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


You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

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 with how 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 I do not view his approach as an outdated “throwback to a pre-internet age.”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.


Did you enjoy this little dittie? If so, please click “buzz up” or digg below for good karma and stronger fingers. Be like Bruce.

Posted on: May 28, 2008.

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64 comments on “Time Management Guru-itis: Mark Hurst vs. David Allen and Tim Ferriss

  1. I haven’t read Bit Literacy or GTD so I really can’t speak to them, though I have read and worked with 7 Habits and, obviously, 4HWW.

    However, I tend to view these types of books as points on a continuum, rather than each being the be-all and end-all.

    For instance, while the reactive GTD model may actually have some benefit to some people, the sense I get is that those who follow the GTD model to the letter will eventually find themselves in overwhelm mode. Then, and only then, will the practices of 4HWW start to make some sense.

    So I don’t see any of these books as being mutually-exclusive epitomes of time and task management; rather, they build upon one another, however inadvertently. For example, I see it as something like this:

    To establish the fundamentals, 7 Habits comes first.
    To understand planning and execution, GTD and Bit Literacy.
    To get a clear picture on WHY you do what you do, what’s REALLY important and how to balance that with the rest of your life, 4HWW.

    The order is a bit out of sequence with what Tim writes about what blog readers have suggested, but I think the point is clear: Each model has a role to play, and they’re not mutually exclusive. Pick and choose the best of each, use what works for you, and discard what doesn’t.


  2. Yea, Mark is a bit hard on GTD at times. I think he doesn’t quite understand the need for or joy of a complex model. I enjoyed interviewing him though–he’s one smart cookie!

    Many people have a difficult time with GTD because of all the moving parts, even though it’s simply making explicit what people are already doing.

    You said in this article “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).”

    I disagree from interviewing David. On my interview I asked him directly about this and he said that many people can’t really focus on being more effective (getting perspective) until they have control, but he also emphasized flexibility to go to the higher altitudes whenever your intuition calls you to do so.

    Just like your 4HWW method is often reduced to personal outsourcing and selective ignorance, GTD is often reduced to efficiency, even though David has a very robust model for effectiveness (the altitudes).

    Similarly, Bit Literacy is reduced to bit levers and getting email to 0, and the 7 Habits is reduced to buying Franklin Covey planners and putting your big rocks in your weekly calendar.

    It’s my belief that if we all chatted we’d see more similarities than differences. I’d love to get all the gurus to dialogue together on Precision Change sometime.


  3. Hi Tim,

    David Allen has a nice system, but it’s only partially there. I first signed up for his newsletter when he first burst on the scene with an article in Fast Company. He sent out newsletters every 2 to 9 months, and usually apologized for the lateness. That sounds like a very organized person who manages his time well! It’s now much better – but that’s because OTHER people keep the newsletter on track.

    The best time management book is “Do It Tomorrow” by Mark Forster. It’s based on how people actually think – including our natural resistance to doing what we should be doing AND the tendency to get overwhelmed.

    His approach to to-do lists in particular is spot on. Read his section on closed lists.

    The book changed my life – and it’s helping me next use YOUR book to change my life. Check it out.



  4. I’ve read both GTD and Bit Literacy too. I thought Bit Literacy was a dreadful book.

    Aside from the primary flaw – that I basically paid $20 for a self-published sales flyer just to be told that I can’t possibly be productive without paying a continual fee for his website – the whole thing smacks of “if your internal life doesn’t match Mark Hurst’s in every respect, you’re doing it wrong”.

    It’s more revealing of the author’s personal preferences than anything else: for example, Bit Literacy contains an entire chapter on managing photos, but music deserves barely a couple of insultingly neophyte paragraphs – it assumes the reader needs to be told that “MP3 is pronounced em-pee-three”. One gets the distinct impression that Hurst likes photography but isn’t interested in music very much, and everyone else needs to follow suit.

    And it’s in dire need of an editor. Text programs like Notepad are overexplained with pointless pages about the history and structure of ASCII (umm… heard about Unicode at all, Mark?) and the book is full of arrogant this-works-for-me-so-it-must-work-for-everyone recommendations: For example, to be “Bit Literate”, you must file your documents in folders with MM-DD-YYYY names. Well, YYYY-MM-DD has worked pretty well for me for many years now, as I can sort them alphabetically to sort by date, but hey, I guess I’m doing it wrong again.

    Reading it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that no-one else in the history of the world has ever even _considered_ productivity in the digital age. Covey? Never heard of him. Drucker? Who he? Nobody else is worth mentioning. It’s Bit Literacy, and Bit Literacy alone.

    I’m sure Mark Hurst is a smart guy: he went to MIT, and tells me so within a few sentences of the book’s beginning. But his actual bio is somewhat less impressive. Go read it. You’ll see bullet points like “2005: Launched Good Experience Games”. Then you go there, and realize what that means is “In 2005 I made a web page with links on it to games I like.” Uh, yeah. If that’s what I can achieve by being “Bit Literate”, it seems I’m not missing much.

    But I am thankful for reading it. Seriously. Because after this, re-reading David Allen was a breath of fresh air – it was a validation of how deep and flexible GTD can be.


  5. This sound like when rappers start beefs with each other so whoever is lower on the totem pole can catapult himself higher.

    I had never heard of Mark Hurst until today.

    I remember when Ruben Patterson of the Portland Trailblazers decided to call himself the “Kobe Stopper.” His coach said, We will see before I call him that.” He wasn’t a Kobe Stopper but if he had been it would have catapulted himself.

    But he ended up as a joke and a journeyman in the NBA.


  6. Hi Tim!

    LOVE your book!! Devoured it in 1 day. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what’s the best way to find companies to manufacture clothing items in Vietnam? Any advice would be greatly appreciated :).



  7. Good points, and I agree – blanket statements make Hulk want to smash. There is no one perfect approach to time management – it is different for everyone. Successful people will be the ones who read each of the schools of thought you mentioned … and pick and choose the parts that work for them.


  8. Tim,

    Whenever a conversation arises about 4HWW, I always mention that the most valuable parts of the book are not the Muse Creation or the personal assistants. Not even the 3-month-long global sojourns. I always reference your advice on batching e-mail intake, increasing efficiency through time management and elimination of multitasking, and the virtues of a low-information diet. Most people are mislead (and lured in, which is great for your sake!) by the hammock-and-palm-tree cover of your book, and they miss the simple, but somehow profound, advice you have for people just living life and working in a profession.

    I bought your book on a whim in June of 2007, on a trip to Barnes and Noble to find a book on retirement advice, oddly enough. Since then I have, in the following order:

    – Decided what it was I actually WANTED out of life, and what I wanted to do. (This section alone is worth the price of your book. More people need to do this simple exercise.)
    – quit my job, which had dead-ended me for 2 years.
    – Flew to D.C. to visit the USPTO in order to research ‘prior art’ for a patent application
    – Obtained a new job that left room for remote work agreements (able work one day a week remotely, to start)
    – Filed a patent application for a product I’m in the final stages of launching, assisted by a Filipino Virtual Assistant
    – Used your advice on e-mail strategies, the art of refusal, and the 80/20 principle to excel at my job and obtain a raise and promotion within 6 months
    – Took a week-long trip abroad, all expenses paid
    – Negotiated start-up costs for my product using your strategies, and reduced the initial order price by 40%.

    I’ve streamlined my life and learned to value time over money. The point is, your method is not simply an outline of Tim Ferriss’ Life After Reflection, but is actually an actionable blueprint for lifestyle design. I’ve heard the detractors for a year now, much like Mark Hurst (if only passively) in your post here, and their arguments always end up sounding like excuses. The start-to-finish execution of the principles in 4HWW is not for everyone, but there are elements of the book that everyone can learn from.

    I’m not exactly a success story, but I do consider myself a work in progress. When people ask me, “What do you want to do?” I simply answer, “I’m trying to design a lifestyle that I don’t want to retire from. That seems more sensible to me than planning for retirement.”

    I’ve only touched on a few ways I’ve incorporated your ideas into my life, but I just wanted to point out that some people are actually benefiting from 4HWW and not just marveling at the glamour. I’ll let you know how things turn out.



  9. Wow Marc better watch out or you will go back to the Slovic Republic and get a semi-automatic LOL

    I hope this doesn’t put you in a bad mood for your awesome trip to Greece. I am so jealous! I even have a picture on my desktop for 6 months of white houses and blue water.

    Even though I am sure there a quite a few misrepresentations out in the world for your work and others’, truth and people who want to read your work will prevail over some gross inaccuracies some will make.

    Don’t let them keep you down! You can always outsource your stress by hiring a PR firm.



  10. This is so funny. Just this morning I was thinking about what it would be like to combine GTD with 4HWW – I swear. I do tend to think they are complimentary and I find Mark Hurst’s suggestion that GTD approach is “a throwback to a pre-Internet age” to be insulting.

    If I do decide to implement both, simultaneously, I’ll let you know.


  11. I LOVE not checking e mail. I LOVE deleting e mails. I never had this thought process until you kept hammering home the immense benefits via your 4HWW and your interviews here, Tim.

    Thanks for the constant education brother!

    This one, simple adjustment, multiplies my efficiency at least 10 times greater. It’s that simple :)




  12. Tim, as soon as I read this, I copied it and put it in my quotes file:

    “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.”

    The Web may be a place where speed is of the essence, but it’s not worth it if it comes at the expense of really living and enjoying life.

    Some people think that a successful business is the end, but as you’ve argued, it’s the means to a better end–an enjoyable and fulfilling life.

    Keep up the to-the-point productivity posts. I’m enjoying them.


  13. It does I believe show what kind of man he is. He simplifies your work as if it is nothing but what you could learn in sentence, and then reduces GTD to the use of paper. For those here who have not used GTD it CLEARLY it is not, I use it ON MY COMPUTER – this is a system is designed to be used anywhere and is all about what works. He should say sorry to both of you, but somehow I doubt he will. I’ve noticed that people I’ve worked with from well known universities are often amazingly confident, and underestimate others, more often than not to their loss. Will I be using his software ? Not now!


  14. It’s uncanny…
    I think you might have the *best* youtube clips on any blog. And it’s obviously easy to link any number of great clips

    just an observation…


  15. Hi Tim,

    It’s nice to see you are a fan of Bruce’s. Have you ever considered training in Jeet Kune Do? It has always been frustrating to me that so few people actually train in the art that Bruce created…It’s almost impossible to find a real teacher and there is so much confusion about what his art actually consists of…I know the Bruce Lee Foundation is trying to work it all out but in the meantime I have to stick with my Heavy Bag and Wooden Dummy cause I can never find anyone to train with! I think it’s kind of a shame that people just focus on his movies and his physical condition without ever considering that there is a real, and very specific teaching behind it all.

    Sorry everyone if I’m off topic…couldn’t help myself…



  16. In the past, I used to go off and buy any success book that sounded great. I’d read some or all of them and then they would sit on the book shelf.

    I now realised that to successfully implement the learning from any type of ‘guru’ (e.g. health, wealth, time management, etc) and achieve the desired goal (more time, wealth, health and fulfilment) you need to find one or two individuals whose work you admire and whose approach suits your style and immerse yourself in their ideas and approach.

    So, from the start of the year, I used the 80:20 rule (or more like the 90:10 rule) to pick out the handful of authors from my bookshelf whose advice or system would help me get my desired lifestyle and TMI as quickly and simply as possible.

    Within the areas of business and time management that means I now have 4 people’s advice I follow – Steven Covey, Alan Weiss, Michael Gerber and Tim Ferris. (Plus tips and tricks from the Gina Trapani’s Llife Hacker blog)

    Which means I read their articles, newsletters, and blogs and frequently re-read or dip in and out of their books?

    From a time management point of view i suppose it is part of the ‘elimination’ process. Follow fewer gurus, but do what they suggest to get results.

    Having read some of the comments above I have no intention of reading Mark work!