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Is David Allen’s GTD Too Complex?

by Kerry Dawson

Google the words “GTD too complex” and you get about 122,000 results. Alain Latour explains why they’re both right and wrong.

complex GTD chart

Piece of cake.

I have a confession to make: for all my openly professed love of GTD, there was a time when I actually hated it.

That time was over five years ago when I was still in university. Having decided I was so busy that I needed a productivity system, and inspired by a student-focused Lifehacker article, I set about implementing the ultimate GTD system.

Obviously, this entailed buying and studying David Allen’s book. But it also entailed buying software. I was a penniless student, so I scoured the Internet for free set-ups.

The answer lay in a product that I was already using: Evernote, a popular note-taking tool whose motto reads, “Remember Everything.” Designed to help user users collect alls sorts of data rather than to help them get organized, Evernote was nevertheless a great choice for an inbox in the GTD sense of the word. This is what probably inspired a great number of people to devise complex Evernote-based GTD set-ups, including Ruud Hein’s method as well the The Secret Weapon.

After spending countless hours studying and borrowing from these set-ups, I was ready to finally embrace GTD. Or so I thought.

Months later, I realized that GTD had become another series of to-dos in an already bloated list—and an onerous series at that. I found myself postponing, and then omitting, key components of the GTD workflow, like the weekly review. I realized that while GTD could be effective at helping you get organized, being organized isn’t the same being productive.

Frustrated, I quit the system altogether. If you’d asked me then what I thought about David Allen’s default system, I would’ve probably said it was far too complex, a conclusion which I was reassured to find many others shared, including people I looked up to.

The Present

picture of David allen

“To simplify a complex event, you need a complex system.” —David Allen.

Flash forward a couple of years. Having realized that life only gets busier after school, I decide to give GTD another try.

This time I kept it simple. Knowing I did not want to use Evernote for GTD again even though David Allen had released a guide on using Evernote for GTD purposes, I decided to spend only 30 minutes researching GTD-specific products online.

I settled for Things rather than OmniFocus or the Hit List, partly because my previous experience made me lean towards the simpler product.

I also decided to use the Pomodoro technique to help me stay focused on my to-dos for the day.

The results have been dramatic. I am on top of things and get more done. I am also (and this always the selling point of GTD) remarkably stress- free (or at least as close to that as you can get in today’s hectic workplace).

What changed?

picture of man pulling his hair

*If implementing GTD stresses you or takes too much time, you need to ask yourself whether you’re applying it properly. *

Not GTD.

One thing that did change was my abandoning Evernote as a GTD system, but as much as like Things, I can’t credit it with GTD being so great for me this time around.

What changed was the way I perceived and implemented GTD.

Yes, GTD can seem daunting and complex. Yes, it’s somehow easy to let yourself carried away by minutia when you implement GTD, which means you’ll end up focusing on the system, not the results. This is especially true of geeks, who tend to be attracted toward GTD and other organization methods, and who can’t resist optimizing these methods.

The problem? Optimization can be an endless process. We get so much into it, we forget that every minute spent working on a system is a minute spent not getting any actual work done.

In the end, GTD doesn’t have to take too much time. Neither does it have to so complex that it borders the confusing. Indeed, it pays to keep in mind that GTD, really, is all about:

  1. collecting information,
  2. categorizing it,
  3. deciding what you’re going to do next with it, and
  4. reviewing it often enough that you don’t keep thinking about it.

That’s all, and the moment you find yourself spending hours debating the merits of a tag-based versus a notebook-based system on Evernote, you’ve lost sight of your real goal: getting things done.


In other words, if you have a handle of your ability to work, GTD is godsend in terms of helping you get organized.

But it’s no magic bullet, and no amount of twiddling and fiddling is going to make it one. If you get carried away by the need to endlessly optimize your GTD set-up, you only have one person to blame—and it ain’t David Allen.

GTD chart via tanjadebie on Flickr

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