GTD: A New Cult for the Info Age

A holy book for the information age is turning stressed-out worker bees into members of an unlikely new cult obsessed with keeping an empty inbox.

To converts, popular time-management manual Getting Things Done is a way of life and its author, personal productivity coach David Allen, leader of their flock.

 gained notoriety in corporate circles when the hardback was first published in 2001, proposing a new philosophy for slicing through tasks, managing projects and boosting efficiency.

But the mentor’s teachings have taken on a life of their own, thanks to online buzz from a devoted movement of fans who say the way of “GTD” has helped them do more stuff with less stress.

“It has changed my life irrevocably,” said Marc Orchant of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who calls Allen “my guru” and who uses time saved by following the doctrine to earn extra income from writing five blogs and hosting a weekly technology radio show.

Many who have reaped a streamlined work life and extra family time by singing from the GTD hymnal are now using web tools to spread the word with an almost evangelical zeal.

Orchant was so impressed with the “Zen-like” state he achieved after catching the productivity bug, he launched another weblog to pass on new nuggets of wisdom based on Allen’s original writings.

He’s not alone. Around the world, hundreds of web-savvy disciples have created their own taxonomy for efficiency, using a single tag — “gtd” — to circulate tips and photos across social-software tools like and Flickr.

Others use weblogs and the book’s official forum to share their experiences of living by the code and how best to personalize its rigid workflow (.pdf), which requires followers empty all mental ideas into a highly structured project-processing system.

It’s the challenge of mastering that system that gives GTD its appeal for many busy computer enthusiasts, said San Francisco musician and web consultant Merlin Mann, another convert.

“The problems of overload and attention deficit that seem to be spreading so rapidly these days have been staples in the geek world since time immemorial,” said Mann, whose popular 43 Folders weblog offers a cross section of time-management “shortcuts” and has introduced many to the new productivity craze.

“I wouldn’t say I was disorganized so much as just overwhelmed (by) the constant e-mails and disruptions,” he said. “GTD has improved the quality of my work, if for no other reason than it’s helped me get much better at saying ‘no.'”

The book’s central five-step plan — geared to noting down ideas and relentlessly processing them to a conclusion — can be followed using pen and paper. However, many practitioners are preoccupied with desktop applications and handheld computers on the road to GTD nirvana.

Online debate revolves around topics like using Gmail and Microsoft Excel for project management and the best list-making gadgets. Enthusiasts call such tips “life hacks,” also the title of a forthcoming book co-written by Mann.

“Geeks are early adopters,” Allen said. “They also love coherent, closed systems, which GTD represents.

“Because GTD is system-neutral, it also gives geeks a great model for plugging in their favorite mobile toys. But GTD relates equally to paper or any other medium.”

Indeed, the benefits of old-fashioned filing systems are not lost on even the likes of Mann, whose Hipster PDA invention — a palmtop lookalike that is merely a bunch of index cards held together with a binder clip — is a popular retro retreat for those who prefer paper to pixels.

Orchant, an avowed “true believer,” added there was no “holy grail” GTD software solution. But believers continue to search for exactly that.

“The support system this community provides is one of the finest examples of customer evangelism I have ever witnessed,” he said. “David is an amazing person, full of charm, wit and genuine compassion for others — but I have learned as much from other GTDers as I have directly from him.”

Rapidly acquiring Dr. Atkins status with followers hoping to slim down their to-do lists, Allen said his holding company plans to capitalize on the book’s success with a range of merchandise as well as more personal coaching seminars. But he wears the “guru” crown uneasily.

“To some degree, I’d rather just slip away unnoticed, because the message is really the process, not the person,” he said. “My favorite gurus are the ones who are least concerned with being a guru, and that’s what I aspire to.”

But Allen acknowledges that keeping a low profile isn’t the best way to sell books, noting:

“A while ago we discovered that it’s easier for people to buy into a personality than a process, so what the heck?”