Time Management Guru-itis: Mark Hurst vs. David Allen and Tim Ferriss



I once asked Po Bronson how he beats writer’s block. His answer was “write about what makes you angry.” It works like a charm.

If I had writer’s block, this quote from a recent Entrepreneur magazine blog post would surely make the words flow like water. What follows is an example of guru fatigue and an overview of some misconceptions and principles of Bit Literacy vs. Getting Things Done (GTD) vs. 4-Hour Workweek (4HWW)

“Timothy Ferriss is focused on outsourcing and not checking e-mail so often. The last time I checked, the amount of e-mail you get is not a function of how often you check e-mail,” [Mark] Hurst says. “David Allen’s approach is a bit of a throwback to a pre-internet age when having complex flowcharts, filing papers and creating tickler items was relevant…”

“People need to learn how to let the bits go and do a better job of managing their to-do lists. Digital overload isn’t a function of too much e-mail; it’s a product of not managing your action items appropriately,” Hurst says.

Fortunately, I speak fluent sarcarm (“Last time I checked…”), but I’ll respond to the above without it to spare us all the irritation.

First, I’d like to observe four facts

-I know Mark is highly intelligent, hence my surprise and disappointment.

-Mark is the author of a book called Bit Literacy, which also serves as a sales tool for his paid web-based to-do list software. Much of his advice depends on its use.

-I have read both David’s GTD and Mark’s book in detail. For those of you familiar withhow I index books and take notes, below is the one-pager from the 180 pages of Bit Literacy. It’s worth the read if you are an avid Mac user, enjoy reading about things like file extensions (I do), and are willing to use his software subscription.
Index and references from Bit Literacy

-Despite the disproportionate attention paid to them, personal outsourcing and selective ignorance are just two chapters out of 16 in 4HWW. There is a lot more to information management and intake control in 4HWW (interruption prevention, internal policies, scripts with superiors, etc.) than “batching” e-mail.

Second, in defense of GTD

I’ve had a number of dialogues with David Allen. I do not view his approach as an outdated “throwback to a pre-internet age.”

Though David refers to desk-based inboxes, tickler files, etc. in certain parts of GTD, the broader concepts are frameworks for proper filtering of inputs (“open loops”) and definition of outputs (“next actions”), regardless of technologies used.

Let us remember that good technology is a practical solution to a real problem, not a collection of whiz-bang features. The tech references in Bit Literacy have fewer applications and less shelf-life than GTD principles, which sometimes (but not always) manifest with paper and file tools.

GTD is, however, a bottom-up approach to time management that — used in isolation — can lead to becoming very efficient (doing things well) but decreasingly effective (not doing the right things). Readers on this blog have suggested reading 4HWW and 7 Habits prior to implementing GTD. The results and approaches are complementary rather than conflicting, but order is important.

Eliminate before you optimize.
(Credit: Whereswilliam)

E-mail: Why Frequency Begets Single Points of Failure

Now, a few theories with supporting evidence to refute Hurst’s assertion that “the amount of e-mail you get is not a function of how often you check e-mail”:

-The more you check e-mail, the more e-mail you send. This is the reason some investment banks (I was introduced to one of largest at the Web 2.0 conference in 2007), as well as forward-thinking tech companies, have policies — complete with punishments for non-compliance — limiting inbox checking to 2-3 times daily. Do people send more or fewer e-mail once adopting Blackberries or iPhones? Even the smartest users will abuse tools to the extent that immediate self-validation is possible.

-The more e-mail you send, the more e-mail you receive. Robert Scoble has told me, as have other digerati, that he receives an average of 1.75-2 messages in return for each single e-mail he sends. This does not scale. The more often you respond to e-mail, and the faster you do so, the more the volume of e-mail compounds. E-mail becomes IM and, using a medium designed for one-to-one communication, processing bottlenecks are inevitable.

The interviewer observes of Mark in the same piece:

Hurst must be doing something right. When I sent him an e-mail about being interviewed for this article, he responded within 20 minutes.

Is responding to all inquiries on a moment’s notice really success? I would argue it is a reactive mode that precludes life, at least the type of life I want to have.

Watts Humphrey, who retired from IBM in 1980, once led Big Blue’s software development. His group “who had never before made a delivery schedule, did not miss a date for the next two and a half years.” Here is a persuasive list of bullet points from one of his presentations (courtesy of Scott Rosenberg, founder of Salon):

-Unless you are independently wealthy, you must work to a schedule
-If you don’t make your own schedule, someone else will.
-Then that person will control your work.

Mark is highly intelligent and I’m sure he’s a nice person. I just take offense at his tone and blanket statements about people who are attempting to do the same thing as he: help others overcome digital overload. In the end, I think his comments come from a mistaken view that there is only room for one version of what is inherently “personal” productivity.

To all readers, I thank you for allowing a self-indulgent rant, but there is one overarching point to this little diatribe:

Remember to think twice before not being nice. Friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *