Cal Newport on the failure of Getting Things Done

Mike Janssen
Mike Janssen
Cal Newport on the failure of Getting Things Done

Late to the party on this one, but I wanted to highlight Cal Newport's recent piece in The New Yorker on the failure of David Allen's seminal productivity system, Getting Things Done. I practice a flavor of GTD, and part of what intially drew me in was Newport's focus on Merlin Mann, a productivity guru-turned podcaster. I've read Merlin's stuff and listened to his podcasts with varying regularity, but I knew his productivity site, 43folders, has been dormant for some time.

In short, Newport suggests that the reason people have gotten into productivity is that they're working in increasingly disordered organizations. So, it falls to the individual to order their work life. Email is a case in point: while it's convenient for you to ask me a question via email, in doing so you have created work for me that, perhaps, is arriving at an inopportune time (not to mention the possibly dozens of other requests that have arrived since last I checked my inbox). What is really needed, he argues, is to rethink how knowledge work-based organizations function: how work is distributed, and how workers interact with and make requests of one another.

The whole article is worth reading, but here's the money quote:

In this context, the shortcomings of personal-productivity systems like G.T.D. become clear. They don’t directly address the fundamental problem: the insidiously haphazard way that work unfolds at the organizational level. They only help individuals cope with its effects. A highly optimized implementation of G.T.D. might have helped Mann organize the hundreds of tasks that arrived haphazardly in his in-box daily, but it could do nothing to reduce the quantity of these requests.

I'll be thinking about this one for a while, particularly as it relates to higher education, which, relative to the private sector, has been fairly decentralized.

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