The Role of Curation in a True GTD System

Today's post is all about David Allen's personal management system called Getting Things Done. If you aren't familiar with it, you may want to read the book, or at least the Wikipedia article first.

I've seen a lot of chatter recently in the blogs I follow about whether GTD is "good" for creatives. As an ardent follower of David Allen's seminal personal management system, I must say I feel compelled to share my thoughts. If this little flare up had happened a couple of months ago, I probably would've been right in the thick of defending canonical GTD. I've had a lot of success using the system to help me manage my student teaching experience, my long-term substitute teaching experience, coaching a college hockey team, starting graduate school, starting a business and a multitude of small and medium-sized projects in between. GTD has been my stalwart companion during this entire time. However, I realized even though it may seem like a lot when it's all listed out like that, each of these times of my life usually featured one or two major projects that spawned smaller projects. I've always had a lot to do, but up until recently I've never felt that my ability to manage the sheer number of possibilities has been tested. Now? Things are different. 

Graduate school seems to have the unique property of providing exponentially more (quantitatively) and more interesting projects the better work you do. The more I buckled down on my rock solid implementation of GTD, the more opportunities I had for really interesting projects. It's cool to have things to choose from, but this pattern is not sustainable. Eventually something had to break; either me or my system (or both).

I became bogged down in the details of following up on my huge list of available projects. I spent more time making sure I had next actions defined than I did actually doing the work. Let me stop you right now if you're a GTD fan because I know what your counterargument is going to be. This isn't a failure of the system, it's a failure in my ability to be crystal clear about what's true for me right now in terms of how much I can really accept on my proverbial work plate. It's a failure of priority, not the system. However, being a staunch follower of GTD led me to feel I could accept anything and everything because I had become so good at handling the never-ending stream of information. I felt like I could take something else on because I had a very clear sense of what I've currently committed to. I just had a bad case of eyes-bigger-than-my-stomach syndrome. Because I always knew what the next action was for any of the projects in my system, every time I sat down to work on one project all I could think about was how I should be doing any number of other projects (and not on an amorphous level -- I knew what the next actions were for each of them). It resulted in me flitting from project to project on a typical day, knocking out next actions and slowly, achingly slowly, moving my entire retinue of projects toward completion.

Something needed to change and last week I made those changes. First, it was simply a matter of ending commitments to those activities and responsibilities that weren't fulfilling me in the way they should (beating them with my GTD club in MacSparky parlance). Then, it was committing to one area of responsibility, or even better, one project, for an entire day and scheduling out my week in advance. Immediately I stopped feeling like I needed to be working on projects X, Y, and Z every time I sat down to do A. I think my brain realized I had already slotted myself time to work on those projects later in the week so I was finally free to bring my mental power to bear on one project. I'm currently tweaking this approach as it turns out some areas of responsibility, while important, can't fill an entire day. For the upcoming week I'm trying breaking my day into two chunks, Morning and Afternoon. Each chunk gets an area of responsibility or a specific project. Friday is mostly for taking care of whatever is on my mind at the most at that time.

This may not work if you don't have the benefit of having some serious control over how you spend your time. Luckily, since I'm not currently in classes and I'm largely self-employed so I can decide what my days look like to a very large extent. Another test to this early modification of my GTD implementation will be when mission critical information for non-active projects enter my awareness (like an important email to move forward my TEDx planning that arrives on a non-TEDx work day). Will I be able to resist the urge to throw my plan to the wayside and dive back into a certain project? If that's on my mind should i even be trying to ignore it or save it for another day? I haven't figured it all out yet, but I feel better about where I am now as compared to a couple weeks ago.

And the ultimate conclusion from all of this, obviously, is that GTD really wasn't the problem. Losing the critical eye that helped me differentiate between "hell yeah!" and "eh, I guess," is what resulted in me resenting my GTD system. I don't use a canonical GTD system anymore. I can't remember the last time I used a context list and I can't tell you the natural planning model off the top of my head, but that's okay. GTD is much more a system of behaviors than it is an external "thing" that has to be maintained.

What it comes down to is that I became so good at keeping track of everything happening to me I stopped asking myself what was actually necessary to do my most important, and best, work. At some point I lost the curation process and turned my GTD system into a database of everything in my life, not a reflection of my true priorities and values.

This isn't a matter of a system that's good or bad for one type of person or another -- it's a matter of figuring out what matters for you and creating something that allows you to do more of it.