kewms has had a significant impact on my GTD system. So when she announced yesterday that she was migrating from digital to paper, I realized that I needed to give serious consideration to her arguments.
One day later, I am convinced that digital is best for me. I have chosen to start a new thread, rather than respond to kewms’s thread, because she was looking for support for her decision. This is not meant as a polemic or a taking of sides. It is my attempt to grapple with the serious issues raised by kewms and answer them to my own satisfaction.
First, we all can agree (I hope) that GTD is application neutral. So there is no GTD requirement to be on paper or on computer. GTD on parchment is GTD and GTD on electrons is GTD.
After that, a lot is personal preference. I am the one who is going to be using the system, so I am the one who needs to like using the system. And my most pressing reason for sticking with digital GTD is that I like typing much more than I like to write by hand. I am a lefty and I always received poor grades in penmanship (handwriting) when I was in elementary school. For more than 25 years I have been able to type much faster than I can write. I’d rather type.
I do keep a 2-page-per-day planner on my desk at all times at work and I do write in it by hand. Throughout the day I jot phone numbers, NAs, and other notes. Sometimes I do the NAs directly from my paper planner. Sometimes I transfer the NAs to my digital system. And sometimes I move the NAs forward to the next day. So I do use paper. But it is not my trusted system. Almost everything of value gets moved out of my paper planner to my digital system.
When I first read the GTD book, I thought David was nuts to tell me to use a labeler for my file folders. Subsequently, I realized the value of his suggestion. My handwritten folders looked sloppy and I would have to strain to read them. It took just seconds to whip out my battery-powered Dymo labeler. My nicely-lettered files were a pleasure to look at and they were easier to use.
I have the same feelings about handwriting my NA and project lists. I like to see them printed out. My handwritten scrawl just is not very attractive.
Aside from aesthetics, the second major reason I prefer to do GTD electronically is searchability. I got my first computer at home in 1986 when I returned to school. My immediate reaction was, “Wow, now I can search for words and phrases instantly, without having to scan through hundreds of sheets of paper.” There is nothing more frustrating for me than flipping again and again through the same pile of paper trying to find some word that I know is there but I cannot find. Of course, if I spell a word incorrectly on the computer, my search will not go well. But it seems to happen a lot more often that I have to search for something five times before I find it on paper than I have to search five times for a word I misspelled on the computer.
The third reason I prefer doing GTD electronically is the obvious one: the computer lets me look at my GTD data lots of different ways. I can filter on the person who is associated with the list item, I can filter on the context, I can filter on the date range, and I can filter name of the item itself. kewms makes some very useful comments about thinking of projects as contexts in many instances. The beauty of having the data in digital format is that I can arrange it lots of different ways, depending on my needs in any given circumstance. The downside of digital data is that I have to enter data. I can’t filter on person, project name, date or context, if I don’t enter the data. But this data needs to be entered whether one is doing GTD digitally or on paper. Given that I need to enter the data no matter what, I’d rather enter the data into an application that lets me manipulate the data with ease.
Now some might argue that electronic systems make data entry too easy. And there is some truth to that claim: I am much more likely to create a new project with a couple of NAs in a system that is easy to use. And electronics is easier for me to use than paper. So it’s very easy for my system to get clogged up with items that, as kewms says, stay there undone for years.
If I increase the overhead of my system, I might add fewer items because of the effort it takes to create an item in my system is too great. My lists might then become smaller and more manageable.
I find this argument (which I must make clear is not kewms's argument) runs completely counter to the most fundamental precepts of GTD as I understand them. The constitutive principle of GTD is to free up psychic RAM by creating representations in the external world of thoughts in your head about things you want to do. GTD does not say, “Write stuff down when it’s convenient.” It does not say, “Write stuff down, unless the overhead’s too high.” It says, “Write everything down, unless you can do it now in less than two minutes.”
So the fact that electronic systems make it easy for me to write stuff down is a good thing. If my system is clogged with too much stuff, that is because my life is clogged with too much stuff. I can then decide to unclog my life by moving stuff in my system to someday/maybe.
I have written in the past on this forum that the popularity of GTD must be due in no small part to the proliferation of the PDA. I used to believe that there was just too much overhead involved in maintaining multiple lists on paper. I now realize that I was wrong and GTD can be done—and be done well—on paper. But I’d still rather do it digitally.
I thank kewms for challenging me to examine carefully how I choose to do GTD. I hope she continues to keep us informed of how her paper migration progresses.