Why do I need GTD?

In case you haven’t heard of it, Getting Things Done (most often just called GTD) is a personal organization system developed by David Allen.  He first published the book of the same name in 2002, and I first ran across it in 2007.  It may be clichéd to say it (doesn’t make it less true), but this book changed my life.

The central premiss of GTD is to avoid keeping things in your head.  What things?  Everything.  The most obvious is to-do items, but just as important are: long-term goals, reference material, reminders of future events, quotes for a future article… whatever.  Due to the limited ability of our brains to keep track of a lot of things (see: Crow Epistemology), we need a way to track things that doesn’t rely on our limited brains to do the job.  Or, as David Allen said:

“Your brain is a great place to have ideas, but a terrible place to manage them.” — David Allen

So, the core principle is GTD is to get everything out of our heads and into a trusted system where everything is written down and organized by a certain set of principles.  Each of these principles covers a potential hole in the funnel from when you first notice something interesting to the time when you’ve completed whatever action came from it.  GTD also includes principles to help you organize the plethora of individual activities into a coherent plan for one’s life as a whole.

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To me, the most compelling observation Allen makes has to do with lists.  Think back to some time when you were feeling totally overwhelmed with too many things to do.  Remember that feeling of being stressed, worried that you’d forget something, panicked that you wouldn’t have enough time to get it all done.  And then you made a list.

Just that simple act of writing out what needed to be done brought a huge sense of relief. Except, why?  It’s a little crazy when you think about it.  Not only didn’t you get anything  done, you spent some of your precious time making the list!  So… why the relief?

It’s because you were experiencing the relief of not having to burn up your mental resources remembering, sifting, sorting, and obsessing over the stuff that went on the list.  Now it’s all there in a permanent form, so your mind can relinquish the task of keep hold of it all.  Now, you’ve got a clear space in your head to actually think and do. Just imagine what it would be like to live that way all the time, and you get an idea of how I feel now that I’ve got GTD in my mental toolkit.


For further reading:

  • Allen, David. “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” (Amazon)

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