5 Things GTD Won’t Fix

By Scott Allen – Community Contributor

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.

Join the Conversation


  1. Hey Scott, excellent post. I completely agree: No system can do it all. (I wrote a short response here, if you’re interested: http://matthewcornell.org/2008/04/10-gtd-holes-and-how-plug-them.html#comment-1607)

    > 1. Self-discipline

    Hear hear. I’m in the same boat. For me it fluctuates depending on my mood, energy level, health, and motivation (internal and external).

    And guess what? This and its relatives (e.g., focus, procrastination, perfectionism) are issues humans have been struggling with for ages. (Side note: I think the subject of personal productivity is in some ways the modern version of meditation and mantras from thousands of years ago.)

    > 2. Attention Deficit Disorder

    Big idea – made me think. Much appreciated. I think we each bring to living and doing different strengths and challenges, which inform what we can do (and maybe what we *should* do?) That’s why it’s important not to compare ourselves to others, at least not too much. Can just anyone write a book like “The Virtual Handshake?” No. Can we all create a method like GTD? Of course not. However, with the kinds of communication networks we have in the last decades, we are exposed to so much excellence that we sometimes forget the filters that are in place. I wonder if it was easier to appreciate our own talents before recorded music, for example…

    Sorry for the tangent! Glad my post was useful.

  2. Another thing GTD won’t do is help you plan a complex project. You couldn’t schedule the contstruction of a house, for example, by making a list of all the tasks involved and then picking Next Actions out of it every day. You have to know how to keep the carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and HVAC guys busy and not stepping on each other. Do you know of any resources that offer more detail on planning and implementing projects that fit with GTD?

  3. David Allen’s Natural Planning Model is a great project planning tool, even for robust, complex projects. Page 54 of the book.

  4. David:
    GTD will help you plan a complex project like building a house. Unfortunately, it will not substitute for experience. In order to implement GTD the implied task is that you know the next step. I have been down that road and I didn’t find anything that helped until I located a retired contractor friend who was willing to give me advice. As for smoothly transitioning between subcontractors, I wish you the best of luck.

  5. Kelly:

    On the one hand, I agree that one could make the case that the Natural Planning Model works even for robust, complex projects. However, that’s again a matter of scope, because there’s an entire body of knowledge that goes into just step 4 of NPM.

    I agree that a lot of smaller projects are overplanned, and a lot of them could do with a simpler approach, but I think to say that NPM can plan even the most complex projects kind of relies on a magical black box for step 4. There are some specific methodologies for estimating, task breakdown, sequence identification, identifying deliverables, etc., that, in my experience, are more complex and need a more systemic approach than just saying “organize it”.

  6. Great article Scott. It’s nice to hear someone say concisely and openly what I’ve come to understand about myself over the years. I am a great GTD hypocrite and when my commitment to GTD breaks down it is in these exact areas. There is one little bone which requires a bit of picking. I have ADD. Not 80% ADD, but the “diagnosed as the Poster Boy for Adult ADD” kind of ADD. I would argue that, though it is not the silver bullet or a stand-alone solution, GTD is arguably a sort of cure, or at least a corrective for ADD. I’ll leave aside the scrap I desire to have with you over whether it is true or useful to view ADD primarily through the lens of “problem” vs. the lens of “opportunity” or “strength” and simply move to the core of the issue at hand. ADD is primarily a problem stemming from a lack of control of the “executive function” which resides in the pre- frontal cortex of the brain. It is this function that allows us to image a bunch of possible ends, scan over the possible means for each one, choose one set, place the actions within this particular means into a schema based on priority, context, and sequence, and then act- to completion, that is until the thing in our head is in the world. To put it simply, this is the process that goes from ideation to incarnation, or imagination to execution, if you will. ADDers can get stuck in an infinite loop of possibilities, relations, ideas, etc. With GTD, one can do with system what others might be able to do with grey matter and neurotransmitters. We ADDers can throw out possible scenarios like nobody else, identify interesting relations and likenesses as a clue to meaning and possible action, and even develop strategic approaches to these interesting ideas that would never occur to the blessed bean counter types, but execution can be a bit sticky for us. In other words, we can “make it up.” but we need GTD to “make it happen.” Clearly, one must use the will to act and GTD can not give you that, but it can remove the barriers and set you up for success. This is a huge topic and I beg someone with more expertise than I to write on it.

  7. Hi Scott,

    Step 4/Organize of the Natural Planning Model is where things like Microsoft Project, Gantt charts, PERT charts, mindmaps etc. come into play. Or, could be just a simple outline in a bullet point format. Depends entirely on the scope of the project and needs of planning.

    I find lots of people trying to work only off plans, forgetting the purpose. If for nothing else, the NPM is so useful to bring teams into alignment on purpose. WHY are we building the house? For shelter or for a place we love to entertain friends and family? Good to know that on the front end, especially for the complex ones that have so many opportunities to get tangled along the way.


  8. I’m a psychologist and wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. I am not an expert on ADD, but have treated patients with it. In the process, I realized that I have many of the same ADD traits. I just never considered it a problem. I now believe that most ADD is really just personality. In our productivity-crazed institutionalized-learning culture, we expect everyone to sit in their chair until a task in completed. That’s probably why some of the most innovative thinkers in history did poorly in school.

    It would be nice if I could stick with my GTD system and would always finish what I started, but most likely if that were the case, I wouldn’t have the creativity that I cherish. Some of the most “organized” people I know have never suggested a new idea. They help others execute their new ideas. It’s a good thing, too! A team of all innovators would get nothing done.

    The bottom line for me is valuing my natural bent while trying to manage my weaknesses. What I love about GTD is that when I’m back from one of my creative jaunts, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel to be productive again. I have the system in place. I just have to use it.

  9. Five solid points. It is easy to start to see a very solid system as a panacea. Knowing the constraints is important. As a therapist the addiction and adhd constraints are two that have particular relevance. As strong an adherent to GTD as I am those are two, depending on how you define them, that usually require outside assistance. Aside from these five though GTD is an ace in the hole.

  10. Wellington–I’ve never seen a decent list manager that does not allow due dates. Outlook, Lotus Notes, OmniFocus, Entourage, Excel–any of them should have a due date field.

  11. GTD will/can not _cure_ AD/HD, but it can help you getting along by providing a way to organise things/stuff in an intuitive manner.

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