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Three ways GTD and college don’t mix

[Originally sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 3/27/07]

In the previous post, sent out earlier today, I described the main
ideas behind David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. In
this post, we identify where this approach might not work well for the
college lifestyle. This list is by no means inclusive. I encourage
you, therefore, to send me your own thoughts on where GTD , or
traditional time management systems in general, fall short of the
realities of being an undergraduate. As always, you can reach me by
simply replying to this message. Moving forward, we will tackle the
issues listed below (and any you send in).


(1) GTD’s projects are not handled quickly enough.

In GTD, when a project enters your world, you put the next action on
your next actions list and add the project to your projects list. Each
week, during your weekly review, you will look over your projects list
and then add more next actions as needed to keep things moving
forward. This is a good match for the typical business project —
e.g., this week I’ll look up the numbers for the Anderson report, next
week I’ll put them together into a Power Point — but a horrible match
for the typical college project.

Why? Because in college, more often than not, “project” means
“assignment.” And assignments are incredibly time sensitive: they have
to be done within a week. The GTD project system is too lazy to ensure
that the steps for an assignment all get done in time. We need some
way to ensures that these steps get done within the same week that
they are encountered. Furthermore, we need to ensure that they get
done with reasonable spacing (as I discuss in STRAIGHT-A, leaving all
the work on a given assignment until the day before is a terrible
student strategy).

(2) There is no college workday.

In GTD, while you’re at work you’re constantly review your calendar
and next actions list to decide what to do next. This fails at college
as there is no well-defined period during which you are always
working. Depending on the particular day’s schedule, you could find
your free time anywhere between early morning and late at night. As we
discussed in an earlier post, it is unreasonable to try to maintain a
scheduling mindset throughout the entire day. Clearly, we need a
better mechanism to specify when these sort of decisions are made and
when you can relax.

(3) Time is precious.

In the typical knowledge worker job, it is sufficient that you are
making efficient progress on work at at all times. For a student,
however, what’s important is that you somehow manage to finish the
large amount of concurrent assignments by their respective strict
deadlines. No one cares how you get this done. As I observed in
researching STRAIGHT-A, for many students, it can be difficult to find
enough time to stay on top of a given week’s assignments. Accordingly,
the GTD model of taking your day one action at a time, without
consideration of the bigger picture task landscape, might lead to
deadline disaster. We need additional planning mechanisms to make sure
that deadline-driven work always gets done.

2 thoughts on “Three ways GTD and college don’t mix”

  1. I think you misunderstand a couple of things about GTD.

    – The GTD methodology doesn’t differentiate between work and home. The idea is that you pay attention to contexts. Those contexts CAN be separated by location (work office/home office) but more often are at a phone, at a computer, etc, regardless.

    – The GTD system isn’t lazy – you can put things onto a list, but you can also put parts onto a calendar to make it time-sensitive. The idea is that when you are working, you decide on what the highest priority is and then do it. If you have an assignment due tuesday and another due friday, you decide which one is more important to your grade and do that. Or you put the steps onto your calendar (for example Monday: read chapter 2, Tuesday: research related concepts, Wednesday: Write paper, Thursday: Refine and turn in).

    – Take my word for it, knowledge workers have deadlines. Often they are very far out instead of an assignment due this week, but as they get closer things get more urgent.

    I use GTD. I’m a part time knowledge worker and full time PhD student. It does work.

  2. Rue, Thank you for the comments. It’s always useful to get the perspective of individual GTD users, as everyone implements the system in his or her own way.

    I want to point you to the follow-up post. I think we are more on the same wavelength than you think. When I talk about applying GTD to the college environment, my suggestions mirror, in many respects, your notions — for example, using the calendar to schedule dense clusters of time-sensitive work.


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