Why GTD is Horizon Independent

Written by James Elliott
on June 26, 2018

Dear David,

Why does Getting Things Done® focus on the “weeds” rather than the higher-level stuff? Why don’t we start with goals and vision and then make our way to day-to-day work?


Dear Aspirational,

I appreciate your question. The professional and personal self-help training programs consistently emphasize higher-horizon focus—clarity of purpose, values, vision, goals, etc. I agree that such focus plays a critical role in finding alignment, balance, and perspective.

So, what’s the problem? If you’re trying to get to the beautiful lake or beach and you’re caught in the weeds, ignoring the weeds and their constraints will produce nothing but desperation and angst. You first need to know what weeds you’re in, and how to get unhooked from them. If your boat has a serious leak, you don’t care what direction it’s pointed. Relatedly, you must get control of your current situation and increase your stability and mental and emotional bandwidth in order to elevate your focus on where you think you should be going.

So if your day-to-day world is out of control in any way, trying to focus on the bigger picture will only produce frustration and guilt over not effectively doing what you feel you should be doing.

A unique aspect of GTD is that it starts with where you are, not where you should be. It’s a misconception that GTD doesn’t focus on the “Big Stuff.” GTD helps people address whatever has their attention right now so they can free up mental space to more clearly target what they want to focus on. If where you want to be five years from now is your focus, apply the GTD process: What’s your desired outcome? What’s your next action? GTD is horizon independent. The methodology helps you get clear on next actions, whether you’re clearing today’s weeds or chasing tomorrow’s dream.

I find that people often think GTD focuses on “the weeds” because that’s where they are—in the weeds. For example, when students in my seminars write down what has their attention it’s never “Fulfill my destiny as a human spirit on the planet.” Yet from my point of view, that is the only project any of us really has. What people write down is, “buy cat food,” “find new babysitter,” “hire a marketing manager,” “plan summer vacation,” “fix the printer,” etc.

That said, someone once approached me during a seminar break and asked, “David, what do I do about this?” He had written down “God.” Well, that is a high-level horizon of focus! Now, he was wearing a clerical collar, so it made a little more sense. (I thought, “What a strange reversal of roles—he’s asking me!”) A bit uncomfortable with the man’s question, I put my coaching hat on and asked, “So, what has your attention about that? Is it an inspirational affirmation, or is there something you need to decide or do about whatever that means to you?” He thought for a moment, seemed to have an epiphany, and walked away inspired.

The point is whatever has your attention becomes grist for the GTD mill. GTD is about doing what you need to do to appropriately engage with life. If that’s higher horizon stuff, make sure you’ve made that operational within the GTD process. If it’s cutting weeds, GTD is the best weed cutter.

Best Wishes,

20 %

only 20% of managers believe that their systems for managing commitments across silos, work well all or most of the time

Why Strategy Execution Unravels, HBR - 2015
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