The Limits of Efficiency

During the 2001-2002 tech downturn, two alpha geeks I respected recommended Getting Things Done, a book by David Allen that promised a path to stress-free productivity. As a longtime freelancer who was very stressed-out by the need, suddenly, to do a lot more work to earn way less compensation than I enjoyed during the boom, the book was quite useful. Although author Allen recommends that adherents will get the most benefit if they follow all the tenets of its rather all-encompassing system, I found that even paying attention to a handful of its directives led to getting more things done with less stress. The idea that you take every incoming demand and immediately determine whether you need to do it, defer it, delegate it, or delete it is quite sensible and works in many business and personal settings. Even a little of the plan went a long way.

By developing what Allen calls a “leakproof collection system” for all these incoming demands — and by having a notepad or PDA-like device with you at all times — helps you get the mundane stuff down so you can concentrate on the fun higher-level stuff without the nagging feeling that you’re forgetting something/everything. As James Fallows wrote in an essay about Allen in The Atlantic (registration required), “I’ve internalized Allen’s gospel to the extent that I try always to have a note pad –paper or electronic — with me; and I’m nervous when someone tells me he’s going to do something but I don’t see him write it down.”

Although I found the “GTD” system helpful in everything from prioritizing tasks to keeping my email inbox under control, I also found the GTD movement rather cultish. Allen leads expensive seminars and markets physical products and software programs that aim to put his theories into practice (including an Outlook plug-in). The Net is filled with spirited blogs, like 43 Folders and Lifehacker, that disseminate the GTD worldview. And, of course, David Allen has a posse. But, as with all belief systems, many acolytes have their own versions of what the Great Man said, and there are no arguments more minute, tedious, and off-putting than those among true believers. (I’m not referring here to 43 Folders’ Merlin Mann or Lifehacker’s Gina Trapani. They both run excellent sites.) I don’t like being part of a cult, so I gradually drifted away from the fold.

Or I did until a little more than a year ago, as I was recovering from surgery and taking on too much work, as freelancers nervous about the near future tend to do. As more and more of my colleagues, especially fellow freelancers with multiple clients, complained of out-of-control inboxes, both physical and virtual, and I felt something similar starting, I returned to GTD. Within three weeks, I was back on a more even track. I knew what I needed to do, when I needed to do it, and where everything was. I should have been experiencing Allen’s nirvana of stress-free productivity.

But I wasn’t, and I suspect that many in the Radar readership will know why. It turned out that my problem wasn’t that I was insufficiently efficient. The problem was that I was way too overextended. I had taken on more than even a very efficient person could handle. Efficiency is great, but it can only get you so far. I recommend Getting Things Done, as long as you don’t treat every word as immutable and inarguable. It can help you out of many bad habits. It can’t, however, stop you from agreeing to take on too many responsibilities.

How are you managing the workload when efficiency isn’t enough?