TECHSPLOITATION Among business-oriented tech nerds, there is an acronym that is a cult: GTD. It stands for "getting things done," and it comes from the title of a popular time-management book by productivity coach David Allen. Not only has Allen turned GTD into a multimillion-dollar consulting and advice business, but he’s also infected the hearts and minds of an entire generation trying to work as fast as the processors in their computers do. At its heart, the GTD philosophy is simple: list your tasks ahead of time, and complete them as systematically as possible. In the end, you’ll work more quickly, zooming through your life the way you zoom through your e-mail in-box.
But for those of us who confront bulging e-mail boxes and multiple, multistage projects every morning, GTD can become a freaky addiction. We’re never fast enough. That’s why some GTD solutions go beyond the friendly kind you’ll see on productivity blogs such as Lifehacker and 43 Folders, which are devoted to finding ingenious, technical solutions to get around work-blocking procrastination.
Possibly the weirdest example of extreme GTD can be found in a recent book, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape the 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, by a guy named Tim Ferriss. The book combines two biz-geek obsessions, saving time and getting rich, which is probably why his Web site lists endorsements from tons of people, including "Lazer Tag consultant" Stephen Key and Firefox cofounder Blake Ross.
I met Ferriss, an affable if slightly overenthusiastic fellow, at the South by Southwest Interactive conference. His book hadn’t come out yet, but he was already trying to convert the masses to his "lifestyle design" solution. Unlike a typical GTD plan, his book is also about glamor: he preaches the art of taking "mini-retirements," trips to different countries where you can have fun while still working occasionally (this is after you’ve somehow convinced your bosses to let you work remotely).
At various points while reading Ferriss’s book I was reminded of Steve Martin’s old routine "How to Make a Million Dollars and Not Pay Taxes." His solution? First make a million dollars. And then when the tax people come around, just tell them you forgot to pay. It sounds good, but the problem is implementation. In a chapter called "Outsourcing Your Life," Ferriss tips you off to his best time-saving solution: hire cheap labor in the developing world to save yourself time and money. In fact, this is eerily like all of his solutions, such as living in Thailand while working for a US company to give yourself a mini-retirement and grow richer.
Ferriss’s GTD plan is so extreme that it winds up revealing the dark side of productivity mania. Many of his time-saving techniques depend on making other people work more. For example, Ferriss interviews a guy for his book who saves time by hiring staffers at a company in Bangalore who do all his research for him, answer his e-mails, and even send his wife an apology when the two of them have a fight. Suddenly, this guy has a lot more time and feels more productive. I’m not sure that when GTD guru Allen writes about delegating tasks he means that you assign your work to other people. Ferriss’s GTD fiends may be getting four-hour workweeks, but it’s only because three women in Bangalore are working 70 hours a week.
My fantasy, on considering the extreme end of GTD culture, is that more and more people will begin following Ferriss’s advice. Get things done by outsourcing all your work to the developing world, so that soon women in Bangalore and China have access to all your personal correspondence, financial data, and work-related activities. This could possibly create the conditions for the first-ever bloodless but violent revolution. One day, people in the United States and Europe will discover that all their data is in the hands of angry workers who want to do the GTD thing their own way. They want their own four-hour workweeks, and they’re going to use all your data to get them.
It would be the perfect demise for a data-obsessed, time-obsessed culture. Deprived of our data, we’ll have all the time in the world. But of course, if we want to live, we’ll have to start working again. And this time we’ll have to work the old-fashioned way: by doing it ourselves. *
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who saves time by talking and sticking her feet in her mouth at the same time.