Allenism, Taylorism and the Day I Rode the Thundercloud

Today, January 7th, was a brutal bitch of a day, and it was a great day. Every grim reality of the cloudworker lifestyle, the dark side of everything from mobility and laptops to eating on the run and elite car-rental status, hit me with full force. Both my New Year’s resolutions were hammered by gale-force winds. The business of life hit many potholes, and the game of work threatened to fall apart on me. But I not only survived, I actually made it a better-than-average day. I made it all work. Truly, it was the day I rode the thundercloud (I stole the phrase from a really old Reader’s Digest article I read as a kid).

And that’s why as my first post of 2009, I will offer up a meditation on the life-work of David Allen, he of Getting Things Done (GTD) fame, and his new book, Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and Business of Life. I’ll tell you all about the role of Allen in the emerging landscape of the future of work.

Here’s the short, illustrated version. In 1911, Frederick Taylor invented the management model of Taylorism, which became the operating system of the The Cathedral, where the Organization Man was born, with William Whyte becoming his biographer. Six Sigma is the last hurrah of Taylorism. Ninety years later, In 2001, David Allen, with Getting Things Done, created Allenism. A model of work that is well on its way to becoming the operating system for the antithesis of the Cathedral, The Bazaar, home of the Cloudworker, whose biographer is undoubtedly Dan Pink (I just came up with the word, Dan’s written three books about cloudworkers). Eric S. Raymond, who wrote The Cathedral and the Bazaar about the open source movement, billed himself an accidental revolutionary. I am more modest. I’ll call myself the accidental wannabe-word-coiner, and hope that ‘cloudworker’ at least merits a footnote in the history of work. Anyway, here’s my picture explanation of Allenism vs. Taylorism:

You doubt that GTD is the future of work? The original GTD book has been seeing increasing sales every year since publication and is currently at an astronomical #53 on Amazon. With MIAW, a tipping point has been reached. The future of work is now here.

But to understand it, we have to zoom down from these century-level dynamics, what Allen would call the 50,000 foot level, to the runway level: 8:00 AM, the morning of 1/7/09, Wednesday, hump day, when the thundercloud hit me.

8:00 AM: The Hour of the Ice-Scraper

I get up after a godawful night’s sleep at the Holiday Inn. I’d forgotten to pack my pajamas in my rush to the airport yesterday, and had tossed and turned, miserably chilly in my boxers, until I finally put on my jeans at 1:00 AM and slept in them. So I wake up feeling like crap, and I can’t even drink coffee — I have to go get a blood test for my cholesterol. And oh yeah, I also forgot my corporate credit card. So I have to pay for my trip stuff with my own card and write a 3x more annoying expense report. And I forgot to bring my daily cholesterol meds.

So I shower, dress in my slept-in jeans, skip shaving and get ready to leave. Then I realize I’ve forgotten to put my new health insurance card in my wallet, so I call wife to ask if she changed our plan or something, and to my relief, she says no, my old card should work. And while I have her on the phone, I remember just in time to tell her NOT to mail in some tax paperwork that I left on her desk — I am waiting for another letter to come in. She’s far too good about mailing things on time. And yeah, the paperwork has to be done quick because I learned on Monday I am being audited. New York State thinks I owe it 2003 taxes and I have to scramble to find a proof of address from my Michigan home during that year. Cloudworkers have to get used to those partial-year resident forms. I am barely settled in Virginia now and my wife wants us to move to Maryland or the district. Oh well.

So out the door, and then I realize I’ve forgotten my lab test form, so I turn around and THEN realize I’ve locked my key in the room. So down to the reception desk, get a new key, back up, get form, out the door. Finally I can get underway. Or not. The parking lot is being battered by the freezing rain. This is Rochester. My rental car is covered in ice, and there is no ice scraper in the car. Great. Just great. Scrape scrape. Rub hands, rub hands. Scrape, scrape. Rub hands, rub hands. Sit in car waiting for thaw. Did I mention that I am driving a terrible Chevy HHR, because of an ‘upgrade’ (gee, thanks!) by my car rental company, because I have some sort of ‘Elite’ status?

I am now running 20 minutes late, and have 30 minutes before my 9:30 meeting. Do I even have time to stop by the lab to get my blood test, grab some breakfast and coffee (I am starving from the 12 hour blood-test fast) and make it in time? Crunch time. I could cave and skip either food or the test, but I NEED the test today so my doctor will have the results for our appointment Friday, before I leave town. Yeah, I live in Arlington, VA, but my doctor is still in Rochester, NY. And I HAVE to eat or I’ll tune out during my key morning meeting.

Decision made: I am going to go for it and try to do both and be on time. I rarely swear, and today I am muttering M***F*CKER under my breath. Actually a coarser Hindi equivalent that you may have heard if you saw Slum Dog Millionaire. And it’s just 9:00 AM.

Allenism Principle: Reactivity and The Business of Life

MIAW’s subtitle is winning at the game of work and the business of life. On days like this you realize why it is the business of life. Paperwork, health insurance, forgotten pajamas. Like Allen says, it’s all stuff that goes into your Inbox. And then life hits you with no ice-scraper.

Reactivity. Switch context on a dime, swing, duck, process something so fast it doesn’t even touch your inbox. Cathartic post-hoc add-to-list-and-cross-off moves are for wimps. Tell-wife-don’t-mail-tax-stuff-yet didn’t even hit my next-action list. It just came up in my mind in the right context, and I just handled it.

And that’s Allen’s first great contribution to a world dominated by Taylorism and waterfall planning. What Scrum and agile programming did for the narrow world of software engineers, Allen did for the rest of us. He made being reactive not only respectable, he gave it a sort of glamour. Allenism isn’t about knee-jerk grease-the-squeakiest-wheel reactivity. It is about being so well-organized, no, well-orchestrated, in your life that you can react instantly and appropriately. Not cut corners, not do without, not wimp out. And it isn’t stupid systems-for-the-sake-of-systems. Allen insists that his system is complete and all-encompassing. And it is, because it is robust and flexible enough to handle things that never even hit the system, because it anchors your whirlwind of a life enough that you feel confident enough to override the GTD autopilot anytime and go ‘real-time’ if necessary to overcome a situation. There is reason for faith — it is arbitrary and overweening systems that are brittle. They are so liable to fall apart if you do any ad-hoc exception handling, that they get in your way when you attempt to do so. The beauty of GTD is that it manages your life, not your freedom to react in flexible, ad-hoc ways.

His image of reactivity is ‘Mind like water,’ the martial arts ideal. Cloudworkers, obviously need mind like water. Especially when facing ice without an icescraper on a thundercloud day.

9:30 AM: On making, missing and forgetting meetings

Yay, I’ve done it. Blood test, check. Breakfast, check. Make it to meeting at 9:30 on the dot. Check. Everybody else apparently stuck with their own ice-storm day problems? Check.

My co-workers come in a few minutes late. They have had tougher issues than me — some are kid-juggling Moms and part-timers, cloudworkers with more to deal with than me. One offers up a helpful hint on being caught in ice without a scraper: use a credit card. Awesome idea! I think. I could’ve used my expired health-insurance card.

So, we talk, and it’s a productive meeting (curiously enough, about some research we are doing on the future of work), and it runs over. I haven’t bothered to turn my laptop on, so I have no idea where I am supposed to be at 10:30, and it is now 10:47. I am too lowly in the ranks here to get a company-sponsored blackberry, and have so far been too cheap to get my own. But finally I turn the laptop on at the end of the meeting and I discover I was supposed to be in a critical staffing meeting one floor up, from 10:30-11:00. Crap. And oh yeah, as she’s leaving the room from this meeting, one of my team members asks innocently, “so you all ready for our big 1:00-5:00 PM meeting this afternoon?” Double crap! For some reason I thought that meeting was tomorrow. It’s merely the big 2009 kickoff for the projects I run, with a dozen people attending, and yeah, I am supposed to run it and have my vision-level 2009 slides ready. HELL! I thought I’d have all of this evening to finish THAT! And I have an 11:15 – 12:00.

So I run up to my manager’s office to see if I can catch the last few minutes of the staffing meeting, and manage to catch her for a few minutes. She’s quite nice about me missing it and gets me up to speed. They managed to process stuff without me, since I’d already sent in my input. I sigh in relief, and head towards my 11:15 in the next building, wondering whether to beg out of that meeting so I have more time to do my last-minute vision-2009 slides. Again, I make the go-for-it decision. I am going to do the 11:15-12:00, finish the slides AND grab lunch. I don’t want to pass out in the middle of a four-hour meeting.

So, I do that. Finish my 11:15 meeting (again, lots-of-irony day, the meeting is about GTD stuff we’re trying to do at our company). Both I and the guy I am meeting are GTD-users, so we process efficiently — this is mind-meld stuff, this is — and I get a precious few extra minutes. Am hammering away at my slides 11:48 – 12:53. And yeah, I get the slides done, and done well, with some creative cartoons thrown in. Fortunately I hadn’t forgotten my nice red plastic folder marked ‘In’ which is my traveling Inbox and lives in my laptop sleeve. Being a disciplined GTD guy, I’d remembered to dump the rough mind maps for 2009 project planning I’d sketched on Monday into it, so I have the raw material. I can actually get the slides to say what I wanted. No corners cut. Whew! Mail it out to attendees, rush over to grab a slice of pizza from cafeteria, run back and am in conference room again, just in time. Initiate conference call, power up projector, fire up LiveMeeting, check that the California folks are there. The India folks are going to miss this — a total 14.5 hours time difference across all meeting locations is just too much to navigate, something has to give.

Phew. From a near-crash at runway level, we have take-off. Off to 50,000 feet to do that project vision thing, cartoons and all. I survive it, people seem reasonably engaged given that it is a marathon meeting, and we actually do some very creative brainstorming right until the very end. A few really cool new ideas for our projects bubble up.

Oops, it’s only January 7. Am I already in danger of violating my resolution not to take on anything new, and to actively drop stuff? How do I react to these new ideas? I am sorely tempted to steer the meeting towards discussing only ‘execute what we’ve already got moving’ themes, but I resist. We need these ideas in the hopper and the discipline to not commit to all of them. I’ll just have to find a way so we go after some of these new things as a team, but without me taking on anything more myself, if I am to keep my resolution.

Allenism Principle: The Game of Work and being ‘Ready for Anything’

It isn’t just a clever turn of phrase. If taxes and health insurance make life feel like business, then the need to be creative for mind-numbing-by-default stuff, such as Annual Kickoff Meetings, makes work a game. And yeah, darting through a bumper-to-bumper calendar is the cloudworker sport on those days that we precipitate back into HQ.

I was caught off-guard needing to make a critical set of slides and prepare for a big meeting where others were depending on me to not waste four hours of their lives. From the chaos of a day threatening to turn into a train-wreck on a runway filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic (how’s that for a mixed-metaphor), I had to not only raise my own thinking to the Big Vision level in just a rushed lunch hour, but take a dozen people along with me for the ride. And I am just a rank-and-file guy. Imagine the C-suite pressures.

Not easy, and you wonder if you can take off. At such times, it is the incredibly mundane that rescues you. The habit of carrying relevant stuff in my red ‘In’ folder paid off. And yeah, the reason I didn’t get blindsided by some decision at the meeting I missed was that I’d been on the ball on that issue and touched base on it just 2 days ago, thanks to my weekly GTD review which reminded me to keep touching base on that issue. So my views had been represented at the meeting.

The other big thing Allenism brings to the game of work is a realistic and substantive understanding of visioning, mission-planning and those other 50,000 foot things. Yeah, we need ’em. And no, most of us don’t do them right. We do ritual and ceremony rather than genuine expanded-perspective exercises. And we do that because generally we cannot free our minds from the runway clutter to truly take off and create meaning at those higher levels. So instead we get vacuous, uncreative placeholder bullshit. Stuff that makes everybody want to yawn and get out of those ‘Big’ meetings. Any idiot can pull of a grand strategy meeting in the middle of a relaxed, expensive executive retreat with an army of assistants. But visioning is for all of us, in stolen moments through every day, and doing it with scarce resources while you are navigating runway traffic is what is truly hard. And worthwhile. The meeting did do what it was supposed to. Yes people were exhausted — they call ’em marathons for a reason. But we got there.

And don’t forget that I made yet another energy decision. I could have chosen to cancel my 11:15 to get more breathing room, but cloudworkers don’t have the luxury of always-available face time with key colleagues. If I’d canceled, I’d have had to move the meeting to remote. Not good. I was able to put good slides together and keep my meeting because of a simple red folder that happened to contain 2 sheets of paper with useful scribbles. You still think trivial organization aids are irrelevant?

That’s the beauty of GTD. Another Allen quote is that the people who are moving fast are the ones who most feel the need to eliminate drag. This is what eliminating drag looks like.

5:00 PM, and I look like hell

So I stumble wearily back to my hotel. I am craving some Indian food from my favorite Rochester place, but that’s across town. Do I have the energy? I just want to crash. Back in my room, I am sorely tempted to turn on my computer, kill some time on twitter, and turn in early. I survived a brutal day didn’t I? I deserve to crash.

And then I see myself in the mirror. Unshaven. Red eyes. Don’t forget I didn’t take my meds today and that I am getting a cholesterol-related check-up on Friday. Health is high on my radar. And it hits me hard: it is only Jan 7, and my other resolution, about improving my health, is also getting hammered today. Dunkin’ Donuts for breakfast. Cold pizza for lunch. Too tired to exercise after work. What the hell IS this? I think back wistfully to my occasional peak-health moments, like back when I was on the college swim team as an undergrad in 1994-1996. How did I get to this? How come I keep hitting a ‘peak health’ month every few years, but keep sliding back? I slumped 97-98, but peaked again in 99. 2000-01 were bad, but in the summer of 2002, I was running 3 miles a day. Slumps and peaks continued 2003 through 2008. 2009 was supposed to be the year I finally figure out how to stay at the peak.

Did I really conquer my brutal day at the cost of my body? Am I going to give up and slump again?

So I decide, NO. Perhaps one day in 2009 I may fall off the wagon on my health resolution, but it is not going to be this day. I shall go running on the treadmill in the hotel gym. Firm Resolve. Yes!

Or I would. Except that I’ve brought my running shoes, but forgotten my running shorts. I rarely ever forget stuff on a trip. This time has been this bad, I suspect, because I exhausted myself finishing a chapter of my book late into Monday night, and dealt with the tax paperwork and some stupid expense report mistakes on Tuesday. For a paperwork-phobic guy like me, that’s enough to drain me. Writing the chapter should have been a high, but it had been one of those tough-grind chapters rather than the flows-effortlessly ones.

So here I am, having survived a draining Monday, a phobia-ridden Tuesday, and a thundercloud Wednesday in a mess of a trip. And I am about to fall off the health wagon.

Fortunately, I did remember to bring my swim trunks. So I go swimming instead. A few laps and some hot-tub time, and I am good to go again. I decide I am going to write this blog tonight, and wonder if I have time to go across town for Indian food. Again I make the maximum-energy decision. I’ll get my dinner, and write a blog post, and buy pajamas on the way.

Allenism Principle: Yeah, Even the Big Stuff Needs the Mundane Stuff

Okay, I am calling this a thundercloud day for a reason. I am not usually this run off my feet. Mostly I am relaxed, having fun, with plenty of time to do everything I want to and need to, and still leave people wondering how I seem to power through so much. I am not bragging. I am simply pointing out the enormous (like 6x-10x) productivity difference apparently dumb shit like little red folders and swim trunks and a few lists can make in your life.

Dog-tired and a mess at 5:00, looking at myself in the mirror, I should have seen a trainwreck. I should have wanted to give it all up and go join a Fight Club. Cloudworking can seem like a futile, pointless, what-is-it-all-for life from the outside on these bad days. Maybe the sedate, suburbia-dwelling Organization Man had it right. But from the inside, it is not the I-look-like-crap observation that matters. It is how I choose to react to the guy I see in the mirror.

Call it silly, but the little techniques of GTD make you an optimist about life and possibilities. I looked into the mirror and only for a moment saw bleakness and darkness. The next moment I thought to myself, these are battle scars, this is the REAL fight club, not the ritualistic bash-other-men fight clubs of Chuck Palahniuk. Winning — and this isn’t crass career winning, but existential winning — at the game of work means you sometimes take a beating, running some rough plays.

But you can’t be dumb about it. You have to live to fight another day. This means that when the game of work is done for the day, you could be a battered mess, but you still have to revisit an even higher level for the day — the level that keeps body and soul together.

And again, GTD doesn’t preach about holistic health and other distractions for people too afraid to dive into the fray of real life. It just tells you about making folders and lists and staplers. And somehow these become the meditative tools with which you go to fight spiritual wars. I resisted the urge to give up, and went swimming instead. Being on GTD for 7 years has so consistently given me control over the chaos of work and life, and allowed me to rise above it, that it has effectively given me the gift of learned optimism. I was optimistic enough about exercising in the middle of a packed trip to pack both running gear and swimming gear. Yeah, I forgot some of the running stuff, but the point is, the redundancy saved my noble intentions from collapsing. Maybe for only another day or two, but the swimming is going to keep me on the wagon just a little longer. That’s how you live out your spiritual and bodily intentions — one day at a time, same as your paperwork and meeting intentions.

7:30 PM: Pajama Party and the Ironies of Work and Life

So, relaxed and refreshed, if still tired, I go grab dinner, and brainstorm notes for this blog post while eating. And yeah, don’t tell me to live in the moment. Brainstorming makes a tasty accompaniment to chana masala. You’re the one who has low bandwidth and can experience only one thing at a time.

So I head home. And 20 minutes away from the restaurant, I realize that my triumphalist notes for a blog on surviving my thundercloud day have been left behind at the restaurant. At this point, I just have to laugh at the irony. This thundercloud day has a sense of humor. It is even messing with my attempts to blog about conquering it. I am still smiling to myself as I walk into Target to buy pajamas.

Serendipity strikes. I’ve been using a single pair of ratty and torn pajamas for a while, and as a new cloudworker, I’ve been idly meaning to get myself not one, but several nice new pairs of pajamas to work in. For some reason, I can’t seem to find any I like in DC. Here, at Target, I find a sale going on and a bunch I like. I buy 2. So my forgotten pajamas help me recognize and cross off a task I didn’t even know I had on my list. I buy them, and a coffee, and head back to the hotel. Here they are, draped over my chair near my temporary hotel-room desk.

I put one pair on, call the restaurant to make sure they have my forgotten notebook, tell them I’ll pick it up later, and get down to writing this post.

Allenism: Making it All Work At the End of the Day

So there you have it. I hope this gives you a good reason to read both of Allen’s books. If you haven’t yet read Getting Things Done, read that first and test-drive it for a few weeks before tackling Making It All Work. It isn’t a sequel, it’s a research-oriented and speculative drill-down into the original. It isn’t like the execrable 8th Habit by Covey or the horrible Tenth Insight by that Celestine Prophecies guy (the first book had 9). Best-selling self-improvement authors can’t seem to resist the temptation to mess with their own success; they invariably overreach with their second books, and retroactively ruin the first. Allen has resisted. MIAW is not a sequel, it is a disciplined and restrained work that stays within the boundaries of the original and deepens your understanding of it. It has no new principles or techniques or tools. His own metaphor is the best. If the first book showed you how to drive the car, this book is about how to repair it.

Get out there, learn how to drive and repair your car (or your plane really), and join the cloudworker class. I am off to bed now to die another day tomorrow.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Jesse Silverstein says

    Where does Ready For Anything fit into his books in terms of reading order? Or is it not worth the processing time?

  2. It’s a bunch of exploratory essays from his blog, which he had for a short time I think. It was the 2nd book, but not really a ‘real’ book, and most of the ideas were thought through and incorporated into MIAW, so I’d say you can skip RFA if you plan on reading the other 2.


  3. Ready for Anything has 52 essays in it, and follows a trajectory similar to Getting Things Done and Making it all Work. I keep it in my tickler so it shows up every Monday morning, at which time I read the next essay. This gives me a little dose of David to start off my week.

  4. Here is a metaphor for GTD and Taylorism: Both are operating systems (OS’s), only that Taylorism concerns mere terminals around a central server while GTD is about macs and pc’s connected to a huge bbs.

  5. Thank you, thank you for the “Print this article” button. I never have time to sit and read at the computer and my only reading time is while I’m walking from place to place.

    I’m still reading GTD and I’m trying to figure out how to fit it in with my Palm without chucking everything I already have (which doesn’t work too badly).

  6. Great article. Very inspiring to get back on the GTD wagon in 2009.

  7. Breathe123 says

    How “GTD” can this author be if they forget things all the time?

  8. :) good point. I like the idea that GTD isn’t about things not going wrong, it’s about ‘getting back on the wagon’ efficiently, and still getting the things done. That’s what this piece was about. I am rarely this forgetful, so this is a good illustration of how GTD helps when you have one of those days.

  9. Really enjoyed the post Venkat. It’s nice to know that days still go wrong with GTD but can be recovered!

  10. asiriusgeek says

    I enjoyed your post – enjoy your cappuccino!

    Just starting to read MIAW and looking forward to the additional insights.

  11. I just started reading GTD and am excited to begin the process. I am tired of the exhaustion, both mental and physical at the end of the day. I look forward to being able to handle a myriad of life work without the heavy stressors I feel now.

    Great post.

  12. LOL Venkat, great post. You make me feel normal. Just goes to show that there is more than one way to reach the destination as long as you are flexible about the journey.

  13. Some important points about your post: 1) You can drink a cup of black coffee and not mess up your cholesterol test — ask your dr., or better yet, the nurse drawing the blood. I do, and it helps a bunch. 2) The rental car upgrade is a BIG PAIN. I’ve been getting this for years, and there’s nothing to be done about it in advance because it’s wired into their information systems. However, look the rental agent in the eye and say “I exactly need the car type I reserved, please get me one now,” and they’ll usually do it. The fact is some agencies receive incentives for pushing certain types of cars, the computer just pops it out, and the agent is trained to expect you to have a pleased look on your face. If you simply assert that you want the car you reserved, not some mofo oversized SUV (or convertible, or whatever dog is being pushed that week), they will take care of you, and if they argue, the best response is “I would have thought an elite customer would be best served by having his requests honored…” Sometimes you’re still stuck, but don’t give up, I get “upgrades” more than 1/2 the time but I get them “downgraded” back to what I want 3/4 of the time. Avis and Hertz both do it, and I’ve had it happen at Dollar and Budget at well. Only Enterprise has yet to pull this stunt on me, but I don’t rent from them that often. Hopefully you aren’t going to become a big enough roadwarrior (cloud-warrior?) to need this advice, but just in case, there it is.
    –A fellow CloudWarrior