Falling Off the GTD Wagon

When people discover GETTING THINGS DONE (hereafter GTD) there is a lot of excitement, and a cycle begins.  Here is the GTD adoption life cycle that I am still going through:

GTD07a ppt

At the top/beginning of the adoption life cycle is the discovery of GTD.  For me, this was the bike ride where I listened to David Allen read the Audible version of GTD.  I think I got through the first three chapters in the 2 hours I was on wheels by water.  After your first listen/read you are pumped about GTD.  Then, after you start to implement, the critic enters.


Yes, critic.  My walk with GTD has been affected by a shrill, critical, inner voice.  Having just listened to Pressfield’s WAR OF ART which David Allen mentioned in his interview with 43Folders’s Merlin Mann in talk #1 on procrastination, I believe that the the inner critic is a big part of who can, and who can not implement GTD.  Pressfield’s distinction between the self, which wants to grow, change, and evolve, and the ego, which wants to maintain the status quo is huge.  And when people start doing GTD, they are going to press up against the distinction.  The ego is the inner critic, the self, is the child like discovery that GTD’s architecture unleashes.

There is an exercise in Natalie Goldberg’s WRITING DOWN THE BONES called “Trouble with the editor” where the exercise is to write down all the negative things that the inner editor says.  When you write the self-destructive words down on paper, and look at them, you gain perspective.  I mean, it is obvious that telling yourself that you will never be a writer, in writing, is idiocy.  So Natalie Goldberg’s approach to dealing with the inner editor has informed my adoption of GTD.  In stage 1 when you think “This could work for me!” your editor is mute, gathering data, thinking up ways to trip you up for even venturing to think about doing something outside the hierarchy of people and status.

At the point you start having the opportunity to implement GTD, say in cleaning up your desk.  The editor comes back on line with words to the effect that “Change is impossible!” Because unless you are unemployed, you don’t really have the time drop everything and blow up your life and office to cut over to Allen’s system, most people kind of let GTD go, and go with the natural flow in their lives.  Easier than countering the internal editor, and besides, there are a lot of hot projects right now.  Not a good time to change.

This will go on for one, two, or three months.  In my case, when I went on the bike ride in March of 2009, I had already had an Evernote account for 7 months.  I came back from the bike ride convinced that I needed to fix my reference filing system.  But, I did not put two and two together and start moving my files into Evernote until June!


When teaching GTD seminars now, I short circuit this initial editor delay by having students bring in their computers and documents, so they can scan their documents into their computers with my Fujutsu Scansnap S1500.  Somehow, when someone sees a 200 page book disappear into a PDF file in 4 minutes, we get to the 3rd state in GTD adoption, immediately.

Here is stage 3: Resurgence of Hope

GTD07a ppt 1

What is really *interesting* to me about stage 3 is that when husband/wife or boss/admin pairs of people start trying to adopt GTD, the two personalities progress at different rates.  The person implementing GTD (who is dealing with the internal editor) slows down and gets stuck at stage 2: “This is impossible” while the helping/catalyst person, can immediately see that getting reference files into Evernote is going to work.

In stage 3 we are back to dealing with self growth issues.  We can try this strange software and strange hardware and see if it helps.  Then we have that thrill of discovery when we can find long lost documents in evernote.

Stage 4 is crisis.  Crisis happens to everyone, even David Allen.  When crisis happens, you fall off the GTD wagon.  So, expect this, and don’t expect to be perfect.  When you hear your inner editor telling you there is no hope because you are not perfect, ignore.  Don’t let your ego get the better of your self.  One of the best things about GTD is that it forces you to set up infrastructure in an organized way.  Once the crisis is over, it is easy to go back to the organized infrastructure and pick up where you left off.  Once you’ve fallen off and then gotten back on the GTD wagon a few times, your inner editor will stop telling you that there is no hope of getting back on.

My experience with falling off the GTD wagon and then getting back on is what led me to start this blog.  Every time you get back on the wagon, the experience is different.  In fact, my GTD development has come from cycling on and off the wagon as I’ve attempted to refine and refactor how I do GTD.  Here is the core of GTD for me:

GTD07a ppt 2

I have not implemented GTD religiously.  I don’t use contexts.  I haven’t been good about doing weekly reviews.  And in the cycling off and on the GTD wagon, after three years, I’ve learned that weekly reviews are the keys to rapid wagon re-boarding.

When you do your initial mind sweeps in GTD, you get the ideas into manilla or electronic folders.  Then, if you don’t review the ideas you’ve organized (i.e., weekly review) then your brain will take those ideas back.  Once your idea has taken back the ideas, you stop getting new fresh cool ideas, and you begin wandering back to the land of Monkey Mind.

To get back on the wagon, you need to do a complete project and idea review, then a mind sweep, and get back to mind like water.  Once you are at mind like water, you don’t need check lists, to dos, or an iron will to force yourself to work.  Mind like water gets work done for free and without feeling stress.  As I fall off and on the GTD wagon, I use the process to rethink and rework my office and desk.  As I climb back on the wagon, I pick another niche in the GTD ecology that I’m evolving to work with my brain (*Note* not from my brain), and prototype an improvement.

Prototypes are sometimes high tech, but more usually, are low tech.

The last stage of my GTD adoption life cycle is ignoring the inner critic.  When you can get back to mind like water, you don’t need to plan, you can just be as you work.  When you are being, you express your true self, not your ego.  It is this true self that is interesting, point made by another fantastic writing teacher, Brenda Ueland in IF YOU WANT TO WRITE.

Everybody is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself. But it must be from his true self and not from the self he thinks he should be.
Ueland, Brenda (2010-01-15). If You Want to Write (Kindle Locations 62-63). Wilder Publications. Kindle Edition.


Adopting GTD is to repeatedly fall off and climb back on the GTD wagon.  Adopting GTD is a process of refactoring and refining how you process information so that you can get more done at the same time as suffering less.  The key to getting back on the GTD wagon is reviewing.  If you feel that you don’t have enough time to get on the wagon, you are not organized enough.

For example, while I had organized my office, my library, my garage, and my electronic files in the first two years I was adopting GTD, I had not really gotten to the bottom of handling both electronic and paper project files.  I had a stow-away box with folders full of memorabilia that could not be properly scanned.  It was not until I fully implemented my hybrid paper and electronic system, that I was able to review every folder and every file once a week.

Once I had all the pieces in place to do my weekly review, the stress fell off my shoulders anew.  Like the first time I did a mind sweep via GTD.  Weekly reviews are kryptonite for stress.  Just do it.  Just feel it.

GTD07a ppt

2 thoughts on “Falling Off the GTD Wagon

  1. I love your blog. Brilliant.

    My GTD journey has been both similar and fundamentally different. I hope to eventually get that all written down on my blog at http://michaelkoehler.co but if you look you’ll see that the focus right now is on developing a software tool for GTD based on http://www.nozbe.com.

    But, let me share one thought that is in my “too be blogged” notebook. You discuss in this post the tendency to fall off the wagon. That is a phrase from David Allen that I know well. Another essay from David is the Strategic Value of Clear Space that he wrote for End Malaria.

    After reading the second essay I had an epiphany as “Strategic Value of Clear Space” and “At Least I Have A Wagon” merged in my mind. Part of the utility of GTD is to make a clear space, organized and clean, and then use that space to make a creative mess. In the course of that creativeness, you realize that you need to re-group and get your footing again. Rinse and repeat.

    In other words, the goal is not to never fall off the wagon. You create the GTD system to give you the clear space to fall off the wagon into. Then you use the system you created to clean up, so you can do it again. Without the clear space you cannot make the mess that creativity requires. Without the system you cannot so easily clean up the mess and re-charge for more creativity.

    • Agree. I don’t fear being off the wagon. I dread being off the wagon. Typically, I’m chugging along getting things done just fine, and then a tornado comes and rips me from my routine. Last year I changed jobs and moved. Lots of adjustment and then slowly, I’ve been working my way back. It is the pain that I dread, not being off the wagon per se. :-)

      Thank you for the knowledge this post imparts to us all!


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