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GTD Review – Five Common Pitfalls

A recent comment on one of my posts reminded me of the many pitfalls that I’ve encountered in my GTD journey. I’ve learned a lot as I’ve implemented the Getting Things Done (GTD) paradigm on my personal organization. So as a courtesy, I thought I’d share some of the pitfalls I encountered along the road.

Pitfall #1 GTD is a Paradigm, not a System

It’s important to remember that GTD is not a system. Systems are limited and do not weather change well. Rather, GTD is a paradigm. It’s a way of thinking that can inspire your system and be implemented in your daily processes. Ultimately, your system has to change to match your needs. I have changed my personal organization systems countless times to meet the needs of the moment. and GTD has survived every change since I first learned about it. Whether the change is from once task management tool to another, a reorganization of your tasks and projects, or a complete rethinking of what contexts you work within, GTD doesn’t care. GTD is a way to assess your commitments in the world, and if you keep it in that role, it will adapt to your world as it changes.

Pitfall #2 Not Making Decisions about Your “Stuff”

After having implemented a GTD-inspired system for several months, I found that I often did not make good decisions about things when I first processed them from my inbox. My problem was that I was putting too many things into my system. The challenge was, I didn’t have a clear enough sense of my purpose, vision, and goals to be able to make the daily decisions about whether something was important or not. Instead of throwing things out or putting them on my Someday/maybe lists, I set them up as items to research or do some planning about. I quickly found my system overwhelmed by the number of items due each week. So much so that I never made it to the “do as soon as possible” lists.

To resolve this, I had to begin with more clearly identifying my goals, vision, and purpose. As I began to develop a mind map of these higher horizons, I began to realize how many things I’d decided to put on my active lists that were not supporting those long-term goals. Making more judicious decisions about stuff, allowed me the freedom to “say no” more often. If something in my inbox might interest me, but did not fit with my goals, vision, or purpose, it went into my Someday/Maybe lists. I made a series of these such as “Places to Visit,” “Wishlist,” and “Things to Learn.” Then, when my mind was clear enough to expand my learning, my schedule open enough to plan a new trip, or my budget had room to buy some new “stuff,” I could go back to those lists for ideas.

Pitfall #3 Being too Organized

A system that is too complicated is impossible to maintain, and if it cannot be maintained, you will stop trusting it. A GTD-inspired task management system will only work so long as you can trust it to remind you of the right things at the right times. If your system becomes too complicated, you can quickly lose track of what order to do things in. When we stop to get ourselves organized, we have a tendency to over think our system. If you develop a 6-level color coded priority system, you may quickly get lost in all the organization. You want a system that is organized, but when it’s time to get to work, you want the system to slip into the background.

Pitfall #4 Using Your Inbox as a Buffer

It is tempting to use your inbox as buffer for work that you just don’t want to deal with yet, but this is a recipe to disaster. As I’m writing this, I’m actually staring at the buildup of “stuff” in my inbox from a busy Spring Break. I know I’ve let it sit too long, and now I hesitate to dive in to what is surely going to be at chunk of time processing all these things I’ve put off. This most commonly occurs in the space of our email inboxes. Often, we know that when we come to a task, we want to have the email it relates to there and ready. Unfortunately, that often turns our email inbox into a task list, a huge no-no for any GTDer. To let this happen would risk turning your email inbox into a sink hole of forgotten tasks. Take some time to create a system around putting your emails into folders and putting the proper reminders for you to come back and check on them. Letting your inbox get out of hand is a surefire way to bring a good system down.

Pitfall #5 Skipping Your Weekly Reviews

This is perhaps the easiest pitfall to fall into and also the most devastating. When things at work heat up, this is a big chunk of time that you can push aside with justifications like “I can do this next week” or “I need to get stuff done right now, not think about getting it done.” Yet, easy as it is to push this crucial part of any GTD-inspired system aside, doing so is a dire mistake. Without the weekly review, it becomes easy for small things to fall through the cracks. When I’ve pushed this aside, I’ve failed to followup on important “Waiting For” items, missed important events on my calendar, and failed to notice projects that had become stale.

Regularly reviewing all your content is what keeps your system trustworthy and what keeps all the small stuff out of your brain, saving that valuable resource for higher horizon thinking. And that is the ultimate goal of Getting Things Done. To end the cycle of always having to tread water for survival, so that we can get up to the crow’s nest to see the lay of the land and act intentionally to the obstacles that are coming at us.



We are all on our journey towards becoming masters in our own right. Along the way, there will be many pitfalls for us to overcome. They make the journey worth undertaking. The important thing is not whether you encounter them, but what you learn from them when you do.


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