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


The Productivity Promisers

Aligning one’s internal moral compass leads to a more powerful and productive principle-driven life, says Covey: “The Seven Habits are habits of effectiveness. Because they are based on principles, they bring the maximum long-term bene­ficial results possible. They become the basis of a person’s character, creating an empowering center of correct maps from which an individual can effectively solve problems, maximize opportunities, and continu­ally learn and integrate other principles in an upward spiral of growth.”

The power of some of the Covey principles is compelling. He wants you to take responsibility for your life (be proactive), be purpose-driven, and use your life principles as a means of organizing and ex­ecuting your most important priorities. Covey promotes a win-win approach to problem solving and emphasizes listening to and understanding others. He invites readers to use these approaches to produce creative solutions to problems that are “synergistic.”

One can see historical echoes in his writing: Some of these commonsense laws are merely time-honored principles refracted through Covey’s loose moral framework. His Habit Three, for example, “Put First Things First,” is Drucker’s “First Things First” principle expanded. This is not to call Covey unoriginal, but to point out how the packaging of big ideas can sometimes add as much value as the content itself.

Although Covey’s system is powerful and makes a great deal of sense, it is more than a comprehensive kit of tools and tactics. It’s close to a religion. And considering the great economic change in the last 20 years, it’s little wonder that so many individuals have found comfort from it. The huge following for Covey’s writings might be traced to the massive changes in how people work. As large corporations atomized, and long-held beliefs about loyalty and work identity changed profoundly, it’s not surprising that a productivity system with a moral appeal created consolation for millions of organizational managers.

Today, the book remains a powerful system for helping people both make their priorities and values explicit and act on them.

Productivity without Revelation
Yet Covey’s model, although still enormously successful, is no longer the productivity system with the most resonance in the economy. Today David Allen is the most talked about, analyzed, and influential figure in the field of getting things done. It’s useful to see his value-neutral approach as almost a response to Covey’s teachings. Allen’s system eschews an internal moral makeover. It ignores big-picture issues of right and wrong and concentrates more on an Eastern concept of being here now. Allen emphasizes process, not product; quality, not quantity; and full presence over revelation.

The objectives of Getting Things Done are simple. GTD is about identifying all the things that claim your attention, categorizing them into doable chunks, and then making conscious decisions about exactly how to proceed in accomplishing both the immediate tasks and the larger, longer-term items.

This breaks down to five stages of personal workflow. You start by collecting every action, goal, and project cluttering your mind with a flashing (or glowing) “do” light. Regardless of the items’ relative importance or scope, the point is to write down every last thing so that your mind is clear. Then you process these commitments by deciding how to prioritize and how much time is needed. The next step is to organize these results in a manner that is manageable, leading to a review of the options, all of which leads to the fifth and crucial step of doing. Voila.

Through the use of such a simple process, lives are being changed and the power of productivity is being unleashed in a growing number of Fortune 500 companies and among hundreds of top-level executives who pay Allen for personal coaching. Yet action isn’t quite the word to describe Allen’s teachings. Unlike the power coaches, David Allen, it might be more accurately said, rallies the troops to inaction. His productivity practices stem from a simple philosophy: You can achieve exponentially more by removing everything that clutters up your concentration and focus. His promise is that by creating clear goals, organizing and prioritizing work, and learning the discipline of working the system, you can rid yourself of the running inner monologue preventing you from keeping the promises made to yourself and to others. You gain presence, which in turn spurs clearer and more focused action. His system validates the truism that “less is more.”

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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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