GTD sucks for creative work, part 2.
(This is Part 2 in a series about My Productivity System.)
*(I made some changes to this post on 6/7 after receiving some input from tivaski on Reddit.)
Hmmm… the whole driver of GTD for me was to optimize creative space. Anything less is not “GTD.” It’s not about doing everything you’re committed to do.. it’s just about being free to be totally invested in what you’re doing. But don’t BS yourself. If you have internal commitments un-re-negotiated with yourself, they’ll suck your energy. So you’d better know what you’re not doing. Don’t kid yourself, about anything less. - David Allen
I agree that GTD methods can be very helpful to capture and process your ideas and commitments. But my last blog post was more about how do you focus on the work at hand. Sure it’s helpful if you don’t have a bunch of extraneous commitments laying around in the back of your head, but that’s only a part of the battle.
The part of creative work I was focusing on was the actual time of working on things. This is where I think the GTD system of projects and next actions (along with weekly reviews) is too rigid and expects too much from the user. It doesn’t give the clarity of focus or the flexibility of process to help me be more effective.
For example, when I am working on designing a new feature for one of our apps, oftentimes the “next action” is ambiguous. It usually starts with me taking 30-90 minutes of diving into it. It can last 2-6 hours, during which I’m doing a wide variety of tasks… and it’s constantly changing. Sometimes I stare at my notes for 20 minutes before having a clear thought to proceed. But case in point, GTD expects me to define a next action to my “project” and focus on that action. As a creative innovator, that approach is often too granular.
Today I was working on a new moderator function for one of our apps. I didn’t know my “next action”. I just knew I wanted to get finalized designs to my coding team by end of day. I was juggling a bunch of thoughts and tasks, and they changed almost at every moment.
What guided me to spend 6+ hours in intense focus (with small breaks) working on this feature and being wildly productive was my Desired Outcome. Today was my Product Features focus day and it was my #1 Desired Outcome to get the new moderator function finished. That drove me and honed my focus like a laser.
Desired Outcome vs Project
GTD could argue that my Desired Outcome can be considered a “GTD project.” But “project” is too loosely defined. A “project” could take 15 minutes or days. It can be small or large. It’s confusing.
Keeping three Desired Outcomes for each day and three larger Desired Outcomes for the week is a much better motivator and focus driver than “project” (whatever projects mean).
Each day I target three Desired Outcomes… they’re bite-sized enough to get started but not too large so you’re able to finish.
When you combine the three Daily Desired Outcomes, three Weekly Desired Outcomes, Daily Focus Areas, and the Pomodoro Technique, you’ve got a powerful way to keep you on track. It’s a way to be productive beyond your expectations.
Structure but not Rigidity
This works especially well if your work is creative and also if your self-managed. In this case, often your tasks are not necessarily well-defined, but you know intuitively where you need to head. You need a way to keep your ship steered in the right direction. You need structure but not rigidity. And this is where GTD fails IMO. It’s too rigid of a system. And it expects too much from it’s users. Most people who try to implement GTD don’t ever get to the point where they master the system. It’s also difficult to upkeep the GTD system with lists of projects and next actions, and having to do your GTD weekly review.
IMO the GTD system looks at actual work through the lens of the task-based time management era of the past. The focus was to manage projects and tasks. But the fundamental problem of task-based management systems is that they’re too task-focused. That’s okay when you’re tasks are well-defined. But when your tasks are continuously ambiguous and need flexibility, the task system starts to break down.
In our changing world the demands of our work increasingly require us to be more creative and to create higher value output. GTD has lost it’s steam and it’s time to move on to something more relevant. The new system needs to allow for flexibility and creativity to achieve awesome goals that you can reach every day.
In my next blog post, I’ll share about the centerpiece of my focus management system, the Week Chart. Stay tuned.
Here’s a brief background of my GTD usage. I was a GTD fanatic for 4+ years and followed the book to the letter (in fact, I read it over 10 times). I was religious in keeping my GTD weekly reviews. I often reviewed all my current projects and next actions and prioritized them. I captured and processed my ideas efficiently and kept a clean inbox. And here’s the kicker… I actually loved GTD while I was doing it. I introduced GTD to countless friends and colleagues and even coached people in the GTD way. I found that since all my projects and tasks were in this system, I was free to not think of them outside of work. I would have fantastic times of reflection and enjoyed hobbies and my free time. I lived in this happy state for 4+ years. Though at times managing lots of projects and next actions was challenging, I felt it was worth it because of the benefits. However, things started to change when I started a tech company. My demands changed and I was forced to design products that people love. I needed to create something awesome and not just focus on a next action step. In fact, I needed to create something awesome every day, and I needed extremely long periods of focus on complex problems. GTD broke down. If my job was more routine or predictable, I think it could of worked. But I needed a system that would harness my focus on tangible daily and weekly goals and not sidetrack me with a list of rigid tasks and endless projects. So, the system I shared in my last blog post was something I’ve been working on for the past few years. I’ve got a lot to say about each part and hope to share more. If you have any comments, please share. Thanks for reading.