Why work so hard: The eusocial meaning of Getting Things Done


Why work so hard? If there’s a sore point in the literature of business self-help, this question touches it. A person who carries a to-do list everywhere; who divides the workday into segments; who strives for optimal efficiency: the last thing such a person needs is a wiseacre teasing him from the sidelines and raising questions about the ultimate purpose of life. The problem is, this critical voice does not come from the sidelines. It comes from the founders of the business-self-help movement, from its most revered leaders.

Efficiency, which is doing things right, is irrelevant until you work on the right things.
Peter Drucker

Until now, it has seemed obvious that we can’t perfect our means without a clear notion of our ends. Before you can answer the question of how, you must answer the question of why.

Begin with the end in mind…
Stephen R. Covey

To which a person devoted to David Allen’s methods in Getting Things Done might reply: okay, but what if we don’t? One of the secrets of why this book has proved so appealing is that Allen has magically removed from the genre something formerly thought to be crucial. He solves the problem of meaning in the simplest possible way: by ignoring it.

Strangely, this seems to work. In my Wired profile of Allen I review some of the mechanics. But here, I want to look more closely at where the old existential questions have gone. Isn’t it strange that something like the meaning of life, or your most important priorities, once thought so crucial to any self-improvement scheme, could simply vanish, and, more oddly still, not even be missed?

In an earlier post, I described Allen’s religious antecedents. He’s at the end of a long series of innovations in American religion, innovations focused on using religious or quasi-religious practices (ranging from faithful prayer to positive thinking) to improve our life. This trend toward the worldly is one of the most powerful currents in religious life, and in this sense Allen’s pragmatism is unexceptional.

But if questions of ultimate purpose have become increasingly irrelevant, then why do the greatest purveyors of business self-help, such as Covey and Drucker, always make a sort of metaphysical bow before handing over their tools? One reason is that logic seems to demand it. Drucker’s advice to examine one’s priorities begins as common sense, not as a metaphysical demand: Don’t get caught up in details; look where you’re going. But the dialectical spirit, once unleashed, threatens to go too far. You start by subjecting your quarterly goals to a broader strategic analysis, and end up with doubts about the very purpose of your firm. Or even your life.


Drucker was influenced by the great humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow, who taught that attention to one’s highest goals was crucial for realizing the potential of any individual. But busyness in pursuit of money and worldly advantage cuts against these ideals. Drucker’s command not just to do things right, but also to do the right things, is a kind of ritual formula designed to lesson this tension. It raises the level of thought, but re-assures everybody that things won’t get out of hand. It’s a combination of an axiom and a prayer.

In a book called Flow, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes an interesting moment of metaphysical first aid. Csikszentmihalyi occasionally teaches a seminar for business executives on how to be happy. Many of them have mastered the techniques of efficacy, but have trouble and confusion in their private lives. After teaching the seminar a certain number of times, Csikszentmihalyi found a trick that seemed to work well. He now starts with a quick introduction to Dante’s Divine Comedy. He treats the poem as a parable about the necessity of discovering a “life theme” that will underlie and direct their aims. The executives enjoy this exercise. Csikszentmihalyi reports that it helps them focus and be more open. For people who’ve already had great success, Dante may serve the same role as does the invocation of “meaning” in Drucker and Covey. It is a preparatory gesture, both an invitation to widen the critical frame, and an inoculum against the worry that they’ll go too far.

What’s strange about David Allen’s work, then, is not really that the question of meaning has disappeared. What’s interesting is that a certain gesture, the preparatory invocation of meaning, has been discarded as unnecessary.

Has something in the environment has changed? Does the communication network that makes such constant demands and offers such frequent re-enforcement somehow relieve the anxiety that older rituals of contemplation once addressed? The flow that Csikszentmihalyi describes is available at any minute by scrolling through messages on a Blackberry. Busy in that electronic colony that never flickers off, a person’s “ultimate goal” is no more perceptible via study or self-reflection that it would be to other eusocial organisms; e.g., to ants. As far civilization is concerned, this might be considered an advance.

A long-term downswing in metaphysical demand would obviously be a force of religious change. Maybe the strange arbitrariness of religion today is a sign that it is in a transition state, flipping back and force between random, extravagant assertions, and a kind Zen-like posture devoid of concrete claims. A couple of days ago I posted a video (repeated below) of John-Roger expositing his idiosyncratic theology.

While the doctrine is unfamiliar, it is nonetheless quite traditional, in the sense that it attempts to explain and describe the unseen world. Only a genuine spiritual anxiety (or a base voyeuristic thrill) would get you through listening to the whole thing.

But this second video is more important. Here, an acolyte of dubious sincerity seeks counsel from John-Roger, and he refuses to help out. The audiences joins him as he giggles.

This is theology as a put-on, an attempt to demonstrate the pleasure of meaninglessness, and an interesting sample of the possibilities of eusocial religion. A benign and inarticulate spirit is moving through the crowd.


Peter Drucker
Managing the Nonprofit Organization (link)

Stephen Covey
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (link)

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (link)

One Response to “Why work so hard: The eusocial meaning of Getting Things Done”

  1. Matthew Cornell Says:

    Thanks for the background on Allen, and for putting his work in context. When I first adopted his work, my first question was “Is David Allen cheating?” Specifically, his is one of the few time management books that does not start with a personal assessment, and does not start top-down, i.e., from purpose/vision/goals. The argument Allen makes (and that I completely agree with) is that we’re too bombarded with stuff to start to think about the higher levels. It’s paradoxical, but I get it. For me I’ve never had luck with the top-down approach, but GTD’s helped me a ton.

    That said, as you point out, we really must know what’s important to us, or we’re just driving fast nowhere.

    If you’re interested, I wrote a bit about “reverse engineering” goals bottom-up from a GTD implementation:

    Where are you going? Use your actions and projects to reverse engineer your goals

    I also got some great responses to my question “What the heck *is* productivity all about?”

    Thanks again.