I don't think I'm as anal as I should be
February 6, 2008 8:18 AM   Subscribe

So if I'm going to use the GTD method, what am I going to use?

After trying to make GTD work for me for almost three years, and then yesterday reading how a number of people at Lifehacker have given up on it, I'm wondering what plan B could be.

The fact that I've read practically every article and website on GTD, as well as tried out almost every calendar and task list program online, for the PC, and now that I've switched, for the Mac This leads me to believe that, for me at least, GTD has some limitations. Namely:

1. It's much more fun trying out new ways to implement GTD than to actually get things done (hence my serial monogamy with iGTD, tracks.tra.in, Rememember the Milk, Backback, Hiveminder, Toodledo, tadalist, Nozbe, Todoist, Vitalist, the GTD plugin for Outlook, and Clear Context, and of course, index cards and the Hipster PDA.

2. The whole get it out of your head and into a "bucket" make a lot of sense, but I'm just not naturally anal, organized, or whatever. I'm naturally a bit of a slob and a scatterbrain, to this has always been problematic for me. I've just never really had the self-discipline to take the time to do GTD properly, and I'm starting to think it may be a great system for people wired differently than me.

3. Devising my own system from the ground up sounds problematic to me, because I'm so prone to tinkering and trying out new stuff.

4. I couldn't get the Franklin-Covey system to work for me. I just don't have it in me to write a personal mission statement, and transferring tasks to the next day's list again and again is kind of demoralizing.

So here is my real question:

Can you suggest a personal productivity system to me that works within the following parameters:

1. I can do it on a Mac synced to a Centro.
2. It works using iCal and Mail.app/MailTags.
3. It's heavily digital. I don't do well with paper.
4. I can read about it in a book or on a website. I'm fine making some adaptations to an existing system, but having a place to start would be best.
5. Of course, I'd throw 1-3 out the window for the right system, but I'm not sure the right system could be the right system sans 1-3.

My doctor told me yesterday that it's possible that I may have a touch of ADHD, so I guess I should tell you that as well.

As always, a thousand thanks for your help, Mefites.
posted by 4ster to Human Relations (18 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Just wanted to mention there's a forum with lots of GTD users here (Merlin Mann's site). They talk a lot about how they've designed their own system around GTD.
posted by sharkfu at 8:24 AM on February 6, 2008

Well, it kind of depends on what you need to accomplish, doesn't it? It's a highly personalized thing.

I mean, I have a notebook. I take it everywhere and I write down things I need to do in it. It doesn't need synching. If something's important (like a doctor's appointment) I make an alarm on my cell phone for that day. I pay all my bills on the first of the month. Once in a while things slip through, but I correct them.

Really, I think for the majority of people using GTD is unnecessarily complicating your life. The Lifehacker article hit it right on the head when it said "GTD gives you more things to get done." There will always be a world of services that professes to make your life easier, when what you need to do is simplify.

It's just not that complicated.
And I actually do have ADD.
posted by loiseau at 8:31 AM on February 6, 2008 [4 favorites]

I just use the one inbox, one to do list, two minutes or into filing system and it works great for me. A lot of the book is filler to get you to pay the extra money.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:32 AM on February 6, 2008

My personal system changes weekly because I have the same problem of playing around with new tools and toys, but the core system I have keeps me just about ticking over.

You've tried a huge range of stuff already, so I'm not sure trying another new one is really the approach that would be most helpful. - Out of all the systems you've tried, which was closest to the way you want to work?

I've settled on using Remember The Milk (Sync to PDA), Google Calendars(Sync to Mobile Phone), and a small Moleskine I keep in my back pocket and an Inka pen on my keyring - which covers me for everything now days. For longer term things I also use 43Things.

Once you have something, you just need to commit to it, and keep using it. If you fall behind, accept that and be brutal in cleaning up old tasks and carry on. But all systems revolve around the basic premise of: 1) Write down tasks. 2) Do tasks. 3) Repeat. There isn't any magic bullet because while systems deal with part one very well, it really boils down to how you go about part two, your system won't help you much there, you just need to do it.
posted by paulfreeman at 8:52 AM on February 6, 2008

I started with tracks.tra.in but am much happier now that I have my own version of Tracks running on my own server. It wasn't that hard to set up.

What works for me is this: every once in a while (as often as once a day, as infrequent as once a week), I print out a copy of my next actions list from Tracks, sorted by context, stapel it, fold it in quarters, and clip a pen to it (example, selflink). I carry this around in my pocket with me everywhere. It acts as my input for new things and my method for crossing things off the list when they're finished (or noting that they need to move to another context, or whatever).

Even though I am, like you, not good with paper, using paper in this scenario works far better for me than screwing with the GTD app too much. So, when I do my weekly (or semi-weekly) review, I go through the paper version, update everything in Tracks, and print out a new, clean version.

Also, if you haven't actually read The David's book, do so. Merlin's site is great, and there are lots of good sites on the net about GTD, but actually reading the book made it finally click for me. I fall off the wagon a lot, of course. But the difference is, when I'm on the wagon, I actually get a lot done very quickly, which keeps me coming back to it.
posted by wheat at 8:59 AM on February 6, 2008

I have a Mac and some familiarity with GTD. Here's what works for me. It's less obsessive and time-consuming than the official GTD.

1. Put the major to-dos in LifeBalance. These are recurring goals like "pay bills every two weeks" and big, messier goals like "write a book." The big goals are broken down into smaller goals and prioritized using a nifty sliding scale. The LifeBalance docs also offer good ideas for a natural way to set and prioritize goals, and the software lets you change priorities on the fly. Your to-do list is organized according to your current priorities.

2. Put the small to-dos in iCal or (my preference) Highrise. I have a business, so my daily to-dos usually relate to a client. I add them as a task in that client's Highrise record, and Highrise sends me an email when it's time to do the task. iCal will do the same, however. Whatever works for you.
posted by PatoPata at 9:01 AM on February 6, 2008

I'd suggest Omnifocus. It's somewhat expensive, but you do get a discount if you're affiliated with an educational institution. It's very streamlined, well designed, and works really well for me -- you should give the trial a shot.
posted by suedehead at 10:10 AM on February 6, 2008

Can't help you with the digital part, but I think the main thing to remember is that it doesn't matter what system you use, it doesn't matter if you change systems, it doesn't matter if it's memory, ink or digital. What matters is that you use a system. the other thing is that everyone gets behind and gets disorganized sometimes, but there are also ways around this.

I am a terminally organized person, so I've got a big advantage to start with but here are the best things that have kept me organized:

CLEAR YOUR DESK at the end of the day, every single day. This can be as simple as putting everything into a single pile, or as complex as organizing it with folders for the next day's start. Devote at least the last 15 minutes of your day to this; it might take up to 30 minutes, but it's a great thing to do.

Pay your bills on payday. I find paying them as they come in cumbersome, plus I forget what I've paid and what I haven't. Most bills fall neatly into "due after end of month check" or "due after mid-month check" so this should keep all bills paid on time.

Make piles. This is the shit-I-let-everything-go-too-long-save-me strategy. Couple of ways you can do this: Make one big pile, don't worry about the order. Start at the top and DO EVERYTHING. You are not allowed to set something aside because it'll take too long or it doesn't seem important. Just work your way through and finish all that crap. This works best on a Sunday when no one is there who can interupt you or who has authority to change your priorities on you. Alternately, make a bunch of piles. I like to spread out on a table with a grid of post-it notes for sorting. You'll have one called "Little Shit" which is things you can do in under 10 minutes each. Other possible headings: Due Today, Due Tomorrow, Important to Boss, Research, whatever. Then prioritize the piles by urgency, with, however "Little Shit" on top. Always do the little shit first, following method number 1-- not allowed to skip anything!

File File File. Once you've finished a task, file it. Get rid of the physical evidence. Otherwise it becomes clutter. Filing is a pain in the ass, but it's better than losing stuff, digging through shit or worst, ending up with a filing pile that will take you hours to clear.

I've also always liked to use the only-handle-any-paper-once method. Receive it, act on it, distribute it, file it, but this can get thwarted if, for instance, you have a micromanaging boss who likes to argue about grammatical arcana and has to see every fucking scrap of paper that crosses... um sorry. (Not that I have personal experience with that, no, not me, my boss is um great)
posted by nax at 10:37 AM on February 6, 2008 [5 favorites]

Here's a book that I think is GTD light: Order from Chaos. It's a very nice light-weight system. The "air traffic control" model of handling events and to-dos has been working for me. Mine is on paper and I really like that it's on paper. I went so far as to design my own illustrator templates for a binder. And now I have some levenger circa pages that I'm using.

I like that the book starts with "space" (your workspaces) and then moves on to "time" and then to "habits." You're not going to magically start having great habits if your office is a huge mess with shit everywhere. So don't worry about habits until you get the damn space clear and the ATC done.

YMMV of course. But it's been good to me. Can't say that I'm as productive as I'd like to be (says the guy posting to ask.meta at 1:46 PM on a wed...), but I've made measurable progress.
posted by zpousman at 10:47 AM on February 6, 2008

After trying to make GTD work for me for almost three years, and then yesterday reading how a number of people at Lifehacker have given up on it, I'm wondering what plan B could be.

I don't have an answer for you. Picking a system is such a personal choice. However, most of the comments in that lifehacker thread are crap (as several in the thread also basically stated). It sounds like most of them have no idea what GTD is. They're just spouting off about what they've heard (and calling gtd too cultish, which has nothing to do with the system).

I don't think any system is for everyone, but I especially have to smile when I read about gtd being too complicated, or that in gtd all you do is organize. GTD has made my life much simpler and if kept up I spend almost no time organizing. For me gtd IS simplifying.
posted by justgary at 10:55 AM on February 6, 2008

I think that part of the problem for many people is doing the whole GTD setup, which assumes a certain fetish for office supplies, lots of appointments and deadlines and meetings, and - largely - a conventional business environment. This isn't helped by some of the rampant fanboy behaviour in GTD-circles, obsessing about the tools rather than actually doing anything. (Covers for your Hipster PDA! Which pen should I use with my moleskine? OMG, Omnifocus will be in beta soon!) Leo Babauta of Zenhabits has pointed out how over-complicated GTD is and proposed his own cut-down version, Zen-To-Done. Anyway, it's far better to treat GTD as a loose scaffold or set of techniques. (Make a list. Do the next thing.) For example, I've dispensed with the titular 43 folders, and - to a lesser extent - contexts.
posted by outlier at 11:28 AM on February 6, 2008

Leo Babauta of Zenhabits has pointed out how over-complicated GTD is and proposed his own cut-down version, Zen-To-Done. Anyway, it's far better to treat GTD as a loose scaffold or set of techniques.

I disagree with the first part. It's as complicated as you make it. If someone makes gtd too complicated, that's partly their problem. You can use gtd with something like task paper and it's not complicated at all. Projects broken down the their smallest parts + context.

I agree with your second.
posted by justgary at 12:09 PM on February 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is maybe a non-answer, but what happens when you don't use a system at all? I've tried various systems, but time and time again, I come back to the fact that it's much simpler to just all that stuff in my head, or have it written down where I can easily find it.

For example, right now I keep track of school-related responsibilities (4 classes), work responsibilities (2 clients\employers), extra-curriculars (2 clubs, one of which I'm an officer in), and then all the friends\family type stuff. For the most part, I have the information in my head, for example, I know that for one of my clients, I need to do x, and for the other, I need to do y, and I know what order I need to do them in. I know that I've already done the homework for 3 of my classes, and that the fourth one should have homework going up soon. With any of these, though, it would be just as easy to store them elsewhere. Homework, for example, is always posted online, so if I forget, I can easily check (I know where to look). Work information is generally stored in email and IM logs, so if I forget something, I can use the magic of search to find it.

I guess I could really sum up my "system" in 2 steps:

1) Know what I need to do,
2) Know where to find it if I forget.

That makes a super-simple base onto which I can build on an as-needed basis. Rather than trying to populate a giant pre-existing structure (like GTD) with the information I have, I build the structure and then tear it back down when I no longer need it. Here are some examples of things I've added a various times to keep more organized for specific projects:

1) At an engineering job I worked at over the summer, there were a lot of corporate-bureaucratic type procedure that I would never remember, so I used a free copy of Evernote (note-taking app) on my work PC to track that kind of stuff.

2) When going camping with some friends, we created a PbWiki with todolists and tobringlists so that everyone could access and add to it.

3) When school or work starts to get intense (especially towards the middle and end of the semester), I use idle time, such as waiting for classes to start, to make lists of what I need to do in the next 3-5 days. I also prioritize how important it is to get each thing done on a given day.

So, the idea is that I don't have all this extra baggage at the times when my life is less complicated. As it gets more complicated, I start adding things on that work well for specific tasks. Then, as it uncomplicates again, those things fall by the wayside.
posted by !Jim at 12:58 PM on February 6, 2008

One last comment and I'll back out (not trying to take over).


I come back to the fact that it's much simpler to just all that stuff in my head,

Is about as opposite of the GTD philosophy as it could possibly be. The very base of GTD is getting everything OUT of your head so that you're clear to act.

And this:

Rather than trying to populate a giant pre-existing structure (like GTD)

Shows very little grasp of gtd. It is not a giant pre-existing structure. It's a philosophy (the main, again, is getting everything out of your head).

As I said before, gtd isn't for everyone no doubt. But most of comments in that life hacker thread and several in this one are obviously coming from people who have never read the book. It's basically a set of ideas (given nicely in the lifehacker thread by one commenter) that are basically common sense. What you do with those ideas, how complicated you make them, are up to you.

Good luck.
posted by justgary at 3:40 PM on February 6, 2008

I basically run off a slimmed down GTD and it just works for me... you can make it as simple or complicated as you want to, in fact it's very complicated to over-manage things and you get bogged down in micromanagement. That's why I avoid all the tools and aids and other stuff out there and just do it all (well apart from a Sundbird diary) as lists in Word documents. Basically just projects divided up into tasks and reference stuff like books I'd like read, stuff I want to buy next time I go shopping.... With one printed out next action list by the computer that I check off as I do stuff - there's something about a list where you physically cross off stuff that I find motivating. Once a week I spend an hour or so going through it all adding any new ideas I've had since the last time (which I just write in word files as I get them or scribble then on bits of paper and throw them in an intray).
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:06 PM on February 6, 2008

I go on and off the wagon with GTD, but when I do it I love it. It's actually not complicated at all - all you need for a stripped down version is an "inbox" - a place to put pieces of paper, mail, notes, etc. - and and then a notebook for making lists. I experience GTD as more of a self-help kind of process than as straight productivity.... like !Jim, I *can* and ordinarily *do* keep everything in my head, and putting it out on paper and gathering everything into a system works wonders for my mood, which in turn makes me more likely to, um, get things done. Something as ridiculously simple as having a list of "someday/maybe" tasks *written down* can be amazing. The example David Allen gives in the book is this - let's say your garage needs to be cleaned out. The mess isn't going anywhere, and it's not a priority right now, but it is something that you want to get done. David Allen suggests that at all times, no matter what you're doing, some part of your brain is going to be thinking I really should be cleaning out the garage. It'll keep popping up. Shit, I need to get to the garage.... God, everything's a mess, the garage.... I don't have time for that, I haven't even cleaned out the garage... If this kind of thinking isn't something you identify with, then you might not get as much out of the book. If you're wired like me, though, (and, presumably, David Allen) it's amazing how once you put that task into your system, you stop fretting about it. You haven't done anything yet, but it ceases to be a source of anxiety, and you can focus on the actions that really do need your attention without feeling overwhelmed. There's lots more in the book, and none of it is rocket science - but if your brain is roiling with things you should have done a long time ago, and things you despair of ever getting to, it's definitely worth a read.
posted by moxiedoll at 5:40 PM on February 6, 2008

I've struggled with GTD as well. Paper. Thinking Rock. iGTD. I looked @ the various online sources too.

1) Most people didn't read the book, and really read the damn thing. If I could have, I would have found someone to teach it to me. It took me over a year (and I still need to go back and re-read it.) When I looked at the lifehacker poll, it really validated this. Most of the criticism are from people who haven't done it.
2) Review. Really. Don't tinker. Every morning 10 min....every week go through everything.
3) You keep looking at the tool as the answer, not the system. I chose OmniFocus. Why? One click projects, one click actions. I'm not going to look at other tools for at least a year.
posted by filmgeek at 7:47 AM on February 8, 2008

I'm not hugely into GTD, but for what it's worth, I'm ga ga over Things.
posted by patr1ck at 10:00 PM on February 8, 2008

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