What’s Wrong with GTD (Part One)?

GTD Hurts

I’m a big believer in the value of David Allen’s Getting Things Done or GTD.

It’s one of the most effective productivity systems I’ve ever come across and it’s rightly lauded by adopters and praised by Fortune 500 professionals. That doesn’t mean the system is perfect.

GTD-ers shouldn’t be afraid to critique their favourite productivity system. It’s a robust and accomplished productivity system that should be able to withstand debate and even criticism.

With this in mind, I offer up some of the pitfalls I’ve come across while trying to Get Things Done.

GTD Doesn’t Lend itself Towards Creative Work

David Allen is a business person. The company behind GTD describes how many of its clients are Fortune 500 companies.

That’s a testament to the success of the GTD business. It’s also a weakness of the system in that it’s geared by business people towards business people, rather than creative professionals.

GTD lends itself towards accomplishing a series of tasks or jobs. It revolves around managing projects and realising outcomes.

When you are in the act of creating, say writing a short story for example, GTD can feel restrictive.

It’s impossible to track the Next Actions, Waiting Fors and Someday/Maybes of a piece of fiction. When you are creating, you need to be able to go deeper than a series of lists and predefined productivity categories.

Similarly, a paragraph, chapter or character sketch can’t be marked as complete on a GTD list because these parts of a short story are dynamic and they change over the life of a project.

Writing involves completing a passage and then going back to that passage and re-writing it over and over.

GTD Land

In GTD land, this can look like an endless series of tasks but in the creative world it’s actually part of a fluid process, rather than one that can be neatly broken down into Next Actions, Outcomes and so on.

In fact, many authors regularly say that their works are never really finished, they’re just published.

Then, there are the days when you turn up in front of the blank page and produce nothing. There’s no way to record this in GTD and I find the Pomodoro technique a far more useful method of tracking my writing progress.

I’m not the only person to say so: see this and this. There are several other productivity systems for creative professionals including the Action Method.

What GTD does do is help you to develop the physical and mental time and space to get creative. It’s just not that helpful when you are in the act of creating.

GTD Workflow

There Are Barriers of Entry to GTD

David Allen writes it takes a year or two to become a “black belt” in GTD, that is to become someone who captures everything.

GTD is rather difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t read the book.

The first time I saw the GTD diagram (pictured), I was intimidated by what looked like a rather complex and involved system.

It’s actually not that complicated but I was put off by GTD’s use of terminology like Buckets, Tickler, Next Actions and so on.

These made little sense to me until I read the GTD books. A personal Kanban system, on the other hand, makes sense the moment you come across it.

This extra degrees of complexity may explain why many GTD-ers express anxiety about whether they are doing it right.


There are dozens of apps designed with GTD in mind. It can take several hours to fully master these apps or to develop a personal GTD system of your own. Omnifocus strikes me as one application with a steep learning curve.

David Allen spends more time in his books describing the theory of GTD than explaining how to set up Wunderlist, OmniFocus or his system of choice.

That’s not to say it’s not worth investing in GTD but I was unprepared for the amount of time I’d have to spend developing a personal GTD system that’s supposed to save me time.

At the other side of this process, I can safely say GTD provides me with the mental head space to get work done but it took a bit of time and commitment to get here.

In the second part of this post, I’ll consider whether children really need to learn productivity methods like GTD.

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