David Allen, GTD and The Civilizing Process

In the profile of David Allen in the October issue of Wired I discuss some of his intellectual antecedents, the influences that shaped Getting Things Done, and indirectly, all of its users, including myself. The story is an intellectual profile, with different aims than this piece, recently published in Business2.0, which focused on Allen as a model businessman. Wired, with an indulgence born of familiarity (or perhaps resignation) allowed me to ignore the immediate interest Allen holds for people trying to become more wealthy and successful. I looked instead at his role in a longer, slower, and more general process of mental change, a change in our civilization.

While it may seem silly to look for evidence of this sort of change in a $14, er, $8.99 paperback, I was encouraged by a great old study by the pioneering sociologist Norbert Elias, whose book The Civilizing Process is full of references to popular how-to guides from the middle ages and Renaissance.


As we attempt to improve ourselves, working hard to optimize our behavior and to exchange bad habits for good ones, we are continuing a process that was already occurring in the distant past. The dimensions of this labor are not purely practical. They involve deep feelings of pride and shame. What is at stake is our sense of goodness, of personal virtue, our “self-worth.”

Giving readers of a glossy magazine, even one like Wired, more than one or two quotes from a 70 year old academic tome is considered bad form, but no such rules apply on the Web, so in the next day or two I’m going to post more about Elias and the connection between the research he did in the1930s and the cult of productivity today.

Books mentioned in this post:

The Civilizing Process, Norbert Elias

Getting Things Done, David Allen

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