Forget email bankruptcy; try Getting Things Done bankruptcy


I used to write a lot about productivity, until I started reading blogs and discovered David Allen’s world of Getting Things Done. I discovered that some of the most popular blogs are about productivity, and my blog audience is full of productivity gurus. They gave me a lot of recommendations to improve my productivity ignorance, and each person mentioned the book Getting Things Done.

This was a little after the time that my blog started taking off, which meant three things: I was changing my job from a columnist to a blogger, I was writing five columns a week instead of two, and my email load went up about 500%. For a few months I was sleeping four hours a night. Crazy, right? In fact, many readers who caught me emailing at both 2am and 7am commented that maybe I needed to take a break. Especially after I posted about how important sleep is.

So I tried Getting Things Done (GTD). I went whole hog: In less than a week I changed my whole to-do list and whole filing system. I was the Queen of Outlook, with more folders to choose from than Imelda has shoes.

I had a A list a B list and a C list. I also had a spreadsheet of links that I had collected over six months as a blogger. I had links filed by topic and could sort my topics and links in ten different ways to come up with quirky, linky columns that addressed questions readers had sent to me – which were also searchable.

I was also adhering to the GTD holy grail of the empty inbox. But the empty inbox, I confess, made me crazy. I found myself deleting emails in the name of that cause, and not because I had actually dealt with them. Also, I was filling in my Outlook calendar religiously, by moving emails directly into my schedule. But I was not looking at my calendar religiously. So I often missed meetings.

I was getting things done. Sort of. I was probably annoying a lot of people along the way.

And then the worst thing that could happen for a GTD-er happened to me. My hard drive crashed and I didn’t have Outlook backed up.

Please, do not send me smug details about your great backup system. Of course I know how to back things up. Everyone who didn’t back their stuff up knows how to back their stuff up. It’s like telling someone who eats French fries that your system of eating salad is healthier. DUH!!!!!!

At first I panicked and imagined that the email of my lifetime was somehow locked in that Outlook view that will never come back. But then things got sort of cushy. For one thing, my B and C list totally went away because people reminded me about stuff on my A list, but no one said a word about the other stuff and I couldn’t remember most of it.

Have you ever read about the joys of declaring email bankruptcy? Well I think my situation was like inadvertently declaring GTD bankruptcy, and it was marvelous. I slept well. I opened up a gmail account, and I had an empty email box all the time – maybe because I also had no record of email addresses, so my outbound mail slowed down significantly.

So, this week, my hard drive came back. I looked at my old to do list and I laughed. I did not need to save all that stuff. I needed to get some perspective. And GTD bankruptcy gives you just that: Perspective. And getting a clear picture of one’s work is really what GTD is all about, right?

17 replies
  1. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    All good.

    For the last 3 months, I have not responded to most in-bound mail traffic. For other, more important reasons of busyness and time-criticality. Now I find there is no need to respond to most of them, and contrary to what I feared, most of them, to whom I did not respond, are still my friends and active business contacts.

    However, blogging itself generates too much traffic in the form of comments going into moderation for one reason or another. This week, as I take charge of things again, I find this post very relevant. Getting things done rather than making plans.

    Good post.

  2. lnielsenvb
    lnielsenvb says:

    About a year or two ago I gave up on folders, rules, and cleaning the mailbox. It takes too much time. Instead I let my email organize for me by sorting by subject, name, date, conversation, etc. I place important items on my to do list and calendar…and I make sure I check my calendar.

  3. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    Everyone gets caught up in the day to day ritual and it takes some act of an unplanned event to real you back into reality so you can focus. Once you regain your focus you can regain your grip on things. Your event was a hard drive crash, others are deaths with friends/family – or something as small as holding a baby for the first time. My point is that we always unconciously wait for that event when we should actually start the process on our own. This post is very timely and relevant to me…thanks!


  4. NW Guy
    NW Guy says:

    I love your analogy of backing-up data and eating salad; neither of which happens often enough. Glad to hear that you survived the crash, wiser and carefree.

    There are several email threads on projects that go through my inbox. My approach is to only check about every 10th one; let the conversation flow and resolve a few items and then help address the real issues.

  5. JimB
    JimB says:

    At last

    Someone able to bring a dose of reality to the over-engineered neurosis of the GTD world. Whatever happened to spontaneous activity and disruptive chaos? My feed traffic is too clogged with gtd tips and lifehacks. Maybe a gtd flowchart can get me through it.

  6. sarahd
    sarahd says:

    this is a very timely post – I’ve found myself crippled by GTD lately. Personally, I just do too much. It’s that simple, but I’m not yet ready to give anything up, and GTD just makes me feel under more pressure (probably for the reasons that it’s so good too i.e. it’s very clear to you precisely what needs doing at any one time) Plus, having everything scheduled so clearly and precisely makes me really want to rebel, by not doing anything, or by doing anything but what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s very strange, and I’m not sure why.

    I had a bit of a crash too a couple of weeks ago, where I had just let the whole thing build up and then dumped the lot to start over again with a clean slate. Refreshing! But probably not great for my career. I still want to try to make elements of it fit my life though – it’s probably aspirational, I want to be that disciplined.

  7. Tiffany
    Tiffany says:

    Thank you! I’m so glad you posted this, because smug people reminding you to backup stuff after the crash – NOT HELPFUL. Also, I’ve found a tough time writing more than a regular to do list with GTD. Do I really need to remind myself to take lunch to work? I mean, yes, I still forget it sometimes, but what’s the likeliness I’m going to look at my list before 8:30 a.m.? Thanks for the reminder that it’s OK to let some things go!

  8. Kate
    Kate says:

    Penelope, I guess you are taking this a little bit too hard. GTD can be just a book of tips, how to organize your life. I think that everyone needs to establish his own GTD system. I use for mine. They tool creators support the GTD idea, but offer a somewhat different approach to it. I like it first of all because it's so easy to follow. And BTW Wrike is web-based, you don’t have to back-up your data, they will back it up for you. I’ve asked them, they do it every hour. :)

  9. Scot Herrick
    Scot Herrick says:

    Self-management is really about control and perspective. The GTD methodology provides both, but both needs to be executed.

    The context lists (not A, B, C lists) need to have some thought around them for what the actual next thing is to be done. This is not easy when starting out, but this is the control part.

    The perspective part is doing a Weekly Review — a weekly reflection time where you analyze what you are doing with your process and your lists. Without the reflection time, there is no perspective.

    When I first implemented GTD, I significantly overcomplicated the entire process (and this one, Penelope, sounds like you really overcomplicated it!) and didn’t really spend enough time reflecting on how I was doing things.

    While I didn’t have a GTD bankruptcy, I’ve redone my system three times over 2.5 years — each more simplified and closer to the book implementation than the one before. I’ve done this because I tried to over-engineer the discipline and didn’t take the time to consistently reflect on how I was doing stuff.

    I have not seen a more flexible system. It works for organization nuts by having a place for everything as well as for people who hate regimentation by getting things out of your head and into a trusted system so that you can be free to do whatever spontaneous thing you want to do…

    Keep working it. With all the things happening right now for you, a trusted system to park stuff is going to be very important to maintain balance. Perhaps sanity…

    * * * * * *

    Thanks for the comment, Scott. You have good perspective. You actually make me want to give the whole thing another try. Thanks for the inpsiration.


  10. Peter C
    Peter C says:

    You might want to try Google stuff. Email, Calendar, Contacts, etc. It’s probably more intuitive than Outlook, and is stored remotely so you can access it anywhere. It’s more hip and less stodgy and dorky, too. Sure you’ll need to learn some new things but its worth it. No one at Cannes uses Outlook.

  11. Ann
    Ann says:

    At first I panicked and imagined that the email of my lifetime was somehow locked in that Outlook view that will never come back. But then things got sort of cushy. For one thing, my B and C list totally went away because people reminded me about stuff on my A list, but no one said a word about the other stuff and I couldn't remember most of it.

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