Current: The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done

How personal productivity transformed work—and failed to.

Excerpt Reposted from The New Yorker November 17, 2020

By Cal Newport Cal Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University.

A bunch of hands each handling a single task
As the obligations of knowledge work have grown increasingly frenetic, workers have flocked to productivity tools and techniques.Illustration by Timo Lenzen

In the early two-thousands, Merlin Mann, a Web designer and avowed Macintosh enthusiast, was working as a freelance project manager for software companies. He had held similar roles for years, so he knew the ins and outs of the job; he was surprised, therefore, to find that he was overwhelmed—not by the intellectual aspects of his work but by the many small administrative tasks, such as scheduling conference calls, that bubbled up from a turbulent stream of e-mail messages. “I was in this batting cage, deluged with information,” he told me recently. “I went to college. I was smart. Why was I having such a hard time?”

Mann wasn’t alone in his frustration. In the nineteen-nineties, the spread of e-mail had transformed knowledge work. With nearly all friction removed from professional communication, anyone could bother anyone else at any time. Many e-mails brought obligations: to answer a question, look into a lead, arrange a meeting, or provide feedback. Work lives that had once been sequential—two or three blocks of work, broken up by meetings and phone calls—became frantic, improvisational, and impossibly overloaded. “E-mail is a ball of uncertainty that represents anxiety,” Mann said, reflecting on this period.

In 2003, he came across a book that seemed to address his frustrations. It was titled “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity,” and, for Mann, it changed everything. The time-management system it described, called G.T.D., had been developed by David Allen, a consultant turned entrepreneur who lived in the crunchy mountain town of Ojai, California. Allen combined ideas from Zen Buddhism with the strict organizational techniques he’d honed while advising corporate clients. He proposed a theory about how our minds work: when we try to keep track of obligations in our heads, we create “open loops” that make us anxious. That anxiety, in turn, reduces our ability to think effectively. If we could avoid worrying about what we were supposed to be doing, we could focus more fully on what we were actually doing, achieving what Allen called a “mind like water.”

To maintain such a mind, one must deal with new obligations before they can become entrenched as open loops. G.T.D.’s solution is a multi-step system. It begins with what Allen describes as full capture: the idea is to maintain a set of in-boxes into which you can drop obligations as soon as they arise. One such in-box might be a physical tray on your desk; when you suddenly remember that you need to finish a task before an upcoming meeting, you can jot a reminder on a piece of paper, toss it in the tray, and, without breaking concentration, return to whatever it was you were doing. Throughout the day, you might add similar thoughts to other in-boxes, such as a list on your computer or a pocket notebook. But jotting down notes isn’t, in itself, enough to close the loops; your mind must trust that you will return to your in-boxes and process what’s inside them. Allen calls this final, crucial step regular review. During reviews, you transform your haphazard reminders into concrete “next actions,” then enter them onto a master list.

This list can now provide a motive force for your efforts. In his book, Allen recommends organizing the master list into contexts, such as @phone or @computer. Moving through the day, you can simply look at the tasks listed under your current context and execute them one after another. Allen uses the analogy of cranking widgets to describe this calmly mechanical approach to work. It’s a rigorous system for the generation of serenity.

To someone with Mann’s engineering sensibility, the precision of G.T.D. was appealing, and the method itself seemed ripe for optimization. In September, 2004, Mann started a blog called 43 Folders—a reference to an organizational hack, the “tickler file,” described in Allen’s book. In an introductory post, Mann wrote, “Believe me, if you keep finding that the water of your life has somehow run onto the floor, GTD may be just the drinking glass you need to get things back together.” He published nine posts about G.T.D. during the blog’s first month. The discussion was often highly technical: in one post, he proposed the creation of a unified XML format for G.T.D. data, which would allow different apps to display the same tasks in multiple formats, including “graphical map, outline, RDF, structured text.” He told me that the writer Cory Doctorow linked to an early 43 Folders post on Doctorow’s popular nerd-culture site, Boing Boing. Traffic surged. Mann soon announced that, in just thirty days, 43 Folders had received over a hundred and fifty thousand unique visitors. (“That’s just nuts,” he wrote.) The site became so popular that Mann quit his job to work on it full time. As his influence grew, he popularized a new term for the genre that he was helping to create: “productivity pr0n,” an adaptation of the “leet speak,” or geek lingo, word for pornography. The hunger for this pr0n, he noticed, was insatiable. People were desperate to tinker with their productivity systems.

What Mann and his fellow-enthusiasts were doing felt perfectly natural: they were trying to be more productive in a knowledge-work environment that seemed increasingly frenetic and harder to control. What they didn’t realize was that they were reacting to a profound shift in the workplace that had gone largely unnoticed.

Before there was “personal productivity,” there was just productivity: a measure of how much a worker could produce in a fixed interval of time. At the turn of the twentieth century, Frederick Taylor and his acolytes had studied the physical movements of factory workers, looking for places to save time and reduce costs. It wasn’t immediately obvious how this industrial concept of productivity might be adapted from the assembly line to the office. A major figure in this translation was Peter Drucker, the influential business scholar who is widely regarded as the creator of modern management theory.

Drucker was born in Austria in 1909. His parents, Adolph and Caroline, held evening salons that were attended by Friedrich Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter, among other economic luminaries. The intellectual energy of these salons seemed to inspire Drucker’s own productivity: he wrote thirty-nine books, the last shortly before his death, at the age of ninety-five. His career took off after the publication of his second book, “The Future of Industrial Man,” in 1942, when he was a thirty-three-year-old professor at Bennington College. The book asked how an “industrial society”—one unfolding within “the entirely new physical reality which Western man has created as his habitat since James Watt invented the steam engine”—might best be structured to respect human freedom and dignity. Arriving in the midst of an industrial world war, the book found a wide audience. After reading it, the management team at General Motors invited Drucker to spend two years studying the operations of what was then the world’s largest corporation. The 1946 book that resulted from that engagement, “Concept of the Corporation,” was one of the first to look seriously at how big organizations actually got work done. It laid the foundation for treating management as a subject that could be studied analytically.

In the nineteen-fifties, the American economy began to move from manual labor toward cognitive work. Drucker helped business leaders understand this transformation. In his 1959 book, “Landmarks of Tomorrow,” he coined the term “knowledge work,” and argued that autonomy would be the central feature of the new corporate world. Drucker predicted that corporate profits would depend on mental effort, and that each individual knowledge worker, possessing skills too specialized to be broken down into “repetitive, simple, mechanical motions” choreographed from above, would need to decide how to “apply his knowledge as a professional” and monitor his own productivity. “The knowledge worker cannot be supervised closely or in detail,” Drucker wrote, in “The Effective Executive,” from 1967. “He must direct himself.”