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A Minimalist Take on GTD

Published 29 days ago 9 min read

If you can't do GTD with pen and paper, an $80 to-do list isn't going to help you.

I’ve been on a mission as of late to simplify my task management system. The first thing I did was switch from OmniFocus to Things, which is a calmer experience. The second thing I did was pare back the length of my lists to make it easier to focus on the thing I wanted to be doing.

I likely could’ve accomplished this while sticking with OmniFocus, but it’s possible that I needed the shift in environment (OmniFocus 👉🏻 Things) to see that what I was after was not a better app, but a better outlook on task management.

Lean Lists

The first step in increasing focus is to reduce the number of things in your purview. This is true of the physical and the digital. You’ll have trouble focusing on the task at hand if your desk is cluttered and you’ll have trouble seeing what’s important if your task list(s) have a million things on it/them.

If you’re feeling up to it, I’d suggest starting with a fresh set of lists, a new database, or a brand new app. Nothing beats a clean start. If that’s not doable, you can try deleting tasks that you’re not focusing on already. I’d start with your Someday/Maybe list, or as I think it should be renamed, Someday/Never. In my experience, the bulk of the tasks that wind up on the Someday list never get done.

Lists Based on Focus Areas

Focus on the tasks that will help you become the type of person you want to be.

Instead of thinking about Areas of Responsibility, try thinking about Areas of Focus. Our goal with this exercise is to increase focus and our time is better spent thinking about the things we want to do instead of have to do. These Areas of Focus may line up with your previous Areas of Responsibility but it’s possible that when you sit back and ask yourself, “Is this a direction I want to be heading in?”, you might see that the road you were on wasn’t a road worth taking. If you've read James Clear’s Atomic Habits, he talks about building habits to become the type of person who … instead of a person who does…. This adage can apply to our task management. Focus on the tasks that will help you become the type of person you want to be and the life you want to have—not what you feel you should be doing or merely have to do.

Contexts & Tags

Getting Things Done is big on contexts. Where you are, who you’re with, and what tools you have at hand. This seemed like a great idea when the book first came out, but tech has evolved and I can pretty much do anything anywhere and with anyone thanks to overpowered telephones that have long-lasting batteries and can video call the other side of the world in an instant. Whether or not you’re at your PC seems silly now.

Over-Tagging Isn’t Helpful

The biggest people make with tags is adding too many of them. Software developers who encourage users to "tag everything!" are also doing their users a disservice. Overuse of tags leads to confusing systems where everything is connected and the tags themselves become meaningless. Tags are best served as lists. I prefer pre-v3 OmniFocus' approach to tagging where a task could have a single context instead of multiple tags. The mental model of "I tagged this with work" signals that it lives in a work list. Multiple tags insinuate that this task lives in multiple lists. While you can see how this works, I'd argue that it's better to only have tasks in a single list—they have a home and feel more concrete—not just in your task system, but also in your head.

Agendas Never Get Used

There's also this idea that you can use contexts/tags to label tasks related to other people. These contexts are often labeled as agenda in task management systems, and unless you're so inundated with people you delegate tasks to, these tags are unnecessary. Simply labeling your tasks explicitly makes these agenda tags needless.

Call Sally about book project

This is sufficient. I've seen it argued that you should create a task titled How's the book project coming along? and then tagged @sally @call. By writing your task title more clearly, you eliminate two possible tags from your system and reduce overhead in the future.

Projects

Not Everything is a Project

It's been said that anything that requires 2 or more actions is a project. It's more likely that projects are better thought of as how you feel about the actions that would be contained in them. If you think it's a project, it should be a project. If you just see two tasks as two tasks that are kind of related, it's fine to have them exist outside of a formal project. Too many times I've created a project for two actions and then thought how silly this was. If the number of related tasks increases to a number where you feel like you have a project on your hands, it's time to create a project. Otherwise, you're creating unnecessary overhead. For programmers out there, creating projects for everything with two or more actions leads to what Sandi Metz would call the wrong abstraction .

We Work From Time Blocked Lists More Than Projects

I find that I don't work off of project lists. I work off of lists of things I want to work off today. As part of my weekly review, I triage out the things that I want to work on over the next week, schedule out tasks I'd like to handle for each day, and then at the scheduled time, I do them. I have a feeling that most people work this way. I don't even think that we do what GTD says we should do where we stop and say to ourselves, "I'm in this place" or "I have this tool in front of me" and then we pull out a list associated with that context and start working through those tasks. It's an aspirational ideal that we'd like to do, but it's not how we actually work.

At a certain point, it's better to stop fighting how we work and start working with our own work style. The Today list makes sense to everyone. It's straight-forward and if you're not sitting on a Cold War-sized stockpile of tasks, parsing tasks out over the course of a week is manageable.

You'll find a lot of advice out there to "say no" more. Start by saying "no" to yourself. I've referred to the Someday/Maybe list as the Someday/Never list because 90% of the junk you throw in there isn't actually stuff you find to be important. It could be important, but more often than not it's a junk draw for ideas that you don't really care about.

Analog Is Better Sometimes

Here's the part where I tell you that maybe you don't need your fancy task manager. One of the things that David Allen said that stuck with me over the years was that "if you can't do GTD with pen and paper, software isn't going to help you". Or something to that effect.

Paper Lists Force Focus

The biggest reason to go analog with your task management is the ability to focus. Software task managers lead you down the path of fiddling. OmniFocus is a powerful tool, but with great power comes constant fiddling. I've said it in a previous post on GTD minimalism but it bears repeating—OmniFocus users spend most of their time massaging OmniFocus. Any serious OmniFocus users probably can tell you about the hours and hours they've spent crafting the perfect sidebar folder structure, perspectives, and AppleScripts to automate their workflow. Smart people have written books on OmniFocus. Notecards can be fiddly , sure, but far less so that software.1

Building Habits > Completing Tasks

The last thing I'd like to leave you with is that habits > tasks. If you can get the task out of your to-do list and bake it into your routine, all the better. This doesn't apply to one-off tasks, but anything you do regularly that's in your to-do list is a potential habit you could create and one less task stealing focus from more important things you've got written down. It can be useful to schedule repeating tasks to get yourself doing the habit you want to build. Once you start doing that thing without needing the reminder, delete it from your task manager.

I'd also urge you to look for ways to give yourself physical cues to do things. I'll never forget a wonderful idea from Loveline's Dr. Drew. He had a shot or something that he wanted to take home to vaccinate his kids with, and it needed to be refrigerated. Knowing that this was the sort of thing that he could easily forget, he put his car keys with the shot in the fridge. This ensured he'd remember the shot because he couldn't start his car without his keys.

Instead of creating a to-do to remind yourself to take something to work, put it in your bag or by the front door. Wanna remind yourself to do the laundry? Try using a really small laundry basket so when it obviously overflows, you know it's time to put a load in. Physical cues beat digital ones every time. That's not to say that digital reminders are useless because they aren't. Time-sensitive tasks benefit greatly from digital tools because losing track of time is a problem we all face. But whenever possible, leave yourself real-world hints for things instead of piling another task onto the woodpile. You're sure to see something sitting in front of the door on your way out. You can say that you'll definitely look at your to-do list, especially if you're in a hurry.


  1. The Hipster PDA was created in a time before the iPhone. it was followed by a decade of Apple nerds searching for the perfect notes app.