5 Things GTD Won't Fix

I read with interest Matthew Cornell’s piece on 10 GTD “holes” (and how to plug them). I was particularly interested in the section on simplified GTD, as that’s something I’ve practiced myself. I also empathized with many of the other points he made regarding implementation challenges. And I do agree that many people need to do some time use analysis, if nothing else as a personal wake-up call.

Frankly, I’m not enough of an expert in GTD to do a point-by-point analysis, either of agreement or rebuttal. However, I don’t think it’s really appropriate to refer to these as “holes” in GTD — they’re more an issue of scope. GTD isn’t the be-all end-all system to make every decision in your life. And while I believe it can make everyone more effective than they already are, there are some things that GTD simply won’t do or fix. Here’s my very personal take on what those are for me:

1. Self-discipline

There’s a difference between being organized and being disciplined. You can have the best possible system showing you what you need to be doing next, or today, or this week or this year, but no matter how good that system is, it’s not going to help you much at the point of decision as to whether you do what your system is telling you to do or whatever other options are vying for your attention.

Personally, I’m not much of a creature of habit. Oh, I suppose I have a few, but I have a terrible time developing new habits. I can’t even seem to take medicine or vitamins consistently for more than about a week. My sleep patterns are inconsistent and so are my work hours.

So I can handle GTD’s basic organizational framework of consolidating and clearing my inboxes, making a big list, the four D’s, etc. But my weekly review doesn’t happen every week, and it never happens at the same time when it does happen.

My problem — not GTD’s.

2. Attention Deficit Disorder

I believe most entrepreneurs have ADD, it’s just a matter of degree. This isn’t just a lack of self-discipline — it’s a fundamental difference in the way the brain works.

As for me personally, I’ve never been clinically diagnosed with ADD, but since I started exploring the subject a few years ago, I’ve taken several assessment tests and generally score somewhere in the neighborhood of 80% indication of ADD. I was fortunate to grow up in an environment that allowed me to become high-functioning, but I’ve still always had challenges with it.

Now that I recognize it for what it is, I’ve learned and implemented some specific coping skills and adaptations. But it’s still incredibly easy for me to get distracted, or the reverse, hyper-focused to the exclusion of other things that are important. I’ll take one of those 2-minute tasks and spend 10 minutes on it when I really should defer or delegate it.

GTD isn’t a cure for ADD, and I don’t expect it to be.

3. Addiction

Hi, my name is Scott and I’m a computer game addict.

(“Hi, Scott!”)

Left to my own devices, I’d just as soon spend most of the day playing Anarchy Online, Rappelz, Onslaught or any number of completely pointless games (WoW anyone?). Other people are addicted to Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, blogs, porn, television — any number of activities that suck away your productivity.

But I’m not ready to give up games completely any more than I would recommend people completely drop out of social networking. There’s a positive side to them, in moderation. They are relaxing, enjoyable and offer a break from the thought patterns of our work, while still exercising the brain.

So I find tools and tricks to manage my addiction (my personal favorite is LeechBlock). Many others don’t. I know hundreds of people who throw themselves into social media WAY beyond the point of productivity and simply refuse to be self-aware of that fact.

GTD isn’t going to cure our addictions, small and large, and those will be a drain on our time until we address them in other ways.

4. System overload

Every system breaks down when you exceed its operational capacity — period. The fact that GTD does too can hardly be called a shortcoming.

If you are allowing so many inputs to come in that it takes you 4-5 hours a day just to process your inbox, what do you expect? If you make commitments to clients and business partners that will take you 50 hours a week to do the work, then you’re going to be working 60-70 hours a week, because your other operational overhead doesn’t go away.

Sure, you can delegate some things, but there are going to be financial and practical limits. And, of course, the more you overload your system, the less time you have to manage it, which simply accelerates its inevitable collapse.

You may be able to achieve marginal improvements in efficiency by optimizing your workflow, but ultimately, the only way you’re really going to prevent system overload is by restricting inputs into the system. That may mean learning to say “no” better, networking less (which is counter-intuitive) and going on a Tim Ferriss-style “low information diet”. And I guarantee you those last two are even harder to do than the first one, because we’ve all been taught over and over the value of networking and information, and both are available in over-abundant supply these days.

5. Prioritizing your values

Sure, having a big list gives you better visibility as to how your day-to-day activities affect your ability to achieve your life goals, but nothing in GTD is really intended to help you figure out what’s most important to you — only to help you align your time with your true priorities.

A few years ago (pre-GTD), my wife and I owned a retail store. We finally got to the point that we realized that our system was overloaded. So we went through an exercise together of reviewing all of the major projects and activities in our life. When we did, we realized that the store was #3, but that it was getting in the way of #1 and #2. So we closed it, as soon as we possibly could. No regrets, because we knew we were doing the right thing.

But no action/time management system could really have helped me with that, and sometimes we have to make those difficult choices.

All of the issues I raised above are addressable. But are they really all issues for a productivity management system? Some of these seem like more the realm of behavioral therapy, hypnotherapy, maybe even medication. Or maybe NLP has the answers, or the Law of Attraction, or… who knows? Believe me, if I had quick and easy answers, I’d share them.

The point is, we human beings are complex systems (actually, we’re a system of systems) — far too complex for any one system to provide a suitable framework for total life management. So when I look at how GTD or any other system fits into my life, I prefer to think of scope, not shortcomings — edges, rather than holes.