Plugging holes when others aren't getting things done

Jay, a college student, wrote in to GTD Times to ask about how to get things done in a largely volunteer-based organization.  Can you still do GTD if other people around you don’t?

Dear GTD Times,

First off, let me say thanks for providing such a wonderful free GTD resource. It really means a lot to a student like me. I have a question that I was wondering if someone would answer for me or even write up a little article on. I’m not sure if GTD Times usually has a reader submitted question section or anything like that, but I figured I’d give this a whirl.

I am a full-time undergraduate college student and I dedicate a lot of my time to a handful of student activist organizations and one in particular. The organization’s mission is one that is very important to me and fits in with my visioning for myself, so I do not have any question about the time I dedicate to the group. However, I have run into a problem with managing workflow involving this organization.  Because there is no formal hierarchy in the organization, the process of delegating tasks doesn’t seem to work as easily for this situation as it would in a corporate environment. However, I am moreorless one of a few “informal” leaders of the group, meaning that I’ve been consistently dedicated for an extended period of time, so people respect my opinions and tend to listen to what I say – I have a lot of pull within the organization. When the group undertakes a large project, I find that I usually take on the role of project coordinator: envisioning what needs to be done, thinking about the goals of the project, and assigning tasks to other people within the group. I would like to not necessarily assert myself in this manner because I would like other students in the group to develop the sorts of skills that I have. But when I see things not getting done on a given project, it causes me stress and I end up dedicating a lot of time to “plugging in the holes.” So my question is, should I consider the organization’s project my own project and treat it like a project with next actions for myself and “waiting” on lists for tasks other people have taken on. Or should I take a step back and only allow myself to focus on the things that I have specifically taken on for myself, at the risk that the project might collapse or not be accomplished in what I see to be the best final outcome. (I think a big sub-question of this problem is also how to work with people who are not themselves GTDers.)

Thank you very much for your time. Keep up the great work,  Jay

One of our senior coaches, Wayne Pepper, offer Jay some suggestions:


I wish the people around you would pull their own weight so that you wouldn’t have to either do their work, or track their progress, but alas, the world is the world, and people will do what  they do. I find it very difficult to force GTD on anyone around me, so if I suspect that certain individuals won’t complete their work in a timely fashion, then I will definitely track them on my Waiting For list. If they also have a track record of allowing things to fall through the cracks, I will also check in with them on regular intervals, in advance of their “due date” to track their progress. This allows them to know that I am paying attention, and it also provides a reminder for them if they aren’t generating reminders for themselves.  Again, ideally you wouldn’t have to do this, but that’s the way it seems to go.

So to answer your question succinctly, yes, treat these outcomes as your Projects, put them on your Projects list, or maybe even create a list called “Projects Delegated”, with the understanding that if the people responsible who you are tracking on Waiting For, don’t follow through, you may still need to jump in and do the work required.

Of course you could always allow things to fall apart, but I suspect these initiatives are far too important for you to allow that to happen…..


Wayne Pepper

P.S. I think if you poll “business” people, they will tell you that much the same dynamic exists in the business world

So, GTD’ers, what’s your experience with this issue? Do you find that workflow is different in any of the organizations you are involved with that are not in the business world?  Should the same GTD rules apply? Anybody have success getting others to do GTD?

Join the Conversation


  1. Thank you for bringing this up. I am involved in an organization that provides support and resources to campus clubs ( One of the roles I will soon have is as a mentor to a specific club, but generally we are trying to figure out how to give guidance to the diehard volunteers, such that they can get others to not only commit to responsibilities, but of course to complete them too. Many years ago I was a leader of a campus club and know how challenging it can be.

    In time I might have specific advice based on the experience. Right now what I can suggest is that the leader be super-organized with GTD, focus on projects and concrete next-actions, be explicit on what you are delegating and the deadlines, and definitely keep @waiting lists, etc., as Wayne says.

    Of course you will have slackers who will disappoint you. But good leadership inspires, and you can provide clarity via what you know of GTD, and hopefully others will rise to the occasion and be excited to know exactly what to do and how to do it.

  2. Jay, thanks for sharing this, this same phenomenon takes place in the business world, non-profit, volunteer, or anywhere where role power isn’t clear.

    For instance, in the business world you might get assigned to a project where there is a project manager who is not your boss. Without the threat of being fired, some people won’t care if the deadline is met. In GTD parlance, they don’t share the same “ideal outcome.” What to do?

    In situations where you are the project manager, it is critical that you do two things:

    1) Only proceed when you can get vocal consensus among the project team about the ideal outcome and give dissenters a chance to back out if they don’t want to help. Yes, we are committed to having this rally, raising $1,000 at the bake sale, getting 500 signatures on these petitions, etc. Come back to this outcome often, repeat it, make people visualize it and want it to exist.

    2) Every planning meeting agenda point and task must end with an agreed and published WHO will do WHAT by WHEN. This should be emailed out within 24 hours of the planning meeting. As a bonus, you can delegate out the role of “Evil Taskmaster” to someone else whose only job is to enforce the commitments others have made on the project. At the group’s OK, they would have the authority to email and call people 2 days before their task is due, so they still have time to get on it and get it done.

    I wish I knew about GTD in college, it would have helped a ton. So you are way ahead of your peers. In general, non-profit and activism groups can benefit from better meetings, so if you want to be a superstar I recommend – their guidance on running meetings is great.

    Good luck.

  3. Sadly, Wayne is 100% correct! I work at a very large corporation, and all I can do is ask people (from the bottom of the corporate hierarchy up to the director level) “Are you done yet? Are you done yet? Are you done yet?” My Project Manager and I have no authority over these people (fine in itself), so all we can do is keep asking, reminding, and pushing back the due dates.

    It goes without saying the only people yelled at for the delays are us. If I had authority, this would make sense, but I don’t…so it doesn’t.

  4. I work in an organization and have to deal with people who not only don’t do GTD, but consider any attempt to be organized a waste of time.
    I find all I can do is things on my waiting for list, and send reminders. I have no authority to make any one else do anything. Right now, I’m dealing with a situation myself – I have a document that I’ve written, but can’t send until it’s been reviewed. I have a due date for sending it, but none of the reviewers have one for getting back to me.

  5. Pat, that’s a frustrating situation. Can you ask those people to commit to a deadline? Ask them if it’s ok to remind them about it? Who’s ultimately in charge of getting the document out, i.e. who will be upset if it doesn’t happen?

    I think the best you can do is get buy-in about the deadline, permission to remind people, and if someone drops the ball, email the person ultimately in charge and say that the project is stalled until X is done — please let me know when this becomes a priority again.

  6. this post brings up memories:) if I only knew about GTD in college I feel I’d also could achieve much more and would inspire people and groups I was working with if they were willing to learn a bit about GTD.

    That’s true many people can’t or don’t want to get organized (not knowing GTD). Work seems to be an extension of their social network but you have to look as if you were doing something

    sometimes nobody really sat done with them to clarify their goals in the job and how they streamline with the goals of the organization.

    One thing I’ve noticed though as I’m using GTD in all aspects of life is that people know they can depend on you, trust you, will ask you how to organize something and some will give you more work to do:) and some won’t like you for being too focused and serious.

    What is it that gives us this uneasy feeling when we have to remind people of their tasks? It seems obvious that if they don’t do GTD then you have to put them on your @waiting list but when it comes to actually tapping on their shoulder there is this unwillingness. Is it personal insecurity or the way we are socially conditioned to believe that somebody will do the task they said they will do without checking on them?

  7. I am a project manager at work. One portion of your question raised a red flag with me.

    “I find that I usually take on the role of project coordinator: envisioning what needs to be done, thinking about the goals of the project, and assigning tasks to other people within the group.”

    While there will always be people that won’t deliver on their commitments, you will have a better completion rate for the commitments that people have come up with and committed to themselves. Meet with the people as a group that you think will be the contributors/workers. Discuss together and come to agreement on what the goal is, what the steps are to get there and who will do what and when they will do it. I’d encourage you to still think about this ahead of time and have your thoughts about it. The goal and steps that the group comes up with will be even better than what you will come up with by yourself. Each person has knowledge and experiences to bring to the team. You’ll have more perspectives and more questioning of what may seem like the obvious solution. Because the project is their idea, they’ll be more committed to delivering. Because they’ve committed to a date instead of having a date imposed on them, they’re more likely to honor the date. They’ll have a better understanding of how their deliverable feeds into the next task and why something they think can be delivered 5 minutes before completion of a project really needs to be there a month earlier so others can do their part of the work.

    This is harder than coming up with a plan yourself and handing out assignments. I think you’ll be happier with the results.

  8. I completely agree with Karen – I too have worked as a Project Manager, and have also had a lot of experience working with ad hoc groups. By and large, the best thing you can do is engage the people you are working with and get them to buy into the project’s outcomes by themselves. You do this by asking them things like:

    – What would need to happen on this project to make it a success for you?
    – What is it that is holding you back from buying in to this project?
    – What can be changed that would bring you on board and get you to buy in to our shared objectives?

    (Your own wording may vary, given the context and the personality types you are working with). By asking these kind of questions, you empower your peers to take the project on board themselves. Additionally, by making statements about what it is they would like to see on the project, they become partially accountable for its success.

    I’m returning to school for Law after spending five years working as a PM and practicing GTD. I’m really excited to put everything that I’ve learned to work!

  9. Over the years, I’ve used a refinement of the “check-in” technique that has worked really well. I’m sure it’s not new, but I came up with it while applying for my first home mortgage.

    Somewhere early in the process, I realized that I was the only one who really cared about getting the loan (and house). Dozens of people were involved, some had a stake, many had responsibilities. I started calling people before deadlines, but I didn’t ask “is it done yet?” I asked something else, anything else.

    Any time I talked to someone, I collected notes and questions. If I had 3 non-urgent questions to ask the appraiser, I didn’t ask them all. I’d keep some in reserve to ask at check-in time. And the check-in question doesn’t have to be related to the task at hand. I was ruthless. I’d call the real estate agent to ask for the name of the Indian restaurant she’d once mentioned. The loan officer got a call for her cat’s birthday.

    I guess it’s all about communication. This technique doesn’t always work. But if you have some rapport with the people — and can collect *any* data at all — a friendly call about something moves you to the front of their attention. Most of the time, the person would volunteer the status of their items, without the unpleasantness of nagging.

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