Blog Post

Not a GTD Disciple? Don't Worry About It

Recently, I attended a Barcamp for web workers, where I popped in and out of two groups discussing Getting Things Done (GTD). There was a beginners’ group, and one they called “Kung Fu GTD,” for the hardcore efficiency crowd. Despite not being a GTD user myself, I picked up one really useful tip from these sessions.

The few times I’ve looked into GTD methods, I’ve found them to be incompatible with the way I function. Already the time it takes to decide if something can be done in under two minutes is time I feel I’ve wasted. GTD seems to be a system I would have to impose from the top down, which is not how I operate. I tend to adopt tools and methods only if they organically find their way into my workflow. Strict GTD is too linear and stifling for me. And, I have to admit, it just seems complicated.

But I did pick up one extremely valuable tip from the “Kung Fu” GTD bunch. One woman in the group said that simplicity is paramount, and it all boils down to Stephen Covey‘s four quadrants of activity management. This is a great method for classifying tasks that I immediately incorporated into my workflow.

Essentially, you assign tasks one of four priorities:


Compare this method to a complicated GTD diagram.

Once you do this, everything falls into place. In my task management app, I have groups in which I keep associated tasks, but I also have a group for each of Covey’s quadrants. I drag things from task group to priority group, or I put new tasks directly into a priority group. It’s made my life a lot easier.

This UI/NUI/UNI/NUNI system (which is also lots of fun to say) is incredibly useful, and I can’t believe I never heard of it. But then, not being much of a self-help book consumer, I didn’t read “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Covey, which is where it came from. And I was way too footloose and fancy-free to be thinking about that kind of thing back in 1989, when the book was published.

One other bit of wisdom that I stumbled across while investigating Covey’s quadrants: It appears that people tend to expend most of their energy on the Urgent/Important and Urgent/Not Important tasks, get burned out, and go straight to the NUNIs to relax. Prevailing wisdom says that you shouldn’t neglect the NUIs. They’re good for your soul.

Be sure to read Celine Roque’s post “The Perfect Productivity System” in which she gives good advice on ways to find a system that works for you!

Share your productivity tips in the comments.

32 Responses to “Not a GTD Disciple? Don't Worry About It”

  1. So you can make this time management matrix now on the iPad using Priority Matrix ( What kind of benefits do you think we would have when you can do this on a small mobile device?

  2. @TesTeq

    Genrealisations are generalisations. You can always find exceptions.

    But I’ll change “Europeans” to “Latin” or “Non anglo-saxon / Non germanic” cultures, which admittedly leaves out a lot of Europeans.

    Anyway, my point was that GTD and the very notion of trying to come up with such systems is a product of a certain cultural mindset. I think most French, Italians, Spanish, Belgians (Walloons) etc. would dismiss the idea as hopeless the minute it crossed their minds, in the unlikely event that it would.

    And that, is just plain interesting to me, as a cross-cultural person, with one metaphorical foot on each side of the Atlantic.

  3. Vincent says: “Americans like to put things in neat categories and boxes. Europeans like to find connections between things, preferably seemingly unrelated things. In other words, American culture focuses on what makes things the same, while European culture focuses on what makes things different. Binary vs. Analog in a way.”

    Oh, I like these generalizations. Maybe all people in France focus on differences but I know many people in Poland, Germany, Scandinavia and UK that prefer GTD.

  4. Pamela, it seems like you have ruffled the feathers of eminent members of the church of GTD. Shame on you ;-)

    Americans like to put things in neat categories and boxes. Europeans like to find connections between things, preferably seemingly unrelated things. In other words, American culture focuses on what makes things the same, while European culture focuses on what makes things different. Binary vs. Analog in a way.

    GTD and other such methods are definitely culture-biased, and feel like a straightjacket to a non-binary, shades of gray people. Even your simple matrix is too confining for me, because all sorts of things can overlap the available choices, not to mention the fact that things (and boxes) are dynamic and evolve all the time.

    Flame away.

  5. I like both Covey’s and Allen’s approaches, however, GTD really seems overcomplicated a bit.
    My most favorite part of GTD is “2 Minute Rule” and GTD Timer software which I use most frequently: .
    According to the classification of tasks on Eisenhower’s Time Management Matrix – it is very effective and I prefer Personal Motivation Calendar. Here is my own
    guide how to use it to manage tasks with the Time Management Matrix
    These two tools plus Outlook allow to feel very comfortable in my own personal productivity management, worth to try. GTD Timer is free.

  6. Sorry but you misunderstood GTD
    1. Covey’s methods comes from Heisenhower.
    2/ GTD Diagram is much more simpliest. GTD has a global approach about project and context where actions havent to be done.
    3. priority change. Not process.
    4. You can use simpliest GTD, il a collection of tool.
    5. If you have indeed a huge amount of projet GTD can manage them nor Covey.
    6. You can find wonderfull gtd tool such as Omnifocus for mac and a lot for Pc. They make life simple.

  7. Pamela Poole

    Hi Piaras.

    Thanks for your comment. I have no trouble juggling constantly changing priorities, but it could be because my task management app is very flexible.

  8. Pamela Poole

    Hi Mark.

    My perception of GTD is what I described, all those things you say it isn’t. Clearly my perception is debatable.

    The thing is, there are cultural differences with the way people approach time/task management (French colleagues have told me GTD is a “very anglo-saxon” approach), personality differences, and I’ll say it even though some people might not like it, probably even gender differences. We’re not all alike!

    The system I use, the one I describe in my response to Mark above, works best for me. It’s completely free form.

    So when I have two things that “have to get done” I deal with the one I can deal with according to its priority but also according to my available time, mindset, motivation, etc.

    A task like “Find Mom a home” is going to require phone calls, Web searches, e-mails, waiting for responses, visits, spreadsheets… I would have a group for this, with all the tasks in it (but appointments in my calendar). In between actions, when I can’t move forward on them till something else happens, I jump around my quadrants for other things to do.

    Getting TP I delegate to the teenager ;-)

  9. Pamela Poole

    Hi John.

    It’s good to know that David Allen incorporated the 4 quadrants into GTD in Making it All Work, which I see just came out this year. Covey’s quadrants just made everything so much more manageable for me instantly.

    For me the 4 quadrants come in at the “Is it actionable” stage. Whether the answer is yes or no, it goes into a quadrant group. If it’s a multi-step item, it either goes into a quadrant group or I create its own group. Items to delegate go into a quadrant group. Items with specific dates and deadlines go into my calendar.

    The thing is, referring back to my tetris game post of a couple of weeks ago, I can have so many different tasks of more or less similar priority, that I group them by quadrant and then depending on how much time I have, how fresh my brain is, whether I’m in the mood to do something, I just pick and choose things from my quadrants to work on as I can fit them in.

    It’s a pretty effective method for me!

  10. Having read both Covey and Allen’s books several times I agree that they are compatible, they just take different view points of the same challenge.

    Both systems have many elements in common (lists, weekly reviews, getting perspective, etc)

    GTD I found more adaptable where the priorities change frequently and at short notice.

    The work flow you linked to makes GTD look much more complicated than it really is :)

  11. You can use or not use GTD, but at least make accurate statements about it. GTD is about as bottom-up as you can get, in the vast majority of cases deciding whether something takes 2 minutes or less is not a big deal, and nothing is more un-stifling than a clear mind. Oh yeah, GTD is anything but linear.

    I have all the admiration in the world for Covey’s 7 habits–it changed my life!–and the important vs urgent matrix. The 7 habits are about as top-down as you can get. Trying to organize one’s to dos by priorities is maddening since “by toilet paper” and “find assisted living facility for mom” both have to get done, and both will get done only by capturing executing one next action at a time.

    The GTD workflow diagram incorporates much, much more than to-dos and cannot reasonably be compared to Covey’s matrix (which does not deal with capture, reference material, filing, waiting for’s, reviews, delegating, etc., etc.)

    I’ve read each book many times and, in my opinion, GTD and 7 Habits complement one another nicely. The former is mainly action management; the latter, life management (GTD’s 30,000-50,000 ft. horizons).

  12. I love GTD, but I’ve never seen that homerolled diagram – that thing is heinous.

    The workflow that is in the book does not focus on priority (U or I).

    Instead, the key questions are: what is the desired outcome, what is the next action to take, and which context do you have to do the action in (on the phone, face to face, running errands, by email, on the server, etc.)

    This ensures that steps are actually taken toward your desired outcome.

  13. Most GTD disciples as well as David Allen himself would say that the top-down method is the problem. Unless you know everything you need to do, how can you really decide what’s important vs. unimportant (since that’s going to be a relative decision) and what’s urgent vs. not urgent (which is going to be a very relative decision).

    Two minutes is also not a hard and fast rule, but a guideline, since it typically takes about that long to file and track something. The idea should be that as you’re processing, you should do any task that can be accomplished without requiring you to get too far away from the processing task.

    Making It All Work actually incorporates the Covey four-quadrant model into GTD, but in a different way, showing the positives and negatives of focusing on something strategic vs. practical and being in control vs. out of control.