The Core Dump

A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures

[By Nic Lindh on Monday, 19 January 2009]

Your own personal GTD

Our brains aren’t built to handle the modern world, but there are ways to deal.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology has been burning up the nerdosphere for years now, and for good reason. It’s a system of self-defense for dealing not with thugs in an alley but with the endless demands and distractions modern life throws our way.

As with any other positive change in life, it’s easy to understand, but hard to implement. Not hard as in complicated, but hard as in losing weight. Want to lose weight? Eat less and exercise more. Can’t be easier to understand; can’t be harder to accomplish.

As fair as I’m concerned, Allen’s most important realization, the underpinning for his whole system, is the fact that our brains simply weren’t built to handle modern life. The way your brain operates is pretty darn optimal if you live in a small group on the savannah and get up in the morning for another day of hunting and gathering. But it fails miserably if you live in the modern world. This is why your brain wakes you up at three in the morning to remind you about the project that’s due in a week. And why it reminds you to take your kid to ballet class on Friday when it’s Wednesday and you’re waiting in line at the grocery store.

So Allen’s solution is the Trusted System. A place where you write down the things you know you need to remember and know you’re going to check.

So it’s a bit of a bog: You have to remember to write down the things you have to remember, and you have to remember to actually look at the place where you wrote them down. Wax on, wax off.

Once you get into the habit of doing that, though, a miracle happens: Your brain stops telling you things at inopportune times. And that’s how you know you’re doing it right: Your brain starts to shut up.

You might be saying, “So, this guy is a genius because he built a better to-do list?”

Yes, essentially. He makes a very, very nice living showing people how to make lists. (There are a lot more nuts and bolts to Allen’s system, but that’s the heart of it.) Not just lists, mind you, but lists you actually check.

DING! It’s not enough to make a list, you have to actually check the list.

The other brilliant thing about Allen’s lists is what you put on them: Next Actions. You don’t put down amorphous blobs like, “Buy new house.” Instead, you put actions you can perform. Like, “Call Bob about his realtor.”

Like most wonderful things, it’s deceptively simple. This one little change means that when you’re ready to crank through your lists, you don’t have to think about what things mean. You’ve already done the thinking. Just perform the actions.

A warning about GTD, though: As alluded to earlier, many nerds are into it. Obsessive-compulsive nerds. That Guy who moved a wall in his house half an inch so he could get a perfect standing wave from his speakers.¹ He’s into it. Which means that a few simple ideas Shall Not Be Left Alone.

Nay, I say! Nay! We can surely overcomplicate this! We can come up with The One True Way™! We can endlessly debate the finer points! How does Getting Things Done translate to Klingon?

Which is completely antithetical to the spirit of GTD: You are a unique being. You need to figure out what works best for you. And above all, you need to Get Things Done.

So, at the risk of sounding like a cult member, I can’t recommend GTD highly enough. It’s skills for the 21st century. Looking into it is a good use of your time, even if you find it doesn’t work for you.


  1. That Guy actually exists. He was an engineer at Volvo in Sweden. True story.

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