I’ve mentioned often that GTD is very good at the lower altitudes (projects and actions) but not as developed at the higher levels (goals and roles). Within the proliferation of online task management tools in the last couple of years, many of them also reflect this same strength at the lower levels, but less developed approach to the higher levels.
Recently an online service named GTD Agenda was pointed out to me. It is a productivity tool that was designed for implementing GTD with both the higher levels and lower levels in mind. So — after having this on my project list for far too long! — I’ve given it a quick spin to see how well it does.
As I talk about what I think it does well and what its gaps seem to be, this post might also give you a small window into the big picture of my own productivity approach.
GTD Agenda is structured into 7 main sections:
- Next Actions
You can see from this how the main altitudes [almost -- I'll come back to this] are reflected: Goals, projects, then next actions. (Tasks is a full list of your actions, whereas next actions are those that are current to be moving on.)
The program is designed so that everything scales down: You create goals, which can be grouped into categories (= areas/roles). Projects can then be assigned to goals, and tasks (= actions) can then be assigned to projects.
Tasks can then be viewed by project or in a straight list. Projects can be viewed by goal or in a straight list. And goals can be viewed by area or in a straight list.
The setup of this program inclines you to naturally implement a best practice of GTD: In order for a goal to happen, it needs to yield a project; in order for a project to happen, you need to create the actions that you actually do to get it done.
This is a very positive feature of the program. And for those times when it is not so clear what goal a project may relate to, you can always choose “none.” Likewise, you don’t have to assign a task to a project or a goal to an area if you don’t want.
I applaud the aim of GTD agenda to present a comprehensive system from the higher levels on down to the runway. There are two things that are missing in this regard, however.
First, it is missing the 50,000 foot level of “mission.” There is a recent new addition to the program called “Vision Wall,” which may be intended to solve this. But what is needed is simply the ability to incorporate your mission statement into the program via a simple text field — at least, that is, if the program is going to give a full picture of your landscape. The vision wall doesn’t appear to allow this.
Second, it is missing the 20,000 foot level of “roles.” Now, you can assign your goals to areas. You could then make each area be named after one of your roles. So that’s is sort of getting there.
But I recommend doing a lot more with your roles than that. In my planning system (currently in OmniFocus, but previously in Outlook), I use the 20,000 foot level to effectively create a full list of my ongoing responsibilities (not ongoing tasks, but ongoing responsibilities).
Then, within the note field for each responsibility, I list any guiding principles or specific plans pertaining to the ongoing implementation of that responsibility. This allows me to capture my thinking on how to go about those responsibilities. I find it very, very, useful because the accomplishment of your responsibilities does not simply boil down to the implementation of projects.
Perhaps the checklists section of GTDAgenda could be rigged to do this. But that part of the program really appears to be intended as a way of looking at your regular activities. (It is a really creative and helpful approach, I might add, but it’s not designed for — and can’t really be hacked for, either — what I outline in the prior paragraph.)
(I’m tempted here to go into the key functions and specifications that every effective planning tool needs to have. None of them have this figured out yet — not even OmniFocus, which I really like a lot and find to be the best out there. But if I go down this route now, it’s going to take more time than I have and make this post even longer, so I’ll have to save that for the future.)
We’ve seen that GTDAgenda makes an attempt to cover the higher levels, and does so pretty well — but it still leaves out mission and roles. How does it do at the project and action level?
Well, like lots of programs now, you can create tasks underneath your projects, and then flag certain ones to show up in a separate next action list. I actually find this not so helpful. It is one of the key features of OmniFocus even, but I actually don’t even use OmniFocus in that way.
What I find to be essential in any productivity tool is a good note field that you can easily open up and type in for every project/task/goal/any such item that you create in it. I use the note field for each of my projects extensively to do planning — not only listing actions, but listing principles and project aims and relevant info. This enables your project planning to be right there in your project list — very convenient. Yet you can hide it from view simply by collapsing the note field.
Here’s the problem: The project items in GTDAgenda do not have a note field. That’s a defeater for me, even if everything else was exactly what I needed. Tasks have a note field (though not a very robust one), but projects do not.
It is true that you can create tasks that you tie to your projects, so in theory you could still create a full task plan for a project. But the problem is: first, there still isn’t a place for non-task project info, such as the project vision and aims, and just relevant information. Second, the task outline for a project can often get very significant, with tasks having sub-tasks and etc. For this reason I find it most efficient (actually, essential) just to use a regular text-based note field — not database action fields — to create this.
In other words, I use the note field of my projects essentially as a Word document where I can just list and organize actions very quickly using cut and paste and then the tab key to indent sub-actions underneath major actions. Then I put an x in front of things when I’m done. This goes very slick and smooth with just ordinary text in the note field. Trying to do this by creating and rearranging new tasks in the database would be too cumbersome. I know that even OmniFocus is designed to be used in that way. But since it has good note fields, I can happily ignore that. But in GTDAgenda, the projects do not have note fields.
Let me close by making one last observation. As mentioned above, I applaud GTDAgenda for providing the functionality to explicitly tie together the higher levels to the lower levels (that is, tying goals to projects to actions).
However, there is also something to be said, perhaps, for not making your system reflect all of this so tightly. I find that things change so quickly that doubt I would have the time to explicitly reflect, in my system itself, that such and such a project is a part of such and such a goal. I grant, though, that GTD makes this very, very easy.
But I don’t think that totally solves it. For one thing, most of my goals would end up with a very cumbersome list of projects underneath them. In a text field (= the note field), that wouldn’t be such a problem — it can be helpful (and I sometimes do) to tie projects to a goal simply through making a list of that goal’s projects right in the goal’s note field. But to do this formally through the database will, I think, probably always result in a cumbersome presentation of your data.
For another thing, though — and this is more important –, I think that you may actually be more efficient and effective when you let your mind do this “tying together.” Your mind, of course, shouldn’t have to keep track of what your projects and actions are. But your mind is good at seeing and keeping in memory the connections between them.
This is where your mind far outperforms anything you can document in your system. It results in great insight and is as agile as the speed of thought. Your system should help you see the connections, and there are things that help with that. But I don’t think (though I could be wrong) that you would want your system to reflect this so tightly by making each project an explicit sub-item of a goal, and each task an explicit sub-item of a project.
Time to close this off. GTDAgenda appears to be a useful program, and some of you may be interested in checking it out. For most, though, I would recommend sticking with something like Things or OmniFocus (which I use now), or even Microsoft Outlook (which I used for years when I was on a PC).