Cal Newport: Why Getting Things Done (GTD) doesn’t work

Editor’s Note (12/20): After writing this post, I later read that Newport wrote on his blog that despite the headline, his article was not “about David Allen’s productivity system, which I really admire.”

“Who wouldn’t want the cheat codes?”

My friend (we’ll call him Taylor) was perplexed.

We were reminiscing about his remarkable career trajectory over some stiff Zoom cocktails.

As an associate during the 2008 Financial Crisis, Taylor ended up in the uncomfortable predicament of “being a rising guy, in a shrinking business.” He was an equity salesperson (i.e. Taylor helped institutions buy and sell big chunks of stocks) and believed that as an expensive middlemen, automation and AI was making his role obsolete.

So Taylor wanted out.

His pivot was a bumpy and long drawn-out career transformation. There were drastic pay cuts and entire new industries to learn. And a lot of second guessing.

Not one to gloat, but as we sipped our cocktails, Taylor sheepishly shared: “BTW, I was recognized as one of the top performers in my company.” Six years into his career pivot, he was ranked in the top 1% of a massive tech company, where he lead B2B sales.

Now that Taylor was managing a huge team, he was shocked by one common deficiency. None of his colleagues or direct reports had a cohesive system to manage their tasks. Sure, they all had task management apps. But without being anchored to a consistent philosophy, we both agreed that tasks are just a list of empty boxes waiting to be checked.

Taylor and I had a share a unique kinship. We had both discovered David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) philosophy very early in our careers. And the payoffs – which compounded over decades – have been huge.

And while they got Taylor into the top 1% – all of his colleagues seemed to have missed the memo.

There is a lot of news in the world right now.

A certain somebody still refuses to concede.

Scott Disick has a new girlfriend.

And the Milwaukee Bucks might trade the Greek Freak.

Yet the cover of the venerable New Yorker magazine showed this:

Cal Newport (of Deep Work fame) was proclaiming The Fall of Getting Things Done. Clearly Cal didn’t know about the cheat codes?!?!

I grabbed a lime-flavored La Croix and sat down to dissect Newport’s 5,700 word missive on “how personal productivity transformed – and failed to transform work.” I wondered:

What have I been missing over nearly two decades?

The New Yorker article is a loquacious mashup of critiques aimed at knowledge work and those who manage it. If you were expecting a scathing and precise attack on GTD, you’ll be disappointed. Instead you’ll get a meandering exposé on management by objectives, Inbox Zero, deep work and (even) Agile software development.

So let’s dig into Newport’s critiques.

GTD and Inbox Zero are not the same thing

David Allen famously says, “Your mind is made for having ideas, not holding them.” At its core, GTD is about closing “open loops.” To stop the draining worry about returning your boss’ call, paying your rent and submitting a client proposal, he recommends getting them all out of your head and into a specific place (like an app, notebook or piece of paper).

Newport acknowledges that the Capture Step of GTD is where it all begins, adding:

the idea is to maintain a set of in-boxes into which you can drop obligations as soon as they arise. One such in-box might be a physical tray on your desk; when you suddenly remember that you need to finish a task before an upcoming meeting, you can jot a reminder on a piece of paper, toss it in the tray, and, without breaking concentration, return to whatever it was you were doing. Throughout the day, you might add similar thoughts to other in-boxes, such as a list on your computer or a pocket notebook.

However, he quickly glosses over the four remaining steps of GTD:

Yes, capture is important. But it’s the ensuing four steps that set your future self up for a win. GTD ensures that the right tasks find you at the right time. (If you’re looking for a refresher on each step, this rad video tutorial has got you covered.)

Newport then pulls a bait and switch by equating GTD and Inbox Zero. Yes, they both use inboxes. But that’s where the similarities end. The confusion (shared by many of the students in our productivity training) revolves around the two minute rule:

“If you determine an action can be done in two minutes, you actually should do it right then because it’ll take longer to organize it and review it than it would be to actually finish it the first time you notice it.” 

The thinking behind the Two Minute Rule (which also goes by Touch it Once) is that it’s not always worth putting all of your ideas into the GTD system. So if it takes two minutes, just do it.

So what happens when you follow the two minute rule? You spend all day swatting away emails, Slack messages, pings and notifications. And instead of getting things done, nothing gets done. (And we’ve long argued that Inbox Zero is the pinnacle of $10 work.)

Surely, Allen could’ve clarified that you shouldn’t respond to email all day. (I’d argue that common sense can tell you that.) But to say the entire system is broken because of the two minute rule would be akin to blaming obesity on the flawed food pyramid.

The cult of productivity will drive you crazy

Newport then continues his pile-on – throwing GTD, Inbox Zero, bullet journaling, Slack, task management apps and even Palm Pilots into the mix. He calls out our bottomless and recursive obsession with productivity – the blogs, the tweaking and ultimately the feeling that you’re never doing enough. His protagonist for this frustration is the productivity blogger (and inventor of the term Inbox Zero) Merlin Mann. Mann found his own obsession with productivity problematic:

[Productivity] was becoming a bewildering, complexifying end in itself—list-making as a “cargo cult,” system-tweaking as an addiction. “On more than a few days, I wondered what, precisely, I was trying to accomplish,” he wrote. Part of the problem was the recursive quality of his work. [Mann felt that he was] “tossed around by a menacing Rube Goldberg device” of his own design; at times, he said, “I thought I might be losing my mind.

I will categorically agree that we are all suckers for the illusory promise of personal productivity. I am guilty of regularly buying a new app (or gadget) believing it will be the silver bullet to relieve me of my anxiety and never-ending feelings of time scarcity. Yet these purchases are always shiny new toys and end up in the graveyard of unused apps.

But to blame this obsession on GTD – a time-tested system that doesn’t even require an app – totally misses the mark. In fact, the reason why these apps fail is because they are not grounded in an underlying philosophy. It’s like buying a fancy pair of running shoes thinking you’ll lose weight. What you actually need is a plan and the discipline to stick with it.

We have crappy bosses

Newport then directs his fire towards the late management guru Peter Drucker. In the 1950s, Drucker introduced management by objectives, where managers could define metrics and goals for their direct reports. This approach placed an “emphasis on knowledge-worker autonomy” in which “managers focus on setting out clear targets, but the details of how they’re accomplished are left to individuals.” Newport finds this problematic and explains:

It’s why the modern office worker is inundated with quantified quarterly goals and motivating mission statements, but receives almost no guidance on how to actually organize and manage these efforts.

Indeed, it’s well documented that knowledge workers struggle with bad bosses, a lack of accountability and low employee engagement. But to say that this birthed a self-destructive productivity movement (and GTD in particular) is a bit of a stretch:

  • Bosses gave knowledge workers autonomy
  • Knowledge workers had to figure out how to define their output
  • The cult of productivity ensued
  • Knowledge workers became stressed and overwhelmed
  • GTD must be broken

Unstructured communication is overwhelming

Newport is correct in mentioning the perils of multi-tasking and interruptions:

But the cumulative effect of such constant, unstructured communication is cognitively harmful: on the receiving end, the deluge of information and demands makes work unmanageable. There’s little that any one individual can do to fix the problem. A worker might send fewer e-mail requests to others, and become more structured about her work, but she’ll still receive requests from everyone else; meanwhile, if she decides to decrease the amount of time that she spends engaging with this harried digital din, she slows down other people’s work, creating frustration.

I will be the first to agree that poor communication practices drive knowledge worker misery and lack of productivity. It’s why at RadReads we have clearly communication defined protocols, user manuals and favor asynchronous tools.

The technology company Basecamp has aggregated all of their communication rules and preferences into one firm-wide guide. This includes guidelines on:

  • Long-form writing over chatting: “Writing solidifies, chat dissolves.”
  • Unnecessary meetings: “Five people in a room for an hour isn’t a one hour meeting, it’s a five hour meeting.”
  • Fabricated urgency: “Urgency is overrated, ASAP is poison.”
  • Daily stand-ups: “Every workday at 16:30 our internal system asks: What did you work on today?”

This is by no means a complete list, but goes a long way in eliminating “unstructured communication.” I believe GTD reduces communications noise, particularly with its Capture and Reflection phases.

How do we get out of this hole?

While heavy on the hysteria, Newport’s article is quiet sparse on proposed improvements. Borrowing from the philosophy of Agile Software Development, he proposes:

What if you began each morning with a status meeting in which your team confronts its task board? A plan could then be made about which handful of things each person would tackle that day.

Surely, talking to your team each morning should make for a smoother day. But is this really the diagnosis to the 5,700 words dedicated to “overload culture?” Newport builds on this recommendation with:

Virtual task boards, where every task is represented by a card that specifies who is doing the work, and is pinned under a column indicating its status. With a quick glance, you can now ascertain everything going on within your team and ask meaningful questions about how much work any one person should tackle at a time.

(Is it just me, but does this sound like Trello.)

I suspect that Newport was trying to explain away overload culture with GTD finger-pointing. And I’m not denying that overload culture is a pernicious problem, sapping knowledge workers of their joy, mind space and creativity. But it’s a much more complex system, best demonstrated by the diagram below:

We need more self-awareness (and questions) behind the work we do and why we do it. Then we can map our needs to the right tools. Lastly, none if this works unless you are committed to changing your behavior (like actually having 1:1s with your direct reports).

The flywheel is daunting. It should be – as Newport points out, it’s a complex and inter-connected system. But when you figure it out. Man, that’s when the cheat codes and compounding kick in. After all, we all just want to get more things done today.

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