The day my system exploded (and how I discovered GTD)

The reality wasn’t quite as spectacular, but that’s how it felt. It happened so gradually that the deterioration was imperceptible until one day I looked back and realised my whole way of working was no longer working. The workflow system I’d used for more than a decade had crashed and burned.

Fire-fighter hoses down inferno

Photo credit: tvvoodoo via

Let’s rewind 15 years or so. I remember remonstrating with a former supervisor about the state of her inbox. “How can you work with that much stuff in there? You should clean it up!” My inbox now looked exactly the same — thousands of messages, hundreds of them still unread. Each time I checked my mail I wondered what I would find that had slipped through the cracks and was about to blow up. I had perfectly mirrored the behaviours I found so deplorable.

Ask anyone who’s worked with me for even a short time and they will tell you that being well organised is a characteristic you quickly notice. It seemed as though one of my strengths was failing.

The symptoms included:

  • Regularly forgetting to do things — simple things like buying bread on the way home from work.
  • More “surprises” (and I’m not talking about the good sort) than usual.
  • An almost constant feeling that there was something else important that I should be doing, but never knowing what it was.
  • Meeting people in the corridor at work and saying, “There’s something I wanted to talk with you about, but I can’t recall what it is”. I usually remembered within 10 minutes by which time it was too late to do anything about, so I promptly forgot again.
  • My bed acquired magical properties causing me to remember all the things I should have done that day. This meant less sleep which did nothing to help.
  • A general feeling of stress and overwhelm.

There was no single cause. The pressures of parenthood, increased responsibility at work, a large percentage of my week being syphoned off in meetings, and a general increase in the pace of life had combined to stretch my system beyond its limits. The one thing I knew for sure was that something had to change.

I’d known about David Allen and Getting Things Done (GTD) for several years without any compelling reason to investigate further. I’d even had my team create a coaching and training program which drew heavily on GTD principles to help our staff use email and calendaring tools more effectively. Having finally recognised I needed to do something, I ordered a copy of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. I didn’t know whether it held any answers, but I figured for $16 there wasn’t much to lose.

The next day I had a task to enrol my son for school. My wife and I wanted him to attend a school outside of our local area which meant following a process I’ve not used since buying concerts tickets in my teenage years. That is: get up well before dawn, spend hours waiting in line and hope you get a seat. At least it gave me a solid block of reading time.

I started reading while I waited for the doors to open. Just as the first rays of sunlight pierced the darkness of that cold, mid-winter morning, the ideas in this book shone like a beacon of enlightenment. It perfectly described the problems I’d faced, outlined their causes and provided clear, simple steps to get back on top. Most of all, it offered hope. I devoured the contents of the book within 36 hours and started applying the concepts. Finally there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and it wasn’t an oncoming train.

Next time I’ll outline the benefits I’ve found by using the GTD framework over the last four years.

Question: How did you discover GTD? Was it through a crisis, or was it a less dramatic introduction? Let me know in the comments.

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4 Responses

  1. David says:

    Have not used the system but looking forward to your next installment =]

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