Every Monday is Productivity & Organization Day at Zen Habits.
Reader Dave Mauder wrote to ask for my take on Mark Joyner’s Simple*ology vs. David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD). Today we’ll watch the two systems go head-to-head and see which one emerges the winner.
Spoiler: I cheat at the end of this.
Simple*ology: A Brief Overview
I’d read about Simple*ology before, but hadn’t actually seen the details until Dave sent me some of the info — the problem is that you have to register in order to find out anything about the system beyond platitudes. But having read about it, I have to say that there are some good concepts there — even if they are not new and are actually borrowed from age-old personal development concepts.
In brief, Simple*ology is a way of using these age-old concepts in a new way (with website software to make it happen) in order to achieve your Ultimate Life. It uses daily habits of reviewing your targets in order to get there.
What follows is just a very brief outline of the system — you can go to the website to get more.
- First Law – the Law of Straight Lines: The shortest path between two points is a straight line. Here, Joyner uses an amusing “experiment” with a glass of water to illustrate that to drink the water, the most effective method is to pick it up and drink it, not to think positive thoughts about it, or to pray about it, or to spend $10,000 on a coaching program to get the water to come to your mouth. It’s better to just do it. A fair point about the complexity and mysticism behind other systems for achieving your dreams.
- Second Law – the Law of Clear Vision: in order to hit a target, you need to see it clearly. This also sounds a little obvious, but he points out that many times, we don’t really know what our target is, or our picture of it is fuzzy.
- Third Law – the Law of Focused Attention: in order to hit a target, you must focus sufficient attention on it until you hit it. This is a point I often emphasize on Zen Habits, and it is completely true. He points out that often our attention is on many different things, shifting around, and focused on things we don’t really want.
- Fourth Law – the Law of Focused Energy: in order to accomplish something you must focus sufficient energy on it until you do. Goes hand in hand with the Third Law, and it’s another point I often make on Zen Habits. He uses an example of a knife and a spoon, with the knife being the example of how focused energy can produce a much greater result. He didn’t discuss how a spoon is much better for stirring or drinking soup, but that’s not relevant to this discussion.
- Fifth Law – the Inescapability of Action/Reaction: there are two things we can never escape – action and reaction. And we are always acting, even if we think we are not, and those actions (even if it’s sitting on the couch and watching TV) have inevitable reactions. This is an interesting law, but not as useful to me as the others.
- Scientific Formula for Success: this is an obvious, but still useful, formula that applies the first four laws above, using three steps: 1) See your target; 2) Keep it in your sights; and 3) Hit it (until you hit it). This formula is the basis of the actual day-to-day steps of Simple*ology that come later.
- Three Sources of Power: We all have three sources of power, which are always in flux – Time, Energy and Money. These three sources of power are very important in Simple*ology, and you are asked to practice increasing one of the three each day, using a Pathway to Power to increase all three over time by focusing on one each day.
- Simple*ology Praxes: “Praxes” is a fancy word for habits. And obviously, here at Zen Habits, we are a big fan of using daily habits to achieve long-term goals. So for this part of Simple*ology alone, I am a fan. It closely mirrors some of the methods I’ve talked about on this site. The Praxes are simply a daily routine that you do each morning for 15 minutes to 1) focus on your long-term, medium-term, short-term targets and find actions that will get you there; 2) practice one of your Three Sources of Power; and 3) review your daily to-dos, delegated tasks, and other items, using the Simple*ology website software.
- Major Targets: The system first asks you to define your Ultimate Life, then asks you to choose one Long-term Target (6-12 months away), one Medium-term Target (1-6 months away) and one Short-term Target (2 days to 1 week away). Only one of each, because if you choose more, you cannot maintain sufficient focus and energy to get to your target. This is a useful part of Simple*ology, although it is far from new. Steven Covey’s system, for example, uses this same methodology, and it actually dates way before Covey as well.
- Simple*ology Cockpit: This is the website software, and it’s a place where you can access your Major Targets, review your Daily Targets (what you want to achieve today — also known on Zen Habits as MITs), your delegated tasks (Delegation Station), your someday/maybe tasks (Dream Catcher), and your deferred tasks (Mental Lock Box).
There’s more to the system, especially as you move past Simple*ology 101 and into 102 and 103. But you can begin to get the idea. Useful concepts, although none of it — none at all — is new or ground-breaking. And he uses a lot of fancy terms for this age-old stuff.
GTD: A Brief Overview
I’ve talked more in-depth about GTD in other articles on this site, so this overview will be overly simplistic. But here are some of the more important concepts of GTD:
- Write everything down: Every task or idea that pops into your head gets captured in a notebook or digital document. Never forget anything again.
- Process: Put all your notes, and all incoming documents, voicemails and emails, into a small number of inboxes, and process them to empty regularly.
- Next actions: Break tasks and projects into smaller, physical actions. The next physical action necessary to move a project along.
- Context lists: Put all your next actions into smaller context lists (instead of one big master to-do list) — with contexts being based on what you can actually do right now, where you are, with the tools you have. That way, when you’re at your desk, you can just look at your @work or @computer list of next-actions to see what you should do right now — and not look at your @home or @errands lists, which you can’t do right now.
- Other lists: the someday/maybe list is for stuff you want to do but can’t do now; the waiting-for list is for delegated actions; the projects list is a way to keep track of all your projects.
- Weekly Review: Dump everything from you mind onto paper, update all your lists, and make sure your system is up-to-date.
There’s more, of course, such as the different runway levels (day-to-day actions vs. longer-term goals), tickler file, calendar for your hard landscape, a reference filing system and more, but I can’t describe everything in the book here. For the purposes of this showdown, this will suffice.
OK, we’ve reviewed each system in brief. Now let’s do a blow-by-blow:
- Simple*ology focuses more on long-term goals, and the way to make them actually happen. This is its strength, and as noted before, this is a weakness of GTD, which doesn’t have a very concrete mechanism for achieving goals. Round 1: Simple*ology.
- GTD is more of a rubber-meets-the-road methodology, focusing not only on day-to-day actions and habits, but on moment-to-moment actions. This is GTD’s strength, by far, and it is the best method I’ve ever seen for this stuff. Simple*ology’s method for day-to-day stuff isn’t too bad, but it’s a bit cumbersome, and it doesn’t really discuss dealing with small stuff like paperwork and emails. That’s not its focus, but you still gotta deal with this stuff. Round 2: GTD.
- Simple*ology’s strengths, which are its long-term methods for achieving your goals and your Ultimate Life, are excellent — but it’s simply a re-hash of older methods, such as Steven Covey’s 7 Habits. With new packaging. GTD, however, takes a fresh, mind-like-water, in-the-moment approach to getting stuff done. For originality, GTD wins the round. Round 3: GTD.
- GTD’s in-the-moment approach, however, can be confusing to many. It tells you how to get stuff done, but are you getting the right things done? GTD doesn’t do much to answer that question, besides saying that you intuitively know what to do. That’s not always the case, as we often choose to do what’s in front of us, instead of stepping back to see what it is we really want to do. Simple*ology, on the other hand, addresses this very well, ensuring that our daily actions are moving us forward to what we really want. Round 4: Simple*ology.
- GTD also is very unstructured, which is done on purpose, and for someone like David Allen, this is a strength. However, this unstructuredness can be very difficult to work with for many people, and I think this is one reason many people fall off GTD. Simple*ology does better by providing a morning routine (Praxes) that is very structured and accomplishes all the things necessary to make sure you’re on track. GTD does this once a week in its Weekly Review. Round 5: Simple*ology.
- Both systems deal well with deferred tasks (context lists for GTD, Mental Lock Box in Simple*ology), delegated tasks (waiting-for list for GTD, Delegation Station for Simple*ology), and stuff you want to do sometime down the road (someday/maybe list for GTD, Dream Catcher for Simple*ology). Round 6: Draw.
- For people who are able to simplify their goals and projects, Simple*ology works very well. That’s one of its strengths: it asks you to focus on one target at a time, so that you are more likely to achieve it. GTD does not ask you to simplify, and thus you end up taking on too much at once. Round 7: Simple*ology.
- Unfortunately, this kind of simplification does not work well when you have multiple projects going on and lots of little tasks. How do you deal with them in Simple*ology? Well, there are Daily Targets, but still, it’s insufficient for many people. GTD works very well for juggling multiple projects and tasks. Round 8: GTD.
- In terms of tools, Simple*ology requires you to use the website software. It also requires you to register to find out more. GTD, by contrast, allows you to use whatever cool tools you want (which can be a problem if you are constantly changing your tools) and info on GTD is easily available all over the place. Also, Moleskines rule. Round 9: GTD.
- To implement Simple*ology, you have to go through a bunch of lessons and three courses (101, 102 and 103). This is a good way of explaining stuff, but it takes way too long to figure out how to actually implement the system on a daily basis. Also, on a day-to-day basis and in getting set up for the first time, Simple*ology is very cumbersome, and betrays its principles of simplicity by giving you too much to do. GTD can be implemented almost immediately, and although it is a lot to learn at once, you don’t have to implement the whole system to get started. You can start with ubiquitous capture, or inbox processing, or context lists, immediately, and add the other stuff later. Round 10: GTD.
- Simple*ology is way too marketing heavy for my taste. GTD is straightforward with a no-nonsense attitude that many people love. Round 11: GTD.
- Both systems are focused on action, rather than a way of thinking or mystic or pseudo-scientific concepts (ala “The Secret”). In this, they are both useful and powerful. Round 12: Draw.
As you can see, this Showdown went the full 12 rounds, and for awhile there, was very close. However, GTD is a powerhouse and heavyweight champion, and simply outclassed and outpowered the newcomer, Simple*ology. GTD won 6 rounds to 4.
However, I cannot say that GTD is the outright victor. If you are more interested in controlling your day-to-day tasks and projects, and in a much easier implementation and cooler and more flexible tools, go with GTD. Simple*ology, on the other hand, has got some useful concepts that can be used to achieve your goals and Ultimate Life, and should definitely be considered (especially for its morning ritual – the “Praxes”).
As a compromise, I would recommend my own system, Zen To Done (ZTD) — it does a great job of combining the best of GTD with some of the best concepts of Simple*ology, including incorporating longer-term goals, a morning ritual, MITs, and more structure. If you want to combine the two systems to get one great one, I humbly submit ZTD.
See, I warned you I would cheat.
What are your thoughts on Simple*ology vs. GTD? Let us know in the comments.
- Massive GTD Resource List
- 5 Simple, Effective GTD Tools
- Inbox Master: Get all your inboxes to zero, and have fewer inboxes
- Cranking Widgets: Turning Your Work into Stress-free Productivity
- Purpose Your Day: Most Important Task (MIT)
- Email Zen: Clear Out Your Inbox
- 5 Ways GTD Helps You Achieve Your Goals
- My GTD Implementation
- Beginners Guide to GTD
- Mind Like Water
- How to Do the Weekly Review in Under an Hour
- Weekly Review: Key to GTD and Achieving Goals
- Tips for GTD’s Ubiquitous Capture
- Why is GTD So Popular?
- Top 5 Online Apps That Ruin Your Productivity
- How NOT to do everything on your to-do list
- Why “What’s the Next Action” is the Most Important Question