Systems vs Habits: Why GTD Often Fails

Systems vs Habits: Why GTD Often Fails

In my previous post, I wrote about David Allen’s Getting Things Done book and productivity system. If GTD has a weakness, it is that, although the book describes the system very well, it does a poor job of describing the change of daily habits you’ll have to perform if you really want to implement the system. The major reason people fail at implementing a GTD-style productivity system in their lives is that, no matter how simple the system may be, it’s a big change from what they are used to.

Leo Babauta is a self-made expert in changing and forming habits. His Zen Habits blog has changed the lives of many of its readers. So when I decided to try getting organized once again, there were two books on my reading list: David Allen’s (the System), and Leo Babauta’s Zen To Done, Leo’s personal take on productivity.

On Habits and Willpower

I like to think of habits as irrigation ditches. 

If you are a farmer who wants your fields watered, the obvious thing to do is to go get some water. But carrying buckets of water from the well to your field is inefficient and places a low upper limit on the amount of crop you can grow effectively. The effective farmer instead spends his effort digging irrigation ditches. It’s exhausting work, and at first it seems to generate no benefit at all. But once the ditch is complete, the water flows naturally into your fields on its own, without effort.

Good habits are a way to automate your behavior the way irrigation ditches automate watering. They allow you to accomplish work without effort. But if you don’t have them already, good habits can be hard to form.

As humans, we have a natural aversion to change. The world and activities that we are comfortable with got us this far, so they must be good, right? Change might make things worse. So if your bar for success is mere survival, aversion to change is probably a good thing. That’s why change makes us uncomfortable. It’s instinctive.

Each of us has a limited ability to tolerate change. Too much change makes us too uncomfortable, and we start to squirm, trying to avoid the change, to get back in our comfort zone. The uncomfortable feeling we get from too much change we call “stress”. When we’re trying to affect change, we call the ability to tolerate it “willpower”. But this is misleading, because willpower must also be expended to tolerate change that comes from the outside, change that we don’t want.

Remember Steve McCroskey from Airplane!, the guy who picked the wrong week to quit smoking? Too much change, he ran out of willpower.

Habits are a way to acclimate yourself to a new condition or activity, so that you stop seeing it as stressful change and start seeing it as normal.

Habits and Productivity

GTD asks you to master five classes of activity:

  • Collect (everything in an Inbox, as few as possible)
  • Process (Empty the Inbox, Make decisions about where items go)
  • Organize (File and Schedule items & tasks)
  • Review
  • DO

But the GTD system itself doesn’t tell you how to master these activities. For most people, mastering these activities means forming at least 4 new habits. For others it may require dozens of new habits to master them. But forming habits requires willpower, and we only have so much of that. The result is that many people trying to implement the system as a whole feel overwhelmed by the change, and stop.

Zen To Done is a short ebook (there’s also a paperback) that describes ten habits you can adopt to become fully productive. If even ten habits sounds daunting and unachievable to you, don’t worry, Babauta has you covered. He describes a minimalist system that will yield major improvements in productivity consisting of just four habits: Collect, Process, Plan, and Do.

Babauta’s approach to productivity is the same as his approach to self-improvement. Break down the desired change into a set of behaviors or habits, and tackle each habit one at a time before moving on to the next. He has some quick tips and tricks in the book to help you form these habits, but if you want to go deeper, you should probably read his other book, The Power of Less, or page through the great free content on his blog Zen Habits.

You should buy and read Zen To Done. It’s cheap, it’s an easy read, and it may help you to make the changes you want in your life. But if you don’t, here’s some friendly advice inspired by Babauta.

Give yourself permission to move slowly. Focus on just one habit, until that one habit is mastered. This means there are several other habits in your queue that are not “done” yet. You have to be okay with that. You have to accept that first things come first, and trust that those other things will get done. But for now, you must focus on the one thing you have chosen. Remember, you aren’t watering the fields quite yet. You are still digging ditches.

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