The Creative War Against Getting Things Done

by Mike Shea on 26 April 2012

30 second summary

Across the web, creative types have described Getting Things Done as too tweaky for the creative process and too regimented for simple peace of mind. Creative people spend too much time tweaking their systems or become tied so close to their contextual action lists that they forget to enjoy life. These criticisms have merit. These faults lie with the person, not the system. The intent of a good system is to help people relax and focus on the most creative projects of their lives. If it's not, the system isn't working. What can you do? Keep your system simple and keep it focused on the things most important in your life.

On Over-tweaking

In the article Rethinking Productivity for Creatives, C.J. Chilvers states:

My theory is that the creative mind approaches task management in a way David Allen, and the developers of most GTD-related apps, never accommodated in their methodologies. In short, I believe productivity methodologies themselves only aid Resistance.

Resistance, coined by Steven Pressfield and popularized by Seth Godin, is a term is used to describe the anything creatives use to distract themselves from the pain of accomplishing projects and facing criticism. From obsessively cleaning the house to checking Twitter, resistance comes in all forms. It's sole purpose is to kill creative accomplishment.

It seems to me, GTD apps are Resistance's greatest ally. There are so many ways to tag, organize, re-arrange and review tasks, it becomes a comfort to fiddle.

Over-tweaking is a huge problem in personal productivity. Diving into raw creative activity or starting a brand new project takes a great deal of commitment and energy. Messing around picking the right Moleskine and fountain pen doesn't require nearly as much energy. This is where the concept of "the resistance" (coined in Steven Pressfield's War of Art plays a big part. The resistance makes you feel more productive even though you're not actually producing anything.

This isn't a problem of the system. GTD, at it's core, is a very simple system:

  1. Capture stuff in a trusted system (write shit into a notebook).
  2. Process this stuff into projects (big things) and actions (small next-steps).
  3. Write down contextual action lists such as "at home" or "at work".
  4. Review all your projects, schedules, and loose notes once a week.

On being too task-focused

In Toss Productivity Out, Leo Babauta of Zen Habits states:

Imagine instead of cranking out a lot of widgets, you made space for what's important. Imagine that you worked slower instead of faster, and enjoyed your work. Imagine a world where people matter more than profits.

When we get too wired to our personal organization system, we lose the joy of simply loafing around. I could get on my high horse and say "that's fine for a guy who blogs for a living" but he's not exactly wrong.

One of my biggest problems with GTD is that I spend too much energy ensuring I have an empty action list. As soon as I have a list with seven items on it, I work my ass off getting ALL SEVEN off of my list as soon as I can. This leads to half-ass jobs and a self-induced action-list stress. The whole point of the system is to get stuff out of your head and into a trusted system. The point is NOT to make you DO all that stuff as fast as you can. I should be happy with a list of seven unfinished items on it instead of stressing out until its empty.

Also, and this is really weird, when I find myself with an empty action list, I go a little crazy. An empty action list is like dividing by zero. Instead of feeling free and on top of everything in my life, I become convinced that I'm missing something. That something, somewhere, fell through, and I obsess about it.

Throwing out the lists, however, won't help us feel relaxed and creative. Instead, it will fill us with the stress of forgotten actions. Forgetting about tasks, as Leo might recommend, doesn't take away the stress of wondering if my credit card got hacked. That stress will just come back around sometime. We all have responsibilities in our lives. We can't simply throw away the action list that says "call accountant re: tax return" and hope the IRS doesn't throw us in jail.

Neither of these behaviors are good but again, it's not the system's fault. It's mine.

Simplifying your system and your life

Simplifying helps both of these problems. "If you want to get more done, do less" David Allen once said. The importance of getting all your projects out of your head and in front of you means you can decide which of these projects are really important to your life and which you should throw away.

GTD is a great system for tracking projects and actions but it doesn't do a great job tying them to the most important goals of your life. David Allen talks about it in his book but its not nearly as well defined as the core concepts of GTD. Stephen Covey in 7 Habits does a better job tying projects and actions to the life-fulfilling goals one might have.

Figuring out which projects you can get rid of, projects that are no longer important to you or to anyone you care about, is a great way to make your life easier. The weekly review is a great time to do it.

Your system itself can be simplified (see Simplifying GTD). Remove the parts of GTD that don't make sense and only use the pieces that directly help you. Let's be honest, those 43 folders are just a pain in the ass. Maybe you don't need nearly as many contextual action lists as you think. How about just @Home and @Office. Try getting rid of "waiting for" and "someday maybe" lists. Both were just crutches anyway.

Your system should only be as complex as you absolutely need it to be. Remove every component that doesn't help you feel relaxed and help you accomplish the things important in your life.

On Omnifocus

Omnifocus may seem tweaky but the ability to push off actions until the right time along with location made a huge difference. Like contexts, it ensures you don't see to-do items until you can actually do them. Being able to set up reoccurring tasks is also a huge benefit.

We all have things to do, things to remember. GTD gives us a way to get it out of our minds so our minds can focus on the large creative projects it should instead of trying to remember to get our oil changed.

Discipline is required in all of this. Don't over-tweak your system and don't lose sight of what is really important in your life.