Why simple lists are not enough to get to 100%
The last article described what it means for me to use the GTD workflow to get to a system that manages all open loops, namely a 100% complete system. This post lists the major reasons that in my experience make it hard to reach 100% using simple list solutions like paper or simplistic to-do list software:
- Scalability – grow with you
- Input handling- quick add
- Capacity – hold all commitments
- Output handling – search and filter
Scalability – grow with you
If you use a list extensively you are constantly adding and moving items. Starting out with GTD your list is short and simple. It is easy to add things. Once you integrate more open loops into your system the lists get larger. It becomes increasingly slower to switch between lists and add things at the appropriate place. The time you need to enter and move things is proportional to the size of the list. Advanced software can make working with your system scalable. For example, they offer the later described sorting and filtering. Putting ideas on the correct list takes constant time. If you use paper, your system is not as scalable. Putting more content into your paper system will make it slower. It is counterproductive if you want your system to contain 100% of your open loops.
Input handling – quick add
If you use your GTD system intensively, one of the most common things you will do is capture ideas for later clarification. Focus on what you are doing and just defer the distracting thoughts for later processing into an inbox of your system. If you do not capture your thoughts, your mind will do it for you. This is the contrary of what we want to achieve with a 100% complete system.
Most simple list solutions make adding something to your inbox too complicated. Simple software solutions tend to require a lot of navigation and interaction before you reach the „add new” too much effort. To get to 100% completion, you want to capture all open loops you have. Adding items should be as quick as possible. It should not take you more than one keystroke from anywhere on your desktop computer until you can start typing your idea. The same principle applies for mobile solutions: Use them to capture things while you are on the road.
Side-note: Do you have an inbox for new inputs? If not get one. As David Allen often states in interviews, if you do not have an inbox your whole space is an inbox. Even if you have an inbox, are you using it as extensively as you could?
Capacity – hold all commitments
With GTD you put your outcomes on a project list separate from the next action lists. This way you can have a “clean” to-do list, containing only physical next steps. You decide which of those actions to do and focus on the current task. The project list keeps track of the bigger picture for those steps. In reviews you use the outcome list to trigger the generation of new tasks.
As David Allen states in his book, you usually have 30 to 100 of these short-term outcomes. Even with this number of outcomes most tools become harder to use than they were initially. Especially those connecting the outcomes to their next actions in a hierarchy. The amount of categorizing, tagging and dragging into folders you need to do to keep an overview is often way too large. The mental effort needed to use the tools causes people to call for simpler tools. Unfortunately, simple tools are too laborious to manage hundreds of outcomes. If you want to get to 100% completion your tool has to comprise all your outcomes easily. Only then you can define your projects very granularly without slowing down your system.
Output handling – search and filter
Your tool should quickly let you access your task by searching and filtering. On paper, if you search for a task you need to read all the items until you find the one you are looking for. If you use your list extensively you will be searching items regularly. Often you need to quickly filter according to your context like “@home”. Not being able to filter banishes using paper for your list. Paper systems can be great for things like sketching ideas quickly and brainstorming. However, paper based systems are simply not made for searching and filtering. If you work with your lists intensively most items will be completed quickly after their creation. On a paper list the extensive usage results in many pages of partly crossed out lists of tasks. Even the simplest software solution enables you to find an item on your list. You want your system to free your mind from reminding you. Choose a solution with which you can access in an instant by typing in search terms.
Simple lists make it hard to build und use a system to cover 100% of your open loops. They become slow if you use them intensively. You do not have a way to quickly add thoughts. It is too time consuming to determine all your outcomes. Paper searching and filtering is too difficult and tedious. People are often calling for simple tools, but they rarely exist. Do not give up the benefits that the right advanced tools could offer you. Powerful tools make the 100% system possible.
The next post will show the criteria that matter when choosing an advanced GTD list management software. It helps you to avoid the above-mentioned pitfalls.
This post is part of my productivity series on advanced GTD. If you like the content, please comment and subscribe below.