GTD and The Importance Of Hard Edges

This article first appeared on my Medium blog

Often when I meet with clients, I come across a problem I have seen many times. That is the problem of having far too many tools and an unclear method of using those tools. I frequently see people trying to maintain comprehensive todo lists and reference material management systems in a simple todo list manager, other times I see people keeping project support materials all over the place, some in Dropbox, some in Evernote and others in Microsoft OneNote. Maintaining your system in this way is a guaranteed way of running in to overwhelm, procrastination and confusion. The system will become complex and unwieldy and eventually you will no longer trust your system and that leads to a falling off the wagon.

Over the many years I have been involved in personal productivity systems, I have learned one very important thing. The simpler your system, the more likely you are to stick with it, trust it and make a success of it. The more complex your system, the more likely you are to spend too much time fiddling with it, searching for important documents and ultimately losing all trust in it. And once you stop trusting your system, it very soon stops working.

So, what do you need?

In today’s digital world you only need three things. And of those three things you only need one each of them. These three things are:

1 One calendar

2 One todo list manager (digital or paper)

3 One reference materials holder. (physical or digital)

You need nothing else.

1 Calendar

You should be using only one calendar. That could be either Google Calendar, Apple Calendar or Microsoft Calendar. How and where you work will probably determine which calendar suites you best. For example, if your company lives and works in the Microsoft Office environment, then you really should be using Microsoft Calendar for all your calendar needs. Trying to maintain a work calendar in Microsoft and a personal calendar in Google is only going to end up causing nothing but confusion and conflict. It will not be long before you end up being double booked or you will check one calendar and not the other and miss an important date.

If you prefer using Apple’s Calendar and your work uses Microsoft’s then you either subscribe your Apple calendar to your work calendar or copy any company related events from your work’s Microsoft calendar into your Apple calendar. In this situation I would create a daily recurring routine to make sure I do that.

2 Todo List Manager

Your todo list manager needs to be taking care of all your tasks and be a repository for all your active projects. It should never be your repository for stored documents and other related stuff. Of course a few simple notes attached to a task to help you clarify the task is okay, but it should not be storing Word and PowerPoint documents as well as PDFs and articles to read later.

As with your calendar, you should only be using one todo list manager. If you need to collaborate your projects and tasks with other people then you need a task list manager that supports collaboration. I have seen many people using Omnifocus (no collaboration) and Asana (collaboration) together and this can only lead to confusion and missed deadlines and tasks. Hard edges between tools means you have a greater chance of maintaining the validity and integrity of your system.

3 A Reference Materials Storage Solution

This one is a little more difficult as most of us are still receiving paper based materials as well as digital materials. My solution to this is to scan all paper documents I receive and send them all to Evernote. However, this may not always be possible in some jobs (lawyers come to mind). It may be necessary for some of you to require both a digital and physical solution for your reference materials. You may not have much choice, but still it is important to have only one of each.

With digital documents it is important to be able to link your project support materials to your project tasks easily and so when choosing both a todo list manager and a digital storage system, make sure you can link projects and tasks to the notes you keep. Likewise with paper based storage systems, you need to make sure you can quickly and easily access materials linked to tasks and projects.

All the people who have achieved phenomenal success with GTD have one thing in common. Their system is simple. Tasks are clear and are in one place, their calendar only has hard appointments and commitments on it and they have a well maintained and organised filing system. All the people who have failed at GTD, have generally created an overwhelmingly complex system with bits all over the place. They try to maintain three or four todo lists managers and they often use Evernote and OneNote as well as iCloud, Google Docs and Dropbox.

In engineering, the less moving parts there are to a machine, the less likely it is to break down. This is also true for your productivity system. The less parts there are to your system, the less likely it is to fall apart and become overwhelming. I would strongly recommend that over a weekend you take some time to review your system and see if there is any way you can break it down and make it simpler. Avoid using more than one cloud storage system, only use one calendar and if you need to collaborate on projects and tasks, choose a task list manager that allows collaboration. Maintain strong hard edges between your systems. A task on your calendar, does not need to also be on your task list manager. A PDF file in the cloud, does not also need to be in your tasks list manager, a simple link to the original document is all there is needed if it is actionable. For me, I keep things simple by remembering: actionable tasks go in to Todoist, non-actionable reference materials go in to Evernote

If you ever find yourself feeling overwhelmed by your system, then it is a sign you need to reevaluate your system and simplify it. If you ever find yourself struggling to remember where you put a file, then reevaluate your storage system. You will most likely find the edges in your system have softened and a simple hardening of the edges is all that is required to get you back on your feet.