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October 04, 2007

Slam job

350px smash
Anyone reading this blog knows I'm a strong advocate of David Allen's Getting Things Done methodology, so this morning when my iGoogle home page turned up a new piece in Wired about Allen and GTD, I was eager to read it.

And read it I did. First came the shock - Allen had been a herion addict and a psychiatric patient?!? - Then with growing anger: seething, boiling anger, rage and outrage.

Wired had done a slam job on Allen.

Here's how to write a slam job boys and girls, but if you really want to see a master at work, read the profile by Gary Wolf.

First, hook in the readers who are interested in who you are profiling targetting with a run down of the person's success: 600,000 copies in print, many software apps, web sites, blogs and communities that share what the person advocates.

Now carefully start working in little slings and darts, like: "Some of them come to seminars like this. Allen himself is unsure if it helps."

Next, Be sure under the guise of describing what the victim advocates you trash what they advocate by distorting it, for example, by saying GTD is about 3 rules and this axiom:

Humans have a problem with stuff. Allen defines stuff as anything we want or need to do. A tax form has the same status as a marriage proposal; a book to write is no different than a grocery list. It's all stuff.

Keep tossing in those little snide darts;

  • "Allen has almost nothing to say on these topics..."
  • "Where earlier gurus tried to help their followers make their deep personal commitments explicit and easily accessible to memory, Allen is selling a kind of technology-enabled forgetting...."
  • "His techniques allow him the pleasure of having, much of the time, nothing on his mind."

Now that you've loosened up your audience, it's time to get down to the hard work of demolishing the man's reputation:

The only thing Allen was allowed to have in his possession at Napa State Hospital was a spoon. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was pretty accurate," he says of the time he spent as a mental patient, "and Napa was one of the good hospitals."

That ought to grab their attention! Let's see, what else should we say about a man who makes a large part of his living advising corporate clients? I know!

Bookbinder and Allen became close. Bookbinder taught him karate, and soon Allen was using heroin, too. He left his marriage, abandoned his academic training, and eventually found himself out on the street, practically penniless, "crucified psychically," as he would later put it, "absolutely at the bottom physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually." Worried about the radical change in his behavior, some of Allen's friends had him committed in 1971. At the mental hospital, Allen received stark lessons in simulated obedience. He learned to hide his psychiatric medication under his tongue instead of refusing it or spitting it out, and he studied what the medical staff seemed to want of him, so that they would pronounce him cured.

And if that doesn't do the job, Wolf next gleefully spelling out Allen's connection to one Sri John-Roger, New Age cult figure, concluding, "Allen was, and still is, a minister in the church."

And on and on in a similar vein.

This is a despicable slam job, Wolf, too well done to be anything but intentional. You've done a great job of taking the facts and quotes Allen freely gave you and creating clever links between them and various cons and cult leaders, of taking what Allen believes in private and using it to hang him in public - a co-mingling that to my knowledge Allen has never, ever done.

Anyone interested in GTD reading this piece and this piece alone would conclude Allen's a new age con artist/addict/nut case and run miles to avoid him.

Yet the truth is quite a bit different, isn't it? How many Fortune 500's are ongoing clients of David Allen? Why did his book sell 600,000? Why are there so many people from CEOs to stock clerks and everything in between who say GTD has been a practical, useful way to be more effective and has not one bit of the cultness you try to rub off on it?

This is a slam job, nothing more. Wolf should be fired.


I thought the article was quite well balanced. Many "great minds" have checkered histories. So what if David Allen has done heroin decades ago and/or has unconventional spiritual beliefs. His GTD methodology is decidedly secular, and Mr. Wolf's Wired article treats it reasonably fairly.

If that article is lacking, it's that there is little evaluative discussion on merits of David Allen's teachings irrespective of his own personal history. But then, the article was largely a "human interest" piece about the man himself, which would be highly interesting to the rather large GTD-aware audience among Wired's readership.

The article explicitly describes Allen's drug use and institutionalization as brief and, if anything, as the fulcrum which redirected his life toward what he is today. His new age practices provide background into the origins of GTDs #1 draw: to free one's mind for creative emergence by knowing all the details of one's life have been placed into their proper process. This is not a turn off to my Christian beliefs, and, like the article states, I do not find any of Allen's materials even mildly proselytizing.

What you call darts & digs, are compliments to my way of thinking:

"Allen has almost nothing to say on these topics..." is perfectly accurate in the context in which Wolf writes it, viz., the top-down, value/belief driven methodologies of Covey, et al. This statement is true. GTD is bottom-up and does not address how define our values, roles, mission statements, etc. Allen leaves the "what we're all about" stuff to us; GTD just helps us embody those virtues by putting them into action.

"Allen is selling a kind of technology-enabled forgetting...." is the best line in the whole article! The point of GTD is to put one's mind at rest through a system which covers all the bases. I don't have to remember, I enter it into my GTD system and forget about it ... or at least think about it only when I choose to.

"His techniques allow him the pleasure of having, much of the time, nothing on his mind."

I appreciate your blog, keep up the good work.


If anything, the writer of the article played very softball with David Allen, almost like an advertisement. There are other serious questions people have brought up, and no one has yet addressed.
For example, why are so many, if not all of the employees of DavidCo senior members of MSIA?
Why do some DavidCo coaches recommend books by John-Roger?
Why have there been no independent studies of GTD, to test Stress and Productivity levels? (this has to be done by 100% independent professionals).
Who provided the working capital for DavidCo?

There are many other even more serious questions which were not addressed in this article.

The article itself is very interesting and reveals things about Allen that up until now, I had no clue of. I think we all would agree that we all have skeletons in our closet and I think that this article in someways tried to delve into Mr. Allens. Whether it comes through in a positive or negative light in regards to Mr. Allen is solely up to the individual reader. Interesting post.

I agree with the other comments. I found the article inspirational rather than offensive. I never knew the incredible turn-around story of Allen's life.

Mr. Wolf is a journalist. He did his job.

I am the GTD fan but I have not found the Wired article to be offensive. I do not think your rant is appropriate. Clear you personal mental filter and do not write posts in anger.

You seem to have read my story through an idiosyncratic personal filter that caused you to misunderstand it. There is nothing in it that should be mistaken as a personal attack. True, I am openly skeptical of the claims of John-Roger and the Movement for Spiritual Inner Awareness, but I take care to explain that GTD is not a cult recruitment scheme, and to point out that its intellectual background also includes Taylorist efficiency and ideas of scientific management. Just to show that the piece was interpreted differently elsewhere, here is a quote from a post by Dustin Wax at www.lifehack.org:

"Knowing his story makes his advice and his work more real to me somehow — it’s the work of a man and not a god. It creates a leadership that is not bestowed from Heaven but the outcome of worldly living. It comes, that is, from a life much like mine — maybe not in the particulars (as far as I know, I’ve never been addicted to drugs or spent time in a psychiatric institution) but in the overall quality.

This kind of leadership is far more compelling to me than the model of leadership by brute strength..."

For reference, I've included links to Dustin's post, and also to some additional posts at www.aether.com where I get more deeply into some of the intellectual background. I do not mean to use this comments to promote anything, however, and please feel free to cut these links if they seem unnnecessary.




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  • Who?
    Bob Walsh, (Author, managing partner of Safari Software, Inc. a micro-ISV)
    Exploring the intersection between Getting Things Done and building a micro-ISV.
    Live from Sonoma, California USA.
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    Because there's a way to get everything done, I just know there is!
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