Rewriting GTD

David Cain discovers “an interesting fact about our to-do items: they often don’t really need to be done at all.” He goes on to explain why a complex system like Getting Things Done can be tough for members of the Idler’s Guild:

Procrastinators and other people without a track-record of steady productivity will have trouble with GTD, for a particular reason: the system is unsympathetic to your emotional state. If you have any problems with procrastination or motivation, the system will fall apart quickly for you. Slag off one weekly review or let your inbox pile up for a whole week even once, then resuming the system becomes daunting enough that you wait to do them until you have a clear three-hour stretch, and very quickly your workflow system is back to a react-as-it-comes basis.

Interestingly, David’s way to get on top of things is very close to starting with GTD for the first time, with a healthy dose of Ruben Berenguel’s task bankruptcy mixed in: Delete your lists and and start fresh. Put only those things on a new list that matter now. ((In GTD, that’s basically what a review is for – only that the (supposed) regularity of it should prevent your list from growing too large and cumbersome in the first place. Honestly, though, I don’t think anybody out there really does it as diligently. So even more power to Ruben’s concept of task bankruptcy.))

Three thoughts on this:

  1. Hell yeah is GTD off-putting for normal people. David Allen’s system looks way too complex if you see it for the first time, especially considering all these paper folders and perforators and staplers it involves.
  2. The system is genius nonetheless. As many prejudices as I had against it, GTD is extremely well-thought. And while it’s easy to fall off the wagon, it’s just as easy to get on again.
  3. If you still struggle with it, though, maybe it’s because you need to rewrite it.

Own Your Work (and your lists!)

If the method itself is great, it’s the concrete implementation that might cause trouble. It starts with many of you not getting all that many faxes these days, nor being employed by a corporation with 20.000 colleagues. You can still benefit from GTD, though – if you dare to make it yours.

To illustrate this, back to David Cain:

I’m taking a much simpler approach now. Keep all the same inboxes, go through them once a week and put them on a big, single-category list. No more subcategories and priority rankings to get lost in. Look at the list every evening and decide what to do the next day. If I need time-specific reminders I’ll set them up in Google Calendar on my phone. A cabinet for files. A regular day weekly to get up to date.

Good approach, you might say. But you might also think: Way too complex. Or: Way too simple.

So what now?


From all I can see, every GTD user has to find her own approach to owning it. Some might need 43 Folders, others just one plain text file. Some might love to organize their life with Moleskines and hipster PDAs, others might prefer a tight digital organizer like OmniFocus. My very own approach currently works with one Taskpaper list, iCal, and a couple of tools that improve my iCal use (QuickCal and MenuCalendarClock).

What always stays the same is this:

  • Put everything into your list(s) in order to relax your brain.
  • Define your next actions clearly in order to beat resistance.
  • Review regularly in order to stay on top of things.

Somehow, the fact that this looks almost too simple to be true makes it all the more trustworthy.


  1. I never read GTD and usually skip over posts about GTD. It’s just too complex. As a student, it’s nearly impossible. I use the Weekly/Daily Goals system by Scott Young. (

    It’s surprising, though, that the summarized list at the bottom is exactly what my system is. David Cain’s is also mine with added GCal and email.

    This got me thinking: is everyone selling variations of the same system, then? (With the base being what you described.) If so, was it GTD that popularized this system, or did the author get it from someone else? If so, who? Why do people keep jumping from system to system if the solution is clear tasks and proper rest?

    I’m sure you don’t have the answer, but it’s an interesting thought.

    1. Intriguing question, Radhika. Unfortunately, you’re right and I don’t have an answer to it right away. (Could be an interesting research project for a historian!)

      What I can tell, though, is that, while GTD has been central to many productivity bloggers, the majority of web sites covering the topic don’t do the book justice. I was guilty of that myself, and as much as I hate it, I have to admit that it’s a pretty great read. So if you have some free time, give it a few hours. Don’t worry about the concrete implementation (the paper-folders-and-staplers stuff), but Allen’s analysis of the GTD process on a theoretical/meta level is genius, because it’s complete. No loopholes there. This makes tackling tasks a lot easier.

      Thanks for the link to Scott’s system. I like his idea of maintaining closed lists in order to know when to stop. That’s something important for anybody who’s not getting paid by the hour.

  2. Life sure can get complex if you want it to, can’t it?

    I make that glib statement as someone who often tried to juggle everything in his head to the point of mental exhaustion, of course! I think the fact that I don’t understand the need for all these systems and their accompanying books is indicative of the fact that I haven’t reached a point in life where I really need to consider what my own system is. I’m just learning how to get on with what time I have available, but I’m also not relying on that to make me a living…

    When I think what my system might be, I’m inclined to agree with Radhika – that they are all likely to be variations on the same theme. For that reason, I’d be more far more inclined to follow your simple three-point list at the end of this post. It’s sensible, and is flexible enough to account for our idiosyncrasies!

    At risk of sounding idealistic (for a change!), I can’t help but think that people would be a lot better off looking *internally* and creating their own structures around their idiosyncrasies rather than relying on someone else to create one for them. But then, I suppose for some people, having it all served up on a plate (well, in a book) is *precisely* their system – even if they have to sample two or three different plates (books…) to find the right one!

    Sorry, that was a bit rambling. It’s fine for your blog to be ‘thinking in progress’, but I’m not sure I should be using the comments for something similar. I could have written a blog post of my own by now!

    1. Haha Paul, I love it when readers join in with their own public thinking! Actually, I see a trend towards longer nd deeper comments since I committed to public thinking. Hope it stays this way, as this is what it’s all about. (Replies on your own blog are just as fine, of course! Be sure to send a trackback over for others to follow it!)

      As you know already, I totally agree with you in that we need to work around our own idiosyncracies. I’m afraid that for most of us, there isn’t the “one” book (nor two or three). If we keep searching for it, we’ll certainly gain some insights, but we’ll never get what we’re looking for. Hence my suggestion to rewrite GTD (or any similar book, for that matter; but I think that GTD is a great basis).

      The other thing you mention is interesting: Worries about productivity seem to become a lot more urgent once you quit your day job. Not (necessarily) because you were a happy slacker at that job, but because suddenly you’re without structure and a boss that nags you. So you have to find other ways to beat resistance, I guess.

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