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 I do not view his approach as an outdated “throwback to a pre-internet age.”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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Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

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

  1. Question for Tim or successful business owners:
    What is the first step to start successfully? And what are the next three steps towards success? How can I figure out a timeline that is reasonable but takes me as quickly as possible to targeted income? I plan to start a coaching practice and eventually make it a coaching business. Any help would be very welcomed! And I can throw in some coaching for your time!


  2. For a GTD implementation that includes also the up-bottom approach from Stephen Covey (Goals, so you know you work on the right things), you might try out this web-based application:


    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    A mobile version is available too.


  3. I also haven’t read Bit Literacy, but there are people who think being and sarcastic is an effective sign of wit.

    But concerning the main discussion, there is no doubt a need for everyone working in this information age to use both a top-down and bottom-up approaches. Which one to focus and start with may depend on current level of productivity, choice of career and of course, personality. But generally, it helps to first have fundamentals of top-down approach to have an overall picture and then manage what’s filtered by effective principles with a lean flexible bottom-up system.

    I have read GTD, 4HWW and 7 Principles found them all very helpful (although Covey was a bit long-winded). I have also found helpful Tony Robbin’s system in “Time of Your Life” which is one way to integrate Top and Bottom approaches …

    In the end, like Tim said, it is “personal” productivity. So find what works from what you read and learn. But don’t read too much. Test tips. Be flexible. Don’t overplan. Eliminate physical and mental junk. Take action on the important things. etc. etc….


  4. 4HWW is awesome, GTD is a wonderfully flexible system to manage info, and ZenToDone combines both, simplifies GTD, and contains one missing ingredient from either: Setting up of routines.

    Success rituals.

    I don’t see how GTD isn’t a high level system. It’s based on projects.

    If the project is, “Get the fence painted,” okay, it’s not super high level.

    If the project is, “Get PhD so can begin to explore my ideas on nuclear physics, get funding, and advance mankind’s ability to finally colonize the solar system,” then it’s high level.

    It all depends on what the project is. Of course, we all have projects at different levels and of different topics and that’s cool.

    4HWW rocks because it presents so many excellent ideas on pulling back from culturally popular but generally unrewarding time-wasters… as well as helping one to design a better vision for the future. Which, whatever system(s) one follows, is important.


    • Hi Christoph,

      Good point. I should clarify what I mean by “high level”. It refers to strategic vs. tactical, not the intellectual sophistication. For me, the “highest” levels also reflect levels of abstraction (though not impractical; quite the opposite) and broader implications. Thus, values are higher than priorities (“Is this important?”), which are higher than projects, which are higher than tasks. 7 Habits is the highest, 4HWW is a lot of priorities (what to do) and some projects (how to do), and GTD — at least the application I usually see — is mostly project/task based.

      Hope that helps,



      • Interesting points ,Tim. Again, I go back to the benefit of GTD is psychological well being rather than getting things done. Many (in fact most) people actually enjoy a simple life. There is no statistical correlation between happiness, money, and achievement as done meta analysis of many psychologists. I understand a lot of people who follow this blog have the personality structure bent towards achievement. The highest values that David Allen talk about pertain to values. Values can be corrlelated with personal-social well being. I think that is the value of GTD. He allows stressed out execuatives to make their job eaiser. Break out of analysis peralysis. To me, there is more value in getting stuff done stress free as compared to getting lots of stuff done stressed out. Of course, there is a happy median that each person can work out for themselves. My vote tilts toward the value of being stress free. Then again, my personality is very stress sensative and stress adverse.


  5. Thanks Tim. Great content. I love this stuff. :)
    I’ve been immersed in personal productivity and human potential work for close to 10 years now. I also lead a peer-to-peer accountability and support community called Peer Success Circles. Peer Accountability and mastermind support is I believe to be the missing ingredient in most productivity and time management systems. It’s essentially a way to meet promises and come from choice, especially done with the right context.

    I agree that it’s really about balance when choosing the propers systems. David’s approach is the bottom up approach to efficiency and he does touch a little on the bigger 40K and 50K runway approaches but not enough. A person can get stuck if they start out their day doing this.
    I blend all different approaches for myself and when I coach clients.

    For example Tony Robbins has a very strong state-inducing Top Down approach to personal productivity in his TOYL program. It’s highly impactful and requires much invested time early on to set up and it’s worth it. It takes Steven Covey’s formula and adds a strong engaging visceral element to it.

    Yes, I highly believe strongly in setting deadlines and applying Parkinson’s law and Perritto’s 80/20 rule. I know you also stress these in

    There is something I call the Inside Out approach which I encourage some of my clients to take on. It involves very simply doing practices that “take the pressure off”…such as free flow list building, EFT, and various other written, spoken and physical exercises to get really clear so that they can effectively choose the appropriate next step whether it be a top down approach or bottom up approach. Cutting away detrimental foods and cleansing the body are other examples.
    Message me at successcircles.com or jvny.com if you want to hear more.
    I’ve streamlined my life to an amazing degree where I wake up pretty inspired daily.


  6. GTD main points are not about maximizing productivity. They are about turning work into a peak state of flow as described by psychologists. If you are completely present with what is, you loose track of time, self, and become completely engaged. I arrive at work @ 9AM and after a blink it is 6PM and time to go home and find that I am energized rather than drained as happens to most people when they leave work. Time just flies by. This is because my attention is completely immersed with what is in front of me.


  7. I apply 80/20 and peak performance and get some scary good results. I make a lot of people look really bad at work. That is a problem with working at a large company is the comparision and jealousy from being able to produce at such a high level. I am too risk averse to start my own company. I like the stability and health benefits of a large corp.

    Here are some other productivity tips with large corp e-mail management:

    1-Determine how high up the chain an e-mail will affect. Pleasing upper management is very important. Spend more time on e-mail responses to those high in a company and maximize your output of looking better. You can often ignor a lot of e-mails not involving high priority projects and lower level associates without much backlash.

    2-Ask very specific questions that clarify what a person wants. Make very specific statements too. Don’t be vague. Once you find out what a person wants, deliver that to them or tell them who to contact to deliver to meet their needs. If you are vague in e-mails that ends up turning it into all out confusion and complications.

    3-Phone contact – I speak with a very friendly tone when people call me. However, I provide very breif answers and will often say that isn’t my departments responsibilities. That gets people to think you are nice (with the nice voice) but not a clear reliable source for infomation. That keeps a lot of people off my back without upsetting people. Most of communication is not what you say but how you say it. That is key.

    4-Walk ups. I had a system adminstrator walk up to me with a long list of a certain requests. I listened to him for a bit but there was no way I was going to get anything done in this intereactions. I said, (in a nice tone – i cant emphasize speaking politely enough) ” that sounds great, please send me an e-mail telling me what needs to happen to get this task done”. He aggeed and walked away. I was free to add that to my GTD e-mail list that I would later tackle in my flow state.