Productivity is Dead… Long Live Productivity!

Friday night before last, I was talking with Jason Echols on IM about how the whole “productivity” scene has lost steam lately. Not long after the work.life.creativity. forums started this past summer, a thread emerged called Life After GTD? which is about a sort of post-GTD attitude. Then in September, Mr. 43Folders himself, Merlin Mann, announced that he is “done with ‘productivity’ as a personal fetish or hobby ” and promptly disappeared from 43F. A number of other blogs dedicated to the idea of productivity and GTD have stagnated.

Those of us who have gotten really excited about it in the past few years and blogged about it have ceased to do so, or at least slowed down to a trickle. While MF is a relative latecomer the “productivity” scene (although it has never really been just about productivity in and of itself in the first place), I let this site go stagnant, due partly to technical difficulties and partly to my own blocks. I’ve seen some other productivity-focused blogs start out all gung-ho and then fall by the wayside. Brett Kelly at Cranking Widgets announced last week that he is done with productivity blogging, and then over the weekend posted a rant about how GTD sucks. This past summer I helped launch work.life.creativity. with a bunch of other guys who saw an overall decline and therefore a need for something new in the productivity arena. Then we posted less and less frequently, and eventually became victims of that same decline ourselves. Most of us jumped on the GTD bandwagon in the past 3-4 years, but we are starting to get off and stay off. People aren’t getting back on. They’re straying into other systems, developing their own. Even my own personal productivity system has evolved quite a bit from “kosher” GTD to something a bit different. While I think that’s standard for anyone who has practiced it for a year or two, I don’t think GTD as a system is really “sticking” anymore.

I think the movement, if you can call it a movement, if you can call it that, is dead. That’s right: (GTD) Productivity (with a capital “P”) is dead. But why? Why are all these former GTD zealots so down on the whole thing, giving up on the productivity stuff and going around making big announcements of resignation?

But I don’t really think that it’s dead, not by a long shot. Instead, I think GTD is too complicated for a lot of people, especially the ones who expect the system to do everything for them. (It even makes toast!) Without rehashing too much of what everybody else has said, the whole GTD thing causes too much anxiety and adds too many layers of complexity. I’ll touch on some of the GTD-centric concepts that I’ve had trouble with. Contexts? I started out with a ton of them, but now rarely use them anymore. I have moved to a more project-based mentality. I only use a context list when I’m running errands. Ganging tasks together makes sense, but you can’t live your life in such a way that you do like activities all the time. Sometimes you just have to make a single phone call right at this moment, instead of making ten in a row. Weekly Reviews? They take too long. It shouldn’t take two or three hours just to organize my thoughts about what I did last week and what I plan to get accomplished in the upcoming week. Brain Dumps? I’ll just say this: the customized Incompletion Triggers List I’ve created is subtitled “Hello, Anxiety.”

In short, I don’t think GTD is sustainable for a lot of people. It requires so much effort to keep it going. It’s needlessly complex. Too many layers. Too many if-then situations.

But on the other hand, I think productivity is still of utmost importance. Perhaps more so than in the past two decades. I get the impression that GTD evolved in response to the rise in knowledge work in the late 80s and early 90s, designed to give people a way to manage their ever-increasing number of inputs. As we enter a totally new economic era, I think productivity is still important, but without the layers of complexity. Everything is smaller. More compact. Small businesses make up the bulk of business today, and they’re lean and nimble. Seth Godin says that small is the new big. Feature bloat is a thing of the past. (Or should be.)

I believe that Simplicity is going to be the key to productivity from here on out. Patrick Rhone has written an excellent post about this over at The Weekly Review. His key to being more productive is keeping it simple. Bill Westerman has written about his GSD system that uses pen and paper. Why can’t we just do stuff? why can’t our trusted system be more simple and efficient in itself? A good system shouldn’t require that much mental overhead.

More importantly, I think Creativity is the going to be the new Productivity. Besides, what’s the point in spending tons of time being hyper-organized if you’re not making anything? Productivity by definition implies that you are producing something. Creating something. If you’re spending all your time shuffling context cards, fiddling with some overwhelmingly huge contextually organized list of things you have to do, easy to get bogged down and in your own way. If your system keeps you from producing/making/doing because of its complexity, you’re more likely to be discouraged and give up. You’ll end up with a huge case of Stuckness. That’s the opposite of creativity or productivity.

So, I think for several people I know, GTD is over. It has some good principles that still apply, but it’s just too involved for some. It’s not lightweight enough. Personally, I’ll keep using it in a highly modified form. I think a simple, productive system is what’s needed for all of us, so we can get off our rear ends and start creating. Doing. Making. Producing.

I think you’ll agree with me that we need to stop treating Productivity as some special “thing” that has to be cultivated in some lofty ivory tower. We need to drop the capital “P” and just get to it, without devising some complicated method for it. Remember that old Nike slogan? “Just do it.”

“Productivity” is dead. Long live productivity!


11 Comments. Add your own below.

  1. Great post! I think GTD has a lot of good concepts, but works better for some people than others, and better for some lifestyles than others.


  2. I think you can correlate this decline in blogging and writing about GTD and productivity directly to the 2004 rise and fall of web design-related articles. Once the area is saturated with articles and input, there’s just not much ‘new’ stuff you can produce about it that hasn’t already been said without creating a whole new movement. Which took David Allen over 20 years of research to come up with.

    Now it’s time to take all that accumulated knowledge and go ‘DO’ stuff, not write more about it.

    I think you’re spot-on about it hitting a sweet spot with knowledge workers who were dealing with brand-new inputs. And the system didn’t keep up with them. Or vice-versa.

    My personal belief is that people made the system too complicated. It was really just designed to get stuff out of your head. That’s primarily it. Entire cottage-industries have sprung up to help the average man/woman do that while introducing their own ‘spin’ on it. Wrong move. I played with it for a long time and created my own spin, then came back to it with the idea that I’d simplify - know what? I ended up re-creating, to the letter, what ‘the Dave’ was advocating from the beginning. Nothing simpler than what you need. I don’t have some super-long list of contexts, and I do my review when I feel overwhelmed. That’s it.

    I don’t think it’s dead. I think it’s in its execution stage. People mostly wrote about their personal gripes and efforts in shoehorning it into their lives, whatever system you talk about. They’re seeming to all be at the point where it either clicked or it didn’t, and there’s not a reason to be writing about it anymore for them.


  3. Well said!

    I have found it interesting to see how so many people have adapted and simplified GTD into something more manageable.

    I think a main problem with GTD is the not insignificant amount of time it takes to maintain the system. At first, during the honeymoon period, you don’t mind as you’re so excited that you’re actually being organised. But once the initial euphoria wears off, the time it takes to do all your processing, maintain lists and review becomes increasingly tiresome.


  4. I agree a lot with the comment from Travis. A lot of the blogs I read drifted off GTD and into snobbery. Snobbery about paper types, pens, software and so on. Irrelevant. GTD is great in it’s simplicity. Keep it simple and it releases your creativity.


  5. so much for my groundbreaking release of STgtD

    …probably a good idea.


  6. @damon What’s this STgtD of which you speak?


  7. @brad

    just a play on the spread of both GTD & STD (sexually transmitted diseases) combined into one.


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