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by David Allen
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2003
Review by David Wolf on Jan 3rd 2005

Ready for Anything

The David Allen Company is a consulting firm of a dozen or so highly capable people who follow or support David (and Kathryn) Allen bringing better productivity wisdom and methods to individuals, groups, and organizations. David Allen previously wrote Getting Things Done (2001), called a highly successful publication by Simon & Schuster, and he refers to the title in his leading seminar theme as GTD, that is, getting things done. It's become a methodology for better productivity, "GTD."

Listening to David Allen may not be an experience synonymous with seeing him leading a corporate seminar. Being in someone's presence adds dimensions that one cannot reach by just listening; nor is the latter effective in the same ways as reading the unabridged hardcover book. Turning pages explains more and gives the visual cues to ideas--such as seeing headings--that can't occur on a CD.

So, obtaining value from this intelligent program makes demands on our attention. We must approach it with focus, note-taking, selected reviewing, and some self-analysis. This is not to say, you can't listen to it while driving--perhaps to work and back--but you will discover you have to review it again at a desk (or kitchen table) where you can take notes, switch it off and on, click back and forward to hear things repeatedly before they become meaningful and memorable.

These demands might strike a CD buyer as obstacles. Got too much on your plate already? Think you'll pass on Allen's CD? Well, hold on a minute. The universal problem of today's world of work--too much to do--is the very thing Allen aims to help you handle. His tack is this: you can do more and be more productive if you relax and use his methods. His methods are all about doing the objective things, like making lists and cleaning up the small stuff, that clear your mind to be relaxed, creative, and free of stress.

This is an excellent self-development program, one that is up-to-the-minute in its use of metaphors like "mental RAM" and "open loops" and others drawn from our computer/network age. It speaks to the most contemporary issues in managing tasks, projects and energy. It draws on the best ideas of various traditions but is not merely a rehash of them. It sparkles with solid insights. It's worth listening to over and over.

The topics are many and varied, but they are all drawn together by some basic principles that plainly dominate Allen's experience. One of these is something he learned in karate, "the mind like water" principle. It's a principle about a peaceful, supple mind that responds to challenges with completely appropriate energy and interaction, not too much or too little. It's like a pebble thrown into water, he explains. The water doesn't react; it simply envelops, accommodates the stone and goes back to its serene state. A mind that can deal with change or challenges this way is a mind that has plenty of flexible energy and is "ready for anything."

Mind Like Water is a fine metaphor and this reviewer would have liked to find others of similar interest in the program as a whole. But this is not a program rich in metaphor or the poetic side of language. It is plain spoken and, for the most part, a business-like adaptation of some principles drawn from the wisdom of the ages.

If a listener were to write down all the principles Allen articulates, he or she will find truths reframing those we know from the whole history of great ideas. Here are a representative few: priorities function only at the conscious level; closing open loops releases energy; if it's on your mind, it's not getting done; creativity shows up when we make space for it; worry is a waste; energy follows thought; change in focus leads to changed results; function follows form. And there are many others. (On his website, Allen says there are "52" principles in this program. But that figure is not included in the CDs themselves.)

What about these many principles? Without question, they are great and good principles; they are valuable and useful. But I find myself curious to know where in Allen's experiences they showed up. I long for the missing attributions even though I know that business programs have a long and undistinguished history of eschewing sources (and hating footnotes).  Did I hear some Ben Franklin in newer garb? More often, I heard references to the training that dominated the human development movement of the 1970s and 1980s (e.g., "Infinite opportunity…finite possibility") mixed with the language of computers, like "RAM" and "open loops." But Allen is a good reporter and interpreter concerned with results. It's enough.

Also, he ends many sections with a pithy quote from any one of dozens of famous people. This adds reassurance and authority to what he teaches.

There are Four Parts to READY for ANYTHING:

I. Clearing your head for creativity…

II. Focus and Productivity (or point of view)…

III. Creating structures that work (Allen means organization, systems)…

IV. Relax…& get in motion (be where the action is).

Each part involves many principles and the explanations of them. The material is dense and moves fast.

I don't quote these titles of each part exactly, because I can't take notes fast enough, and that's one of the downsides to working with a CD rather than the book itself.  Why Simon & Schuster doesn't include some printed materials with the CDs, like outlines and the main points of these four parts, I confess, eludes me. Does the publisher want you to enjoy the CD and then buy the book--for detail and reinforcement if you're serious? Well, everybody wants to sell more product. But I think it would work better the other way--give the listener some written support and he'll reach out for more. This reviewer takes seriously something the author says: You don't have to be the best but "do your best," because there is a big, big difference between "good and the best" in what you're doing.

Is this abridged presentation doing Allen's best? It is a question of quality. There are areas where that question is fairly raised by the program's content. I think the most pressing of these is the sheer density of the material Allen reads through, even with an added second voice (a woman's) that reads a version of his principles at the start of each numbered sub-section (about 18 on each CD). The added second voice seems to be paraphrasing, and her metaphors have little connection to Allen's. Were they added by the Simon & Schuster editors to try to remedy Allen's writing problems? Or were the problems introduced by abridging his material? It sounds like one or the other. Whatever the source of these little disharmonies, there is something wanting in the presentations to a listener. The principles are announced, but then Allen speaks up and says something, supposed to support and explain each principle. Trouble is, he uses different words, different models, and doesn't ever repeat the main principle. The effect is that after a few seconds one cannot remember the principle itself and the points being made seem random, scattered.

Better take notes.

But dense material is also rich and full of life. Better too dense than as thin as some self-help tapes which endlessly spin out the same few ideas over and over, saying little. David Allen has a lot to say, worth studying and applying. Maybe he needs to hire writers and editors who can help him say it more effectively on CDs--and deliver it with a conviction, phrasing, and timing stronger than in his seminar approach--in his future efforts.


© 2005 David Wolf


David Wolf is the author of Philosophy That Works, a book about the practice of philosophy. His book page for orders (hardback & paperback) is www.xlibris.com/philosophythatworks ; readers can also see the first chapter there.