years ago

    Start travelling, meet people in other places. Check, there you can find IT-geek and introvert hosts as well. It is not random meeting, you visit only the people you’d like to meet. Otherwise you can start hosting other people.


  2. Gavin 18 years ago

    whoa… another long post :)

    But going through it was worth it. You lost me at Making Corrections but picked me up again at A Dim Sum Approach to Task Productivity.

    In summary: Great Post!

    I like the concept of “variety”? I’m thinking sometimes you need to just get into The Zone for big blocks of time and that can be very productive. But sometimes you just can’t get into that (“ugh.. THIS project for 6 hours!”) so maybe “variety” is the key to getting excited about the work that needs doing. And I like how you managed to progress on multiple tasks, not completing anything, but feeling accomplished. Sweet. It’s about knowing yourself (myself; talking about me here): what mood am I in today? Can I get in the zone with just one project or am I bored and need some Dim Sum ? :)


  3. Earl Moore 18 years ago

    I’ve in the early stages of setting up my own GTD process and it’s always interesting to read the experiences of those that have gone or are going before me.  One thing I’ve gathered is from other peoples experiences is that there are times when you just have to have discipline to do task that are less then entertaining. You do them because they need to be done and it’s part of the plan or process, Period!  Most people seem not to care for the weekly or monthly reviews but without those the whole process can stall.

    Thanks for sharing in depth your own experiences to this point. I hope you will continue to reflect upon it from time to time and continue to share those reflections here as you get further along.

  4. Giorgio Malagutti 18 years ago

    I’m reading your blog frequently and share some of your concerns. Focusing on being more productive will certainly make you more productive, but you are already aware that since the entire person responds like a muscle to sollicitations, there are aspects where you (and similarly I) are degrading. The weakest point of your excellent system is the ‘I take control’ frame of mind. I noted on my self that I’m becoming more and more intolerant of time wastes in and of boring people in my extra-work life, which can become, socially speaking, a problem because your neighbours are not all Einsteins.
    Although this may seem a contradiction in terms, leave in your planning room for creative errors and daydreaming on postponed ‘cool’ projects, maybe finding some time where you know you are not at your top performance. Probably those errors define in a long term perspective where you and your business will go more than anything else. More, nothing can restore your enthousiasm like a cool project, even if you know you won’t be able to work on it for months, maybe more so than money itself.

  5. masukomi 18 years ago

    I think that variety and completing tasks before moving on is critical. Most of the good programmers i know work this way except we tend to work on some task until it’s done, then switch context to something completely not work, let the brain relax for five minutes doing something enjoyable like reading this article. Then go back to the list and grab the next item that strikes our fancy. Repeat.

  6. Todd 18 years ago

    I started using GTD – and found I am to hectic for it – though some of the rules and the tickler do work great for me.

    I have also started trying oout the PCEO, and have a question.

    I want to try and get everything into Moleskin notebooks.  and I am concerned with running out of pages in a particular section.

    Conversly I could use some advice from you or your readers on a new system.

    My issue is that I have weekly goals.
    Goals have tasks (top level).
    top level tasks then have lots of subtasks.

    I also have random notes, and task related notes.

    For example a weekly goal would be to get a design project for a client completed.
    tasks would be mockup, send for review, revise
    sub-tasks then might be the steps to complete each of those – along with a few pages of notes from the client meeting to go over the mockup giving direction on the next revision.


  7. CharlesOS 18 years ago


    Another very interesting post and judging by its length you have been “quite” bothered by your perceived inertia.

    I get that impression that in your crusade for the holy grail of a GTD system that works for you you run the risk of becomming bogged down in the minutiae of the perfect techie and paper system. The problem is that whilst you are focusing on the “perfect” system things are not getting done!

    The perfect system is the one that both feels right (if it doesn’t you won’t use it) and works for you ( you actually keep track of things and get them done)……… will ultimately be a system that is unique to you even if a combination of other’s ideas and method’s.

    I am goin gthrough this process myself – I see it at the moment as more of a refinement of an existing approach – and like everything in life there are good days and bad days but my employers appear generally happy that stuff gets done, delivered on or before deadline and they afterall pay my bills (albeit indirectly!).

    I have been concerned for sometine that my memory, motivation and ability to achieve and deliver were way below standard ( primarily due to a beautiful little 3 year old daughter that has not slept properly since birth – tiredness is a serious de-motivator – ) but now I am sure that my performance in relation to my counterparts is really not that bad. They do not have the sleep deprivation problems (on-going) but yet manage to forget as much if not more than I do, don’t deliver or are late frequently…… is good to set one’s sights high and be self-critical but sometimes we do set the targets much higher than others expectations of us.

    I am finding that I am very nearly totally papaer based now with PDA for address book only. Work is “Outlook” based and I have set it up along the David Allen and “managing projects in outlook” lines – it works very well as long as you remember to create the tasks! They can be created on a drag & drop basis which is very handy.

    Reviews tend to be very short re-appraisals of “what next” on a daily and/or weekly basis.

    The one issue I have with GTD purists is the insistence on the “write everything down”, if I am mid project and remember something minor additional or follow on task I do not create a ‘next action’ in my system I simply do the task/s and move on.

    On the social front – get out more.

    Keep the words flowing – very interesting


  8. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Pavel: Thanks for the couchsurfing heads-up! It looks very promising!

    Gavin: “I’m thinking sometimes you need to just get into The Zone for big blocks of time and that can be very productive.” Heh, yes, that’s the solution AND that is the problem! :-) I sometimes find that doing my “Menu of the Day” routine works, but I never thought before of applying either “chunkytime” or “variety time” as alternative approaches. That’s a good insight dude!

    Earl: Discipline…yes. Sometimes I find it difficult to do in the absense of immediate pressure (this again is where it’s helpful to have someone other than yourself to be accountable to). I try to live up to the person I think I should be most of the time, but sometimes I get sleepy or discouraged like everyone else.

    Giorgio: That’s an interesting observation, that we may be being too much wanting to be “in control”, and that it’s better we give ourselves permission for creative down-time and latitude. My first reaction is that I think I am already doing this, but thinking more deeply I think you’re onto something. I have been trying to exert my control over myself to extract more forward-pushing product is created. However, this reminds me of a focus exercise I sometimes do when I’m literally trying to balance on something narrow (like a fallen tree trunk on the ground). If I focus on trying to stay BALANCED, it’s kind of difficult. If however, I focus on my CENTER OF GRAVITY (low in my stomach), it’s much easier. The oft-cited solution for motion sickness by staring at something far in the horizon, as opposed to looking at everything moving around you, is another example of shifting focus productively. However, both analogies are rather static; being more productive is about movement, so finding the right set of natural impulses that tend to move you toward a goal might be the trick. The PCEO sort of embodies this mechanism, but I hadn’t thought of it in a universal context before. Thanks for the comment!

  9. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    masukomi: That’s a very interesting observation. All this time I thought I was just goofing off, but it’s actually part of the process. One could think of the programming as a series of sprints, each burst followed by a cooldown. I’ve tended to think of the “ideal” programming session as being lost in the flow and time disappearing (I still need to read “Flow”…this is a good reminder). By analogy the “time disappearing” programming is more like a longer paced race that starts and ends. Endurance programming? Interesting ideas…is it possible there are two kinds of programmers as far as pacing?

  10. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Todd: I’m going to make your question into its own post, because I’m interesting in other people’s feedback. It’s also good in that I don’t have to write as much :D

    CharlesOS: Thanks for the warning about getting “bogged down finding the perfect system”, and your note that the perfect system is the one that works for you! I like the mystical puzzle-like quality of those two statements together :-) I’ve dropped my standards a lot in finding “the system that works for me”: using a text editor instead of some fancy online app, using paper notes, etc. From GTD I did get the principle of organization having to be easy, and that’s totally what works for me. At the same time, I’m still not sure what exactly works for me, which is why I keep inventing new ways of testing that.

    That aside, it’s really not the lack of the perfect tracking system that’s the cause for my inertia. It’s the damn inertia, itself. My tracking system works well enough, I have a high level of confidence in its accuracy and accessibility, and I see exactly what’s going on and what I should do. I just don’t feel like doing them. It’s the old bogey, procrastination + boredom, that keeps me from moving. In the case of client work, the motivation is external and there isn’t that problem because there’s a dialog between people (which for me, is always motivating and interesting). In the case of my own work, where I’m working by myself, I’m not nearly as motivated. Hence, my preoccupation with figuring out what I can do to trigger the reaction.

  11. ryan 18 years ago

    Of course technology is not the only path to GTD, but I’m looking at Joyent again and thinking of it as very GTD-friendly…

  12. Chris 18 years ago

    @Todd: Stuffing everything in Moleskines, eh?  I like that idea, thought my GTD-setup is pretty much the same as Dave’s: some textfiles.  However I do use some Moleskines/Sketchbooks as well.  What worked for me pretty well is having one Moleskine for each area of focus… ….more or less so.  Then use different colored Post-its as bookmarks for different categories of action.  For example I use yellow for a bunch of notes I want to incorporate into my greater reference after the project is completed or the red ones mean there is some dropline related item on that page, the green ones are dividers between projects and so on.  You get your own little system with that.  Main bonus: you don’t have to worry so much about space, just fill in the notebook serialized page after page.

  13. Chris 18 years ago

      I sometimes find that doing my “Menu of the Day” routine works, but I never
      thought before of applying either “chunkytime” or “variety time” as alternative
      approaches. That’s a good insight dude!
      A further discussion about this topic you’ll can find here:
      and here:
      In the case of my own work, where I’m working by myself, I’m not nearly as
      motivated. Hence, my preoccupation with figuring out what I can do to trigger the

    A book, or better some sort of course, that acted successfully as a trigger for me is
    It is a little bit for “beginners” in a sense for people even more struck.  But it worked for me and I am really glad I did the course.

      I still need to read “Flow”

    Maybe you should bring in some variety into your diet, maybe by reading a book or so :-)

  14. Chris 18 years ago

    Sorry, I forgot to add the link for the book.  Here it is:

    Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
    Julia Cameron