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


The Productivity Promisers

There’s a power and elegance to Allen’s system that explains much of its grand allure. He writes within the established tradition of productivity thinkers. But he can also speak clearly to our modern frame of mind. As Generation X has morphed into Generation Excel, harried workers everywhere seek release from the constant clutter in their lives. Whether it’s the distracted, hassled, and stressed executive; the overloaded project manager; or the solo entrepreneur with six e-mail addresses, two pagers, and countless open loops of to-dos running like Muzak in an elevator, the challenge facing all of us is to slow everything down to the essential actions, accomplish them with confidence and aptitude, and move on.

Virtuous Chaos
Although Allen’s GTD system is by far the most popular today, many other resources are feeding the productivity hunger. One useful site,, for example, offers daily tips on getting just a bit more done. Other fine re­sources, such as Brian Tracy’s book Time Power: A Proven System for Getting More Done in Less Time Than You Ever Thought Possible, with associated Web sites, provide a clear presentation of insightful ways to order one’s activities. These tools are certainly helpful. And yet when sussing out the key productivity resources, one might ask whether even the most useful resources contain the seeds of their own failure. When does the allure of a system distract users from the desired outcome of acting with more power and clarity, and less waste?

That’s the central idea in a wonderful new book titled A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman. It argues that we must weigh the costs of learning and implementing any organizing system against the actual benefits it provides in overall output. The book was prompted by the obsessive fervor exhibited by the burgeoning industry of personal organizers, who, like the GTD zealots, often take for granted the benefits of cleaning up one’s personal space. This book challenges what has become a commonly accepted value — that all efforts to order one’s things and activities are good.

Obsessive GTD acolytes sometimes unwittingly highlight this issue. An individual with a Web site devoted to GTD contritely owns up “to the fact that I have been neglecting my weekly review lately.” Other groupies debate whether the popularity of “David’s teachings” is watering down the so-called canonical GTD. Just about everywhere are endless discussions about the neatest ways to organize materials, adapt computer programs, create lists and files and filing systems, and use the newest handheld tools and labels (oh, the labelers), all designed to streamline the GTD system. One danger of Allenism is that following its procedures too closely could diminish workflow.

Allen certainly doesn’t promote obsessiveness. In fact, in a telling gesture, last year he halted his personal blog because he believed that it was a distraction. In this regard, he reveals a key sign of what works with this new approach. The genius of GTD has to do with the way that David Allen redefines the essence of productivity. Greater productivity is no longer defined by the metrics of pure output, such as doing things faster or with fewer defects. Nor does Allen’s system reward an internal moral compass. Rather, his measure of productivity deals with wholeness. “Productivity is about completion. My system is based on identifying all the ‘incompletes’ in your life — from mundane tasks to pressing responsibilities — and isolating the simplest next step to complete them,” Allen says. (Not coincidentally, this quote calls to mind a line from one of Allen’s influences, Zen Buddhist Shunryu Suzuki. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki writes, “When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.”)

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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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