The Great GTD Debate

There has been a lot of talk recently about GTD (the “getting things done” methodology of David Allen), how applicable it might to people in creative roles, and whether it has held up well as technology (and workflows) have changed over the last couple of decades. Most arguments seem to make the equation between GTD and productivity. But that’s very far from the truth.

The “Getting Things Done” concept is a method of productivity. Productivity is a higher concept. And while GTD is a great resource for guiding people toward better productivity, it is not the only way to be productive. It is one path, out of many available, that can lead to the destination we all want to reach: better productivity.

There’s a bit of irony here, though. For many folks, these unique and specialized systems for promoting productivity can actually become points of friction themselves. The end up holding people back more than they free them. And it isn’t because the methodology is flawed; it is because methodologies are stereotypes that pigeon-hole people into roles they weren’t meant to inhabit.

Productivity is not about robotically following prescribed forms; productivity is about mastering the basic elements. Let me explain.

Tae Kwon Do
When I was in high school I took Tae Kwon Do lessons. If you’ve never learned a martial art before, I really think you’ve missed out. Not because self-defense is important or kicking above your own head is an amazing way to meet chicks, but because there are so many deep lessons within the training that have applications outside of the dojo. For those of you who have never taken a martial arts lesson, here’s a brief rundown of the teaching system.

New students are taught the basics. There are a variety of kicks and punches, and you must learn each of them. You learn their names, their forms and how to improve them over time. The basics of Tae Kwon Do, like any other martial art, are the equivalent to learning to identify and reproduce musical notes. A front snap kick looks and feels different than a roundhouse kick, just like a D major guitar chord sounds different than a D minor chord.

You also learn forms. These are essentially a sequence of basic elements: kicks, punches and movements that must be memorized and performed the same way each and every time, by each and every student. Forms are physical songs; they are a string of “notes” (basic techniques) that are “played” in a special sequence.

When a student has learned enough of the basics, they are allowed to spar with other students. Sparring is a controlled fight, with pads and rules for scoring points. It’s not a street fight, but it’s also not predictable. Your opponent might kick, or they might punch. And you have to rely on other basic techniques such as blocking or counter-punching to defend yourself. You can’t fall into a robotic, pre-determined form and expect it to work. Sparring matches are organic and fluid; forms are rigid.

Productivity is not about robotically following prescribed forms; productivity is about mastering the basic elements. Our daily workflows are personally unique, and they’re the organizational equivalent of stepping into the ring to spar. Depend too heavily on soup-to-nuts productivity systems and you’ll be too inflexible for the chaos of the workflow. Conversely, if you eschew all training and techniques completely and decide to “make it up as you go”, you’ll be overwhelmed and underprepared for challenges.

The key to productivity is to learn the basics, and to know them so well that you can defend yourself organically and innately from whatever your workflow throws at you.

The Basics
What are the basics? The basics are the essential elements of any productivity system. They are the bare necessities that everyone must do in order to boost productivity. We find the basics in all major productivity methodologies buried under terminology and elaboration, much like our skeletons are buried under our flesh and connective tissue.

One basic element is capturing. Every system, for every profession and person, begins with capturing things that get thrown at us. They might be physical objects like a phone bill, or digital items like emails or a project you need to complete. It doesn’t matter where they originate: everything that needs to be completed first needs to be captured.

The next basic element of productivity is planning. Once you have captured the plethora of tasks, ideas and resources you encounter or dream up, you need to do something with them. You might do them immediately, or next month, and so you need to plan how you will accomplish each item (due date, sub-tasks, resources, etc).

The last basic element of productivity is to focus. You can capture and plan all you want, but if you can’t focus on the tasks as hand, you will miss deadlines, fail to complete things and disappoint yourself and others. Learn to focus, or learn to like failure.

The Next Level
That’s the list. It’s short, and not very fleshed out (that’s a bigger project that I’m working on for the late summer), so don’t expect to find a lot of explanation there. But those are the three core pieces to any productivity system.

The question, then, isn’t whether GTD has aged poorly in the face of the digital age. And it’s not whether GTD encourages or inhibits creativity. The question is ultimately: can anyone — in any field or profession, in any culture, across all spectrum of ages and genders — benefit from implementing the three basic elements of productivity in their lives, workflows and businesses?

The answer is a resounding “yes”. Capturing ideas doesn’t get in the way of a creative person — it frees them to create. Planning out a project doesn’t stifle a writer or a salesperson — it challenges them and spurs them onward. Forcing yourself to focus doesn’t negate the power of the imagination or inspiration — it just puts you in the right frame of mind to dream big and get to work.

GTD is not the issue. Productivity is the issue. And productivity is good for everyone.