Charles Simonyi, David Allen Team Up To Get Things Done on Mobile

10/16/12Follow @wroush

Getting Things Done author David Allen, inventor of a technique used by hundreds of thousands of professionals to manage their workloads, isn’t a big technology booster. Arguing that his method is mainly a habit of thought, he’s never released or endorsed an official “GTD” app or service. In fact, he’s often said that gadgets and software tools can be impediments to personal productivity, if used improperly.

Meanwhile, Charles Simonyi’s Intentional Software Corporation isn’t known for building consumer-facing technologies. In the past, the Bellevue, WA-based company has pursued its “intentional programming” approach, which emphasizes working with domain experts to encode their “meta” knowledge in flexible software, mainly in areas like financial services, electronics, and manufacturing.

So an announcement today that Allen’s company has struck an exclusive agreement with Intentional Software to create mobile tools to help GTD disciples is a bit out of character for both parties.

But there’s a logical story behind the collaboration. Intentional Software CEO Eric Anderson is a longtime GTD follower who says the methodology has “fundamentally changed my life.” And Allen says Intentional Software is the first company that’s come to him with a plausible proposal for how to transform the GTD methodology into a helpful software application.

The end result, according to this morning’s announcement, won’t be a replacement for e-mail, voicemail, or other collaboration tools, but rather “a ‘meta’ application that integrates with leading applications individuals already use” to make work easier to conquer.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, By David Allen

"Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity" was Allen's breakout 2001 book on his time-management technique.

In an interview last month (see the full Q&A), Allen told me that most software tools intended to help with time management and personal productivity are “dispersive rather than integrative”; they offer “just another, slicker way to slice and dice static information.” But the GTD approach, he says, isn’t just about filing away information and to-do items for future action. It’s also about bringing the pieces back together at the appropriate moment—which means having them at your fingertips.

“The reason I hadn’t picked anybody [to build a GTD app] is that everybody who came to me already had a product, and they just wanted me to endorse it,” Allen says. “These guys [at Intentional Software] came to me tabula rasa and said ‘we don’t know what’s needed, but we think we have a technology that could be utilized to help knit together a lot of this stuff.’”

The financial terms of the agreement haven’t been disclosed, and the two companies haven’t said yet how their GTD software will work, when it will be available, or exactly what platforms it will run on. They’re not even promising that a product will result. “What we’re doing is saying, okay, we need to have a deep-bench collaboration about what’s missing,” Allen says. “What pain needs to be solved that’s not being solved by what’s out there?”

At a high level, the pain that Allen has been seeking to ease for more than a decade through his books and seminars is the chronic sense of overwork—of not having enough time to do all the things other people have asked of us, or even to read all of the incoming requests (which usually arrive, these days, in the form of e-mail). It’s a pain shared by almost every ambitious professional, which is why Allen’s original 2001 book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity became a cult hit, passed around offices by hundreds of thousands of frazzled knowledge workers.

The first step in Allen’s system for getting things done is to collect all of the unfinished tasks or “open loops” in your world into buckets of some sort. These can be sticky notes, items on a computerized to-do list, or whatever—it doesn’t matter, as long as you get the items out of your head, where they just add to your anxiety. The subsequent steps are about emptying the buckets: either completing the tasks (if they won’t take too long), delegating them to someone else, or deferring them to a definite time in the future.

Software engineers, who seem to have a natural affinity for Allen’s system, have made many attempts to translate the procedure into code. Herndon, VA-based Netcentrics, for example, has long offered add-in software for Microsoft’s Outlook e-mail client that helps users translate incoming e-mails into tasks, which then be processed or categorized using Allen’s methodology. Santa Clarita, CA-based ICA.com offers a plugin called eProductivity that helps users implement GTD within IBM’s Lotus Notes collaboration suite. Mobile developers have jumped on board, too. More than 100 iPhone and iPad apps—none of them endorsed by Allen—purport to help GTD disciples, mostly by providing souped-up to-do lists, calendars, and notekeeping capabilities.

With the exception of the Netcentrics add-in, which licenses the Getting Things Done trademark, and the eProductivity system, which was developed at Allen’s behest by a former employee, Allen has always maintained a careful distance from GTD-related systems. Mostly, they’re overkill, he says.

“Once you get really good at this, you just need simple lists,” says Allen, whose company is based in Ojai, CA. “It is nice to be able to drag an e-mail [into a task list], but then you still need to rewrite the subject line so that it’s clear what it is. You are still going to have to manipulate it. It’s not just automatic. The guys out there who are trying to build some level of AI into how you filter your email shouldn’t bother, because you’re still going to need to think about how you’re going to think about what you need to think about.”

In Allen’s opinion, the last set of fundamental advances in personal computing came back in the 1970s and 1980s with the advent of spreadsheets, word processors, relational databases, and graphical interfaces. “Those things truly changed the game—they let us think about things differently,” he says. “I keep watching to see if anybody is coming up with anything else that is a game-changer, and I haven’t seen anything.”

That is, until he started talking with Anderson and with Intentional Software’s founder, chairman, and chief technology officer, Charles Simonyi.

“David will tell you that he’s been approached every week for the past 15 years by one software developer or another asking him to support a GTD implementation on their specific product,” says Anderson. “But he’s deferred all these years because he was waiting for the right approach. When he and I began discussing Intentional, he recognized that this was what he had been waiting for, a Meta approach to implementing GTD into software.”

Intentional’s “meta” approach is tricky to describe, but the company’s basic goal is to create software that can be re-written or evolved by users themselves, without the intervention of a professional developers. That depends on the use of “generators” that take high-level commands or intentions and translate them into working code. The company embeds these generators in a so-called “Knowledge Workbench” that supposedly lifts users above the details of software implementation and gives them the ability to think more creatively.

In the big picture, intentional software represents a continuation of the “what you see is what you get” philosophy embodied in Microsoft Word, the first version of which was written by Simonyi himself. (For a more thorough overview of the idea, see “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Meta,” Technology Review, January 2007.)

Allen and Anderson both think that GTD and Intentional could be a match made in heaven. “GTD is one of the most popular methodologies for capturing life’s inputs, applying knowledge to process and organize, and translating it into effective personal productivity,” says Anderson. “Through its Knowledge Workbench approach to developing software, Intentional is focused on enabling domain experts [to] translate their knowledge into working software…Intentional will apply its ‘Meta’ approach to software by not trying to replace the existing tools and applications that people use to organize their life but rather connect all of those pieces together so those pieces work more seamlessly together.”

There’s no specific timeline for the collaboration, but Allen says he hopes it will result in something just as cool and viral as popular cloud-based applications such as Dropbox or Evernote. While he’d originally hoped, a decade ago, that it would be easy to translate GTD into a software package —“I would love it if [GTD] had been a breakout thing and all I had to do was go collect money from my post office box,” he says—that never happened. “The problem with technology is it’s seducing everyone into thinking that you can actually fix this,” Allen says. “It doesn’t because it’s not about information, it’s about behavior.”

Only a tool that grows out of an awareness of the behavioral principles behind GTD will be truly helpful, Allen argues. And Intentional’s meta approach, he says, may be the first programming philosophy capable of capturing those principles.

The ideal GTD app, Allen says, would be “alive and personalized to you and the moment you’re in.” If you just need a place to “dump stuff out of your head,” he says, it should give you a place to do that. If you’re on your way to see your boss, it should show you a map of all the thoughts you’ve recorded lately related to your boss or pending assignments. “It will be very visual, with basically all the stuff you need to see if you want to be totally appropriately engaged with your world.”

A GTD app that can do all that would certainly be a big help to millions of knowledge workers. But in the end, Intentional Software also has a lot at stake. Though it’s been around since 2002, the company has never built a piece of consumer-facing software, let alone a mobile app.

GTD is “the perfect showcase” for Intentional’s Knowledge Workbench approach, says Anderson—who’s confident that the company’s method will work well in the mobile sphere.

“In the Knowledge Workbench, knowledge is captured in a platform agnostic way – the knowledge itself is pure and clean,” Anderson says. “The knowledge is then targeted to a specific platform for its implementation as part of a generation process. Whether the target is a mobile, tablet, Web, desktop, server, the technology choice has implementation implications for the generation process, but the knowledge is the same at its core.” Plenty of GTD disciples will be waiting to see whether Intentional Software can effectively capture that knowledge.

For more on the collaboration between David Allen and Intentional Software see this companion Q&A with Allen.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Neil Hunter

    Interesting. I hope that http://GTDnext.com will work with this new “meta” system they talk about here. It seems to be the newest, most GTD of the all the players out there.