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 / Autumn 2007 / Issue 48(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Productivity Promisers

Plenty of motivational coaches pledge to boost your efficiency. These are the few who really deliver.

Photograph by Rick Schwab

Has there ever been an age in which so many people were so concerned with getting more done with their “24/7”? Today there are literally thousands of gurus and guides — and Web sites, television shows, and lecture series — all devoted to helping individuals get more done with the limited time and energy at their disposal.

And yet many guides seem to promise much more than increased output. Some authors treat the practice of productivity improvement as a near-religious calling, one that can improve one’s character, social standing, and moral fiber to boot. Indeed, since the time of Ben Franklin, popular guides have conflated enhanced personal achievement with moral betterment. In American culture in particular, the urge for improvement has given rise to a tradition of con men who prey on the upwardly mobile by selling them false promises of success. In a go-go culture unfettered by the expectation that it would take multiple generations to enter the upper class, the ability to craft and sell a simple promise of accomplishing more has created as many tycoons as has the ability to go out and actually make a fortune through hard work. Hence the peculiarly American line of charismatic individuals, such as Dale Carnegie and Tony Robbins, who build fortunes by inspiring the ambitious and desperate to better themselves by following some new regimen for improving productivity.

That’s why it’s important to focus on the productivity experts who provide an approach that is effective — that, for lack of a better word, works. Such individuals present, more than tips and tools, an entire system that produces tangible results. The best of their guides — whether historical or current — can help you reframe the way you see your work, enabling you to restructure, reorganize, and reprioritize the why, and then the how, of your work. This in turn can improve the output of your actions. The challenge in extracting the best, and most enduring, resources from this cluttered field is to find those experts who deliver on their promise. These writers draw on several distinct intellectual traditions that, in different ways, provide an in-depth understanding of the way people work, and that, for this reason, resonate with a large following.

Consider David Allen, the most popular guru in this field today. His 2001 book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (his most devoted readers refer to both the book and the system as “GTD”) continues to occupy a top 10 slot on Amazon’s nonfiction bestseller list — a rare feat for a six-year-old title. His workshops in cities across the country and around the world are filled to capacity, as are his days of executive coaching to a select number of top-tier executives. Allen’s public profile has been further bolstered by adoring media profiles in such publications as the Atlantic Monthly and Britain’s Guardian. In just about every one, the author more or less confesses, “I was a skeptic, but having tried the system, I’m now a convert.”

Allen’s GTD system, which can be enhanced with computerized nudges and other automated tools, connects deeply with those who are savvy about technology. Many “geeks” adopt and adapt his system, testifying to its ability to clarify the explosion of choices and tasks they face in an ever more connected world. There are Web sites devoted to parsing and implementing fine details of Allen’s system, software developers writing programs to help implement his approach, and various online groups with message boards that buzz with the intensity of an American Idol fansite on the evening of the final vote.

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Personal Productivity Resources
Works mentioned in this review.

  1. Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder: How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place (Little, Brown, 2006), 328 pages
  2. David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Viking, 2001), 282 pages
  3. Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (1989; Free Press, 2004), 384 pages
  4. Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done (1967; HarperCollins, 2006), 208 pages
  5. Henry Ford, Today and Tomorrow (1926; Productivity Press, 1988), 300 pages
  6. Brian Tracy, Time Power: A Proven System for Getting More Done in Less Time Than You Ever Thought Possible (AMACOM, 2004), 302 pages
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