The Essential Missing Half of Getting Things Done

Since I’ve been using David Allen’s Getting Things Done system for a few years now, I’ve made many refinements to it to suit my own style. The most important has been linking the low-level project-action focus of GTD with my own high-level focus on purpose and goals.

My personal GTD system starts with purpose. At that level I have a one-sentence statement of my life’s purpose plus a longer mission statement. My mission statement takes my high level purpose and breaks it down into the different areas of my life: physical, social, mental, career, spiritual, etc. I’ve only made very minor tweaks to my mission statement in the past couple years because it just seems such a perfect fit for me. Because my purpose and mission change so little year after year, they act as an anchor for me. At this level I’m not at all focused on goals, projects, or actions. It’s more of a focus on who I want to be, so it’s mostly about principles and character. This is even a step above values (which can shift over time). So my purpose and mission are about who I am, what I’m here to do at a very high level, and what I want my life to mean.

The next level down is goals. All of my goals are either need-based or purpose-based. Need-based goals are largely “away-from” motivated goals. For example, if I don’t put together a good accounting system for my business, I’ll end up with a mess. It’s something I need to do, but it doesn’t contribute directly to my purpose. But about 80% of my goals are purpose-based; these are my “towards” motivated goals that derive from my purpose and mission. Virtually all my goals for this web site are purpose-based. This site has very little to do with filling my needs; it’s all about fulfilling my purpose.

Now beneath the level of goals, we get into more standard GTD. Here we have projects, and projects are derived directly from goals. Also at this level I also include someday/maybe items, which I maintain on a separate list.

And below that level we have next actions. I also put my “waiting for” list at this level. I usually only have about 4 -5 waiting for items at any one time, so I just tack a “waiting for” section at the bottom of my next actions list.

I love the standard GTD system, but it’s a low-level system. It is absolutely wonderful for managing projects and actions. The results for me have been amazing, and I’ve gotten really good at applying it. I still use it every single day, even for my personal projects and tasks. And I love the results. My email inbox is empty. My inbox is empty. I just never let my email inbox or my paper inbox get cluttered. I get a lot of email every day, and new papers pop into my inbox every day. But I’m always processing them down until they’re empty. And I feel very relaxed and focused, able to concentrate easily without worrying about some email I need to reply to. I have no stacks of paper anywhere in my office. Everything I need to save is neatly filed. The GTD system really does work brilliantly if you stick with it. It took me a few months to really get the hang of it, but it was definitely worth the effort.

What’s missing from GTD though is the high-level part of the system. It starts at the level of projects, but where are these projects coming from? I think the assumption behind GTD is that these projects are assigned by your boss or your company. Or maybe you run your own business and just have a lot of previous projects stacked up before you ever learn about GTD. But how do you know if these projects are even worth doing at all? How do you even know you’re working at the right job in the first place? Instead of getting better and better at plowing through your existing work, doesn’t it make sense to take a step back and figure out if your ladder of success is even leaning against the right building? What about using GTD in your personal life? Where do your personal projects come from?

The high level element that is missing from standard GTD is, in my personal opinion, absolutely essential. It makes no sense to blindly apply standard GTD unless you’ve already secured the top level elements of purpose, mission, and goals. Otherwise you’re doomed to spend your life working on other people’s goals and losing yourself in the process. See the previous blog entry for more on that.

To put it very simply… standard GTD will teach you how to do things right. It’s extremely effective at that. But before you concern yourself with doing things right, you must first figure out what the right thing to do is. This is commonly said to be the difference between management and leadership: Managers do things right; leaders do the right thing. Standard GTD is a personal management system. But it’s essential that you also have a personal leadership system. If you master GTD without the life leadership elements, your life will be like a ship that’s very well managed, except that it has no captain and no destination. It will bounce around randomly with great efficiency.

The lack of a GTD personal leadership element is also prevalent in David Allen’s second book, Ready for Anything. Take note of the title. You’re ready for anything. But what is that anything? You’re ready to act, ready to get stuff done. But what’s the stuff? Who chooses it? Where does it come from? What kind of person would value the state of readiness above all else? Perhaps a martial artist. But perhaps a slave too.

Let me reiterate that I’m a huge supporter of David Allen’s work. It has done wonders for my personal productivity. But before I added the high-level purpose-driven elements, working with GTD was like getting better and better at sailing around in circles. With the high-level elements, there is now a clear, focused direction that changes very little. Every day I not only feel that I’m getting a lot done, but I also feel it’s making a difference, and it’s heading somewhere meaningful and important. Personal productivity has transformed into personal fulfillment.

Before you can get things done, you must consciously choose those “things” you want to be doing. Before you put yourself into a state of readiness, you must consciously define what you want to be ready for. Knowing your life’s purpose is the answer. It provides the context for readiness and for action. It turns generic readiness into “ready to speak,” “ready to write,” “ready to love,” etc. Purpose turns “getting things done” into “giving life meaning.” When you ultimately work at the level of projects and actions, they’re infused with purpose. Your purpose. Your mission. Your very reason for existence. Every paper you shuffle, every word you type, every project you complete — they now mean something. They’re a part of a larger whole, a deep expression of who you truly are. But those very same actions, blindly assigned by someone else for no great purpose, become lifeless. Just things to get done instead of a great purpose to be fulfilled.