The cult of productivity, and the obsession with 'getting things done'

From CNET Magazine: Organizing, parceling and simplifying life are at the heart of one of the biggest trends in tech culture. And it shows no signs of stopping.

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
5 min read

Francesco D'Alessio struggled with even basic chores.

He was forgetful and had trouble keeping up with his schoolwork. After failing a year at his high school in the UK when he was 16, D'Alessio began looking for answers.

Some tech blogs suggested a book by David Allen called "Getting Things Done" (or GTD for short). In it, the productivity consultant discusses processes he developed to help high-powered executives manage the barrage of information coming at them.

Four years later, D'Alessio says those processes turned him into a successful entrepreneur and student, studying business at England's Plymouth University. "I've been able to accomplish a lot more than the average student has," he says.

Count D'Alessio among the growing number of productivity advocates inspired by books like GTD and "The 4-Hour Workweek" by startup investor Tim Ferriss. Allen promises to "transform the way you work, showing you how to pick up the pace without wearing yourself down," according to the book's summary on Amazon. Ferriss lays out a process to help readers escape a workaholic lifestyle. Both have resonated with an increasingly overwhelmed population: GTD has sold 2 million copies since its 2001 release, and Ferriss' book has attracted 1.5 million buyers in North America since 2007.

And no wonder. The sum of nearly all knowledge on Earth is accessible on a device in our pockets that keeps us in constant contact with our work and our friends, and helps find people we want to meet and places we want to go.

This always-on communication has created an existential struggle for white-collar workers who long for work-life balance even as they heed the siren song of their email inbox's message alerts. For many, the world has become a burdensome, complex and never-ending to-do list.

"The speed of change and the volume of potentially relevant information have gone up dramatically," says Allen.


Over the past several years, an army of app developers have created programs to help manage your daily life.


The problem isn't information overload, Allen believes. Instead, it's our addiction to our phones, emails, messages and the "likes" we get on our apps. Even worse, people are "using their head as their office," trying to remember everything from important contacts to what they need to do each day.

"Your head is designed to remember four meaningful things and that's it," Allen says. "You're screwed if you're trying to get your brain to operate in the modern world."

Little gray cells

That makes sense to David Sparks, a lawyer in Orange County, Calif. "In today's world, we have so many more obligations than my parents did," he says.

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Like most of us, Sparks, 47, reaches for his phone when he wakes up. A practitioner of GTD, Sparks uses one of the many apps designed to help people manage their intricate to-do lists, parse their emails and focus their efforts.

He's not alone. Developers now offer dozens of apps designed around to-do lists and productivity, and they release more all the time.

Some of the apps reflect Ferriss' or Allen's work. Some are tied to "Inbox Zero," an idea developed by productivity consultant Merlin Mann that encourages people to respond to, forward or delete emails as they receive them. That means breaking out of the habit of keeping emails around as calendar reminders or to-do lists.

Think of it as the brass ring of inbox bliss: our little gray cells free from anxiety and allowed to focus on more meaningful pursuits.

"Anything that helps us be more productive helps us feel good about what we're doing," says Ken Case, head of software company The Omni Group.

App attack

Case realized a decade ago that creating to-do lists wasn't making his work life easier. He'd been invited to a David Allen seminar, which convinced him to create an app to manage those lists.

The result was the app OmniFocus, released in 2008, which helps people break their tasks into projects. It also has a function called "review," a key teaching of Allen's that pushes people to plan for the coming week. Case's company quickly built companion apps when the iPhone App Store opened later that same year. There's now a version for the iPad and Apple Watch as well.

Other app developers have their own takes. Clear, 2Do, Things, Due and Any.do often rank at the top of the productivity category in Apple's App Store.

It's not just individuals looking to get a handle on their workdays. Companies are looking for ways to cut down on emails and unnecessary meetings, too.

"The tools we use to coordinate are absolutely critical," says Justin Rosenstein, co-founder of Asana, which offers business software designed to make meetings more productive. Asana is used by high-flying tech firms like Uber, Airbnb and Dropbox. The idea is that teams can hold fewer meetings and send fewer emails because the Asana system will let members know what others are doing.

"It's about knowing who's responsible for each task or piece of work," says Rosenstein. "It sounds so rudimentary, but it's absent in so many companies."

Healthy balance

Some GTD fans can take it to extremes.

Joe Buhlig, a 28-year-old coder for a marketing company in Buffalo, Minn., says he'd forget to take out the trash if it weren't for his to-do app reminding him every week. Following GTD has helped him reduce the anxiety we've all felt: What am I forgetting?

Buhlig says he also keeps note cards in his back pocket to help him sketch ideas before putting them into his to-do list. That keeps him from relying too much on technology: If an apocalypse started tomorrow, he'd just switch to paper.

What of the masters?

Allen says he uses a specialized program created for IBM Notes, a popular set of productivity apps once called "Lotus Notes." He also says he has an idea for something better that he sketched out two decades ago. Alas, no one's made it yet.

Ferriss has a personal assistant but says he could survive on his own, even without an app to help. "Most techies would be disappointed by how few apps I have on my phone," he says. To him, using apps or tools is just a means to an end. "Technology is a great tool and a horrible master."

Allen and Ferriss both say they don't need reminding to do their chores. Even so, D'Alessio can't imagine life without his tech.

"Everything is consistently documented throughout my day and monitored and managed so I don't forget anything," says D'Alessio, who blogs about productivity. "Now I don't have to rely on my brain to remember things."

This story appeared in the fall edition of CNET Magazine. It has been modified somewhat for its online appearance. For other magazine stories, click here.