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Extreme GTD: How low can you go (or: Can we 80-20 GTD?)

I had a great question from one of my coaching clients who happens to be familiar with GTD [1]. He wondered whether a simpler version of Allen's work was possible, say one that fits the spirit of the 80/20 Principle, maybe even something like 90-20 [2]. The reasoning is that the system can seem overly complex, with a significant barrier to entry.

So in IdeaMatt fashion I took this as a challenge and spent some time on an exercise of to figure out what's possible, given the various systems I've studied [3]. My goal was to stay true to my understanding of the the essential GTD habits, including workflow phases, processing and organizing (e.g., two minute rule, "sticky" inputs, and front-end decision making), and effective reminder systems. I wanted to look at as radical change as possible within these confines, rather than incremental adoption or simpler tools. (Note: A search for "GTD lite" and the like turned up some nice thinking on the topic, but a good number addressed adoption/tools, and not necessarily a shift in the method itself [4].) See below [5] for others who have looked at this.

My conclusion: An 80-20 version just ain't possible. This is both a testament to Allen's crisp system, as well as to the necessary rigor to back up the goal of a clear and focused mind. Following is a summary - you can read some background detail below. but I wanted to share the resulting simplified approach. I'd really love to hear your thoughts on this...

A simplified GTD-compatible system (~70-80)

This is the best I could figure out without incorporating more (relatively) radical ideas [3]. As in any simplification, there are serious trade-offs, with the biggest risk being keeping things out of your head. Note: I've thrown in some percentages estimating amount of simplification:
  • Collection: No change (capture everything, fixed # collecting points). Maybe maintain a single inbox for everything that you carry with you.
  • Processing: Use the 5Ds: DELETE, DEPOSIT (file), DELEGATE, DO (two minute rule), DEFER. ~20% simpler
  • Projects list: No change (master list of work requiring two or more steps).
  • Calendar: No change. BUT:
  • Actions: Schedule all actions on the calendar. No actions list, no contexts. 40%
  • Waiting For: None; use the calendar. This means you do hard scheduling of all follow-ups. 20%
  • Tickler: None; use the calendar. 0-30%
  • Filing [6]: No labeler (gasp!) No change in reference and project files. 10%
  • Someday/Maybe: None. 20%
  • Checklists: None; schedule as recurring reminders in calendar (daily, weekly, etc.) 10%
  • Agendas: None; keep with project materials (but OK to have "projects" for on-going meetings). 10%
  • Weekly review: None (!); do incrementally via daily review, say the night before (a common best practice). Review daily: calendar ~one week out (gets actions, waiting for, reminders), mind sweep. Opportunistically: projects. 30%
Importantly, to make this work you'll have to have an electronic calendar. Otherwise there's too much work moving actions around. Also, using it for ticklers and waiting for items probably requires electronic reminding.

What I like about this: 1) Simple. The calendar does most everything, with support by the projects list (which I really wanted to get rid of - thoughts?). 2) Implements what Mark Forster calls closed lists, which help to define limits on our work, a common complaint about GTD.

What I dislike: 1) Potentially too much forwarding of unfinished items. David Allen makes a strong argument for separate action lists. 2) Risk of cluttering up the mind, esp. from removing the weekly review, Someday/Maybe, and checklists.

Interestingly, once this emerged I recognized similarity to other calendar-centric systems like Bit Literacy (with its scheduling of all actions) and Do It Tomorrow (with its closed lists).

What do you think? Are you using anything similar? Should we create a name for this? ;-)


A sketch of my analysis

This is a bit rough, but I hope it's useful to your comments or critiques. Broken down by workflow phase.
  • collect
    • skip: no. o/w don't know incoming work, clutter (paper, mental), leads to missing work
    • just one bucket? (impossible)
    • don't do mind sweep (head full)
    • reduce (just manages, but still need collection)
    • process
    • skip: no. o/w work unidentified, falls through cracks, etc. maybe combine conceptually with organize?
    • FAT (sure, but less rigorous). the problem: what to do with Act? must go to: do (now), delegate (other), defer (later)

  • organize
    • skip: no. need places; o/w clutter
    • filing: radical: one file (Gmail model), organized say by date. prob: hard to find? time not always best way to index -> very difficult to find paper related to projects
    • filing: no labeler (10%)
    • all actions on calendar? prob: usual GTD, plus project actions hard to track?
    • no projects list, say use project folders themselves for list. prob: not all projects need folders. have to carry folders instead of single list. hard to remind/review next steps
    • no waiting for, say use tickler. prob: none?
    • no tickler, say use calender. prob: none?
    • no someday/maybe: yes, if don't mind not tracking (mind fills)
    • no checklists: yes, but on mind. maybe put in calendar (daily, weekly, monthly, ...)
    • no agendas (keep with projects)

  • review
    • skip daily tickler: yes, if using calendar
    • skip daily calendar: no. prob: would have to look 2 weeks ahead every day, say night before
    • skip daily actions: no, but simpler if all scheduled on calendar
    • skip daily waiting for: yes, say if on calendar

    • skip weekly mind sweep: yes, if done daily
    • skip weekly someday/maybe: yes, if not tracking
    • skip weekly projects & plans: maybe. prob: projects not up to date, actions not happening, blind-sided by problems
    • skip weekly calendar: yes, if done daily
    • skip weekly actions: yes, if done daily
    • skip action support: yes, but might slip through cracks

  • do
    • put on calendar: see above

Reader Comments (35)

Hey Kelly - Excellent point re: learning curve and "simplicity in hindsight." The latter, like anything we learn deeply, is misleading - others have to go through a similer curve, and we forget how tough it was and how much time it took to get to the "I get it" stage.

Good comment.

February 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I agree that there's a learning curve to GTD, but why can there be a GTD lite? Certainly you wont get full benefits but it's still very useful and a good start.

I've successfully trained my staff on the basics of gtd- processing their inbox.

It's changed the words we use in conversation- frequently we talk about the 2 minute rule.

Using successes to build more success is called [ layering | http://www.successmakingmachine.com/get-started/success-principles/layering-jumpstart-success/ ] - it's very powerful.

February 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSuMMy

SuMMy: > why can there be a GTD lite?

I'd like to see your take on it. Note that I wasn't considering partial implementations of modern systems...

February 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I'll keep you posted. You can see the outline of it at my [
success blueprint page | http://www.successmakingmachine.com/get-started/success-blue-print/ ]- but it's a work in progress. Feedback is welcome.

February 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSuMMy

I use my own application, www.gtdagenda.com

I like david allen's concepts like contexts and next actions, but I also need to set goals, keep some simple schedules, and use checklists for my daily routines.

April 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDanGTD

I struggled to fully implement GTD until I found http://www.vitalist.com

March 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBruce

HI Matt,

You normally have quite a subtle sense of humour, but I don't detect any irony in this article's suggestion to do away with contexts and next action lists.

Do you truly see that as the path to increasing productivity? Aside from the case of someone who literally never moves from their location (a solitary confinement prisoner?), and has all their tools at hand, and never has anything unpredictable show up in their world, getting rid of the context lists would cause a huge drop in productivity.

Imagining doing this, I would foresee spending a whole lot of time constantly renegotiating with the calendar, and searching for items on it when I discovered I needed them (eg. a spontaneous trip to the local shopping centre goes so well with an errands list that isn't buried on the calendar at the "planned" shopping time).

Am I missing something about the logic here?

May 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Korentayer

> Am I missing something about the logic here?

No, you've pointed out some major limitations in the approach I sketched. This is the nature of simplification, right? Tradeoffs. I wanted to see how far I could push removing elements and still have a functional system. Do I recommend the result to clients? No. Would I recommend it as something to play with as an experiment? Sure, if you're attracted to parts.

Re: sense of humor, beware when you hear, "I'm actually very funny." (A famous productivity blogger actually wrote this.) While it's true in my case ;-), I don't use a ton of humor when writing. Why? First, it's hard to write funny (Jack Handey is a genius at this, IMHO). Second, it's hard to write funny. Finally, [you get the picture].

Thanks for the pushback, Jeff!

May 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I'm having also problems with backsliding GTD. I'm struggling to do my best at staying with GTD system, because I'm managing a [ salon equipment | http://www.empire-beauty.com ] store in Chicago and things can really get ecstatic out there!
Thank you for your info Matt - great as always :)


August 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBeauty supply

Thanks for your comments, Milo.

August 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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