Sorry, I know this could be somewhat controversial, but I think we should face this openly, as it's a very important issue.
We all agree that GTD is a great boon to one's productivity and general well-being.
What if that assumption is dead wrong?
What if implementing GTD blunts your effectiveness at the highest levels, while delivering benefits only in a limited range of functions... great for lettercarriers and corporate taskmasters, but a disaster for scientists and artists?
I worry about this, as I plunge deeply into the GTD system - please don't kill me for saying this, it's a serious worry.
Here's where my concerns come from.
1)GTD might actually provide a poor substitute for low-level task performance abilities with no benefit. Example:
Some years ago, when I first got a PDA, and started using it, a friend had a curious reaction. Basically, he said that he abandoned his PDA, because when he started using it, his brain switched off things he used to do effortlessly before. Whereas before he'd naturally remember appointments and tasks, once he got the PDA and started setting alerts and putting dates in the calendar, he'd be totally LOST without his PDA. He no longer remembered any appointments. He "offloaded" this task to his PDA (a GTD goal!) - but didn't feel he gained anything. It was simple substitution, and an inferior one at that: not only did he have to rely on the PDA hoping the battery won't die, the PDA won't die, won't be lost etc., but the substitution was actually a poor one: it cost him more in time to enter the data, to change the data (as appointments shift), and generally the penalty of servicing the PDA. He got a poor substitute for something he had before naturally, and got no benefits in return.
The brain is like a muscle - use it or lose it. If you let that ability atrophy through reliance on a system, you'll end up weak should the system break or be inferior. It's as if you strapped on a "walking machine" that carried you around - your leg muscles would get weak to the point where you couldn't stand up unassisted without the machine, meanwhile the walking machine is a poor substitute - you can't run, you can't jump, you can't dance, you can't play in the stream.
2)My REAL worry - project planning.
I have read the chapter on project planning in the GTD book some 12-14 times.
The GTD method of project planning might work - will work - well for a number of projects. Yet, it might be inadequate for whole classes of projects. I think that mapping out many classes of projects is just a hopeless affair in principle. The primary reasons are that you simply cannot plan for actions which only suggest themselves once you're engaged in the execution of the task.
Trivial example: over the weekend, I bought a new computer, and decided to put in a new hard drive in it, and transfer some of the data from my old computer.
I prepared a detailed list of the order in which these tasks should be done: first put in the drive, then install the OS, then transfer programs in this particular order etc. It took me some 2 hours to generate my detailed list.
The next day, I sat down and executed my list. The first 5 minutes went according to plan, then I hit a snag: since I was working with macs, I should have formatted the drive first. That wasn't on my list. So, my list went out the window. Now, should I be blamed for it not being on my list? Not really - there are a million things that can happen, which there is no way on earth for anyone to anticipate. So why lose the hours in constructing a list (all of actions which were more than 2 minutes each), which will be so easly obliterated? Isn't that true for MOST projects? You really CANNOT anticipate everything? And if you can't, why not just DO it and resolve things as they come up instead of trying to pre-plan them? When I ordinarily did this (computer setup etc.) in the past, I'd resolve issues as they came up, I didn't refer to lists, in fact, as I was doing things would suggest themselves which there was no way of anticipating whatsoever.
Now, if it was just a matter of inefficiency - useless planning which merely wastes time, that would be regrettable but not actually harmful in a deep sense.
However, there are things here which are actively, quantifiably harmful under some circumstances.
Offloading things off your mind - the great purported GTD benefit. So you generate a list and cruise through your actions, executing with low stress. Except, because you naturally cannot anticipate all circumstances, you cruise right into a disaster - your list was faulty (nobody is clairvoyant) - all the while lulled into a false sense of security by your list. That's active harm - false sense of security. You cannot pre-plan everything. So any security you derive from such planning is going to be false. That's not a benefit - it's a harm. So why have it?
The heart of the problem: pre-planning can be extremely detrimental. For a range of projects, planning is a disaster in principle. Planning necessarily results in disaster. Artistic and scientific projects come to mind. I'm a filmmaker. I know that for certain kinds of performances, or for certain actors, it is a disaster to rehearse. You need to just shoot them naturally, unrehearsed, with the first take being the best - don't plan, don't rehearse, take the reading of the room at the moment as the guide to your actions. Otherwise you end up with a rehearsed performance that feels false. Some musicians also - they go into a studio and their first take is their best, as they react to unanticipated influences and effects impossible to plan for.
Now, there is a very concrete way in which GTD collides here with that process. If you plan out for example a given story development (film), your mind becomes subtly influenced by the process. Now, your mind will naturally tend to fall into the grooves of what you planned. This limits your creativity in subconscious ways. You overlook possiblities which present themselves, because your mind has been shaped by your necessarily imperfect planning. Whereas had you simply left yourself open to the experience of doing/writing/creating/discussing/thinking without pre-planning, you'd perform a heck of a lot better and more creatively. The "plan" creates a gravitational field into which your mind naturally falls into - with extremely limiting results. That is active harm.
In a very good book on screenplay writing, the author gave this advice: wait until the last moment before you set pen to paper. Keep playing with the story in your mind until it is really good. Why? Because once you set down sentences on paper, they acquire a gravitational power. You'll feel bound to them, they'll have a false permanence, they'll limit and circumscribe you, you'll be subconciously reluctant to strike them. You cannot help yourself - it's a subconcious process. As long as things are in your mind, they are easy to remake and reconfigure - but once you set them down on paper it becomes infinitely harder to do so. THIS is a direct harm of planning with putting things down on paper (including the GTD way). It limits you tremendously.
The same applies to all creative endevours, especially artistic and scientific. Young artists frequently can create new movements or are most creative when young precisely because they don't "know" the old stuff, and are free to do something unapproved or unthought of. Scientists often speak of a great discovery done because the scientist "forgot" about received wisdom, planning and expectations - instead, he/she looked at the problem with "naive" eyes of a child. Planning and PRIOR ASSUMPTIONS limit you. When you pre-plan, your mind becomes subtly bound by the confines of the plan, your mind is not free to be naive and as open. That's direct harm.
Extrapolate that to all very high level endevors. You are at your best when all your actions flow from the moment, not from a list.
Here's why: planning ahead of time means you never have as much information as you do when actually confronting the task at hand when new information which is impossible to anticipate presents itself. Once you plan based on limited information, your plan then starts limiting you subconsciously, and your end result is inferior. When you confront a project without planning, you are looking at the freshest information, without prejudice of a necessarily inferior plan - you are free to soar. More info + greater creativity = superior results.
End part I.