Courtesy, Conditioning and GTD

I argued this month in Wired that the methods David Allen prescribes in Getting Things Done are more than practical hints; they are tools of civilization that make new demands on our conscience. Getting Things Done is to us what manuals of social comportment and table manners were to the middle ages.

Here is a summary by Norbert Elias of what he found in those medieval primers:

Again and again we find the injunctions to take one’s allotted place and not to touch one’s nose and ears at table… There are very frequent reminders not to scratch oneself or fall greedily on the food. Nor should one put a piece that one has had in one’s mouth back into the communal dish; this, too, is often repeated. Not less frequent is the instruction to wash one’s hands before eating, or not to dip food into the salt-cellar. Then it is repeated over and over again: do not clean your teeth with your knife. Do not spit on or over the table… Do not clean your teeth with the tablecloth. Do not offer others the remainder of your soup or the bread you have already bitten into. Do not blow your nose too noisily. Do not fall asleep… [Elias, The Civilizing Process, “Changes in the Behavior of the Secular Upper Classes in the West”]

Once the secular upper classes, as Elias calls them, learned these manners, they were very proud to display them. The new rules of social hygiene David Allen describes also make those who obey them feel proud. Yes, the necessity of communicating with unceasing eagerness and courtesy, of answering emails promptly, of being available day and night, puts tremendous pressure on elites today; but this pressure is also felt as a type of social distinction.


Last year, Melissa Mazmanian and two of her professors at the MIT Sloan School of Management gave a conference paper on the use of Blackberrys in a small financial firm. At the conclusion of the paper, the authors wrote:

…a self-reinforcing cycle of BlackBerry use and compulsion emerged, frustrating firm and professional values, and creating tension, consternation, resentment, and stress. These negative ramifications, however, did not appear to have diminished use or reduced reliance on the BlackBerrys.

What were the members of the firm using their devices for? They were using them to stay on top of email responses that other members of the firm were sending with their own BlackBerrys.

While all Plymouth members report valuing the use of the BlackBerry to keep them connected and allowing them to stay “on top of” the large amounts of communication they receive, they seem less aware of the extent to which their constant checking and frequent responding generates additional email traffic for others to check and respond to, which in turn, generates more email, and so on, in a self-reinforcing loop.

In short: meet George Jetson.

On the other hand, perhaps the stated goal of staying on top of things should be understood more literally. The status competition in a private equity firm can be as intense and as unyielding as that in any little princely despotism; employees are together day and night, aggression is encouraged, and while there is great wealth and pleasure associated with success, progress also depends to a large extent on opinion and reputation. The company Mazmanian studied “believes” in work-life balance, but in the 18th century, the French court “believed” in the virtue of natural comportment. In both cases the realization of these fantasies was a reward for power already attained, and thus is a taunting reminder to work harder (in one case), and to be more self-controlled (in the other).

“Crackberry,” is already a cliche, but it may be an accurate joke in the simplest sense that answering email messages all day long is conditioned response. It probably it isn’t any harder to train a banker to hug his BlackBerry tighter than his children than it is to train a courtier to grow his fingernail long and scratch at the door instead of knocking. Such things, even when done ruefully, are done with pride. They mean a person is in the mix, a respectable character, on top of things, rising through the crowd.

As part of her research Mazmanian interviewed the spouses of employees. Of the women she talked to spoke explicitly about social pride:

I think that they’re addicted to the idea that someone needs them all the time. That they can be important to someone and that things can’t go smoothly unless they’re involved.

This context helps explain why so many people have so gratefully responded to David Allen’s work. Allen accepts the notion of a perfect responder, he feeds that contemporary pride. But by channeling the seemingly infinite demand of the new communication regimes into a set of elaborate (but routine) processes, he reduces the emotional charge in the conditioning. One is no longer responding, every time, out of that sense of urgency or compulsion that characterizes the addict. Responsiveness is less like scratching a itch, or getting a fix, or any other painful pleasure; and more like saying thank you, or using a fork, or not even thinking to spit on the floor: just another norm.

Sometimes, in talking to people about GTD, I hear the word “robot,” as if the ideal of the perfect responder is some kind of mechanical and soulless being. I don’t think that’s the right metaphor. The model of GTD is not the rotation of a gear, but the cycling of a processor; not the movement of celestial spheres or a divine clock, but rather the magical decision making of Maxwell’s demon, who can choose when to open a gate without expending energy of any kind. But this crosses back into the religious influence on GTD, and best left for another day.

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