How I restart GTD

OK, you read GETTING THINGS DONE (hereafter GTD), you tried to “cut over” to GTD in two days, and, you’ve ended up with a train wreck of old and new systems.  You are kicking yourself.  You spouse is silent but you can feel her/him thinking “s/he’ll never change” and man, if you had only kept your mouth shut about how great GTD was at the office!

Now what?

Well, first, congratulations!  You have taken the first big step towards stress free productivity: shifting from an un-designed information processing architecture, to GTD.  That is, you are shifting from a system that is locally-optimal, open-loop, instinct-based and set in the concrete of habit, to an information processing architecture designed to keep you above water, no matter how fast the water is pouring in.  This is a big step that 90% (my guess) of GTD’s readers do not make on the first try.

The first time

In retrospect, my first on-the-wagon and then off-the-wagon experience had the impact of a cavalry charge on my brain.  As I’ve read recently in evolutionary psychology (Recommendations: INCOGNITO, WILLPOWER <- Great interview of David Allen, THE MOST HUMAN HUMAN, and SEX MURDER AND THE MEANING OF LIFE) I’ve been delighted to learn about “subselves” in our cognitive processing. I think subselves have a lot to say about how people adopt change.


If you’ve ever felt your mind shift modes, for example, you know what subselves are.  In SEX, MURDER, AND THE MEANING OF LIFE, Kenrick describes the following subselves based on empirical psychological research:

  1. Team player (p. 92)
  2. Go getter (social status also p. 92)
  3. Night watchman (p. 92 accessing this sub-self is really cool, they have you read a story about how you are laying in bed at 3:00 am and hear glass break, then hear feet on the stairs, and then see the shadow of a person on your bedroom wall.  Then, they can ask your night watchman whatever they want and s/he will tell them all.)
  4. The compulsive (disease avoider p. 92)
  5. Swinging single (p. 92)
  6. Good spouse (p. 92)
  7. Good parent (p. 92)

In the first attempt to cut over to GTD there is a lot of subself cynicism to overcome.  You’ve got seven people in your head that aren’t you, that is, are not your consciousness.  It takes time to expose your subselves to GTD, to allow them to make up their own sub-self-minds about whether they like GTD.   In this, I think that GTD can be a lot like tennis.


In THE INNER GAME OF TENNIS Tomthy Gallwey comments:

So there seems to be room for comment on the improvement of the mental processes which translate technical information about how to hit a ball into effective action. How to develop the inner skills, without which high performance is impossible, is the subject of The Inner Game of Tennis.


Gallwey, W. Timothy; Pete Carroll; Zach Kleiman (2010-06-22). The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance (p. 4). Random House Trade Paperbacks. Kindle Edition.

News: There is an inner game of GTD.  The subconscious learns by watching.  We are not going to convince our sub-selves of anything without prolonged demonstration of worth.  Some things have to be believed to be seen, and seen to be believed, at the same time.  Our conscious must believe to keep us doing GTD while our subconscious observes, and then once the subconscious has seen, it too will believe.


So we are going to have to be patient in catalyzing the society, of our minds.  We need to reflect on what went well with the GTD architecture in the first implementation attempt.  Give ourselves some time.   We need time because the center of self-knowledge and the center of emotion are in the brian’s limbic system.  This causes problems in learning upsetting things, about ourselves.  Here’s the internal conversation:

SELF KNOWLEDGE:  Emotion, I need to tell you something upsetting.  Your desk is a mess.


Emotion: YOU SHALL NOT PASS!  I prevent consciousness from thinking this terrible and upsetting thought.

So, don’t give up on GTD just because of simple little train wreck.  The potential for stress free doubled productivity, is still there.  But, you will have to work at capturing the value of GTD.  But, if you work smart, resistance is futile, your subselves will be assimilated!

Another GTD approach

David Allen cuts people over to GTD in 2 days.  Many people try but can’t make the 2-day cut.  I didn’t.  I needed a piece by piece approach.  Re-architecting work and thinking is just a huge deal.  It will need to take some time, some cunning, lots of self patience, and suspension of self-disbelief.


I’ve just read a fascinating book THE HOUSE THAT CLEANS ITSELF which is very GTD-like except that instead of focusing on knowledge work, it focuses on getting and keeping houses clean.  Because houses are so big, Mindy Starns Clark developed a methodology to break down the organizational problem.  In retrospect, THE HOUSE THAT CLEANS ITSELF methods are a pretty good explanation of how I implemented GTD.


  • If you could change your behavior, you already would have.  So, change the house to fit your behavior instead (p. 13).  Change the house first, … change the behavior only when absolutely necessary.
  • Lower your house cleanliness standards to “clean enough.”  The GTD equivalent “organized enough” which I think David Allen said.
  • We like clutter because of the emotional baggage tied up in clutter p. 15
  • Draw an as-built of your house.  Break the house down into homogenous spaces and number them.  You will progress through your house organizing based on this number scheme. P. 22
  • Let your house run without picking up p. 49.  Then, take a ladder and photograph each of the areas of your house from above. Start a notebook (one mess, one piece of paper!!!)
  • Review your notebook with the pictures of each space, list the problems and root causes of the problems for each space p. 55.
  • Decide your home base zone  p 26.  This is the place that disorganization most drains you.  For me, it is the desk.  Pick the first place to fix, that will provide you with the most hope.
  • Don’t over-organize, use broad category definitions to avoid category paralysis p. 68.
  • When tools fail, use what you’ve learned to come up with a better, simpler, way of doing things p. 72.  Don’t do it if it does not work for you p. 74.
  • Every possession you have takes a piece of your time p. 98.  To which in my mind, I can hear David Allen say “… and a piece of your mind.”
  • Create “MABYE” boxes, number them, fill them up with stuff you are unsure you can part with, then put a calendar appointment for 6 months from when you put the MAYBE box in the attic.  After 6 months look at it or just pitch it  p. 101.
  • Create stations.  Stations are the resources needed to complete jobs (writing a letter, talking on the phone, cleaning, etc.) that are organized to be near the job.  You find the stations you need by watching for rabbit trails (i.e., paths darting all over to gather the resources to do a job) p. 124.
  • The process is gradual and begins on paper and works on only one room at a time p. 126.

OK, we have the divide and conquer idea.  So, how do we translate this to a second run at switching over to GTD?  How can you divide up your office within the David Allen GTD flow diagram?  In retrospect here is how I divided and conquered over three years.

Step 1: get the desk cleared.  For my desk, the problem was organization and cables.  But after listening to GTD a couple times I bit the bullet, ordered a cheap laser printer so as GTD advises I could have output at my desk, I ordered a label printer, and I bit my lip and ordered a Fujisu ScanSnap scanner because my buddy Steve Nipper would not shut up about how great his Fujitsu scanner is.   Buy the best, only cry once!

5 step adoption

Before GTD step #1:

After GTD step #1:

Having vastly improved my desk as my home base zone, I next tackled project management infrastructure.

I struggled with how to deal with manilla folders and electronic files.  One the one hand I wanted to have THE ONE SYSTEM TO RULE THEM ALL which had all my information in it, but on the other, I missed touching paper, especially my 3″x5″ cards.  And when I put every project element into OmniFocus it was painful.  I didn’t want to sit down to my desk, ALL THAT WORK was waiting for me.  Nonetheless, I think because I did not have any manilla folder space in office, I forced all my project files into email and Omnifocus.  Which got me to a rickety Step #2.

Next, Step #3 I landed a job at Concordia University - Portland, and needed to move my office from Boise to Porltand.  There was this thing about moving.  I had not GTD processed my garage, files from previous jobs, or THE MONSTER: 94,000 pages of interesting stuff that might be important.

The Monster


Well, I went through the garage, previous job files, and the monster.  They took 2 hours, 3 hours, and 1 week respectively.  Moving forced me to get my GTD reference filing act together.  I accomplished this with Evernote and the aforementioned ScanSnap.

The process of processing job files and monsters was simple for me.  I just stepped through the stuff and said “will there ever be a next action?” and if the answer was yes (20%) I put the item on the pile to be scanned.  If the answer was “No” then the paper went straight into recycling.  Mindy Starns Clark has people use “maybe” boxes.  This might be beneficial, but I would use maybe boxes only if you can’t recycle 80% of the material you are ploughing through.

Step #4: Last and least (for me), was calendaring.  Calendars and contexts are the two aspects of GTD that I use the least.  But yes, I have put up calendars and they save me on remembering (having a Ph.D. I consider myself licensed to be absent minded!).

Step #5: Refactoring project folder management.  I really struggled this year, new job, a bunch of seizure disorder events in the family.  Very difficult year.  I was in crisis and off the GTD wagon, a lot.  And what got me back on was refactoring my project filing infrastructure.  It was the Target Totes that did it.

Until around the beginning of December 2011, I was limping along with my electronic only project management system.  But I had a lot of tension, I caught my mind taking back projects.  So, over holiday break I did a lot of reflecting, refining, and refactoring of my project filing and came up with an inconsistent way to manage projects that just delights my mind.  Here it is:

  • Part 1: Projects are kept in OmniFocus when it feels right to do so.
  • Part 2: Project folders are made for projects that it feels OK to do so.
  • Part 3: No attempt is made to keep manilla folders and electronic folders consistent.

*Note* my sky has not fallen.

How is this possible when Bill is not worshiping the god of internal consistency?  The surprising thing for me this holiday season is that I think I’ve discovered that internal consistency is a false god.  More on this later, right now, remember what David Allen says about intuition:

There will always be a large list of actions that you are not doing at any given moment. So how will you decide what to do and what not to do, and feel good about both?


The answer is, by trusting your intuition. If you have collected , processed, organized, and reviewed all your current commitments, you can galvanize your intuitive judgment with some intelligent and practical thinking about your work and values.

Allen, David (2002-12-31). Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (p. 48). Penguin. Kindle Edition.

Imagine a world where you stay up to date on your stuff and you don’t need to use todo lists.  That is pretty much the world I’ve arrived in after refactoring my project infrastructure so that I can do a complete weekly review.  I had to do the review in my office (all manilla folders are kept in my office), but while there I can get through all my electronic and paper projects and get current on them.

Consistency: the false god

People are not logical: we are psycho-logical.  Therefore life is not about performance, life is about discovery.  Consistency promises to deliver the good things of life, but it does not.  Think academic articles deep in literature review vs. the disruptive new theory that solves the problems and provides a new paradigm.

GTD isn’t great because it allows higher levels of performance.  GTD is great because it allows us to get performance out of the picture and to live more purposefully by discovering our personal potential.

So what?

Well, I think the requirement is not to be logical, but rather to be effective in our world.  Being consistent is not sufficient for us to be effective.  Some creative inconsistency can help us implement GTD.  Like parallel electronic/paper project files have helped me return to a clear head.

[email protected]

Other cool sound bites from THE HOUSE THAT CLEANS ITSELF:

  • Clean, is relaxing.  Get clean and then take time to relax in it and enjoy it p. 14
  • Living messy costs more than living neatly p. 36
  • Most organizational products create more mess than they contain p. 47.  <= look at your desk and read that again!
  • Too much of a good thing is still too much p. 59.
  • If you have trouble letting go of clutter add a motivator (worthy cause) p. 60.  I think you could also reflect on what your reluctance is telling you about yourself.
  • “I have spent a lot of time in the last few years changing my standards for what clean really looks like, which in the strange mathematics of perfectionism has actually resulted in a much cleaner house” p. 70.


4 thoughts on “How I restart GTD

  1. Dear Bill,

    First of all thank you for this great blog! I’m gald to be able to follow from the first moment on and guess I’ll get great benefit from it. The reference filing system is what absorbs my mental energy at the moment because it’s incomplete. This is what I want to renew this year.
    I’m from Germany where GTD is more or less unknown (please excuse me when sometimes my English is not the best one). So my source of information is the www (Thanks to a blog like yours I’m able to get new input:-)). The main reason for it, in my opinion, is the bad translation of David Allens book. I read the German and English version, and after reading the English I gave GTD a second try which was much better than the first time.

    Good luck with it and best regards

  2. Another great post. Thank you! I found the “The House that Cleans Itself” references eerily similar to comments made by David Allen on the GTD Live recording.

    • I’m so RELIEVED to hear you say this! David Allen is such a huge influence on the field, many people are (ironically) turning their brains off and trying to do anything and the only things, that David Allen says. I’ve countered this by reading Allen’s core analytical writings (first three chapters of GTD) over and over. And pretty much ignoring all the other writings. I read READY FOR ANYTHING but it did not impact me nearly as much as GTD’s first three chapters. So, my method is to evangelize the core GTD, work on it in my own life, and then to THINK about it, teach it, and watch what my students can and can-not do. And evolve as I go. If I’ve convergently evolved something David Allen is saying, he gets the credit .. but I still got to think on my own. :-)

      [email protected]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s