GTD: A revolutionary idea in 1888

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.

24 Comments for “GTD: A revolutionary idea in 1888”

  1. posted by Paul Begley on

    My father was a finance guy and in going through some of his old office stuff, I found “The Every Day File and Fast Sorter from Glob-Weis.

    It is a self-contained file system which consists of a set of numbered tabs (1-31) in the front, and a set of twelve tabs labeled Jan-Dec in the back.

    I looked up Globe-Weis, but I have not found it.

    Reorder No. 5 EDF
    P.O. Box 12266, Fresno, CA 93777
    P.O. Box 11, Bristol, PA 19007
    P.O. Box 150, Kosciusko, MS 39090

    NOTE – it can’t be that old, because they included zip codes in the ordering addresses.

    I’ll post a link with photos when I have a chance, if only to document some of my Dad’s old stuff (still have his college slide rule, too).

  2. posted by Deb on

    I worked at a chemical factory 25 years ago. They used tickler files

  3. posted by Michele on

    What a neat find!

    I’ll echo that the term “tickler file” has been around for quite a while, longer than GTD. The era that this patent comes from was all about automation and making business more efficient with gadgets (think Taylor). What GTD did was to refine and improve the concept.

    Thanks for the image. I think I’ll make it my computer desktop background.

  4. posted by Julie Bestry on

    Erin, as a professional organizer, I find tickler files to be the #1 productivity tool for almost all of my clients. All my business and home-based biz clients, and almost all residential clients, now use one. I love tickler files so much, I wrote my first ebook about it, but it never occurred to me to look for the patent. No wonder you were so happy (re: your Twitter tweets yesterday) about patents! This is inspired! Thank you!

    For Paul, above (in comments), an identical version without Globe-Weis stamped on the cover, is repackaged for Staples. It’s item #422683. (I won’t include a link–not all blogs allow links in comments & I don’t want a gaping hole to appear in the post.)

  5. posted by Mo on

    It’s also important to remember that one of the reasons for Allen’s success is that he doesn’t claim to have a secret. He talks openly in interviews about what his methods are, he doesn’t do takedown notices on productivity bloggers who go into detail about their GTD implementations. In fact, he gives long interviews to these bloggers going into great detail about his thoughts on the topic. (If you are at all into GTD, track down his video interviews at 43folders and the presentation he did at Google.) The spread of Allen’s ideas is largely due to the fact that he does not hoard them.

  6. posted by Gumnos on

    For those having trouble with GTD, there’s always WSD:

    http://smallist.com/2007/03/23.....d-try-wsd/

    (language on the site may not be appropriate for young folk)

  7. posted by Dan Ridley on

    To be fair, the tickler file is only part of GTD.

    And, like Mo said, DA never said this stuff was secret or even revolutionary, except on a small scale — it can change your own life if you’re not using your time efficiently now; but it’s not revolutionary in the sense of being new to the world.

  8. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Dan Ridley — If you read the article, you’ll see I mention that the 43 folders are the “tools” not the whole system.

  9. posted by Dan Ridley on

    Yes, but it’s not the only tool he talks about either (the project and context lists are probably more central to the system than the tickler file; and he talks about filing systems, calendars, and more).

    Between the headline, and “he has a book that discusses how to organize your work flow using the tools of a tickler system,” someone who hadn’t read GTD could read this article and think they now knew about the only idea Allen offered.

    Just a minor change like “he has a book that discusses how to organize your work flow. One of the main tools he talks about is a tickler system…” would make this more clear.

  10. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Dan — Allen also didn’t invent files or calendars or the phrase “action items.” None of the tools he suggests using in his book are his revolutionary creation. I have the patent number for every one of these and hundreds more (file folders as we know them today with raised tabs were invented by Stephen Rutledge Coleman in 1905, the accordion file was introduced by W.A. Cooke, Jr. in 1883, the system of alphabetizing content in files was patented in James M. Corboy in 1907) and none of the patents belong to Allen. More importantly, I don’t think Allen would try to claim that they are his.

  11. posted by Dan Ridley on

    Erin, I’m not arguing with your premise — see my first comment; for some people this stuff may be revolutionary in a personal sense, but it’s certainly not new.

    But pretend you’ve never read GTD, and read your headline and article. Do you see how easy it would be to conclude that GTD is a book about the 43 folder tickler file system? That’s the (only) thing I take issue with in this article.

  12. posted by Michael Kirkham on

    I’m with Dan here. The article seems to imply that the GTD methodology is based on or all about the tickler file, but in fact the tickler file is a very minor (albiet powerful) topic in the book. The book is about the importance of systems you can trust, dealing with your work in the right context, and (most importantly) reducing brain-clutter so you can focus on what needs your attention Right Now.

    To trust your systems, and clear your mind of things that don’t need your immediate attention right now, you need to use them properly. Just one example given is only using a calendar for things that Must Be Done on a specific day. The tickler file is just a calendar for physical items–items you will need on a specific day, or things you want to be reminded about in the future but don’t want on your mind right now: bills, tickets, birthday cards, regularly scheduled tasks, etc.

    GTD is no more about the tickler file than this blog is about unitaskers. It’s just a small support piece.

  13. posted by Erin Doland on

    To quote one of our wise Unclutterer programmers …

    “The GTD system is: Tools + Patterns + Discipline”

    Without any tools, the system doesn’t exist. Additionally, if you read the whole of this post, we never once say anything about Allen getting his ideas for the “patterns” in the system from an outside source. And, you’re missing the point of the article if you think that we’re criticizing Allen or his system.

    Finally, had we written the headline for the post as 43 Folders, instead of GTD, readers would have thought we were referencing Merlin Mann’s now-defunct productivity website by the same name.

  14. posted by Dan Ridley on

    Sure, but you could have written the headline as “Tickler file” without anyone confusing it with Merlin’s site. (By the way: “now defunct”!? He’s doing a bit of reinventing, but I’d hardly call it defunct; in fact I think he’s regaining some of the site’s original clarity and focus.)

    I don’t think the article comes across as overly critical of GTD or David Allen — or Martha Stewart 🙂 — but the article _strongly_ implies that GTD = tickler file. (Though at this point, if someone reads the comments and our lively discussion, I don’t think they’d walk away with that impression 🙂

    If I may borrow what Michael said and run with it, how would you feel about someone saying:

    “Take for instance Erin Doland’s site about uncluttering. If you’re not familiar with Doland, she has a blog that discusses the downfalls of ‘unitaskers,’ the unnecessary, single-use items that manage to find their way into our homes.”

    Is that a fair summation of the site?

    (I say not; and if I saw someone mention your site that way, I’d suggest a rephrasing to them, too.)

  15. posted by Lori on

    @Gumnos: I love it! I’ve been WSD practitioner all my life, having been raised by a hardcore WSD practitioner. But I struggle with trying to use more structured systems like Covey or GTD.

    I’ll add a data point that the tickler file system is well entrenched in secretarial training. It was required when I worked at IBM in the early 1990s (we all had to have the same setup so anyone could fill in for anyone else), and it had it’s own section in a secretarial textbook I worked on a couple of years ago.

  16. posted by Lori on

    And I can’t believe that I just wrote “it’s” — I’m an editor!

  17. posted by Leo on

    Very cool find, Erin. 🙂

    Regarding GTD … though the system uses much more than the 43 folders tool, what many people don’t understand is that *none* of the ideas in GTD are new. At all.

    The idea of physical next actions … the idea of defined outcomes for projects … the idea of context lists … the idea of inbox processing … the 2-minute rule … all of these have existed in productivity/organizational literature for decades (if not more, as is the case with the 43 folders).

    What’s interesting about GTD is the way David Allen has put it all together. If you actually stick with GTD to the letter, you’ll have everything dumped into a comprehensive system. Unfortunately, very few people follow it to the letter. Also, many people tend to obsess over the system rather than focus on the doing, which is a big problem.

    I like GTD’s comprehensive system. It’s not the only way to do things, but it’s useful, and it’s taught some useful concepts to a lot of us.

  18. posted by Success Professor on

    What an excellent find! Thank you.

  19. posted by Pat on

    Yeah, she pretty baldly equates GTD with the 43 folders thing: “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.”

    ALSO: “No offense to Mr. Allen, but this 43 folders idea is anything BUT revolutionary.” Has David Allen ever suggested that he invented the tickler file? Or any of the pieces of GTD? I think I recall him saying the opposite at some point.

    This is a neat find, but there’s no need to sensationalize it by suggesting you’re tearing down cherished illusions or whatever. You’re usually capable of better than that, Erin.

  20. posted by Jay on

    GTD is 100% a “back to basics” philosophy. It’s mostly a description of the ways effective people used to organize their lives before the electronic age.

    The epiphany of GTD is that most people have forgotten how to use tools like inboxes, file cabinets, to-do lists, appointment calenders, etc. David Allen reminded us how to use these things properly. For that he’s a genius.

  21. posted by Michael Moncur on

    As a long-time GTD user who has never owned a tickler file or equivalent at all (it’s useless for my particular work, which doesn’t usually have deadlines) I also found your capsule description of GTD confusing.

    “And, you’re missing the point of the article if you think that we’re criticizing Allen or his system.”

    You’re right, but I definitely missed the point of the article as I read it the first time, and I think the style it was written in was a factor.

    This is mostly due to the confusing summation of GTD and to the “No offense to Mr. Allen” line, which due to an odd modern twist of language seems to suggest that offense IS intended.

    And the headline.

  22. posted by alan on

    One more vote: the headline and the article are seriously misleading. The tickler file is only a minor, optional part of GTD. The idea has been around for a long time, and is included in numerous organizing books published long before GTD. Mr. Allen never suggests otherwise.

  23. posted by jooly on

    I wish to add that Edwin C. Bliss wrote the book on Getting Things Done a while ago, in 1976. It’s a little outdated but still fits the bill for being efficient and organized.

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