Writing Self-Help That Actually Helps People — Three Lessons From David Allen

iuI recently bought the new edition of Getting Things Done by David Allen and was delighted to see a foreword by James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic and GTD enthusiast. (GTD is the acronym for Getting Things Done.)

Writing about the benefits of GTD, Fallows makes several points that writers of business and self-help books cannot afford to ignore. To begin:

Book catalogs are full of listings for volumes that offer advice on how to improve your work habits, your health, your productivity, and your overall success in life.

Some of what they say is typically dressed-up common sense. A fraction of it is baloney. Much of it is worth reading one time, if that, and is forgettable hours or days after you have put the book down.

What sets GTD apart, says Fallows, are the following three features. Let’s bake these into our own publications and presentations as well.

A flexible and forgiving approach

Many authors offer a multi-step program with the assumption that you will complete all the steps in the suggested order. In some cases — as with people who do the Twelve Steps as part of their recovery from addiction — this is the norm.

In most cases, however, readers will balk at wholesale implementation of a “one size fits all” program. As Fallows notes, “approaches that are incremental and forgiving of error are more likely to pay off in the long run.”

Whenever possible, present a program that still offers benefits even when it is applied piece by piece.

A timelessness that is tool-agnostic

David Allen revised Getting Things Done, in part, because the first edition referred to obsolete technology such as Palm Pilots and Filofaxes. With the second edition, he removes these references and offers suggestions that do not depend on specific products. People can implement GTD methods with software, with paper-based tools, or a combination of both.

At bottom, GTD is a way to think clearly about your commitments and choose the very next action to move each of them forward. What counts is the underlying principles — not the specific tools that you use.

Authenticity and integrity

As a personal friend of David Allen, James Fallows can attest that David actually lives by the ideas that he teaches. This is key for authors of how-to books: They lead by their example as well as their words. Our credibility is undermined when readers sense a disconnect between what we say and what we do.

Ask yourself: Do I actually use the ideas that I recommend? And am I getting the desired results? If the answer to either question is no, then you’ve got a problem. It’s time to tweak your program, change your behavior, or do a little of both.


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