Why GTD is not Time Management - Next Action Associates

At some point when meeting new people, once we’ve passed the pleasantries and have moved on to occupations, I’ll have a stab at describing what I do for a living. When I’m less successful, I’ll hear a version of the following reply: “Oh, so you do time management.”

Now, as a Canadian abroad who is mistaken for one of my esteemed southern neighbors about five times a day, the muscle in my body responsible for irrational, unjustified outrage simply stopped responding a couple of decades back through overuse, so I no longer react to the unintended provocation. The fact is that I too struggle to tell the difference between Canadians and Americans, and for most of the world the distinction is akin to analysing angelic dance steps on the proverbial pin.

Similarly, for those not concerned with approaches in how to master the flow of stuff through people’s lives, it is simply easier to create a bucket called ‘time management’ rather than to see what differences there are in the bucket. But there are differences, and for those of you who’ve enthused about GTD to a friend and gotten the response I describe above, I thought I’d unpack them a bit here.

It is worth starting with the obvious reason that GTD is not time management, which is that time absolutely and definitively resists management. If you’ve ever tried – a la King Canute with the tidal flow – to stop time for a bit, you’ll know of what I speak. Can’t do it.

It would be great if we could. The absolute killer app, bar none. Not ready for the day ahead? Press pause, and you get an extra four hours to prep the presentation you’ve been avoiding doing anything about for a week or two. Even as a GTD-enabled soul I’d camp outside the store for days to be first in line for that one.

With that as context, here are a few additional ideas – in no particular order – on why GTD is not time management:

– The starting point is different – rather than looking outside of the individual, at tools, tech or templates, we start from the internal state in which humans are reliably most productive, and then build a systematic approach that helps people to return to that state more regularly

– GTD is based on universal principles, and as long as those principles are respected, it is very flexible in how you implement it. It does not rely on a particular add-on, binder/template/or technology for successful implementation. It will work as well on a blackboard as in the latest whizzy gadget. Because of the flexibility of implementation, it works as well for CEOs as it does for secretaries. The form of implementation is often radically different, but the principles are the same

– GTD assumes that the operator is a human and not a robot, and makes allowances for that. For instance, we offer a way of prioritising that is adapted to the speed of 21st century living. It’s not, ‘here are the inputs, and I just need to complete this puzzle and arrange them so they all fit in my calendar’. The assumption in that approach to time management is that if I’ve put everything in the right place on Sunday afternoon, my prioritisation from Sunday will also work on Tuesday afternoon, although a lot in my life will have changed by then. With GTD, It’s more like, ‘here are some meaningful and complete lists of a bunch of things that you have decided are worthy of your attention, so – human, illogical system that you are – what can you do on Tuesday afternoon at 14.53, given where you are, how much time you have, and how you’re feeling?

– Another difference is that people think of time management as a skill to learn. In GTD, we think of it as the central ‘meta-learning’ thing that enables the smooth functioning of all aspects of a rich and full life

– GTD is a complete theory of personal organisation, based on observation of best practices. It picks people up where they are on the journey, and offers everyone options for getting better. Those who are lousy at organising will learn a ton; those who are already good at it will understand why they are good, and be able to speed up what they are doing, and see how to spread the best practices they are already using in one area to seemingly unrelated areas of their lives

– GTD proposes a solution for both work and personal, because we’ve found that any system that ignores the personal is simply storing up trouble for further down the road. This was radical back when the original book was published, but has become accepted best practice since

– We start at the beginning – capturing all the inputs – rather than in the middle of the process. Many systems simply start by simply putting to-dos into a system. Doing that is all well and good, but if I’m simply organising ‘stuff’, I’ll simply have terribly well-organised ‘stuff’. What I won’t have is a list that helps me get into action on things I care about

– We come at the challenge bottom-up, rather than top-down. By helping people to get a feeling of control over the detail in their lives, we make it more likely that they have time to get a bit strategic about things. Starting with ‘Mission, Vision, Strategy’ is not wrong, but without control of detail, those things have a tendency to remain un-executed

– GTD as a system is robust enough to withstand the volume, complexity and mobility inherent in today’s most challenging jobs. We have worked with the best and the brightest in the world’s top organisations, and have turned sceptics into supporters if they have been willing to test-drive our proposals

– Finally, most approaches to time management are aimed at only increasing productivity and efficiency. Our work targets both increasing productivity and the reduction of stress with the same measures

That is not a complete list, just the one that came to me as I wrote. If you see others, or don’t see the logic in mine, or feel you could explain them better, I’d love to hear from you.  If you get back to me with your thoughts I’ll collate them and re-circulate them in some future blog.


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