Getting Things Done vs AutoFocus: A Preliminary Comparison

tempus fugit

tempus fugit

Getting Things Done (GTD) is  David Allen’s blockbuster time management approach.  AutoFocus (AF) is Mark Forster’s method for staying organized, which is gaining popularity quite quickly.  Though they have they same goal, I’ve not seen two more dissimilar ways of achieving it.  As I try to keep myself organized – and (no surprise) doubtless end up designing my own time management system – researching what’s available is an important part of the process.  And while this is neither an exhaustive nor an authoritative comparison, it has been beneficial in my own thinking.  So I thought I’d share.


GTD is a large and complex way of keeping yourself organized.  It is reasonably summarized in Wikipedia.  It has six levels of focus, a workflow of five major stages, a five step planning model, a method of four criteria for deciding on the fly what task one should do next, and a variety of other methods.  There are many software applications that implement GTD in whole or in part.

GTD is meant to cover one’s entire life.  Though I’ve never heard it described as a personal re-programming technique, that is what it is.  The idea is that by following GTD you can completely turn your life around.

Because of its complexity and scope, it’s not the sort of thing one can learn on one’s own, over a free weekend.  There are naturally all kinds of workshops and seminars about GTD, and lots and lots of books.

This is where I start to wonder about it.  Of course, I have absolutely no evidence of any unethical behaviour by David Allen or any of his employees or representatives, but one has to wonder about the fairly obvious conflict of interest.  The more complex GTD is, the more likely it is that money can be made by teaching it.  In the professions (e.g. engineering, medicine, social work, law, etc) there are mechanisms in place to ensure that such potentially unethical situations are mitigated.  In Allen’s area, there are no such mechanisms.  And while there are thousands of totally satisfied customers who have apparently benefited tremendously from GTD, there are also those for whom it just doesn’t work.  (This is obvious from the number of people who have chosen to use other time management systems.)  All I’m saying is that it’s difficult to know exactly how complex GTD needs to be because there’s not yet been a serious evaluation (that I’m aware of) of the method by experts (e.g. psychologists).

There also seems to be a particular interest in the GTD workflow; that is, people have adopted the workflow without necessary also adopting the planning method, the levels or focus, or the other aspects of GTD.  And it is the workflow that has been implemented widely in software.  Because of its relative popularity, it merits a little special attention here.

As with any good method, GTD’s workflow partitions task management into five distinct stages, each of which is very different cognitively from the others.  This kind of partitioning almost always works, because the human mind is no good at juggling disjoint thoughts, ideas, or information.  In the case of the GTD workflow, the stages also split tasks based on the amount of time you can likely spare on each one presently.  By assigning the more difficult tasks as ones that can be done at one’s convenience, the workflow becomes less intrusive, and so can improve both efficiency and effectiveness.

The five workflow steps are:

Collect. This is just data gathering.  Whenever a task comes up, just write it down or note it somewhere.  It doesn’t matter if it’s on a sheet of notepaper, or in a PDA, or on a paper napkin.  The point here is to get it out of your mind so that you can remain focused on whatever you’re doing at the moment.  It’s not about arranging things so that you won’t forget about something, but rather than you can and should forget about it now, and can still come back to it later.  The place(s) in which you collect tasks is often called your inbox.

Process. This is when you clear out your inbox(es), and should be done at least once a day.  The inbox must be empty at the end of the processing stage.  If it takes you two minutes or less to do an item, then you should do it on the spot.  Processing is a rather coarse-cut activity, meant to weed out things that are best left for “someday” versus things you really need to do, versus things best left to others, or even things you can just toss entirely.

Organize. This is the fine-cut, follow-up stage to processing.  Here you decide if an item is a project or just a task, the context in which it should be done, whether it is a “next action,” assigning priorities, and so on.  Organizing can be done regularly and separately from processing.  Any task that has more than one step to completing it should be defined as a project.

Review. In this step, usually done weekly, you go through all your tasks and projects, and make sure everything is still in order.  This is when you make sure tasks are properly organized, revise task orderings, etc.

Do. The preceding stages are all for the sake of simplifying this one: actually getting things done.  This is where the Four Criteria Model comes in for deciding exactly what to do next.  By now, you’ve got a list of candidate next actions, but you need to decide which one you will do.  You leave this decision to the last minute because the rationale for choosing a thing depends on factors you don’t know till that moment.  The four criteria are, in order, context, time, energy, and priority; explaining them goes beyond my intentions here.

In my opinion, the greatest problem with GTD is its complexity: it tries to externalize as much about task management as possible, on the premise (I assume) that externalizing stuff will help you reflect on it.  Even if just considering the workflow, I find that it just doesn’t match up well with how I manage my tasks and how I process information about what I have to do.  For instance, the two-minute rule for processing items just doesn’t work for me.  What if the item I’m considering is really more of a project?  The rational thing to do is to enumerate the basic tasks for that project at once – to get them out of my head – which could take much longer than two minutes.  Contexts don’t work for me either, because I often worry about “home” things during “work” hours and vice versa (e.g. I have to call the plumber, which is a “home” task, but I have to call him during business hours, which is “work” time).

The problem with stripping out of GTD the parts I don’t need isn’t easy, because they do all interrelate with respect to the overall goals.  So, for instance, if I decide to ignore contexts, I must be wary of any GTD techniques that involve contexts – some of them will become pointless, others will change a little or a lot.


If GTD is the complex way of managing tasks, AF (in all its forms) is the opposite.  While GTD tries to systematize every aspect of task management on the premise that it will help you reflect on it all, AF assumes you know yourself best, and all you need is a little mild prompting to get on with things.  AF is newer than GTD, so we’re only now starting to see software apps for AF.

All four (currently) variations of AF are based on keeping a single long list of items.  Imagine having a paper notebook in which you just list every task in whatever order you thought of them.  The original AF system can be summarized as follows:

  1. Starting with the first page with unfinished tasks, choose one that stands out and work on it for a while.  If you finish it, scratch it off the list; otherwise add it again to the end of the very last page of the list.
  2. Find another item on that first page and repeat step 1.  Do not go on to step 3 until you find nothing more worth doing on that page.
  3. Go on to the next page of items and return to step 1.
  4. If you find a page containing unfinished tasks none of which catch your eye, mark all remaining items on the list deferred till some future time (e.g. with a highlighter).
  5. Once you get to the last page of the list, go back to the first page and return to step 1.

AF in all its variations is ludicrously simple.  The principle behind its operation is that your brain just needs a little organized prompting to decide what to do next, and not a massive, highly systematized system.  AF tends also to not force you to do only things you have to do, so it tends to inject more diversity and even fun into things.

The variations of AF are meant to address some shortcomings that some people have identified.  This further strengthens the notion that one size does not fit all, and that no one should expect a single time management method to just work for them without some tweaking.  One of the nice things about AF is that it’s so simple, nearly anyone can tweak it.

The problem with AF is that none of its variants really deal with the natural grouping of tasks.  In GTD, this is done with projects.  One can then easily decide whether to do one “next action” from each of a number of different projects, or a whole bunch of actions in a single project.  With AF, distinction between projects is difficult (unless you actually note the project before each task), so you can’t control whether you will focus on one project, or just do random bits.  Presumably, your subconscious mind will glom to those things you really want to do – whether in a single project or not – and you’ll just handle it.

It’s one thing to not know (or care) if you’re working on a single project, but it’s quite another to not have that information available to you at all.  Since AF is based on the notion that your brain, presented with a simple list, will do the work of figuring out what to do next nearly automatically, then we’re assuming the information it needs to do this well must be present on the page.  But it isn’t (necessarily).

Furthermore, I don’t have the ethical reservations with AF that I do with GTD.  This is because there is much more free information about AF, and because AF is so simple it really doesn’t need all those seminars and courses that Allen’s company offers for GTD.

GTD or AF?

So how do they compare?  Well, in large part the winner depends on the judge: you.  GTD is systematic and all about externalizing as much information about tasks as possible.  Systematization is something that doesn’t appeal to everyone; ditto with externalization.  AF, on the other hand, is very unsystematic and depends on your inner sense of what you should be doing.

Also, because of GTD’s scope and breadth, it’s rather inevitable that there would exist a nearly infinite variety of dialects and subtypes.  On the other hand, because of it’s inherent simplicity, it’s not surprising that there are virtually no variations of AF.  This means that if you’re leaning towards GTD, you may have to invest time either developing your own variation, or looking for an existent variant that fits your specific needs.

Externalization is a way to think about what you’re thinking about; it’s great at helping you reflect on your own thinking because it forces you to put what’s in your head entirely in some external form that you can then re-absorb as if it had been provided by someone else.  Externalization is a technique I use extensively in my research, such as when I’m developing courseware, when I need to validate and possibly revise how I think about something or how I organize my thoughts.  If you think you need that kind of reflection to develop a good time management system, then you’ll likely prefer GTD or one of its many variants.

You’ll also like GTD if you’re particularly systematic about doing things.  If you tend to naturally be an organizer (e.g. if your MBTI or jungian personality type is **TJ) then you’ll probably prefer a variant of GTD to AF.

Obviously, if you like neither externalization nor systematization, then you’ll probably prefer AF. I’ve noticed that some people have just gotten used to their own thinking styles so well, that they don’t really need a systematic way of staying organized.  Indeed, they might appear highly disorganized to me, yet they are always on task and on track.  These people are lucky.  I’m in my late 40s and only now starting to figure out how my brain works.  Systematization would only slow such people down and mire them in what they would probably see as pointless administrivia.  The free-flowing, hyper-simple AF methods would obviously be more attractive to such people.

Similarly, there are people who do not want or do not need to externalize their time management.  There might be other things they externalize so that they can reflect upon them, but their time management isn’t one of them.  Whatever way they have of dealing with their tasks is working fine for them and they don’t need to reflect and think on how they can do things better.  These people just need something quick and simple, a memory aid more than a full-blown organizer, a gentle poke rather than boot to the head.

One thing that I find wrong with both GTD and AF is that they’re both targeted to manage tasks that have no hard deadlines.  But for me, task management is incomplete if it doesn’t cover appointments, task with deadlines, and tasks without deadlines.  They’re like the three sides of a triangle; you can’t get rid of one and still have a triangle.  But both Allan and Forster have been very clear: get something else to handle appointments and deadlines.  So at least in this one regard, GTD and AF are both equally flawed (from my point of view).

So what about me, you ask?  Which do I prefer?

Well, I’m somewhere in the middle – not unlike many other people, I think – because the types of people I described above are at the extremes of a continuous scale.  Most of us live in the grey area in between the extremes. Neither heavily for nor against either externalization or systematization, we’re in a real pickle because there’s no clear-cut factor pushing us toward either GTD or AF.

Of course, your mileage will vary.  But I can tell you about my own predicament.  I came upon GTD as I tried to find a good to-do app for my iPhone.  But I also noticed that I kept looking for simpler and simpler apps, and couldn’t understand why so many of them were so jammed with features that seemed mostly like administrivia to me.  Still, it was all I knew, so off I went.  Slowly, I learnt how to tune down many of the features of many of the apps I tried (some of that will appear in a future post).  Some of the issues I have with GTD generally are:

  • Priorities are not that important; I use them just to identify the most important from the least important things.  I’ve written about that elsewhere.
  • Contexts don’t work for me, because the context I’m in only affects the context of a task about half the time.
  • Status settings seem irrelevant to me, especially if there’s, like, a dozen of them – as there are in some iPhone GTD-esque apps that I’ve tried.  And any status settings that really matter can be simulated with other task characteristics that serve multiple purposes.  For instance, deferring an item can be handled by setting it’s start date ‘way in the future, and the all-important “next action” can be simulated by just manually re-ordering tasks in a project.  The top of the stack is the natural “next action.”
  • Starred items are useless to me.  Starred items are in some way especially important.  But if you’ve got some top-level priority – like “urgent” or “essential” – then what could possibly beat that and require a star too?  Stars don’t seem to be written about much on either the official GTD or AF websites.
  • Tags are a nice generic tool, but also useless if you have other things.  You can replace status settings, contexts, and projects with just tags, so long as you can filter by tag sets.  Depending on whether you prefer the “elegance” of having a single mechanism for all these features, or whether you’d rather keep each feature separate, you might prefer tags or not.  But to implement those features and tags on top of it all seems a bit much to me.
  • …I’m sure there are some others too that I’ve not even noticed.

…see what I mean about stripping GTD down to its basics?

Then I found Mark Forster’s site, and discovered AF, which seemed so screamingly beautiful in its simplicity, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t found out about it before.  I immediately started to think of how I’d convert to it from the lightweight GTD dialect I’d been using.  And it didn’t take long to start noticing problems there too.

Annoyingly, the problem I have with AF is precisely of the opposite nature of my problems with GTD: AF seems to simple for me, just as GTD seems too complex. The one problem I have with AF is that it doesn’t support projects.  I think projects are great ways to bundle sequences of tasks together.  I can review each project separately, which keeps me focused in specific goals (per project).  If all my tasks were mixed together essentially at random, I don’t know how I’d manage to keep them all straight.

This is a big deal for me, because I find it very natural to think in terms of projects that are composed of tasks.  Projects cluster tasks into sensible chunks.  Mark Forster has suggested on his site that tasks do tend to chunk together naturally, but quite frankly that’s not good enough.  The last thing I need is for one (important) task to get separated from related tasks.

So, the answer is that if GTD and AF are at opposite ends of the scale, I’m definitely on the AF side of centre.  I like simplicity, and I personally don’t need the externalization and systematization that GTD has to offer.  But some organizational tricks – namely projects and the ability to flag some tasks as significantly more important than others (some sort of prioritization) – mean a lot to me.

With respect to priorities, I think in terms of two features – importance and effort – that define what priority means to me.  I’ve already written about that.  Basically, if a task will either have particularly important effects on completion (like, say, applying for a grant) or will require a particularly significant effort (like preparing courseware for a new course), then I think of it as a priority item.  Those that both are important and require substantial effort are the highest priority.

I know that Mark Forster has argued eloquently against the importance of task priority, primarily because one’s priorities can change dramatically over time.  But that’s why I chose importance and effort to define priority; these characteristics, I find, do not change over time.

So there you have it.  As usual, I can provide no easy answers.  But that’s the nature of this beast, because everyone will have their own particular needs and likes, and I can only tell you what works for me.


4 thoughts on “Getting Things Done vs AutoFocus: A Preliminary Comparison

  1. Great write up. I just recently found out about Autofocus when I came across the iPhone application, FocusTodo.

    My first impression – without having put Autofocus or something like FocusTodo to practical use yet – is that its simplicity appeals much more to me than GTD does.

    Your mention of AF’s lack in project segmentation entails a large question mark about its usefulness, at least in a wide-use perspective. What I still tend to be looking for, is some kind of universally intelligent system that works just as effective with large bulks of tasks as it does with small-scale ongoings.

    I just may have to invent my own system, after all. 🙂

    • Universal intelligence isn’t programmable 🙂 It seems you’re worried about scalability. Yes, that’s always a problem.

      In “normal” AF, you might have hundreds of tasks on your list, and you’d be scanning it all the time. If you’re using pen & paper – which is how AF was invented by Mark Forster – then you’re rather stuck. But if you have software, it is trivial to automatically sort the lists, including “by project” as is typically done in GTD-like systems.

      You can kind-of mimic projects in AF generally and in FocusTodo in particular by using multiple “notebooks” – one for each project. Carrying multiple paper notebooks can be a pain, but in FocusTodo it’s quite easy.

      In a future posting, I’ll be writing about ways to mimic AF with other iPhone apps like Appigo ToDo or Toodledo.

  2. Contexts aren’t about “which part of your life does this belong to”, more about “when and where can you do this”.

    If you only can call that plumber during a certain time, it doesn’t make sense to put that action item among things you only look at outside that time. For people who are at home 100% of the time, just use one context, @home. I use a few contexts because I want to make sure that when I look at a list, I can do anything on that list right now. (That’s why I have separate phone lists for inside vs outside office hours.)

    I think putting things into contexts makes them more way more real and doable for me. It turns it from a vague “Eh, my sink is broken” to “I need to call 555-1234 between 0800 and 1600 and ask for a plumber, when I’m at a phone.”

    Work/life balance stuff belongs at the project level, not at the Next Action context level.

    • Thanks for the multiple comments Sandra.

      If one only needs 1 context, then there’s no point in thinking about them.

      I understand that contexts are locational. The heart of the matter is best summarized by your second last paragraph. If contexts helps you be specific about your tasks, and if you’re the kind of person that works best with that kind of specificity, then more power to you.

      Not everyone is like that, though.

      I agree that writing down specific tasks is generally beneficial, but using contexts is just one way to get that done.

      My tasks are usually very specific, yet I don’t use contexts.

      Your last sentence explains how two different levels of thinking about stuff fits into a GTD-esque framework. I have no problem grouping tasks into projects. I do not like, however, advising people on how to manage their goals. I don’t think I’m qualified to do that for anyone but myself. I think similarly about David Allen and even the Pope. I could write pages and pages about that, but this isn’t the place for it. I’m not trying to be frustrating, I’m just trying to avoid getting on a soapbox.

      By the way, I visited your website, and the bit about a “cleaner way to solve most systems problems” piqued my interest because my teaching and research works with systems thinking a lot. Have you any fundamental works to which you can point me that explain the “formal semantics and reference implementations”?

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