Dave Lee

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Jun 3

GTD sucks for creative work. Here’s an alternative system.

(This is Part 1 in a series about My Productivity System.)

A friend asked me this question about what system I use to manage my todo list:

Your todo list is probably like mine, a million items long and constantly growing… Do you use a system or systems to manage your todo list? I’ve been loosely following GTD, and currently using a text document to handly my todo list. The text file is quite humongous.. i like the simplicity and speed for cut and paste and rearranging… but sorting is a pain. Just downloaded “Things” for Mac to see if it can relieve some pain.

So, here’s my critique of GTD. I used to be a GTD fanboy for about 4 years starting 2002. I considered myself a “black belt” in the GTD system and even converted those around me. However, the system became a drag after a while. Too many projects and too many next actions. It was information overload. I think my brain couldn’t handle my 50-100 ongoing projects and next actions.

I think GTD can work for those who have more straightforward jobs, like sales. In sales, you have a bunch of calls and emails to make and you need a system to follow up on all your leads. However, in creative work it’s much more fluid and rather than having a 100 leads to follow up on, you need focus to drive development and innovation on a project.

Though I still appreciate some of GTD’s principles (next action, desired outcome as project, brain dumping, etc), I think the system can actually work against the creative innovator. It boggles down the innovator with a flood of tasks, when the innovator needs space and room for experimentation and discovery.

Most task/to-do software is based around the concept of projects and tasks. It’s really too bad. The tendency is to fill up your task software with dozens of projects and tasks under each project. But the more you look at your projects and tasks every day for the next few weeks, it gets discouraging. It feels like a never-ending river of stress.

The most important thing for the creative innovator is not a ton of tasks to do but rather the ability to see what’s important to focus on and to focus on that deeply. The creative innovator needs to go deep on a feature or issue, and the deeper they go the more creativity they unleash.. thus creating lots of value to the end user.

So, what’s my task system?

1. I like to break down my week into daily focuses that are the same each and every week. I’ve chosen then five most important areas in my business and focus on them, one per day.

2. I choose my three most desired outcomes for that week. This gives me a goal and vision for my week.

3. I choose my three most desired outcomes for the day at the beginning of the day. All three outcomes should be related to your focus of the day.

4. I use the Pomodoro Technique to work in 25 minute focused sessions. I time myself with My Little Pomodoro mac app and take regular breaks.

5. I organize each daily focus as a separate project. So really, I only keep 5 projects and that’s it.

6. In each of my five projects, I keep the minimum amount of information I need to keep focused. I don’t flood each project with tons of tasks and notes. I jot down the few to several things in that area that I need to be working on and key related info. I also track our key metrics here. I currently use Google spreadsheets and Asana (though I’m not happy with the software setup, I manage to make it work).

7. Information that isn’t critical at the moment for one of my five projects, I move to our team wiki. Our wiki serves as a Quick Reference space where I can put non-critical notes and ideas. These are things that I don’t want to forget and would like to get to someday. I keep them separate from my projects to keep my projects space clean.

8. Other information that I don’t need quick access to I store in my Dropbox or email archive. This acts as a Remote Reference for me, in case I need something in the future I can search for and find it.

9. I prioritize my day to focus on the daily focus area and the three desired outcomes of that day. Toward the end of the day I’ll work on other less crucial areas like email.

10. I keep a clean desk, clean desktop, and clean email inbox. This helps keep the clutter down and makes #1-9 work better.

Personally, I can’t bear the thought of trying to organize my work with Things for Mac (or similar task management software). Typically, you create some projects and fill them with tasks, and before you know it you have so many projects and tasks that it’s overwhelming. The whole thing becomes a distraction and a drag. It makes work less enjoyable.

Daily focuses and minimal tasks keep me focused and super productive. It makes doing creative work fun.

Try it out.

(Read more about My Productivity System.  Check out my other series too.)

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update: This post hit #3 on Hacker News and was picked up on Lifehacker as well. 15k+ visits in 2 days, thanks.