Succeeding with GTD is not very difficult if you do the right things in the right order. This is a list of the most common pitfalls – and how to avoid them.
1. You install an app and think you are doing GTD
I would compare this to learning to take-off and maneuver a plane. Not knowing how to tackle challenging weather or how to land, there is only a question of time before you run out of fuel and crash.
There is no app that makes you do GTD, and there never will be. Never! There are a few apps that will help you apply the GTD methodology. The very best can, to a certain extent, force you to do the steps.
How to avoid this: Read the book before choosing an app. Keep testing apps until you find one that works for you.
2. Not buying the book
This is very much related to number one. The most important factor for succeeding with GTD is to understand the basics. You cannot follow the Getting Things Done system without understanding the techniques and when and how to apply them.
How to avoid this: Buy the book. Read it. Make sure you understand the basics.
Buy it here: Get it from Book Depository with free worldwide shipping.*
3. Thinking you can go all in from the start
So, you have read the book. You have done your first mind-sweep – getting everything in your head down on paper. In the process, you became aware of everything that you want to do. Now you want to implement GTD and become a productivity superhero.
If you do this, the most probable outcome is that you are going to burn yourself out and get frustrated because you cannot get GTD to work. Sure, the goal is to have “one trusted system”, but give yourself some days or weeks to experiment.
How to avoid this: Try setting up a system around the most important or complex parts of your life. For most people, this is work related. You will never succeed in GTD if you do not give yourself time to adjust your GTD setup to make it work for you.
The one thing I struggled most with in the beginning was to come up with the right contexts. I used a lot of time on redefining context and often had to split or join some of them. Having a smaller area to focus on, makes it easier to experiment. This is also very important when trying different apps.
4. Writing imprecise next actions
Defining what is the next action to get whatever you want to do completed is at the core of the GTD philosophy. If your next actions look like this: Lightbulb, Call contractor, Prepare for meeting – Then you are in trouble
How to avoid this: Use verbs and be precise. Write in a way that makes you able to start the task without thinking. Two weeks after you wrote it down,”Email Peter about his presentation in the next department meeting” is far more easy to start doing than “Email Peter.”
5. Not having “one trusted system”
One of the best experiences with Getting Things Done is the peace of mind you get when you are absolutely certain that you have done all you really have to do today. This is only possible if you keep every project, goal and next actions within your GTD system.
The moment you start having post-it notes on your desk is the moment you start to drift away from having control.
How to avoid this: Use one app for everything. Have inboxes where you need to have them. Make a habit of capturing your notes and processing them into your GTD system.
6. Not be willing to change your habits
Practicing Getting Things Done is doing the right things in the right order. This means that you have to make a habit of capturing, processing and organizing your actions. You have to give up procrastinating, at least in some areas.
How to avoid this: Changing habits can be tough, but it’s worth it in the end. If you think that saying no is difficult, it will help to know that in practicing GTD you will have a better overview and better arguments to support your decisions.
7. Not doing weekly review
Many people struggle with this. I would say that half of the struggle was actually to make it a habit. The trick is to know that when you have done it a couple of times, you start to see some huge benefits. This is the motivation to find time for your weekly review in the future.
How to avoid this: Prioritize weekly review. Let me be blunt: You can go a few days without a shower, but in the end, you will stink. It’s the same way with the weekly review. The first time you skip it you barely notice it. After a few weeks, the lingering odor of lost control starts filling your nostrils.
Even if you do everything else right if you are not doing the weekly review that is going to be the one thing that keeps you from succeeding with GTD.
8. Try keeping your system strictly private or strictly for work
Getting Things Done is more than a productivity methodology. I would argue that it’s a life management system. Have you ever been at work and for some reason thought that you have to call Aunt Elisabeth this evening? Have you ever had a good idea for how to solve the latest issue at work while on your way home from a friend?
Most of us are not able to completely separate work life and private life. Hence, it makes it very hard to separate your GTD system like that.
How to avoid this: If you need to keep work related stuff separate for security reasons, then do that by having all the details in a system that meets your company’s security standards. Make a separate project to function as your at work-inbox in your ordinary GTD system.
9. Giving up the first time you fall off the wagon
After starting with GTD, it is only a matter of time before you fall off the wagon. It can be that extended vacation, three days in a row with back to back meetings, or having to tackle some crisis.
All of a sudden, your email inbox is your to-do list, and a Post-It note is your prioritization tool.
Just like with everything else, succeeding with GTD does mean never giving up.
How to avoid this: Set aside time to get current. Add an extra day after vacation for having a home-office day to get up-to-date. Prioritize getting an overview when things are chaotic. You will feel a lot better doing this even if it seems like a waste of productive time.
“Without a next action, there remains a potentially infinite gap between current reality and what you need to do” – David Allen
10. Reading the book only once
Seriously, yes. I think I have read the complete book at least three times. The first time, everything was new and a bit overwhelming. After having done GTD for about six months, I read it again. This time I learned a lot more. The third time I felt ready for going beyond the basics. Now I had the fundamental understanding and experience.
Congratulations! After reading this, you no longer have an excuse for not succeeding with GTD.
Disclosure: Links marked with * are affiliate links. This means that if you buy a product using this link, I may get a small commission. I would never recommend a product without trying it and liking it myself.