The ideology of Getting Things Done

22 April 2009

Written by: Christopher Scanlon

If you’ve started the year struggling to keep those new years’ resolutions to be more organised and less stressed, then you may be a candidate for GTD. While it sounds like the latest dance party drug, GTD stands for ‘Getting Things Done’, a time-management system devised by personal productivity guru David Allen.

Much of Allen’s advice falls into the category of the bleeding obvious. Discovering that the key to getting things done is deciding on the next physical action you need to do to achieve a given goal, or that developing a reliable system for capturing and storing information boosts productivity is unlikely to surprise anyone with the reading age required to get through one of Allen’s books.

Despite the apparent obviousness of such advice, GTD has legions of fans. Many congregate in online groups sharing stories about how GTD has transformed their lives from disorganised klutz’s to exemplars of efficiency and punctuality.

Some posters to the sites seem to have adopted GTD as their personal bible, invoking Allen’s name and ideas to justify their particular ‘implementation’ or ‘tweaks’ of the GTD system. When they disagree — which is mostly polite, although at times strained — posters invoke Allen’s authority, noting that the Head GTDer himself advises people to take what works and customise it to their own situation.

There are signs that Allen has taken his status as Head Guru to heart. In How to Make it all Work, the follow-up to Getting Things Done, he writes, ‘I will be bold enough to suggest that GTD approaches the world in much the same way that art, psychology, and spirituality have: as a framework to understand and experience new levels and depths of truth and reality’.

Comparing a time-management system (or should that be an ‘action-management method’, as some GTDer’s insist on calling it?) to the likes of Picasso, Freud and Buddah might seem a touch delusional, but there is a sense in which GTD is comparable to an all-encompassing worldview.

Reading Allen’s books closely, you start to see the subtle, yet clear outlines of an ideology that affirms the reader’s place within the existing world of work — while also flattering them that they are much more important than their job title might otherwise suggest.

For example, the various hypothetical scenarios that Allen provides to illuminate his techniques are all directed at someone who has a busy schedule and some staff to manage— but who, ultimately, is subordinate to other, more senior people.

In Getting Things Done, the examples always seem to involve ‘you and your boss’ needing to make some important decision. Similarly, the reader is imagined as having ‘an important meeting coming up’ for which he or she has ‘to prepare an agenda and materials for’. Or, Allen asks hypothetically, ‘Perhaps you told Miyoko you would call her on Friday to check that the report you’re sending her is OK’ or that ‘you’ve got to clarify a job description for a new position on your team to give to Human Resource’.

Without saying so explicitly, Allen imagines his reader as someone with a lot on their plate, yet who constantly has to defer to someone else in a higher position of authority to check their work.

In this regard, the imagined reader of Allen’s books is like the figure of the ‘Vice President’ described by Theodor Adorno in his essay The Stars Down to Earth. Written in the early 1950s, The Stars Down to Earth is a political analysis of the astrology columns in the Los Angeles Times. In it, Adorno notes that the astrology columns were written as if addressed to the vice president of a major corporation.

‘The people spoken to are pictured as holding a superior place in life which forces them … to make decisions all the time’, Adorno wrote. ‘Much depends on them, on their reasonableness, their ability to make up their minds. It is carefully avoided to represent them in so many words as impotent or unimportant small men’.

By addressing the readers in this way, Adorno noted that the writers of astrology columns could make their readers — who were most likely powerless — feel important, while making it clear that they are subordinates dependent on the good graces of those in authority.

Adorno noted this style of address was similar to that found in business magazines such as Fortune. Such magazines, Adorno reasoned, were likely to have a very broad readership, including small business operators, entrepreneurs, middle managers and CEOs. Despite this broad readership, most of the articles were written as if addressed to vice presidents of major corporations.

Given its origins in the business press, it’s not surprising to find that the figure of the vice president still haunts the pages of time-management literature like Getting Things Done.

Tellingly, when it comes to talking about the clients he works with on a personal basis, Allen takes care to present them as coming from the senior ranks of business. In Getting Things Done his personal clients are variously described as ‘the head of a major department in a global corporation’, ‘a senior manager of a major biotech firm’ and an employee of ‘a large international bank’ he worked with went on to launch ‘his own start-up high-tech firm’.

Like the readers of astrology columns, the imagined reader of Allen’s books are subtly flattered into thinking that they are being let in on the secrets of success by someone who advises highly paid executives, while it is made clear to them that they are subordinate to, and beholden to others.

No doubt, most of Allens’ readers are less interested in how they might be manipulated and more concerned with whether adopting his world-view will lead to them to productivity nirvana. Perhaps they do— although it’s equally possible that he modern quest for efficiency leads to more time-wasting.

A post from a participant, ‘Chris’, in an online group called 43 Folder devoted to all things productivity, gives some clue as to where the modern quest for efficiency can lead. Chris wrote to the group seeking opinions on the ‘Focus’ seminars run by FranklinCovey, a rival of GTD, after a previous performance review revealed that he needed help prioritising tasks. He said he would have preferred to attend one of David Allen’s seminars but couldn’t find any close to his home.

‘I could definately [sic] improve,’ wrote Chris, ‘but I still kinda think I’m in a losing battle… Maybe if I could change my attitude, I’d at least feel better about it. I don’t know how to get out of the “coping” mindset when everyday I get further behind.’

A number of replies were given ranging from the sympathetic to the unsympathetic. Then came the reply of ‘bill7tx’ which offered some real insight into Chris’s dilemma. Going back through Chris’s previous posts to the online group, bill7tx noted that Chris spent an awful lot of time on the internet talking about things other than work.

‘Looking at your posts here, their frequency and their content and the time of day (or night) when they were posted’, wrote bill7tx, ‘I can see a couple of patterns that might explain why and how you are getting further behind. Trust me, it’s there. You’re spending an awful lot of time on things that are not helping you catch up or keep up.’

To remedy the situation, bill7tx suggested that Chris stay away from the website, that he abstain from purchasing or using any more organisational software, and that he start planning meetings, appointments and storing phone numbers. He further suggested that Chris write to-do lists and work out which deadlines and projects were most important to his boss.

Who knows? Maybe the key to getting things done is avoiding Getting Things Done.

David Allen’s How to Make It All Work is published by Penguin.