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Recently I was teaching GTD® to a group of about 20 people in London and the question that one of them asked made me laugh out loud;

“Is GTD a cult?”

After taking a few moments to collect myself, but still chuckling, I did a little digging into what had prompted the question. It transpired that he’d gained this impression from observing the enthusiasm of colleagues who’d been on a previous course that we’d run in the organisation. Others in the room nodded in agreement, realising that his experience resonated with what they’d been seeing lately, too.

So here’s roughly how I remember trying to answer the question;

“Well, I totally get why you might think it’s a cult. Firstly, there’s a central figure at the head of it in David Allen and then there’s the suspicious level of enthusiasm you saw. It’s not what you normally see when people come back from training courses and you probably didn’t understand the reason for the enthusiasm even if they tried to explain it to you.”

I thought more about this in the subsequent days and talked with colleagues about it, too. They seemed to be in agreement with my answer and one added something else that I’d alluded to but hadn’t stated quite so clearly – that as well as the enthusiasm there are often also attempts to ‘convert’ others to GTD (and since he comes from rural USA I’ll defer to his knowledge of evangelism every time!).

Hmmmm. When you put it like this, GTD does indeed tick quite a few of the boxes labelled ‘cult’. Can it be true?

Yes, there’s a central figure in David Allen. Well, that’s true. He spent 20 years working GTD all out, shared it with the world because he thought it would be useful, and has spent the time since promoting it. But most cool things in the world that have enduring value were created and popularised by someone, right? Penicillin, the Harry Potter books, Cheesecake. Not really what you’d call a smoking gun there.

But what about the inexplicable enthusiasm? My take on this is that the enthusiasm is perfectly rational. People who implement GTD often undergo a significant and sometimes transformational change in their life. They’re less stressed, they feel more in control, and sometimes they’re slowly getting their life back from utter overwhelm. That’s why they’re enthusiastic. It can make a major difference to things that they really care about.

Unfortunately, though, this can seem somewhat suspicious to onlookers because they don’t have a frame of reference for it. If someone is suddenly happier because they won the lottery or because they just fell in love, we get that. We know what it is. But it’s harder with GTD because what it does – reducing stress while at the same time increasing productivity – is something that doesn’t seem logical and therefore doesn’t get through our credibility filters.

Another part of the problem is that it’s not easy to explain GTD, either. Most people don’t really have GTD ‘click’ for them until they’ve been taught it properly, implemented it, and have started using it. That’s why many of the people who ask us for coaching are those who’ve read the book and get the idea but don’t clearly see how to make it work. They have to experience it working to really achieve the benefit and therefore it’s not something that can be explained well just with words, especially if the speaker of those words is fairly new to it themselves.

And what about that urge to go even further and ‘convert’ others? What’s that all about? Well, again, if you’d found something that you knew most people hadn’t discovered yet, and that thing had brought you all manner of benefits, wouldn’t you want the people you care about to benefit, too, and might you push just a little too hard for that? It doesn’t always end well for all the reasons above, but the motivation should be obvious.

So, yes, it’s easy to mistake GTD for a cult. It has many of the characteristics – the figurehead, the weird enthusiasm, the evangelical zeal to convert – and, as the old saying goes, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck. However, for me, it’s not a duck  and there’s one key reason why…

It works.

You don’t practice GTD because of something that’s promised to happen at the end of days, or when a comet comes, or in the next life. You practice it because of what it gives you in the here and now.

Implementing and practicing GTD has a concrete, enduring and measurable effect that is consistent across people of all kinds. We regularly measure the ‘before and after’ impact of GTD on our courses using the GTDQ survey and we even have proof that the impact is there for years to come if people keep using GTD, long after the course or the coaching ever took place.

So, for me, I get the question but I don’t think GTD is a cult. It might look like a cult, walk like a cult and quack like a cult but it isn’t. It doesn’t require a belief in the supernatural, a desire for the ethereal or even the charisma of David Allen to make it work, just a willingness to consistently practice a number of simple moves because it will make your life better.

But if you want to spread the word we won’t mind at all…

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