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Don’t Waste Time with GTD Setups

For the last couple months I’ve been away from blogging, focusing on my new job, writing music, and getting used to life in Los Angeles. I’ve also been fiddling with the idea of a book about GTD and in so doing I’ve had a little time to reflect on all I’ve learned and one lesson is now abundantly clear:

GTD setups are a waste of time!

Getting Things Done is ultimately about doing and no tool, no one setup will ever make you productive. Stop jumping from one to the other. Reclaim your time and tackle the things you need to do. Scale back – hell throw out everything on your lists and start fresh.

All you ultimately need is a pen and a sheet of paper to get things done. No, you really don’t need to have everything synced between your calendar and note apps. No, you don’t need a way to create tasks directly from your email app. You want these things, but you’re probably going a long way to avoid work. I declare this tool-based procrastination!

Stop it.

Stop looking for an answer on the outside. Look at the inside. That’s where you are, the one who is doing the doing.

Evernote, Things, Outlook with OneNote, Springpad, Nozbe, SimpleGTD, Toodledo, Remember the Milk? Fine, whatever, doesn’t matter. Use any tool you want but focus on getting those tasks out of your way, not putting them into pretty boxes. Focus on doing, not having things done for you (I’m looking at you 4 Hour Work Week). Or maybe not? Maybe you’re doing too much as it is.

But what do I know? I’m the guy who used to write ceaselessly about GTD setups using Evernote.

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24 Responses to “Don’t Waste Time with GTD Setups”

  1. 1
    May 23, 2012 at 7:22 am

    Thank you for this intriguing post …
    I’m very much into this as well, got caught in the carusell of diverse GTD tools, settled into some, and it’s true, I _don’t_ have to use any in order to get things done. I just need to start doing for real, not writing it all down all the time, arranging, rearranging etc

    I admit losing many hours in endless re-entering of same tasks into different applications just to see how it would (or would it not) improve my productivity. I’ve tried many ways of grouping projects, finding the right contexts…

    I’ m with you when it comes to the order of doing things, I’ve changed it into jumping into projects, doing a loose list of next actions to get me started, I _do_ something, and first then I start the detailed planing, where I want to continue doing things.

    I’ forcing myself into looking less and doing more, although it looks soooo nice in the Omni Focus…
    I believe I’m on the right track.

    • 1.1
      Weszt | Reply
      May 30, 2012 at 7:20 am

      It’s maddening, isn’t it? All the GTD apps, tips, and ideas? We’re so busy getting productive we don’t do much of anything.

      Doing a loose list of next actions and jumping in sounds about right. That’s all I think we ever usually need: just a way to start. The rest we can figure out as we go which is ultimately more flexible.

      OmniFocus has intrigued me for a while, but haven’t actually tried it. Things is still my favorite, though I have dabbled with a few others. Still using Evernote for project notes, but even those are getting a little dusty.

      I believe I’ve abandoned my goal to develop and write about GTD setups for apps like Evernote, Things, Springpad, etc. I’ve come to believe that this type of writing often does more harm than good by fueling the fires of the “must get more organized” addiction. While fun, more important things in my life have been neglected and I’d rather get on with living, not planning to live.

  2. 2
    June 2, 2012 at 11:57 am

    Thanks West, I believe I undestand your point.
    Mine is, for the moment, that I will use Evernote – to store information and have my knowledge database in it, and Omni Focus to note down what needs to be done within my many projects.
    I cannot use Evernote for GTD. I tried but couldn’t develop any consistency in it.
    Omni Focus with tasks that contain a link to the related note in Evernote has become my favorite way of really doing things.

    The tweaking I absolutely need to make is making order in Evernote’s tags as well as getting rid of some of my 2400 notes there. For this I need to relax and try to see myself from “above”.This perspective will hopefully give a more clear picture of what to do with the tags..

    • 2.1
      Weszt | Reply
      June 14, 2012 at 9:59 pm

      I’ve gone back to using Evernote primarily for lists and project support. Works okay if you need something that’s fairly universal (mobile, operating system), but not as much fun as an app that will handle repeating tasks or hiding completed items.

      I, too, need to clean out Evernote. Got hundreds of project notes that I HOPE I no longer need!

  3. 3
    Tom | Reply
    June 18, 2012 at 10:16 am

    GTD and similar systems aren’t meant to provide the impetus to perform. Rather, they’re useful in shaping the effectiveness of your performance. If you’re wasting time by not doing any work, no amount of organization is going to help.

    • 3.1
      Weszt | Reply
      June 21, 2012 at 9:45 pm

      Absolutely right!

      However it seems to be common and possibly natural for people to blame the tools, the methods, to try and find flaws where there might not be any.

      In the end, you need to do what you’ve decided to do and that’s that.

  4. 4
    July 16, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    I agree.. So much time I have wasted just downloading multiple to-do/productivity apps, it almost hurts my head just thinking about it.

    One that I have starting using the most is(and I recommend)

    I just started using it for a team project and I can see the change already. The functionality is great and SUPER easy to use… and its free.

    anyway.. I just wanted to say thanks for all the useful tips advice. :)

  5. 5
    Robert Kok | Reply
    September 6, 2012 at 2:52 am

    Hi Weszt,

    I also discovered that for me creating GTD setups were more like a hobby than actual supporting my productivity. That’s why I’m now using a ‘strict’ GTD app, that doesn’t allow me to fiddle around ;-)

    With regards to 4 hour work week I advise you to read “5 Time management tricks I learned from years of hating Tim Ferriss” from Penelope Trunk.

    Regarding productivity and procrastination I now stick to pure GTD (material from David Allen Co) and scientific research instead of what that the mutual admiration society from the productivity scene produces. This has made a dramatic cut in the amount of content I allow myself to read and respond to.



    • 5.1
      Weszt | Reply
      September 8, 2012 at 8:31 am

      “…more like a hobby than actual supporting my productivity” – well put, Robert! I think that says it for me, too.

      That post by Penelope Trunk was pretty awesome. Great that actually knew him as opposed to loathing him as I do from a distance. If anything irks me more, it’s that he’s great at recycling other people’s ideas and getting the credit. I don’t think he ever really presents any evidence that his methods work and he looks for shortcuts in life which he flaunts as if that makes him smarter. That business with the martial arts competition? Deprived himself and degraded the discipline.

      I couldn’t agree with you more about sticking with the pure GTD. I think people like myself who’ve written extensively about GTD systems to the point of marketing are drug pushers. We’re offering tips like we’re offering pills, getting people to come back for more when all we’re really helping them do is delay doing anything, getting things done.

      Ultimately I believe that a few simple tools are all you need to conquer your world.

      • 5.1.1
        Robert Kok |
        October 7, 2012 at 2:50 pm

        If you’re interested the 4-hour workweek is getting some more flak on Harvard Business Review blog.

        I just received my GTD System Starter Kit. I already like the System Guides and hope the audio CD’s will be just as great. Wish I had this kind of material when I started with GTD.

        A few tools is exactly what I needed. I now use a reminder tool to remind me of small tasks and declutter my calendar, a great calendar app so I could stop listening to the squirrels nagging me to look for the perfect calendar app, GTD to-do app that has a great interface for web and app and active development and user community.

        Michael Schechter has summed it much better than I ever could in his blog post

      • Weszt |
        October 8, 2012 at 8:08 am

        I’m really interested to hear what you think about the GTD System Starter Kit. I’ve never invested in any of DA’s tools beyond his books because it just seemed odd. I could be really missing out.

        Which calendar app are you using? For work, I’m using Outlook. For personal stuff, I use Google Calendar.

        As for the 4 hour Work Week, I’ve decided that’s a battle that can’t be won. Tim Ferris is a marketing machine. He might be selling illusion, but damn it he can make illusion feel good. No, the 4 Hour Work Week isn’t real, but making changes to live the life you want can be.

        I’ve saved Michael Schecter’s article to read later – thanks for passing it on!

      • 5.1.2
        Robert Kok |
        October 9, 2012 at 8:07 am

        I’ll let you know what I think about the Starter Kit once I’ve listened to some of the audio CD’s.

        I’m also using Outlook for work and Google Calendar for personal stuff. My company allows mobile access to my Outlook calendar, so I have both calendars visible in my calendar app.

        I’ve tried literally dozens of calendar apps for my iPhone and developed some criteria of which the most important are:
        - beautiful UI
        - offline access
        - integrate with iPhone Calendar (which syncs with Google Calendar and corporate mail server)
        - multiple events on a single day must be visible in a narrow view

        The English version of Staccal has launched in august and I immediately downloaded it after viewing it on Since then I’m extremely pleased how it works and fits into my workflow.

      • Weszt |
        October 12, 2012 at 6:32 am

        You and I think alike as far as app criteria is concerned, though I haven’t tried too many calendar apps. As far as my iPhone is concerned, I just use the Apple app.

        I took a look at Staccal but haven’t tried it out, yet.

        What is it you like about Staccal?
        What’s been wrong with other calendar apps
        Could you talk about your workflow a bit and why you needed something particular?

      • 5.1.3
        Robert Kok |
        October 14, 2012 at 1:43 pm

        What I like about Staccal is it’s UI, opens fast, includes one month view, 5 week views, 2 vertical views and one search view, supports drag & drop and quick edit.

        Compared to other calendar apps Staccal has some great features combined into one app:
        * notifies you by showing the number of events that are not visible when multiple events on one day don’t fit in into the current view.
        * dynamically adjusts the daily view to display all the all day events.
        * doesn’t obfuscate the daily view with large horizontal time slots, but shows vertical time slots. I love this when events overlap or in the weekly view when events span multiple days.
        * very easy to swipe through the different calendar views and add an event using double tap.

        My workflow is that have stopped using all day task events and only use my calendar for appointments. I found that the week view works best for to give me an overview. This is also why I don’t use the default iOS app as it doesn’t have a week view and I also find that the fonts are to big.

      • Weszt |
        October 16, 2012 at 7:10 am

        Interesting that you made a point of saying this: “… have stopped using all day task events and only use my calendar for appointments.” Did you have problems using all day events? Too many piling up or something?

        I guess I still don’t 100% understand the need for a special calendar app BUT it could be that I don’t need much. I have appointments throughout every workday and quite often the scheduling is done at the computer so I guess my phone is just for reminders. For personal stuff, I’ve been using Google Calendar for a while, but lately I’ve been playing with iCloud and am digging it.

      • 5.1.4
        Robert Kok |
        October 28, 2012 at 1:56 pm

        I use multiple calendars such as personal, work, holidays and birthdays and use my iPhone to combine them into one view. In some cases I have 4 all day events.

        I was also putting reminders on my calendar as all day events. This created too much noise on my calendar. I’m now using a reminder app instead of the calendar. This works great for me.

        Almost all my workflow is done through my calendar app: (re)schedule events, invite participants, daily reviews, weekly reviews.

        I don’t have strict working hours at the office, because I need to support a 24×7 business and periodically work outside business hours for maintenance on systems. My needs for a calendar app are that I need to manage my calendar(s) from @anywhere without having to access google calendar or outlook.

  6. 6
    Eileen | Reply
    September 22, 2012 at 11:11 pm

    Weszt, what a great post and excellent comments too!

    • 6.1
      Weszt | Reply
      September 23, 2012 at 8:06 am

      Thank you, Eileen! I thought there were some great comments, too!

  7. 7
    Stefan | Reply
    October 5, 2012 at 5:18 am

    Some good advice! I’ve been on and off various type of gtd systems for years. In fact, I even wrote my own web based system at one point (which still has features not found on Things et al). Currently ramping up on Things, but curious about the next version of Wunderlist due later this fall. Yep, I’m a todolist-a-holic…

    Here is one observation though which has added huge value for me and is applicable across tools; for each task consider:
    a) what will happen if you don’t do it, as opposed to if you do it?
    b) was this task imposed on you or is it something you burdened yourself with?

    For (a), think about how fast the situation will deteriorate if you don’t do it… Clue: I use a classification of hour/day/week/month

    Now, if during a day you get rid of all externally imposed tasks with a deterioration rate higher than week (that is day or hour), then your stress factor will be greatly reduced and you will get the peace of mind to focus on more long term stuff.

    So, whatever system you use (paper/pen/Things) determine those tasks in the morning, drop everything else and just get them done. It doesn’t hurt if meanwhile you turn off email checking, cell phone etc…

    Another observation is that I’ve found Wunderlist to work really well for shared, simple todo list stuff. Such as the (long) list of things to do at home. Sharing a list, as long as the items are meaningful, simple and well defined, creates piece of mind since you are two people who can discuss whatever is really important and needs to get done (easy to star mark).

    • 7.1
      Weszt | Reply
      October 8, 2012 at 8:01 am

      Wow – you wrote your own web based system? Of all the lengths I’ve gone, I’ve never been gutsy enough to take THAT plunge! Impressive.

      These points are invaluable:

      a) what will happen if you don’t do it, as opposed to if you do it?
      b) was this task imposed on you or is it something you burdened yourself with?

      I so easily forget that tasks can become burdensome when they’re unnecessary at the moment. I often push myself too hard.

      Dropping everything but the vital few definitely works. Can be hard to stick to… good to be reminded of this! I’ve read about how some people put together a list of tasks and then erase everything but the top three. If you can do that much, then the rest of the day is yours to do as you like.

      Not quite following you on “externally imposed tasks with a deterioration rate higher than week (that is day or hour)”. Could you tell me more?

      I’ve swung back and forth between Things and OmniFocus, but I always end up back with Things. It’s just enough in enough places and usefully simpler. My biggest problem with OmniFocus is choice: There are too many options screaming out at me. I just need to know what I’m supposed to do right now. Things – when I don’t abuse it – gets the job done.

      Thanks for such a detailed comment, by the way!

  8. 8
    Andreas | Reply
    October 18, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    I like my Evernote GTD system which is inspired by The Secret Weapon. More info about it here:

    • 8.1
      Weszt | Reply
      October 20, 2012 at 8:35 am

      Yeah, I’ve read about that, but it feels to me like a system of bandaids, trying to string together tools that aren’t meant to fit that way.

      At any rate, I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem is self-discipline. Tools do their job when they’re used properly and with trust. There are no silver bullets but there is plenty of snake oil.

  9. 9
    Steb | Reply
    October 31, 2012 at 10:42 am

    I like your blog, thanks for sharing what you’ve tried to be more productive. I’ve been testing a new GTD app called Purpose, it’s a closer implementation of the system and supports ipad, icloud, etc.

    • 9.1
      Weszt | Reply
      October 31, 2012 at 2:34 pm

      Thanks, Steb! Glad to hear I’ve been helpful.

      I’ve not heard of Purpose but will check it out.

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