43 Folders

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”What’s 43 Folders?”
43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

WIRED interview: extended 12-inch version

Following the leads of David and Marc, here’s the full transcript of the answers I gave for the WIRED News article via email last week.

As usual, I’d really hoped to play down the goofy “cult” label, but, oh well, I imagine that’s the angle some editor destined the story to have. So it goes.

Still it’s a good piece if it helps a few new folks get it together, and I certainly can’t complain about the exposure (and very considerate deep-linkage).

Thanks for the opportunity, Robert.

  1. When and why did you start getting organised with GTD (were you disorganised?) and what have you found it has done for you personally?
    • I picked up GTD in December, 2003, at a time when I was managing several large web projects.
    • I wouldn’t say I was disorganized so much as just overwhelmed. The constant emails, changes, and disruptions that most people regard as noisome interruptions are the project manager’s stock in trade; it’s his or her job not just to suffer those productivity arrows, but to ensure that every other team member never has to—that they are each exposed to only the most distilled and actionable summary of information needed to do their particular part of the job. Wrangling all that is exhausting, lonely work, and without a mature system in place, it’s a bitch to pull off with any level of success.
    • I think GTD has improved the quality of my work, if for no other reason than it’s helped me get much better at saying “no,” as well as really understanding what’s involved whenever I say “yes.”
    • The concept of the “next action” and the weekly review both also had a big influence on the way I think about what I do.
  2. Why did you start 43Folders, which I notice seems to be about “life hacks” in general and not just GTD?), how popular is it?
    • As far as the popularity of 43 Folders in general? I’m pretty sure my Mom reads it, but I really doubt that the lady who does her hair has ever heard of it.
    • Re: the GTD Angle: Of course, saying that 43 Folders is exclusively about GTD is like saying the Beatles only wrote songs about walruses and submarines. I mean it’s definitely there and it’s been a significant influence on me, but it’s far from being the only thing on the site, and it’s definitely not the only thing on my mind.
    • My real interest is not in what you’ve referred to as the cult-like component of this stuff, but rather on the patterns behind the ideas that GTD has helped to popularize—in particular the idea that our work can be made more manageable just by breaking it into smaller pieces and viewing it in the context of our roles, values, and available time.
    • In my mind, 43 Folders is more generally about the ideas and practices that help people make these sorts of connections based on their own needs and challenges. “What are the tools and ideas that might help me get a handle on things in my life?”
  3. Why have geeks taken to GTD in such an energetic way (am I right in thinking that the book and the phenomenon have enjoyed a popularity surge thanks to web buzz and blogs like yours?) - something to do with processes and control, perhaps? Looks like it’s not just a technological phenomenon, though - what is the software/hardware that is being used for GTD? Any recommendations?
    • My writing partner, Danny O’Brien likes to say that geeks are the canaries in the coalmine for the problems that will eventually affect most “normal” people. For example, geeks had spam before most normal people had ever even heard of AOL. Additionally, the problems of overload and attention deficit that seem to be spreading so rapidly these days have been staples in the geek world since time immemorial. Most geeks would rather die than be bored for five minutes, and that kind of disposition can lead to some odd works habits and some very intriguing problems.
    • GTD provides a logical and sufficiently Byzantine set of practices that many geeks easily get engaged with. Importantly, though, David Allen has—without realizing it, I suspect—put a very consumer-friendly face onto some ideas that have had currency in the geek world for years. A fast example? Check your favorite geek’s home directory, and I’ll bet you, 3-to-2, there’s a file in there called “todo.txt” with several thousand lines of what GTD would refer to as “next actions.” There’s probably a todo list on the back of the Magna Carta if not scrawled onto some cave walls. This is not all brand-new stuff.
    • What makes GTD so appealing to everyone is not that it’s novel—many of its basic tenets are, on reflection, incredibly obvious. Not that this makes it less valuable—sometimes the really obvious stuff is what we’re most likely to miss completely.
  4. Some say this is a new cult, and that the web is looking for its own Martha Stewart or Dr Atkins. What do you make of the participation of all these webby disciples of the GTD teachings and would you nominate yourself or David Allen for the Stewart/Atkins guru position?
    • The reality is far less glamorous or menacing than this unfortunate “cult” label would imply. In my experience, most people are just overwhelmed, and they’re really not sure where to turn to improve things. They have more email than they can respond to, more work than they can finish, and more TV shows on their TiVo than they could ever hope to watch.
    • In many ways, I think some of the GTD stuff is a productivity MacGuffin. All the lists and squirrely systems can only be effective inasmuch as they also lead you to the more important upshot of GTD—that all this crap you’re fielding is ultimately your crap, so it’s up to you to decide what place, if any, it’s going to have in your life. Figuring that out can be a pretty profound moment for people. Was for me, anyhow.
    • The whole “cult” thing seems like an unnecessary media confection to me. It’s not like people are exchanging secret handshakes or selling flowers at the bus station. This is just a bunch of individuals trying to get their shit together to the point where they can spend their time doing the stuff that’s actually meaningful to them. That just seems really sensible to me. Not exactly Manson-level stuff, you know?
    • As far as this “guru” business? I’m not sure the world really needs another z-list celebrity right now, let alone one whose basic schtick consists of “Write stuff down, and then do it.” I’d like to believe that’s a message that doesn’t require the benediction of a photogenic spokesmodel. But if it does, I’m more than happy to let someone else take the job. Being a guru strikes me as a pretty peculiar way to spend your day.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
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