Grounded & Steadfast

The journal of Chris Bowler, a collection of thoughts on faith, business, design, and the creative process. Also working on Idea Cafe.

GTD - The Backlash or: What Does it Take to Actually Get Better

Man, Merlin stole my thunder. Not that there's a lot of thunder emanating from here, but I feel like somebody tapped into my brain and wrote out a lot of my thoughts. Except better.

I spent a lot of time thinking things through this past weekend, focusing once again on simplicity and how to improve my life, while also improving the lives of others. For several weeks I've had a half written post based on the negativity I've seen lately towards GTD, just sitting on my laptop, waiting for the ideas to become fully fleshed. Last week, the idea got kick-started by Merlin's post on his personal blog.

And today he moved his thoughts to 43 folders, and laid down the gauntlet. I hate to seem like I'm responding to anything one particular blogger posts, but this is an area I care a lot about and he's leading the way. Rightfully so — —43 folders really helped make this whole sub culture thrive, partly because people were hungry for this sort of thing, but also because Merlin Mann is a dynamic individual. So it only makes sense that he's recognized the problems that have arisen.

If this type of content interests you and you haven't read the links provided above, please do so now. It'll be worth it.

The Problem

Part me says, “Preach it brother!” Another part of me says, “Dude, you're responsible for my problem. You made it cool and way too easy to fiddle.” But we have to own up—. We are accountable for ourselves, and if I waste way too much time mucking around with new tools, I've no one to blame but myself.

We live in a dangerous time. The last ten years brought a lot of change as to how folks get their news. How many of us still have a subscription to the local paper? Magazines? The Internet offers us all the things older forms of media did, except in an exceedingly higher volume and speed. This change is intertwined with changes in how a lot of people work today.

You can disagree, —this is merely my opinion. But look closely — —while the Internet was rapidly growing and evolving, giving us more and more ways to communicate and ingest stimuli, so to was this focus on productivity. But in both arenas, it seems like too much emphasis was on what could be done, rather that what should be done.

But isn't that the backdrop of the 20th century? It's time to move on.

The Backlash

In the past few months, I've been struck with the sense that a lot of folks are tired of this cult. There seems to be a growing trend of people against GTD and all it represents. Are people getting sick of the whole idea? Poke around the Internets these days and you will certainly find those that are starting to think that way.

But is GTD the problem? No way. Mr. Allen's succinct methodology is simply a grouping of concepts meant to reduce stress while being productive. No, the problem lies in the cottage industry that has grown up around GTD, hoping to wring profit from the legions of us infected cultists. Merlin went into this idea in depth today. Unfortunately, I think there are genuine people out there who want to help others and better themselves at the same time, even if that includes earning an income. I'd hope to include myself in that group.

So, while I agree with Merlin, this is only part of the problem. We also have to take ownership here— — there would be no cottage industry if we didn't pay attention. We feed the monster. And that's why the backlash has begun. And in essence, that's seems to be why he's changing his focus.

I've felt it here as well. Maybe no one has noticed, but when I'm writing, I don't even like to use the terms GTD or system anymore. GTD, or whatever your ‘system’ of choice, are merely tools to accomplish that which you want to achieve. When the tool becomes the focus — —the only focus— — then we've missed the mark of what GTD was intended to improve. Namely, completing work and our ability to do so. Not to give us another distraction.

And that is part of the issue here. Your system can be such a cleverly disguised distraction, a wolf dressed up in the attire of fruitfulness, beguiling us into believing that surely we'd be better suited to Tool X rather than Tool Y. Even though we spent two hours just last week moving to Tool Y. After all, if we're working on our productivity system, surely we are in essence, being productive.

Nope. If you find yourself working on your system, rather than in your system (or better yet, your system working for you), then you probably know what I'm talking about.

How Do We Actually Get Better

We have to stop worrying about how we work and focus on the intended, desired results. And what's really important to us.

Our tendency is to cut down on RSS feeds, social networks and applications. To simplify and reduce. “If I could just improve my discipline, I'd get so much more done.” Those things are a good start, but that only works for so long. Soon, the feed count creeps up again. Suddenly, you've signed up for another ten new web apps that you'll never use after the first week.

You know what? Forget about discipline. We need to change two things: our priorities and our habits. And if our focus is on our priorities, the habits will change all by themselves.

Priorities

There are perfectly sane folks out there who kick arse and get stuff done—. And they've never even heard of GTD. Why is this? Because they are programmed in such a way that doing a great job is their number one priority. They take on a task, problem or project, and single-mindedly hack at it until the job is done. And done well. Sure, maybe those kinds of people could be helped by some tools or techniques that would make them more efficient. But either way, they'll get the job done.

What are the priorities for your life? Do your goals encompass everything that is important to you? What's more important, —keeping up with the latest news or creating amazing websites? Making muxtapes or writing that book? Or better yet, ensuring you have a great, lasting relationship with your kids, your spouse, your friend(s). Whoever.

If you often struggle with the choice to catch up with what's happening on Twitter or to catch up with what's happening with the important people in your life—your real life, —than perhaps it's time for some reflection. If you spend more time reading about the works of other writers/developers/designers than writing/developing/designing, perhaps it's time for some reflection.

And please don't feel that I'm preaching. I count myself unfortunately in this camp.

Habits

Back to habits. This isn't really something to try and change. Why don't diets work? Because they are temporary. Change your lifestyle and the weight stays off. And you can only change your lifestyle when feeling healthy has become a higher priority than the momentary pleasure that Krispy Kreme bacon cheeseburger will give you.

Maybe I'm spitting in the wind here, but I feel it's the same for our goals. The byproduct of changed priorities will be changed habits.


This recent focus on BETTER has been positive, judging by the reaction of a lot of other people. And if we can focus the blame on ourselves instead of the tools, I think we'll be in good shape. Getting Things Done can still be an aid, rather than a distraction.

I'll still stick with my beliefs — —a focused weekly review is a powerful thing. More to follow.