An Epiphany: Why I Kept Failing At GTD

I’ve fallen off the wagon over and over. It’s exhausting and frustrating.

Each time I thought I had it figured out, it was only a matter of a week or two before things started falling through the cracks, and I once again relied on my brain rather than a trusted system to manage my projects.

I went two years without utilizing the Getting Things Done methodology, and it was a near-catastrophic life event that hit me between the eyes with the truth.

I was simply overcommitted.

There is something amazing and terrifying about containing everything within a trusted system, where you can visually see everything that is or has pulled at your attention. Sure it helps us to make decisions and prioritize our time, energy, and focus. Yet it also forces us to acknowledge every single thing we have commitments to.

I co-founded three businesses, consulted multiple others, managed several employees, tried to sort the accounting for all of them, and tried to survive the third and fourth years of marriage while working 12+ hours a day.

Am I a complete idiot? One could be forgiven for wondering.

Of course, I desperately needed GTD given the sheer volume of important things that were falling through the cracks. Yet every time I did a brain dump, and a full review and inventory of my active projects, I felt the load crushing my soul.

The truth was, I had simply exceeded my limits as a human being to effectively perform in all the areas that I played a role. It was one of the most humbling moments of my life. And it set me free.

I haven’t fallen off the wagon since I made that discovery.

So what did I do to fix it? The course of action I took is easy to describe, yet intensely difficult to execute.

Four Steps To Stop Sucking At GTD

Step 0: Forgive Yourself for Being Human

Before we dive into the actual four steps, this is one prerequisite. To skip this step is to guarantee an immense amount of frustration. If you can pull this one off, I promise you that you will be a better person for it.

Life is tough. GTD gives us hope that we can remain Master and Commander 24/7, and dominate every aspect of life as a result. However, when the realities of life hit and we fail despite our GTD mastery, we tend to feel a bit hopeless. The upcoming weekly review no longer looks like an upcoming breath of fresh air. Instead it appears more like an imminent reminder of all of the areas of life in which we are falling short.

The most important thing that helped me turn my life back around, and get back on the wagon for good is this: I stopped trying to be awesome at everything. I forgave myself for the areas in which I was falling short. I’m human. I’m not going to do everything right all the time. In fact, the more ambitious I am, the more I will inevitably fall flat on my face. And that’s okay.

So please, please, forgive yourself for being imperfect. The rest of life becomes so much more enjoyable.

Step 1: Zoom Out

Now that you’ve embraced your flaws and imperfections, we can reevaluate life with a fresh perspective. However, you can’t reassess your priorities in life when you’re buried in the projects and tasks that need to be done this week. For that, we have to zoom out to a 50,000 foot view of life.

I recommend reading about the horizons of focus within David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. Essentially, the 50,000 foot view is looking at the rest of your life, and considering what is most important to you. Every project and task you have in your system should reflect this goals and priorities.

You can zoom in a tad to the 40,000 foot view, where you see long term projects that will take several years, or consider the goals for the next year or two at 30,000 feet.

Only when we’ve stepped out of the busyness of life and looked at the big picture can we move to the next big step.

Step 2: Reevaluate What is Most Important

Certainly, all of our projects should either directly or indirectly support our goals and life mission that we looked at on the 50,000 ft horizon. When I took a look at the massively overwhelming list of projects I had, there wasn’t a single one that didn’t represent exactly what I believe in, and directly support my life goals. That’s how I fell into the trap of jumping into them and holding on to them for so long.

However, the law of diminishing returns applies here. I was spread so thin that I was no longer effective at anything, despite how relevant they were to my life goals.

Decide what is most important to you. For example, my relationship with my wife is more important to me than my entrepreneurial track record. In reality, I had never once thought that business was more important than my marriage, yet my marriage was suffering due to my entrepreneurial commitments.

While we’re out here in 50,000 foot land, we can objectively evaluate what’s most important, and move onto the next step, which can be excruciatingly difficult.

Step 3: Prune

For a bush or tree to thrive and be healthy, they need to be pruned. The dead or awkwardly located branches, if left on the plant, will take up the nutrients that should be going to the rest of the plant.

This will be hard, and it was for me. It was so hard. Because in step 2 I very clearly recognized that my marriage is more important than business, and that my businesses were soaking up the resources my marriage needed to thrive, my business efforts needed pruning.

I completely shut down two of them, and took a lower position in another to take responsibility and time commitment off of my shoulders.

It wasn’t a week later when it became clear that it was the best decision I had ever made. Most importantly, my marriage did a complete turnaround and today is thriving like never before.

But because of step 4, the benefits didn’t stop there.

Step 4: Focus

Now as acting CEO of only one business, and with less obligation to my second, I felt an overwhelming sense of energy to apply to my work, and to my relationships. I could now apply an incredible amount of creative energy into things – I got focused.

Not only was I able to fulfill my responsibilities, but I was able to go above and beyond. I gained much more respect from my peers, from my family, and eventually from myself, and everything that I’m putting my energy towards is prospering. I’m in the zone for the first time, and it feels amazing.

So Now What?

So now life is perfect, and I never make any mistakes.

…said no honest person ever.

It’s still a challenge to keep priorities in check, and to keep using my trusted system consistently. There are so many opportunities out there. With the renewed energy and more available time that I now have, opportunities to commit to new things can be a huge temptation.

I’ve learned several things along the way that have been absolutely essential to staying on the GTD wagon.

Five Tips For Staying Awesome At GTD

Tip #1: Zoom Out Regularly

Every time you do your weekly review, it’s absolutely vital that you start by zooming back out to 30, 40, and 50,000 foot views of your life to make sure you’re spending time on what matters the most to you.

The thing that made all the difference for me was to discuss these horizons of focus with my wife. For you it could be a spouse, a best friend, a sibling or a business partner. It’s a form of checks and balances – accountability to help us stay on track, and not be swayed by the ebbs and flows of life.

Tip #2: Celebrate the Small Victories.

You will continue to make mistakes and have struggles. You’re still human. Kinda stinks sometimes, doesn’t it?

This makes it so much more important to allow yourself to feel great about the little things. For example, once I had been capturing my thoughts and ideas for an entire week consistently, I practically threw a party for myself. This is an incredibly important step toward getting all of this junk out of my brain and into a much more competent system! I’m one big step closer to freedom!

Don’t hesitate to offer yourself rewards. It could be a kit kat bar or a Hawaiian vacation.

Mistakes aren’t going to kill you, and small accomplishments are a huge deal.

Tip #3: Weekly Review More Often Than Weekly.

It has taken some time for me to trust my system. I have years of relying on my brain – it’s a tough habit to break. For quite a few weeks, I had to do a complete review every 2-3 days to make sure I wasn’t missing something. I needed to be sure that this could be trusted, and nothing important would slip through the cracks.

It’s okay to be a bit ridiculous about it at first. As you repeat this over and over, you’ll come to expect that your system does indeed have everything accounted for, and you can gradually relax back into a weekly schedule, or whatever you find works for you.

Tip #4: Use Someday-Maybe Way More

One mistake I used to make all the time was to put everything that I wanted to get done on my active projects list. While that may work for some people, the massive list of projects just increased the feeling of overwhelm. Now I only have the projects that need to get done in my active projects. I get way more done, and the progress feels much more significant.

My only suggestion would be to make sure you’re reviewing the Someday Maybe list fairly frequently in case the projects become a need-to-get-done situation without an external trigger of some sort. Since I still review everything more than weekly, my bases are covered there.

Tip #5: Connect Regularly To A Fellow GTDer

There is a lot of danger in self-council. Don’t be an island. Find a friend or colleague (with whom you like to interact) who uses GTD as well. Share experiences, stories, challenges, and ideas. These insights can help you overcome speed bumps, and occasionally help you avoid them altogether. They can also keep you inspired and encouraged. And finally, they can remind you that they too are human, and make mistakes, and that everything is still going to be okay.

I would love to be that guy, as much as I can be. I wanted to share some of my story so you know that I’m a real life human being. My hope is that you’ll share some of your stories as well. If I get enough responses, I would even like to feature some reader stories on this site (after getting permission first, of course). Feel free to comment below, or better yet drop me a line directly. I’d love to know how I can help you out!

  • JHooper

    So sorry I’m at my train stop. I need to re read this a few more times. Thank you for this gift

  • evanheckert

    Wow, thank you for the kind words! I hope it helps!

  • Robert

    I found this post through the GTD forum. I am just getting re-started with the GTD system and I am trying to figure out how to make such a drastic change. This was great! Thanks!

  • evanheckert

    Thanks Robert, and good luck! There will be obstacles, it’s just a learning process, but believe me – it’s worthwhile. If you get hung up on anything in particular, shoot me an email and we can chat about it. More than likely there are quite a few others out there with a similar roadblock, and we can share the solution here on the website when we find it. Thanks for reading!

  • hjobanputra

    Evan, what an amazing post! It almost resonates with my journey which is only a few months old. The beautify of GTD gets more clear when you stop using it for a while and jump back to it . As soon as we are back in, it almost feels like we are on the court of life instead of sitting in the podium as mere spectators.

    I have written an interesting post on this topic and would love to have your thoughts on it: http://wp.me/p45fvO-b2

  • evanheckert

    Thanks for the link! I enjoyed the article and subscribed to your blog. I’m hoping you’ll go into more depth when you have a chance.

    I’m especially intrigued about the concept of using Notational Velocity. I use that as a capture tool all the time, but I’d love to see how you’re using it as a list manager!

  • http://GTDNext.com GTDNext.com

    Really great article Evan. I love the way you really took a step back to look at the problem. We all fall off the wagon from time to time and you are right, the key is not to beat yourself up about it, but just climb back on!

  • Kiran

    Great Article. I stumbled upon this article as I fell off the wagon and didn’t even realise it until yesterday, I couldn’t recall the name of the person I was going to have a meeting with. Lots of things get thrown at you everyday and so easy to be out of zone for a long time.
    I need to get back and would love to connect as GTD has never failed me. Only I failed it many times :(