GTD’s Dirty Secrets

GTD works well, but there are a couple of little secrets, and one big secret that you might not have found out yet.

There’s two little secrets and one Big Dirty Secret to GTD. Don’t get me wrong here – I like GTD – it’s a useful system, and it works well. There’s a couple of secrets that you’re never told, though, and one big secret. It’s time to let the secrets out.


(Feeling the tension yet?)

(Maybe I’m giving this too much build-up.)

(Here goes…)

  • The best way to get things done is to do them.

There. It doesn’t matter how much you push things around your lists, and how carefully you pick the contexts for them, if you don’t do them, you won’t get them done. Sounds obvious when it’s all spelled out, doesn’t it? Does to me now I’ve worked it out, but until I did, I could spend weeks moving things around my lists without actually ever doing anything.

Actually, I still can, but at least I know what’s going on now. I’m just no good at doing anything about it.

If you’re not careful, your GTD system itself can become a whole world of procrastination that you rarely escape from to actually do things. Anyway, this leads us to the second secret…

  • The best way to do them is to start doing them.

Again, it sounds obvious, but how many things are on your lists that you haven’t started doing even though you’ve had time (if you’re honest). I can spend all day flat out doing absolutely nothing, and at the end of the day, I haven’t started on anything useful at all. I haven’t had time.

If you’re going to get any of those things done, you need to actually start doing them. The start doesn’t have to be much. Mark Forster has a simple trick that he refers to as just getting the file out. You make a start by giving yourself permission to do the smallest possible amount of work on something, even if it wouldn’t help at all, but you make yourself do that bit. It might just be getting the file out, or it might just be creating and opening a blank document that you could start typing in if you were going to do more. But you don’t have to do more. If you’ve been putting off doing the dishes, you could just put them in the sink and add some hot water.

The point is that the very small step isn’t offputting enough that you don’t start, but once you’ve started, you probably won’t stop and put the file away again. You probably won’t just close the document without doing anything else, and you probably won’t leave the dishes to sit in the water or drain the sink again – you might at least write a paragraph or two, or jot down a few ideas that occur to you whilst you’re there, or at least wash a few items. The key is to get yourself started.

OK. That’s the two little secrets. Ready for the big one? Oh, come on, don’t kid me – it’s just underneath this text, and I know you’ve already skipped ahead and read it…

  • GTD is of no help at all with making you want to do things.

It’s a nice little method of keeping track of all the things you need to do, but if you don’t actually want to do them in the first place, it won’t make you want to do them when they’re on the lists. I even find myself resisting looking at the context lists, because I know they’ll be full of things I don’t actually want to do. The problem lies in making yourself want to do the things on your lists, otherwise you won’t start doing them. And as we’ve already covered – if you don’t start doing them, you won’t get them done.

So how do you make yourself want to do things? That’s a tricky one, and I don’t really have any answers. (No, come back. I’ve got a few ideas. They might help.) If your lists are too full of things you really don’t want to do, it might be time to have a good think about your life – is it what you want? Is your job something you actually don’t want to do? How can you go about changing it? Maybe you actually don’t want to do all that DIY work to get your house into the state you want it in, and you’d have been better moving somewhere that wasn’t described as “ideal for a DIY enthusiast” in the brochure.

Assuming things are basically how you want them, it might be that you just need to spend a bit more time thinking at the higher levels – working out why you’re actually doing some of these things – what’s the longer term gain from them? Visualise where you want to be, and how some of the tasks that are on your lists will help with getting you there – that might give you that extra bit of motivation to get going on them, or at least to stop being scared of looking at the lists.

Alternatively, just give yourself permission to go through your lists, and move a few things you really don’t want to do (and won’t cause any really huge problems if you don’t do them), and just move them to your Someday/Maybe list. You can always move them back once you get a few other things out of the way, but if you’ve not been doing them anyway, you’re not losing anything by getting rid of them – and it might just make the lists feel a bit more enticing.

Once you actually want to do the things on your lists, GTD is a great way to organise them – it will give you nice simple lists of the things you can do at any point, with a fairly minimal overhead. Until you want to do them, though, it can be just another way to put them off.


  1. This is why I suspect like most people, reading Neil Fiore’s classic book and using it along side GTD by David Allen is important to actually getting things done.

    The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play

  2. Thanks for the suggestion, Craig.

    I’ve found I get a lot of good ideas from reading Mark Forster’s blog, and his latest book “Do It Tomorrow” sounds excellent. I’ve found more success recently from a simple ‘ToDo’ list, coupled with making ‘WillDo’ lists on days when I think I need them.

  3. This is probabily the best, most down-to-Earth, short article ever writen about the subject of DOING THINGS in oppose to organizing them. Thanks.

  4. […] If you really want my thoughts on it, see my post on GTD’s Dirty Secrets. […]

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