In my line of work, I’m repeatedly telling people that very few ideas are new ideas and very few problems are new problems. Suggestions for how to handle e-mail overload are built off of suggestions for how to handle paper mail overload. One system for clearing contemporary clutter is built off of systems for clearing ancient clutter. Our perspectives may advance an idea, we might explain it more eloquently, or we might actually move a step beyond our predecessors, but little is truly revolutionary.
Take for instance David Allen’s system for Getting Things Done. If you’re not familiar with Allen, he has a book that discusses how to organize your work flow using the tools of a tickler system built out of 43 folders. The folders are numbered 1-31 to represent the days of the month and then January-December to obviously represent the months of the year.
No offense to Mr. Allen, but this 43 folders idea is anything BUT revolutionary.
Want proof? Check out U.S. Patent 377335 issued on January 31, 1888.
Yeah, it’s exactly the same tool system Allen suggests using in his book. Exactly. No difference at all. Zilch. Nada. Part of Allen’s system is based on a 120-year-old method for doing work and was the brainchild of a man named Frank E. Smith.
Does that mean that I think Allen’s book is plagiarized or shouldn’t be purchased? Quite the contrary. The value of GTD is that Allen stood on the shoulders of giants, and refined an elegant, platform-agnostic work flow that uses inexpensive tools. He sprinkled in a conversational writing style, promoted it well, and transformed the way thousands of people do work.
I’m grateful to the people who wrestled with clutter and organizing in the thousands of generations before me. They paved the way for the very few (if any) revolutionary ideas I might have in my lifetime. I’m also thankful to the David Allens, Merlin Manns, and Martha Stewarts in the world who are doing their best to articulate strategies, tools, and systems to the people who need them. I know I need as much help as I can get in my constant battle with clutter.
And, if you have some free time, I highly recommend reading the text of the patent. Smith details the problems he hopes to fix and how someone should use his office tickler system. If you are a history buff, you’ll likely find it fascinating. And, to explore this topic of lack of revolutionary ideas even further, you should check out Leo’s post on a similar subject from last week at Zen Habits.