An article in The New Yorker generated a backlash this week on Productivity Twitter (the Twitter ecosystem of productivity-focused voices and enthusiasts divided into tribal factions infused with religious zeal).
The article was “The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done
”, written by Cal Newport. The source of strife was the suggestion that GTD had fallen. GTD, or Getting Things Done, is the well known system for managing personal tasks and actions. GTD has been around for 20 years and has built a devoted following that does not take dismissal lightly!
I don’t have a stake in that fight, and don’t really care. GTD was an influence on my approach — both in terms of excellent techniques to promote and in terms of ineffective techniques that needed enhancement. But it’s indisputable that GTD has been helpful to an awful lot of people.
The funny thing about the article and the response is that the title is the only place GTD comes under any real fire, the article isn’t even about that. I’ll bet an editor chose the title for clicks (success!), and the author was not a part of that decision.
The author’s point was different and more interesting.
Within a Larger System
The author came from a systems thinking viewpoint — that GTD may be useful in an individual’s isolated sphere, but the real problem goes beyond the isolated system in which a GTD practitioner exists. As we’ve discussed in previous essays
, “All systems are part of larger systems, and every system is defined by its function in the larger system.”
Cal Newport points out that GTD was designed to handle the increasing barrage of demands and distractions that we see accelerating in our media saturated, always-on always-connected modern lives. Rather than dwelling on the achievement of GTD in the isolated context of a knowledge worker’s solo existence, he emphasizes how broken the larger system around it is to create such a desperate need for it.
The lack of thoughtful, effective systems in organizational environments casts each knowledge worker off on their own, to fend for themselves in the barrage. The problem he identifies is not with GTD, but how each GTD user (and everyone else) is expected to swim in the flood. He essentially characterizes GTD as a life raft. Life rafts are great, but they’re indicative of larger problems.
With nearly all friction removed from professional communication, anyone could bother anyone else at any time. Many e-mails brought obligations: to answer a question, look into a lead, arrange a meeting, or provide feedback. Work lives that had once been sequential — two or three blocks of work, broken up by meetings and phone calls — became frantic, improvisational, and impossibly overloaded.
For many, the email inbox has become their to-do list — made up entirely of tasks for other people. And it’s gone far beyond email at this point. The article provides a good history of how we got here.
Building on Personal Systems
GTD and more modern incarnations address symptoms of a larger disease. But they can also guide us to solutions for the disease itself. In systems, look for patterns. They exist at all levels, big and small. Repeating endlessly at various scales.
I think Cal Newport’s diagnosis was good, but his limited solutions were thin and superficial.
Even if GTD and such approaches are addressing only a lower-level aspect of higher level systemic problems, they are effective at addressing those problems. And therein lies hope.
GTD and more modern incarnations of personal performance systems work for the individuals who employ them. If a structured, intentional, thoughtful system can work to solve problems at one level of a system, perhaps such a solution can be applied at higher levels to similar effect.
Personal Systems Expanding for Teams
GTD was designed for individuals. But other systems can be designed for teams. The Pillars, Pipelines & Vaults system is a personal system that has the flexibility to scale and function for teams. I’ve implemented several dozen of these for entire businesses and watched them shift from chaos to harmony in a few months. Such a scalable personal system is not typical, most enterprise approaches are designed exclusively for teams.
The same thought process that goes into assessing an individual’s challenges and information flows can be applied to a group context to manage the interactions between multiple individuals.
Organizations must explicitly define desired habits and routines — including consideration on when and how interaction occurs, ideally emphasizing asynchronous communication.
Teams must prioritize, clearly establishing sequential actions with visibility to all.
Data tracking must be shared with asynchronous access.
Regular review cycles with real-time transparency are needed to evaluate and re-assess priorities.
Each person’s progress must be visible.
The Scalable System
I believe in a singular system that scales between the individual and the team.
This enables a Life Operating System for people that incorporates personal and professional life — enhancing both.
It provides visibility for leadership — for example, Do Dates on the calendar as an outline of intentions for everyone on the team.
Consistent principals and design elements at both the individual and team level will fuel learning and a shared understanding of approach across team members. Shared interfaces. Shared understanding of when and how to interact. Shared mental models.
Sure, elements need to be added at each the team and individual level that don’t exist in the other. But the more patterns that echo themselves across the micro and macro levels, the more intuitive and harmonious the system will be in action.