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Getting (Unremarkable) Things Done: The Problem With David Allen’s Universalism

Getting Beyond Getting Things Done

I first read David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) in 2003. I was a junior at Dartmouth and Allen’s ideas resonated at a time when my obligations were starting to overwhelm me. I committed to his system.

After a few years, by which time I was at MIT for graduate school, I found myself frustrated with the whole GTD canon and was ready to abandon it altogether.

My issue was simple: it wasn’t helping me become better.

I was good at full capture and regular review, and, accordingly, was quite organized. This was a good time in my life to ask me to submit a form or tackle a complicated logistical process. You could be confident that I would capture, process, and then accomplish it.

But I was missing the intense and obsessive wrangling with the hard problems of my field — the type of habit that made people in my line of work exceptional. My commitment to GTD had me instead systematically executing tasks, one by one, like an assembly line worker “cranking widgets” (to use a popular Allen aphorism).

I didn’t need to be cranking widgets. I needed to instead be crazily focused.

Allen’s Universalism

Here’s where we find my concern with GTD.  In chapter 1, Allen emphasizes:

“[Y]ou can’t do a project…you can only do an action related to it. Many actions require only a minute or two, in the appropriate context, to move a project forward” (page 19; US paperback).

In chapter 2, he elaborates:

“When enough of the right action steps have been taken, some situation will have been created that matches your initial picture of the outcome closely enough that you can call it ‘done'” (page 38).

In Allen’s world, in other words, everything reduces to clear and easy-to-accomplish next actions. Whether the action is tied to a logistical annoyance (“buy more soap for the guest bathroom”) or tied to your deepest ambitions (“buy notebook to capture book ideas”) doesn’t matter. When you get down to the scale of execution, all actions are created equal.

This is part of what makes GTD so seductive. It tells you that if you organize your lists properly during your review, then you can tackle each day mechanically: mindlessly cranking through next actions like widgets, assured that not only will the little things get done, but also the big important life goals.

At least, that’s the idea. The problem, however, is that this is not the way remarkable things are actually accomplished.

Not All Work is Created Equal

Allen preaches task universalism: when you get down to concrete actions, all work is created equal.

I disagree with this idea.

Creating real value requires deep work, which is a fundamentally different activity than knocking off organizational tasks.

Deep work cannot be reduced to clear next actions. It is, instead, a philosophy that must be cultivated. If you read Robert Greene’s Mastery, for example, you’ll encounter story after story of remarkable people who didn’t carefully organize tasks, but instead marshaled their energy toward the obsessive (and often messy) pursuit of something new.

As a graduate student, I didn’t need better lists of next actions. I needed instead to be training my ability to focus hard on meaningful things for long periods of time — even after it becomes uncomfortable.

It’s here that Allen apologists might try to force these two worlds together. They might suggest, for example, that you could simply have a next action labeled: “spend many hours obsessively doing deep work on problem X.” But such efforts soon reveal their inadequacy.

Deep work is fundamentally different than the shallow (though still important) work of keeping on top of the little things required to function personally and professionally.

At least, this is the compromise I’ve adopted. I embrace GTD for organizing shallow work. It is, as many will attest, devastatingly effective for this purpose. But I think of deep work as something different altogether. A philosophy of life that requires its own strategies.

To Summarize: David Allen’s universalism is seductive, but ultimately flawed. Cranking widgets cannot create results of lasting value. That requires something deeper.

(Photo by tsmall)

110 thoughts on “Getting (Unremarkable) Things Done: The Problem With David Allen’s Universalism”

  1. I find it really strange because I usually ‘measured’ productivity by how fast I could speed through syllabuses (though this ended up with low retention).
    I find it strange that wrangling with hard problems is considered productive.

  2. I have always thought of GTD as a way to get the shallow work out of the way, and more importantly, out of mind, to be able to focus on the “real” work. As a researcher you still have these pesky obligations, such as teaching and administration. The more efficiently you can get these things done, the more time you’ll have for deep thinking. Not that I think the details matter very much, but instead of planning “deep thought actions”, turn it around and dedicate an hour or two hours for GTD, during your least productive part of the day, to crank out those annoying actions that you in the end have to do anyway if you want to continue to be paid.

    I realize that this is probably what you do already. Now when I read your post again I start to wonder what your point is? Yes, GTD isn’t the wonderful universal solution to all problems that it might be marketed as, but what is? It is very useful as long as you are aware of its limitations.

  3. Have you read A.G. Sertillanges “The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Methods, and Conditions”? I think he gets at what you are talking about here.

  4. I think you might have put words to some of the discomfort I’ve had in implementing and adhering to the GTD philosophy. I am involved in a number of activities that don’t lend themselves well to decomposition into well-defined tasks. These “design” tasks do have an output, but their scope can sometimes be large and not well defined. Perhaps it is something like when you are trying to work on a proof. In the end the proof might be shown in just a page or two, but that belies the level of effort, amount of time, and scope of matter that must be expended or considered to reach that point.

    I think your “hybrid” GTD is a logical approach to integrating the relevant advantages of handling the widgets in order to free up the requisite time required for deep work. For me, this whole discussion brings to mind Paul Graham’s Essay “Maker Schedule, Manager’s Schedule”. (I don’t recall seeing this in your posts, so please forgive me if you have already discussed it).

    After reading your book “So Good”, I find myself wondering how to reconcile maker vs. manager, deep work vs. GTD and how those relate to navigating and defining a career à la “So Good”. Also, I wonder if being further down the road of life contributes to have increasing difficulties in maintaining a “makers” schedule conducive to deep work. Anyway – enjoy your blog and will be interested to see how your thinking evolves.

  5. What I have found to be a perfect complement to GTD is the Personal Kanban lean pattern. It is really great to solve what I see as the main problem with Getting Things Done, especially for academic work, that is how to focus on the tasks which have the greatest value. I have never found the way GTD determine what should be the key priorities satisfying, but Personal Kanban works very well for that. In essence it has only two principles: visualizing and limiting the work in progress at a given time (say for instance three things you are going to handle at any given time). It is a great procrastination buster and work superbly for academic work in my experience. For more information on PK, see for instance

  6. Magnus is right on. GTD is about creating free space in your schedule and your mind to focus on things like deep work, when that’s what you decide you need to be working on. David Allen has said something like, “if you don’t give something the attention it deserves, it starts to take more attention that it deserves.” If would be too bad to let insignificant items that you aren’t on top of get in the way of deep work, or free time for that matter.

    That said, I still don’t think GTD is all about the shallows.

    Have you considered The Natural Planning Process as outlined in GTD as a method of deep thought?

  7. GTD is about creating free space in your schedule and your mind to focus on things like deep work,

    This sounds good, but I re-read the book in preparing this post, and this is not really what Allen was proposing. He really does promote that *all* things in your life become next actions — be them really important projects or something small. He does not make a distinction between shallow and deep work and say to use his system for shallow so you can do deep work. He emphasizes that all work reduces to actions, and ultimately, it is actions, and only actions, that you can manage.

  8. suggest that if you’re interested in GTD and how it actually can have lasting value, listen to Merlin Mann’s latest few episodes of Back to Work

    Interestingly, it was Merlin’s recent discussion of GTD on Back to Work that got me thinking about this post. But I’ve only heard the first part so far. I need to listen to his latest episode on the topic.

  9. What you call shallow work is by definition “creative procrastination” i.e. time spent away from your projects.

    I use the term “shallow” because it’s the opposite of “deep,” but you’re right to note that it should not be construed as a negative. Shallow work is crucial for many reasons (first of all, it’s necessary for being a functioning adult; second of all, it can help you re-fill your tanks for more deep work). So I don’t mean to sound dismissive of it. I’m not…

  10. Have you read A.G. Sertillanges “The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Methods, and Conditions”? I think he gets at what you are talking about here.

    Give us a more detailed summary…

  11. I acknowledge your points, but after having done GTD since 1998, I found that there are some nuances in the practice that took me a while to grasp. That I admit could be a direct result of a certain denseness I might likely possess. In any event, the GTD cannon does to my mind address the points you make. Mostly by way of what is not emphasized much in his writings. I was killing my self trying to keep up with my ability to capture tasks when in a one-on-one with a GTD staffer I found that what really drives the process is what DA refers to as areas of focus. You have to have a way to channel what you do – otherwise you drink at the fire hydrant all the time. If you are doing stuff without a keen, well focused purpose, then the tool (GTD system) loses some of its punch. In fact it can feel much like staffing a never ending convey-belt of stuff that the world is going to throw at you. GTD = a nice tool but it has to be broken in for each person’s situation. I have found nothing that works as well notwithstanding the possibilities for flaws.

  12. He really does promote that *all* things in your life become next actions

    Having listened to one of his seminars (quite a number of times), and read the GTD book – I agree that “orthodox” GTD is meant to be an all encompassing way of life. I have often wondered if this is because Allen did not have the experience in a field where deep work is required, or if I was missing something.

  13. GTD needs to be modified for a ‘creator’ schedule. It is then not about ‘getting things done’ but rather about maximizing empty time in your calendar so that you are free to focus on ‘creating’.

    I spend half an hour a day on GTD postponing tasks or rapidly finishing them so that the rest of the day I have no work, no commitments and no meetings – Just empty time so that the most important thoughts can flow in and out without any interruptions.

  14. Cal, have you decoded the formula for visibility in academia, more specifically, what do you think are the factors that make a blockbuster paper? If there’s a systematic overview of blockbuster papers, that would be interesting.

  15. GTD eliminates waste in my work, which creates slack. What I do with that slack is up to me. Working on gnarly problems or not is my choice.

    Why can’t “spend 1 week thinking about X” be a next action?

    I just don’t understand the problem. Do you want GTD to do your thinking for you?

  16. You wrote: “The problem, however, is that this is not the way remarkable things are actually accomplished.”

    If someone does not accomplish anything remarkable it soed not mean that the method he uses is not appropriate. It may mean that the method is misused.

  17. I got referred here from over on the GTD forums at David Co. I think you are missing key factors in what GTD really is and does.

    GTD is better suited to handling the deep tasks than it at first appears. Part of that is that initially when you start doing GTD methods all you see are the trees, the small tasks, the tiny things. It’s not until those get handled, cleared away by being finished or at least corralled into a place you can deal with them when you need to, that you can start to see the forest and only after that is understood can you see the planet or universe.

    I routinely deal with huge long term projects in my GTD system. Some have taken 5 or 6 years to completion, some are parts of projects that will take decades or my lifetime and maybe never be complete in that there is always more to learn or do in that area. GTD keeps me on track with them as well as it does with the more mundane and obvious tasks.

    The essay reads like someone who tried GTD for about a year or so maybe less and figured that was as far as it went. GTD really is more like a martial art than a productivity system. You really do learn more and more every day and the layers go on forever.

  18. I think like any productivity system GTD is something that was designed to fit with a particular individual’s workflow. It probably works great for him, but for most it’s not ideal. For me though his book was a starting point to discover productivity hacks.

    Personally I think his system has way too much overhead but there are certain aspects to it which have helped me immensley. One way I’ve tried to integrate deeper tasks is to start setting time based todos(think pomodoros).

  19. I routinely deal with huge long term projects in my GTD system. Some have taken 5 or 6 years to completion, some are parts of projects that will take decades or my lifetime and maybe never be complete in that there is always more to learn or do in that area. GTD keeps me on track with them as well as it does with the more mundane and obvious tasks.

    This where I have my disagreement. The GTD workflow, which focuses on executing next actions in specific contexts, does not match the workflow of deep work, which requires more of an obsessive, focused, dive into something. A “what action should I do next?” approach is what can keep you feeling busy for years, but accomplishing less of importance than you might like.

  20. GTD is appropriate for salespeople and others whose job is to track many mini projects. For creators, GTD is a mental virus, best purged by reading “A Perfect Mess.” GTD elevates nitnoid tasks to an excessively high priority level. If I don’t makes lists, I can forget the nitnoids enough to do real work.

  21. Sorry but GTD does handle deep work. At least it does mine. I’m a farmer. Some of my long term deep works are developing multigenerational plans for the farm that promote sustainability. I use GTD to continue to work on those goals through day to day actions. I use GTD to set aside the time to think deeply about where I want the farm to be in 100 or 200 years. And yes, executing the next actions on those long term things in the appropriate context is critical to actually seeing progress vs just a vague sense of “I should be thinking about this” that was me before GTD.

    I’ve had individual single next actions that took me 6 years of elapsed time to finish. There is nothing in GTD that says you can’t do a deep next action or a long one. A lot depends on your work and what time scales you function on.

    I would say that GTD promotes focused work because you are not distracted by the things you cannot do now, nor are you limited to the urgent things. When in a context you see everything related to that context and can choose which to do that will give the most bang for your buck so to speak.

    A next action is a single doable item or a thing that can’t be subdivided further. What constitutes a next action also probably depends on whether you know how to do the item.

  22. Will have to agree with you on this one. I have personally tried the deep work technique and it’s very hard to stick to, but it works for me. I have not read GTD but for the article above and some more data, would have to look into the precise book to relate to the exact essence of it. But a really good, relative view point to deliberate upon.

  23. I have personally tried the deep work technique and it’s very hard to stick to, but it works for me. I have not read GTD but for the article above and some more data, would have to look into the precise book to relate to the exact essence of it. But a really good, relative view point to deliberate upon.

  24. I hope you’ll agree that deep thought is work too and eventually can be broken down into parts but the “task” of deep thought about “x” is not intended to be a micro-level definition of what’s next but a macro-level? For a construction site master contractor, install bathroom would be a micro-level task while for the plumber doing the work, it would be a macro-level task. The trick is getting to “enough” clarity that our minds will let go of it and be able to move on to what’s next. Deep level thought is the same here (albeit with a different scope).

    GTD is here to help us “keep the decks clear” so we can know what needs our attention and go deal with it with the freedom to know that we’re choosing to do “this” out of all the things we could be doing now. The “this” could be at the surface or deep. It could be “work” or “play” (DA says it’s all work though that’s academic to me – it’s all to-do stuff to me). Being able to “play” with a clear mind knowing that it is okay to be playing helps me enjoy myself immensely more than sneaking off to steal play time from myself (as if I could). It’s about telling myself the truth about what’s next and not having to lie to myself that I have time to work on a project, watch a little TV, play a game or even go on a date with my wife…

  25. OK so the serious comment usually comes to me after I joke..This post’s theme gives me something to think on in that I have tried many systems of goal and task management over the years and on every one I have used for any length of time I have gone for intervals of total abandonment of any task management at all. I have often felt stupid or lame for those periods, but I somehow managed to still get the critical things done and even maybe some good deep work. I really believe the thought processes for methodical shallow work and serious deep work are counter to each other and that the “shallow” must be abandoned for a while while deep thought/work is engaged. I think this explains why a sabbatical is useful as long as shallow stuff does not lure you away..

  26. I’ve had individual single next actions that took me 6 years of elapsed time to finish.

    That’s interesting, and hadn’t occurred to me as a possibility. I suppose one could have a next action that was “Do deep work” set to expire at the end of time 🙂 If that’s what it boils down to, though, then it’s unclear what having that extra item on your list achieves.

    First, for those of us in academia, our main “deep work” is the one thing we are not going to forget, and indeed is something we want to keep in our “psychic RAM” because mulling on these problems is an important part of making progress.

    Second, I find that putting such “deep work” on my list psychologically devalues it: this is just another next action. It may be expected to last months or years, and it may have a priority flag (sorry David Allen), but it’s nevertheless on the same list, in the same category of thing, as doing the laundry. It just feels wrong: and its feeling wrong seems to me a very good reason not to do it.

    Third, and relatedly, seeing “do this hard, difficult-to-define, deep work” every time I glance at my list is stressful. I love my “deep work”: I can usually achieve “flow” if I have 4+ uninterrupted hours available, and recently achieved a new personal best of 10 hours – of completely losing track of time, not getting up once even to go to the bathroom(!), and making a number of breakthroughs. Nevertheless, the prospect of this as some sort of task is stressful. It’s a bit like putting “sleep”, or “have sex” as a task. It’s something you’re certainly going to do, but it’s not really something you deliberately squeeze into a box of time and try to complete as quickly as possible – or, at least, it’s much better if it’s not.

  27. Allen preaches task universalism: when you get down to concrete actions, all work is created equal.

    I also disagree with this this idea. I am also surprised that concept is in GTD. It has been years since I read the book but that wasn’t my recollection of his work.

    I have definitely implemented GTD. However, it may be limited to a few concepts and tactics.

    I agree with the comment from Magnus. I also am using GTD to remove the shallow work to get to the real work. However, for me, accomplishing deep work is more complicated. Lately, due to the realities of supporting my family, deep work has been a luxury I can’t afford.

  28. Do you use GTD like practices during deep work– if an idea for a new approach occurs to you, do you pop it in a list to review later so you can keep your focus? A lot of GTD is for managing attention.

    But when you’ve got the focus and are actually getting things done, your use of the system has achieved it’s goal.

    Thanks for the post– you’ve clarified the role of GTD for me; I’ve been tending to see it as a master rather than as a tool.

  29. Michael: to answer a couple of things from your post. The single next action that took 6 yrs elapsed time was “Weave 10 yards of fabric for my Medieval cloak” Not really divisible (I was not going to put an action of fill x many bobbins with yarn on my list but also not something that would get done in once sitting)

    In farming my deep work is things that will have decades to fruition. Should I plant an orchard now? What do I need to do to keep this field productive if we have no snow this winter? How will changing politics of water law affect my ability to farm in the next 20 years? what will population growth due to my customer base? What do I need to tlak to our researcher about for next year’s experiment in sheep reproduction? (We’re on year 8 of a scientific experiment as a cooperating flock for USDA NAGP) These are things I think about all the time and want to keep in my mind because I find new solutions each time. GTD supports that effort.

    You say putting such things on a list devalues it. I believe just the opposite. Putting those important items on a list increases their value. All too often in most systems the only things on the list are the ones that have the least value. Personally I don’t have any of my housekeeping items on any GTD list, which is obvious of you ever visited our house 😉 but the mere fact I considered the item important enough to document gives it meaning and value and that is a side benefit of the GTD system. So I see the putting of big stuff on my lists as validation that the items are important to me. It not only doesn’t feel wrong, it fells good and liberating.

    On the premise that seeing the hard and difficult work on the list all the time is stressful. It is a personal thing. I relish seeing hard tasks on my list and hard projects. Because I know that I have the power to finish them. I also can totally lose myself into a project and not come up for air for hours and hours. I like seeing “brainstorm 200 year plan for the farm” as an action and getting lost for 6 hours doing it. The next action might be “Noodle on new farm holons I imagined during brainstorming and decide if any are useful or need to be moved forward in this decade.”

    One thing it seems like is happening is that a lot of the complaints seem to imply that every single task is documented and in your list as an next action. Now I personally do tend to document a lot of actions in sequence but that is not the norm. Most folks use a next action list as a bookmark for where to pick up on the project. Once in they just keep rolling as appropriate. When you stop you create a next action that will be the placeholder so you see where to start up again next time you work in that area. One I just did this way was

    I have a project to knit a Christmas stocking using an old 19th century pattern I redacted from an existing but tattered sock. I picked up that project today. My next action was to turn the heel and set up for the leg pattern. Well I turned the heel, set up and continued to knit. I did that for several hours this afternoon down at the pub. When I stopped I updated my next action to be ” Measure leg and set up for calf decreases.” I may not get the chance to knit on that project for a week or more. When I do pick it up again the next action will get me right back to where I was so I can move forward.

    If GTD isn’t working for you fine, but don’t say that it can’t be used for work of type X. That is wrong as I can almost guarantee that somewhere, someone will be using GTD principles to do exactly that type of work.

  30. I think a lot of productivity systems advocate a generic approach to doing work. But they are usually very subjective and all of them involve a long habit forming phase to really integrate it into our lifestyle. Although GTD is incredibly affective for small attention span activities it allows us to focus and choose activities which feed into our long term goals.

    Deep work is very effective in learning and helps a lot during application of knowledge. It is true that there is no direct application of deep work in GTD.

    There is no need to follow the process to the last word because Allen says so. We an always tweak it as per our needs, use the best pieces and drop the rest.

  31. Cal wrote: “Cranking widgets cannot create results of lasting value.”

    You provide no examples to prove your thesis but I give you an example which disproves your thesis:

    Weren’t Egyptians just “cranking widgets” to build pyramids? The idea came first but then it was all about patiently moving stones… And you can’t argue that pyramids have no lasting value…

  32. TesTeq wrote: “You provide no examples to prove your thesis but I give you an example which disproves your thesis”

    None – and I mean none – of the entrepreneurs and artists I know use GTD. Whenever I discuss my interest in productivity topics, they dismiss my hobby as “make work” projects, all designed to avoid getting important/deep work done.

  33. Seems to me you use systems like GTD for actionable items associated with functioning in your job or daily life and you use your calendar to block off times for deep work. Sure you could break down your deep work into actionable items and use GTD to manage these items but then you lose the potential creativity associated with deep work. GTD just makes you an effective employee, deep work has the potential to make you “so good they can’t ignore you”.

  34. I think you might be romanticizing the idea of deep work. While thinking, analyzing, and “creating” often require deep work, there are certain patterns that can be organized into action steps. For example, if you are working on developing a new application to an old concept, there might be several action steps required such as: study old concept, study old applications to old concept, consider the connectivity of the old applications to your new application, play with new application until you zero in on a technique that works. Another example could be writing a book (of which I am more familiar –and I recognize you have been quite successful at). For me, dividing each Chapter into sub-sections and dividing those sub-sections into bite sized pieces creates an “action list” for me to go through. I’m not as familiar with Allen’s work as I would like to be, but it seems like most deep work still requires certain steps towards completion.

  35. David Allen clears up your misunderstandings of GTD in his 2008 book, Making It All Work. The long explanation is to read that book; here is the short one:

    David Allen himself doesn’t preach “task universalism” as you put it.

    Allen preaches task universalism: when you get down to concrete actions, all work is created equal.

    From Making It All Work, Chapter 4:

    “All of this is to affirm the somewhat counterintuitive notion that, in one respect, everything is equally important. Everything, that is, that grabs your attention. If what you need to be able to manage your life and work is full access to your focus, any time and all the time, then whatever diminishes that capability should be eliminated. Ignoring it is an option, but not a good one. If it will go away in time, put it away now. If it won’t, get it into your system like the rest of your world that you can manage with minimal effort, because it’s in a trusted system. The good news is that the process of dealing with these blips, to get them off your screen, is identical for the small and the large ones. But if you don’t accept what’s there to begin with, you’re undermining your effectiveness.”

    Do you disagree?

  36. I agree that it’s really important to think about how investing time in different activities will create different results.

    For low-return activities, optimizing them with simple lists is appropriate. However for high value activities, the exact opposite approach of maximizing the time spent in free flowing thought could be the very best route.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  37. The problem with GTD is that once you’re into a deep focus, trying to maintain it becomes too cumbersome and it loses its usefulness.
    I’m definitely not processing my next action when I’m in the middle of a project that requires me to lose myself in it, or completely engage myself with it. And I don’t need to be – the momentum of obsessive focus is enough replace the need for the system. If you need a system like GTD to accomplish deep work, you’re not accomplishing deep work.

    However, the system has helped me with two things: 1. It functions as a support structure, like Cal said, to keep track of tasks that don’t require hard focus. Personally, if I didn’t have that, I would be into my focus so much that the rest of the world would slip by. 2. It is part of my ritual that allows me to get into a deep focus and do deep work. But once I’m there, it’s done. There’s no use for it until I’m done with that work for the day.

  38. In trying the post-holiday sprint to generate two more drafts of my dissertation… I spent yesterday wrapping up the holiday, and getting small things done. With my plate cleared today, I was of course daunted by the need for focus on the big project. So I split it up into smaller tasks. Separate 28 library books due on Monday, add subheading to table of contents, work on line edits. Interesting discovery was that in sort of fooling myself that I was doing small work, I wrote a few new paragraphs and added probably five cites. So some real thinking did get done. Additionally, I can see all the new sections that need to be written as GTD’s of a sort, though the actually thinking and writing cannot be micro-managed, though I have done this before — leaving notes such as “enter notes on such and such a book”, edit a certain section. So in a way it could be used, but I think what people are generally saying is true–clear the plate and free up chunks of time. In the Mon Who Sold His Ferrari, this is called Strategic Time Blocking. In Canfield’s the Success Principles, he discusses Focus Work Days, Buffer Days, Free Days etc.

    I would like to use something like GTD next year in a focused way, to free up more big chunks of time for creating. I like what the farmer had to say above. Looking at A Perfect Mess and The Intellectual Life. Thanks.

  39. There are some powerful principles in the GTD method, even for doing deep work. For example, the next action is a great way to minimize procrastination (which is otherwise easy to do with deep work) since one of the biggest problems is: what am I going to do in my deep session? Without some idea of what you’re going to do, you are likely to procrastinate and do shallow work. The decision of creating a next action after a session is not set in stone; it’s merely a tool to get you going. Next action can get you unstuck, and start with that horrible deliberate practice.

    / College student.

  40. Cal, thanks for the great post. I feel the most important point you make concerns the seductiveness of Allen’s idea, that hard problems can be made easy by breaking them down into actionable steps. This is true in many cases, maybe even most cases, where straightforward problems can feel intractable simply because we have failed to do the straightforward thinking to break them down to actionable steps.
    But as you have found out in your career and in your life, there comes a point where some problems are JUST PLAIN HARD, and require deep work. Another facet I have encountered is that breaking down complex problems into actionable tasks can be deep work itself, and even then solutions are as often emergent and therefore do not follow the plan of actionable tasks I had plotted at the start.
    As you have pointed out, most of us are very unfamiliar with deep work, whether problem solving or deliberate practice, and therefore flee from it with rewarding tasks such as shallow work or time fillers such as email.

  41. I’m a full-time professional writer, and you summed up the exact problem I had every time I looked at GTD. Currently, I use Mindbloom, which kinda uses the GTD method. While I really like it, they really need to update it for long-term users, and also I was encountering the problem of fuzzy career tasks. You can’t always define specific actions in a task when it’s creative or intellectual. I tried to define it by time periods, ie. 10 minutes of brainstorming on daily chapter. This sometimes gets me ‘unstuck’, and sometimes doesn’t. I do use ThinkerTools and other creative brainstorming methods, but in the creative process there’s a lot of obstacles that just can’t be defined in a specific ‘SMART’ goal, and neither can the approach to their solutions. Sometimes, you just have to start studying with an open-ended focus, without being able to define time or depth, or you’re not going to find that answer you are looking for.

  42. Cal: I think you may be asking GTD to do too much for you, and your complaint has gotten some people defending it/themselves against what looks like a criticism. This tit-for-tat could go on forever…

    Instead, how about starting from the end-point in which you have a time management system that not only works for you now, but is open to continuous tinkering. In that way, you always have a system that works – something that fits your needs, and uses the right dose of available technology.

    In this context, it doesn’t matter what inspired you or when – GTD, ABC, whatever. They all played a part in helping you build your own system… the one that works “perfectly” now (and only until the next upgrade.)

    We wouldn’t care where one system falls short and another doesn’t go far enough. We wouldn’t ask any of them to be ideal, but instead show where they are useful. The tit-for-tat would be irrelevant.

    We _could_ care to hear what system you have created for yourself, how you did it, what practices are included, what habits you use for deep work, what rituals you have discarded, and how hard it’s been to make your upgrades. Sharing this would help us _all_ learn something about our own continuous evolution… long after “something” replaces GTD as the hot new philosophy, and after the new “something” is also replaced.

    I suspect that the spirit what I have said here is lurking in the background of your post – maybe making it more explicit can help us “hear” your journey as more than criticism, but as more of a next step shared on a journey that probably has no end.

    P.S. I can relate to the struggle to do deep work consistently.

  43. I agree that GTD doesn’t work too well with deep work. The GTD method works best when I have trivial yet important matters to take care of, like dropping off some books in the library, checking and prioritizing email, and listening to a podcast. It also works for school.

    I’m a high school student. During the past few weeks of winter break for me, I have been able to apply it to break my long-term work and review into daily chunks. And I usually finish my work within 3 hours daily, always fresh.

    GTD doesn’t work so well with exploration. For me, it’s programming, and I agree that not all tasks are equal. Learning to program requires not just lots of exercises, video lectures, and books, but also a community to discuss and interact with. Not as straightforward as school work. Deep work can take more time than expected.

    But GTD is powerful in creating habits of tasks. It sets a long-term goal concrete if done appropriately and consistently.

  44. I distinctly recall David Allen saying that the purpose of his capture-everything-that’s-on-your-mind system is to get those things *off* of your mind, so that they don’t distract you. He also says that it’s perfectly OK to look at your lists and decide not to do anything on your lists that day. The point is, having made that decision (perhaps, to do some “deep thinking” instead), you can actually focus on your deep thinking instead of constantly being interrupted by nagging feelings that you need to buy dog food, etc. That’s the value that I see in GTD – that it frees you from the tyranny of all those little things, so that you can actually focus on the big things.

  45. Recently I wrote about my personal stance on GTD, and why I believe it’s not the way to go. That system was developed during the 90ies, when the scale of tasks in the regular working environment was fairly simple.

    30 years later, you find the system that is crude, and can’t maintain huge number of tasks without heavy maintanance. Hence I came up with some good epihphanies that lead me to completely abandon GTD as a way to manage my tasks.

    These are my thoughts:

  46. Finally I had someone thinking on the same lines. I just couldn’t get GTD to work for me. Other than normal work, I have to write papers and read lot of things which I was difficult to do with GTD.

  47. If you ever listen to Allen speak, he is obviously suffering from OCD. IMHO. His system is designed to keep you working the system. While becoming a hoarder of files and folders.

    I just use a very big round file. works for me.

  48. I think maybe the people defending GTD on grounds that they’ve managed to make it work for “deep tasks” are missing the point entirely. “Deep” here does not refer to the length of a project, nor how long its list of sub-projects and tasks, nor how blocked or protracted it can become. It refers to a type of task or project that is made poorer by a complete breakdown into discrete steps, and about a person whose strength in such projects is rapid, clever, creative combinations of many disparate types of ideas and resources as an idea evolves. Personally, the problem I had with GTD was that I could never get to a place where I comfortably had cleared the “open loops” – as I sat and thought about how all my tasks and projects were inter-related and what priorities and tasks they were really composed of and how they related, a huge paralysis and frustration would descend upon me as an explosion of tasks, projects, and ideas of all sorts flooded into my consciousness. Sure, if I had a very discrete, well-defined task or project to complete, especially with a well-defined priority, great, GTD would work. Otherwise, I would feel compelled to make long, comprehensive lists of everything in my head, and would spend all my energy simply writing my thoughts down in sub-project after sub-project and trying to organize the long tail of tasks. Exhausted, I would usually revert to the most urgent thing that demanded my attention, leaving all else alone. I would end up having to make *more* decisions about what’s important, not *less*, and being able to devote far less time to anything involving planning for the future. Quite the opposite of the stated goal. Worse than nothing! At least with franklin covey, the intense focus on the ritual of daily review and priorities was clarifying and abbreviated. I tried to make GTD work for years, and I’ve finally given up.

  49. Hey Cal,

    Found this post interesting, since I have been thinking about it a lot myself. I agree with you that GTD gives you a structure which can be healthy and good, but maybe not up to the level that achieves more. I consider all of this in a recent post of mine: Maybe incorporating these analyses will help us all soon!

  50. It seems like people are confusing planning, with the experience of flow and the experience “deep work”. To me, as Cal, describes it, deep work is very different from flow.

  51. Consider pairing the idea of deep and shallow work with Dan Sullivan’s concepts in The Time Breakthrough. Focus days are for achieving your best results and productivity (deep work). Buffer days are for doing all the work that allows you to have focus days (shallow work). Free days are for rest and relaxation.

  52. I think I understand the sense of Cal’s message in his post. The GTD approach creates a system for managing productivity, but in some ways creative breakthroughs require a sense of disorder. All very loosely defined here, but I think that’s perhaps where Cal is coming from.

    I don’t really see why you *couldn’t* merge the two worlds. I think back to your post about tackling a proof. You do it in chunks, over a long period of time (i.e. the tasks aren’t well defined, but the overall task of committing 2 hours of effort is).

    I think you need to develop creativity in the same way, systematically exposing yourself to unfamiliar things, that can create new connections in your head. Ex. working as a mathematician, but reading a book on South American rain forest deforestation (i.e. studying something deliberately unrelated to your field).

    Anyway, my thoughts, for what they’re worth.

  53. I think Cal makes a good point here about the limitations of the GTD system. Before I go on, I should clarify; I don’t think that his point implies any inferiority in the GTD system, or that it’s not useful. I do think he highlights a limitation of the system that people who use it should be aware of. Once you’re aware of it, it’s pretty easy to find a workaround within the system iteslf.

    I think the limitation Cal highlights is this; the purpose of GTD is to take a large-scale project and remove all ambiguity about what steps need to be taken in order to accomplish the project so that those steps can be accomplished mechanically. The removal of ambiguity and confusion makes work simple and much less stressful. “Cranking widgets” is the term that Cal used. But in the case of the deep-work tasks that Cal talks about, the act of sifting through all that ambiguity is the same as actualizing the task, or so close to it that GTD is rendered unneccessary.

    Here’s an example; I’m working on my master’s thesis. How do I break this down into widget-style, mindless next-steps? I could try breaking it into sections (write introduction, conduct literature review, etc…) but each of those requires its own small amount of deep-work thinking, still. So I’d have to take each section and break it down further. Perhaps I take the introduction and break it down into paragraphs, deciding what I want to accomplish with each one? But that still requires more deep-work style thinking to determine exactly how I want to do that. So do I break each paragraph down into sentences? What if they don’t go together the way that I want? I have to backtrack and try multiple options until I find a set of sentences that work well together in accomplishing what I want. More deep work – sifting through problems that are ambiguous, using focus, judgment, and creativity – until clarity is achieved.

    By the time I’ve envisioned the thesis clearly enough (let’s say at the sentence level) to work through it as if I were cranking out widgets, I’ve already accomplished the task of composing the thesis. What’s left? Writing? Hopefully by this point I’d have already written it; an entire thesis, sentence by sentence, is a lot to keep in one’s memory. So really, there’s no work left for the GTD system to help organize except things like formatting, printing, submitting, etc…

    The GTD system’s “hiccup,” then, is that it can’t account for accomplishing tasks that are too similar to the planning phase of the system itself. I think this should seem intuitive to people who use GTD regularly; anybody who has tried to take an extremely large task and break it down into actionable next-steps probably recognizes that the act of breaking the task down is, itself, a form of deep thinking. This isn’t a flaw; it just means that people who practice GTD have to accept that it won’t completely reduce every task to thought-free “next steps” all the time. Thought is still required.

    Where GTD excels is in reducing thought-load by collecting all of the stray thought we waste trying to navigate our day and centralizing it into a planning and review session. This reduces stress and, ideally, saves our focused, deep thought for more important tasks instead of scattering it throughout our schedule in the form of a million small, stressful choices. In that sense, I think GTD is a resounding success, and I think that it forms a good foundation for a deep-thinking lifestyle as long as it’s not over-applied. Several people have already mentioned this, but perhaps the best way to account for the tasks that GTD can’t handle is simply to allocate large blocks of time where you’re fresh and alert and have the ability to deal with them on the level you need to.

  54. Just came across this good discussion. Have been a fan of Cal’s work (bought my son his book).

    I found that my initial implementations and understanding of GTD echoed many of the concerns above.

    But having read David Allen’s three books (Getting Things Done, Making It All Work, Ready for Anything), I found that most critiques of GTD are addressed in his later books, particularly MIAW. And my understanding of GTD was a bit too simplistic. GTD for me has released some fundamental energies for deep work and creativity.

    I’ve tried explaining this to my network and was reminded of the movie The Karate Kid, especially the whole “wax on, wax off” sequence. Mr. Miyagi’s instruction at first appears rigid, prescriptive. Only later does it come together. As one good commenter said above, like a martial art.

    For my network, I had someone put together this little video clip of the Karate Kid scenes in the GTD books context.


  55. This article was quite odd. You could just add “Do deep work” as an action on your list and your question about the system seems to have disappeared? An action as defined by David Allen is anything you want it to be.

  56. Found this post really helpful in getting me thinking about my current GTD system and how I can improve it. So thank you, first and foremost.

    I am a software developer full time, a job which I love. I also produce music and write song lyrics in my spare time and have a fairly solid vision of what I wish to achieve in these fields. I have been integrating GTD into my life slowly over the last year or so, hoping that it would help me to crank through all the mundane tasks so that I have more time to do the deep work. This to me consists of writing songs and quite often spending time listening to the same songs over and over, simply pondering and feeling and gathering references and points of interest. You have to allow for serendipity in creative and intellectual projects. You have to allow yourself to simply follow your muse, without a clear sense of where you are going, in order to stumble upon something that sparks your enthusiasm. Only at that point, will you be in “the zone”.

    I have gone through several on/off phases with GTD; a month or so of striving for perfection, wherein all of my menial stuff seems to get done, but then I simply don’t have the time/energy/creative-spirit at the end of the day to actually sit down and do any deep work; striving for chaos, wherein I simply do as I please at the given minute without a plan and find that I am incredibly creative, but the mailbox fills up and the milk goes stale.

    From my software development career, which fits somewhere in between these two extremes, I have found that the Agile Methodology approaches the problem of unpredictability pretty well. (Have a look at it pal, it may well help you as it has me). We have a fairly good system for Agile in work. When I am in work, I put down my GTD system (Pocket Informant for iOS), unless I have a random non-work-related idea, at which point it gets captured in ‘IN’ and I continue. I have recently considered implementing an Agile-like system for my music projects as well. So essentially, I am running multiple systems in parallel.

    There is no “one-size-fits-all” in this game, because without deep work your life becomes too mechanical and without a steady widget cranker, your life becomes stressful. And some systems simply handle one better than the other. When you juggle multiple systems, what you actually need is the ability to make judgements on which of those mind sets you need to be in at any one time, in order to find a perfect balance. If you, or anyone reading this, does manage to find a “Single System” that introduces this kind of “depth-switching”, whilst at the same time helps you to manage your expectations on how much time/energy you spend at any particular depth, I would love hear from you.

    Cheers 😀

  57. I think GTD is the best way to do shallow work deeply. If done with “strong, clear focus” as David Allen suggests, it almost feels like deep work, of course it is simply a way to get rid of many annoying distractors in life in order to have more time for real deep work.

  58. This is a fantastic post. I am a long-time GTD user but frustrated. I understand the benefits that GTD can bring, but at what cost? It’s difficult to apply the concepts correctly to ensure you are working on the right things. I’ve written about some of my struggles with GTD here . Please take a look!

  59. I discovered your post too late, but I agree with you 100% about the issue of GTD.

    Another interesting post is ‘Good and Bad Procrastination’ ( by Paul Graham. He also pointed out that dutifully crossing off items on a to-do list is not only incomplete but also misleading —
    you may end up with finishing chores. His suggestion is, “Work on an ambitious project you really enjoy, and leave the right things undone.”

  60. David Allen’s Getting Things Done was a source for inspiration for me too. By focusing only on reaching the destination, we miss many good moments of our journey. Enjoyment of the work we do is equally important.

  61. Disagree. This article is quite dated now but doesn’t follow my understanding of GTD at all. If you want to do Deep work on a project simply schedule the time on your calendar for that deep work. If you want to work hard, schedule a lot of time on the calendar.
    Using your next actions list you know that all your other commitments are fully recorded and organised so they are no longer “on your mind” interrupting you from this deep work you need to do. You don’t need to put every action you are doing for this project down as a next action. Just one you stop for the day put the very next action down so you know where to pick up when you have scheduled your time to start this deep work again.
    Since you have a trusted system, when you get distracted by the thought of needing milk whilst doing this deep work, you can quickly capture it. This quietens the mind down again to allow to get on with the deep work.

    • As best as I can tell, this idea that GTD organizes the small things so you’re more free for the big things is something that came later. If you read original GTD, and the original discussion surrounding it, Allen really does seem to propose that everything reduces to next actions.

    • I really like GTD. I have been using it for three years now and my life has come to a place where everything seems organized and I have goals to pursuit that I know how to get there, but GTD is flawed, like Cal Newport said.

      What you said is something I had to think for myself after years struggling, since Allen himself doesn’t say anything at all about deep work. I had to realize that if I wanted to accomplish important stuff, I needed to “make an appointment to myself”, blocking hours of the day to do deep work – using Pomodoro. Only then I began to feel productive and accomplished.

  62. Love this post and I totally agree with you. I could not fully put my finger on what truly was not working for me about GTD but this is definitely a huge point I feel that it’s missing. The ability to help you with deeper work. I’ve been following GTD for many years. I find it just overwhelms me with a bunch of small tasks and even when I am able to do them and tick them off. I only feel momentarily good but have this constant feeling that I’m not able to accomplish my bigger goals in life.

  63. I think both the concepts go hand in hand. “Deep Work”, involves thinking about the problem deeply in a distraction free environment; which enables you to come up with creative solutions to the problem you are attempting to solve. The solution that you come up with can then be broken down in to actions viz. GTD. So in a way “Deep Work” is a precursor to GTD.
    Furthermore, when performing your action steps, if you encounter an unforeseen problem (which happens more often than not) than you have to apply “Deep Work” principles to come up with a solution for that problem, which can again be broken down in to action steps.

  64. I too used to use GTD a lot, once upon a time but have eventually given it up as a system (though I still hang on to some habits that it left in me like collection and reviews).

    The problem Cal identifies is accurate in that it’s hard to schedule deep work. In part because things that tend to lend themselves to deep work are simmering in my mind all the time. Trying to get it all in my Inbox is not possible because what is sloshing around in there are ideas, largely unconnected for the momebt. Putting them down as line/action items is dangerous because it will force me to make arbitrary connections and conclusions. At this point long form writing in a book or plain-text note is more useful.

    Once the idea stabilises and we know what exactly needs to be done with it, GTD becomes useful again.

    It was clearly designed for managers not makers.

  65. I’m pleasantly surprised to not only find this article, but see comments still trickle in after years.

    A new GTD workbook was recently released, and I picked it up hoping it had bridged some of the gaps from it’s decade+ forebearer.

    It doesn’t. GTD is a great tool for the administration and execution of simple, and some complicated, tasks and still fails to handle complexity.

  66. This whole discussion is quite intriguing to me.

    It seems that there is quite a consensus about the fact that GTD works well with simple tasks, but does not enable us do perform deep specialized work.

    On the other hand, some people disagree about the original intentions of David Allen. Some say its purpose is to liberate us to do deep work with our free time, and some say it’s intended to be used even in deep work.

    The disagreement sounds irrelevant to me, and that’s why: I don’t see how a universal organization SYSTEM could help us to solve specifical problems of any complex subject. That’s not what an organization system does.

    If David Allen claims it does, he is wrong, but that’s not what he says in the book I own. Perhaps it is the edition, or it’s in another book, but the point is: it does not make sense to me to expect that any personal organization system will help you to solve complex problems in any specifical subject. It will not provide it, no matter if it’s GTD or anything else.

    I believe what can help in complex problem solving, is immersion/focus. Deep thinking, within the language/universe you are dealing with. Of course there is no universal tool that can help you to understand very particular concepts. That’s why they are complex/particular, that’s what define them. BTW, I’m eager to read Cal Newport’s book on the subject, I’ve been told that they could help to fill this gap.

    I’m a fan of Albert Einstein. He certainly had a lot of focus and could solve very complex problems in his field, but on the other hand, he was not known as a very organized person. In the end, it seems to be a matter of option. Do you want to be highly organized, but perhaps not so involved in deep thinking on highly specialized study, or rather chaotic, but a genius on a specific field? Or try to find a compromise, knowing that no single “system” will solve all your problems?

    If there is any english mistake, I’m sorry, it’s not my native language.

    Here’s an interesting article:

  67. Yours and David Allen’s books have been the two most foundational productivity books for my life practice. I’ve found ways to combine the two. Currently, I use GTD to balance the details of my life as a whole. I schedule a rhythmic 1.5 hours of deep work every day to work on coding.

  68. I don’t understand why Mr. Newport is trying to create an artificial separation between Allen’s method and his own method when they are two different methods for completely different areas.
    David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) method was designed to help individuals organize and manage their tasks, projects, and commitments in a systematic manner. The main goal is to increase productivity, reduce stress and gain a sense of control and clarity in personal and professional life. The method provides a framework for capturing, clarifying, organizing and reviewing everything that needs to be done, ultimately leading to more effective and efficient task management.
    David Allen says very little in his book about how to actually get things done in practice when they are due. But that is not the goal of his GTD theory.
    I currently have around 350 private and professional tasks recorded in an app (I’ve been using it since 2010) that provides the appropriate structures/features for GTD. Every week in my 2-hour weekly preview in a very quiet cafe, I collect, check, structure and evaluate… the tasks. I then use tags to divide tasks into tasks that can be done on the side (Mr. Newport calls this shallow work) and tasks for which I need time and mental clarity without distraction (deep work). Then I drag and drop the tasks for the next period from my GTD app into my calendar app, set the start and end times and assign them to different colored calendars for “everyday”, “concentration”, “appointment”. I have to estimate the time to complete a (partial) task of a project or the entire task. For tasks that are tackled as part of a blocked “deep work” time, there is a lot of quiet time available so that I can withdraw and concentrate. Every evening I check the tasks in my app and the planned completion times in the calendar for completeness and add to the calendar if necessary. I’ve had this approach for a very long time.
    I use 2 methods, one to safely collect, define, document and structure tasks according to GTD rules and another method using timeboxing and time blocking in the sense of Mr. Newport’s theory. That’s why I don’t understand Mr. Newport’s criticism of GTD. GTD and Deep Work are 2 completely different approaches that do not cover the same area.

    :)) Even ChatGPT describes the difference between the two methods as follows:

    David Allen’s method, Getting Things Done (GTD), is designed to help people organize and manage their tasks, projects, and commitments in all areas of life. It can be used in both professional and private environments.

    Cal Newport’s methods, particularly his concepts of “Deep Work” and “Digital Minimalism”, are primarily aimed at professional productivity and personal development. They are designed to help people concentrate on demanding tasks, minimize distractions and develop a balanced relationship with digital technology.

    So why criticize GTD, Mr. Newport?


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