Where GTD Falls Short

Lately, I’ve been snowed under, literally and figuratively. Almost every waking minute of every day is spent doing work, or for moments too brief, helping to tend to my six-month-old boy Conor. Relaxation is almost non-existent, and the stress (compounded by all-too-typical personal issues) has built up to rather exorbinant levels. My only time to relax seems to be in those fleeting moments that I read myself to sleep. Reading is good… it calms the mind, tires the eyes and body, and takes the tenseness out of the muscles in preparation for rest. Sometimes, though, the mind can get hooked on an idea from a book, or even an idea lacking from a book, and seize upon that for continuing hours of (often frustrating) wakefulness. I had such a night recently, and the book I was reading was (no surprise here) Getting Things Done. It finally occured to me what the methodology was missing, for me, and it lay at the roots of my elevated stress levels.

Back in my former life, when I did the “corporate thing”, I read Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and the follow-up First Things First. The ideas were good, but they got lost in all the other business-oriented winning-strategy style books I was plowing through on a weekly basis. I took a notion or two from him, but even those became twisted out of recognisability when processed with a hundred other competing methodologies. Eventually, they (and dozens of other books) were consigned to boxes or the back-of-shelf areas behind little-read technical books.

I’ve never been an overly-religious person, and at times far too logical for my own good. This is why Getting Things Done was initially a great fit for me: it’s great for geeks that want a 1-2-3 process that they can follow, much like a computer can follow a script language. But what’s missing is depth. By depth, I’m not referring to procedural depth, or the flexibility to handle multiple situations — GTD is quite able for such things. Instead, I’m referring to something that penetrates deeper down into what it means to be human.

[I can get a thousand people clicking their “back” buttons now….]

Covey is actually good for this sort of thing. For example, early on in Seven Habits, he differentiates between “character” and “personality” -driven methods and traits. “Personality” encompasses all those quick-fix methodologies that all the gurus are constantly touting in their one-day seminars. Let’s face it: we all know that –if these work at all– they don’t last long before other things fall apart. For example, take the whole idea of “smart negotiation” (something I didn’t get from Covey, but a good example, in my opinion). If you go into a conference room, you’re supposed to sit with your back to the window. Psychologically, this intimidates people: the light behind you makes you appear more powerful, looking into any glare is typically unsettling for everybody else, and the person opposite you cannot read your facial expressions very easily. But, although this is all well and good, effective negotiation skills require more than just simple psych-out parlour tricks. You need to have a strong presence, a good knowledge of the facts, a grounding in diplomacy, and a certain degree of wisdom that allows alternate viewpoints and compromise. And these would be the “character”-oriented traits that Covey is focussing on.

Covey preaches habits that work deep-down, that are a cumulative process in achieving effectiveness in both work and personal dealings. Habit three, “First things first”, is his take on organisational methods, but is only a small part of the big picture. (It is, however, the subject devoted to his follow-up book.) By contrast, GTD is far more shallow in this regard: it is something that can be digested in a week, and can be used very quickly and effectively because it is so procedural. Note that I’m puposely disregarding the “runway to 50K feet” bits, because I feel that these seem like quickly-written sections to address longer-term issues that GTD doesn’t really handle well — it works best as a short- to intermediate-term strategy, in my opinion. Whereas GTD concentrates on day-to-day processes, Covey proposes habits that must be acquired carefully and through thought and deed, and these will take months –if not years– to permeate your life and methods.

So, it is “depth” that I’m missing in GTD. You may argue that GTD is just a way of becoming more productive. That’s true, and fair enough. It’s the whole top-down vs. bottom-up debate all over again, and neither is more correct than the other: both are perfectly valid, and will appeal to certain individuals according to their own tastes and situations. For me, at this stage in my life, I’m at a crossroads. No doubt, I will continue to use GTD methods, but I will take another look at Covey and try to build up the life and character I need to possess, because I want to feel good about who I am, what I can do with the years ahead, and what sort of person I should be to lead a good example for my baby boy. Thanks to GTD, I have a map of my day and week, but now I need a map of my life.

Is Covey the answer? I don’t know, but it’s a good first step.

15 Replies to “Where GTD Falls Short”

  1. “I’ve been snowed under, literally and figuratively”. Sorry, this comment is off topic, but this use of ‘literally’ is becoming very common and I don’t understand it at all. Please tell me what it means in that sentence.

  2. “Literally” meaning that we’re actually snowed under. 30 cm of snow the other day, 20 cm more today, and at least another 15 cm tomorrow. Not unusual for Newfoundland in January or February.

  3. First things first… yeah.

    My thinking very often tends to the relentlessly high level. I can reduce any problem or situation to an unanswerable philosophical question. I am the poster child of analysis paralysis.

    It’s true that you will run into problems if you never stop and look at the bigger picture, but take it from me – it’s possible to go too far in the opposite direction, and it’s utterly crippling. I’m sure you understand this. As you say, it’s the old top-down vs. bottom up debate. You can’t ensure that you’ll find the correct balance for your situation, but you can ensure that you’ll get nowhere if you spend all your time looking.

    Based soley on word of mouth in the blogosphere, I’m working on implementing GTD myself. Right now I’m not worried about bigger picture, because I’ve already spent far too much time thinking about it.

  4. ““Literally” meaning that we’re actually snowed under. 30 cm of snow the other day, 20 cm more today, and at least another 15 cm tomorrow. Not unusual for Newfoundland in January or February.”

    Thanks for the clarification. False alarm.

  5. For me, this post hit spot on with a lot of the same struggles I have in either a) being organized and productive with GTD, or b) doing meaningful things a la 7 Habits.

    Conceptually, I think the solution is in the welding of GTD and 7 Habits at the 20000 feet level (areas of focus). I would equate these with Covey roles and anything 20000 feet and above is based on a 7 Habits approach, and 19999 feet and below is best served by GTD (projects and actions).

    The Covey compass (roles & goals, big rocks, etc.) would be incorporated into the week’s hard landscape on the calendar.

    The thing that really is hard to reconcile between the two is Covey’s time matrix (do Q1 and Q2 only), and GTD’s “track even the small stuff to get it off your mind” approach, which could involve Q3 or Q4 activities.

    I also think there’s a little guidance to be taken from Sally McGhee’s book “Take Back Your Life!”, which is GTD’s separated-at-birth twin. She organizes projects and next actions around meaningful objectives, which could also be equated to Covey roles and goals. Worth a read as well, if you’re trying to fill in the gaps in GTD.

  6. myself i enjoyed organizing from the inside out…

    and instead of reading i can get to sleep each and every night with the lord’s prayer.. it’s about surrender, forgiveness and… and most of all letting go. it’s no secret, but I also recommend deep breathing. simple things to keep you sane in stressful times.

    btw. thanks for fixing the washing machine sweetie.

  7. “Thanks to GTD, I have a map of my day and week, but now I need a map of my life.”

    This is why I try to incorporate both Covey and Allen into my routine. The problem I have with Covey is that it’s too high-level for my daily work, interruptions (etc.). That’s where GTD fits in. I still agree with and re-read Covey to get back to the mindset that I think you’re talking about.

  8. I agree, GTD does nothing to help me decide who I am, just how to do the things I decide I need to do. As an engineer I like to think of the delimma in the same light as the difference between classic newtonian and quantum physics. Newton is nice for the macroworld, but getting down to the sub-atomic requires a different tack and a whole new set of rules.

    As for the GTD zelots, I don’t think Mr. Allen nor Mr. Covey wrote their respective books as the end all, be all methods of “getting things done.” IMHO, they wrote them to provide tools to help people be more productive and resourceful in their own lives on their own terms, not to be the new savior of all that is organizational.

    Take and use what works for you personally. For example, I use Covey PlanPlus for Outlook for the macroworld planning I like to do: Who am I? (compass, roles) What do I want to accomplish in my life (goals, roles). Who is important to me? (roles). WHy are they important (roles, goals, and compass). Covey provides good tools and philosophy to help break down the big picture items into smaller chunks, which can then be drilled into by the GTD methodology.

    But both philosophies overlap. The best tools, (and GTD abd Covey are just that, TOOLS) leave many ways to accomplish the same things for the very important reason as to allow customization, adaptability, and versitility.

  9. I experienced some of the same issues recently, and got the audio book for Covey’s “The 8th Habit” – now I spend less time trying to get my inbox to empty and try to get my sense of purpose (living a life of “Meaning and Purpose” comes up a lot in this latest Covey book). Actually, the thing I realized was a) I didn’t have my goals written down – just a bunch of projects and tasks, and b) I was spending a lot of time on the GTD mechanics and neglecting getting the more important stuff done. Now, I’m trying to blend the two – use GTD to help me make progress toward the really important stuff I re-connected with after doing some reflection on why I’m around on the planet in the first place. Really enjoy your site – thanks.

  10. I have recently come to a similar conclusion–that GTD is fantastic for the runway and 10,000 feet but that it lacks the explicit values/principles/50,000 foot perspective. I am finding that Covey and GTD are not mutually exclusive. My weekly review (when I do it) is where I connect the bottom-up to the top-down approaches. I use both the GTD add-in for Outlook and Plan Plus for Outlook and find that they are very compatible stable mates

  11. One thing that’s missing from both GTD and Covey is any consideration of how long it takes to do a task or achieve a goal, and how much progress will fit in a given span of time. Julie Morgenstern’s time management book does address these issues, but in my opinion it’s generally not of the same caliber as Allen’s and Covey’s books.

  12. My impression from both GTD and Covey was that GTD addresses the everyday “doing” while Covey focuses on more overall planning. I am currently trying out a combination of both.

    Another point is that the five steps to project planning highlighted in the GTD book, can very well work for planning one’s life as well.

    There is also a good post by Steve Pavlina on this:


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