A GTD Retrospective, Part I

I took a two week hiatus from the world at the beginning of 2013. I holed myself up in my apartment and cut all outside contact. I did this to map out my current situations, and start planning to make awesome things happen. One of the steps I took was to put together a new OmniFocus database. I had tried out GTD in 2007. I loved it, but I gradually stopped using it. While many basics followed me to 2013, much of the value of GTD was lost.

I was determined to make sense of my complicated life. Even better, I had an international move to prepare for. What better case study for GTD than that? I didn’t use the GTD book as gospel, but I sure as hell listen to Back to Work religiously, so I’ll be prepared, right?

Well, it sucked. I’ve made it to the other side, but my database is in tatters, and my priorities are mangled. I’m writing to find out why. In this article I’m going to mostly tackle the Inbox.

Forgive my generalizations about the actual rules; once I have a copy of GTD in my possession again I can resume the usual level of orthodoxy.

The roots of OmniFocus lie in trying to create the perfect GTD client. They were made for each other, but it’s a simplifying assumption to conflate the two. I plan to do it a whole bunch.

GTD (and by proxy, OmniFocus) tries to be self-contained, with two important exceptions. It does not try to be a calendar, and it only allows input through a trusted inbox. But the real world is sticky. It wants you to have lots of inboxes. Your Facebook messenger, your Jabber client, your e-mail. Your paper inbox, your work responsibilities, your back-of-the-napkin ideas. Your tumblr posts, your feed reader, your Netflix queue. OmniFocus’s inbox is only useful insomuch as you keep, in the back of your head, the thought that it’s not the only Inbox you have to process. This is the equivalent of buying a shiny new car, and hoping it will retain its value when you drive it off the lot. As soon as you accept that OmniFocus’s inbox is not special, it loses an insane amount of value.

That is one nebulous problem, too large to finagle here. But there are more immediate issues. Inbox processing is sticky. I am a master at putting things into it, but once they’re in there, one of several things ends up happening:

  1. I didn’t care as much about the thing as I thought I did, and I get rid of it after doing nothing about it.
  2. Whatever it was is actually super important and needs to be at the forefront of my mind for logistical planning. So it can’t just hide in some project/folder. This is also a symptom of not solidifying the idea enough in its current state.
  3. I don’t have a good idea of where my time is going, or what time I have available when planning out tasks. OmniFocus 2 looks like it might address a bit of this with the Forecast calendar right in the application.
  4. I never enter all the metadata I need to make smart decisions about my schedule. Time available, due date, start date… perhaps these things come with practice. More often than not I can’t answer the questions at all, or I’m over-prepared: I’ll say “rent’s due”, and give it a start date and due date a week apart, but all it takes is a couple clicks on a webpage. Padding all my tasks with space like that seems to come with some mental cost.

Processing has a two-minute limit placed on the amount of time you can spend doing some item. If it can’t be done in two minutes, it needs to be delayed, delegated, or filed where it belongs, either as a task, or some meaningful data that could be needed later.

But processing is also about the practice of planning. It is looking at a single line in your inbox and saying, “Do I care about this? Does this matter at the right levels? Is it better to do well, or quickly? How many individual actions is this, really?”

No one is perfect, decisions may not be strictly correct or incorrect, so there may be no way to know if the decision you made was beneficial, detrimental, or had any effect at all. Nonetheless, the practice is in assessing a situation and making good judgement calls, quickly. And let me tell you, I am bad at it.

I get lost half an hour after trying to Google something coming from an inbox item. Other times I process them too quickly; finding something a month later in the wrong place with a misleading due date. The lack of a Forecast in the desktop OmniFocus app is a clear disadvantage. I look at my calendar some mornings, only to find it full of crap I honestly did not need to get done that day, or subject to the Default-itus problem: when all the meaning of what I wanted to accomplish on a given day is mangled, because every task defaulted to 5pm on the day:

A useless calendar.

This hurts in two ways: each day you feel lost, and planning for the future seems hopeless.

The other items on the calendar, shit that feels like it would ‘die’ if not placed on the calendar, seem stupefyingly obvious: an hour after I get through security and am waiting for a flight, my phone buzzes: It’s a reminder to go to the airport.

There’s a lot I struggle with, here. I’m convinced GTD is a reasonable approach, but its effectiveness isn’t panning out for me. Now that I’m starting my life over, a lot of my OmniFocus projects and contexts need to be reviewed, and I hope to do that soon. At this point it’s too early to blame myself, or the system. Blame is not needed; re-evaluation is.

In a future article I hope to detail some of the pain points of trying to plan an international move with GTD.