The wide popularity and passionate user base speak not just to the power of Allen’s system but to its underlying promise to deliver “stress-free productivity” by eliminating the mental clutter of today’s multitasked world. “Teaching you how to be maximally efficient and relaxed, whenever you need or want to be, was my main purpose in writing this book,” he says in the book’s opener. You won’t just get more things done; you will feel more complete in the process. Although Allen is not selling peace of mind per se, having it as a free prize inside surely hasn’t hurt. Bundling a deeper appeal into a productivity system has a long tradition.
Every epoch produces its own version of David Allen, a guru of productivity whose success illuminates the behavior and values of the times. The appeal of each guru sheds light on two fundamental landscapes: the dominant industrial model of the day and the cultural mind-set of those individuals whose work is shaped by this field.
Before the Industrial Revolution there was Ben Franklin, whose work on productivity is still in print and is still popular. Then came Frederick Winslow Taylor, the inventor of scientific management, whose mechanistic approach, though reviled by many, continues to dominate the way most managers operate. Henry Ford in the 1920s and Taiichi Ohno and others at Toyota in the 1950s and ’60s focused on the flow of production systems as a way of training individuals to accomplish more with less. Peter Drucker built on these models by linking productivity to the practice of effective leadership by individual managers who understood how to leverage the power of knowledge workers; in the 1980s and ’90s, Stephen Covey popularized those ideas by aligning them to a moral compass. And now, just in the last five years, David Allen has combined personal planning, Buddhist precepts, and technological expertise into the national obsession with getting things done, writ large or small.
Three big themes snake through all their work, and someone who thoroughly understands all three themes probably doesn’t need a productivity guru. The first is flow, which entails an understanding of how one processes thoughts and materials when creating value. The second is focused self-awareness, which involves a conscious understanding of why — from both an immediate and a long-term perspective — one is pursuing objectives. And the third is instilling new habits, doing what it takes to personally adopt the new productivity practices. Unlike the “rock stars” of the management consulting field, the most popular productivity guides strike a deep chord beyond boardrooms or training retreats. Indeed, the most timeless of these gurus have thrived by marrying a system that works with the zeitgeist.
Founders of Productivity
A good starting point for understanding the promise of productivity guides comes from one of our founding fathers. “God gives all things to industry,” counsels Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac. Writing to an audience of farmers and small-business owners, Franklin appealed to individual industry as an issue of frugality, integrity, and diligence. Because the nature of work in Franklin’s day was less organizationally complex than it is now, the analysis of how one organized resources or processed information played a small role; what mattered was the ability to apply one’s labor with persistence and intelligence. These simple ideas are still relevant today.
Yet the expanding scope of business and complexity of work eventually demanded a more systematic and scientific approach. The study of productivity emerged as a serious discipline with the rise of mass production in the early 20th century, when Taylor and his equally influential, though lesser-known, colleague Frank Gilbreth gained fame for their “scientific principles” of management. These experts used to help companies deploy employees as standardized, interchangeable parts of a system. “In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first,” Taylor sagely wrote.