My Brush With Best-Sellerdom, Part Deux

So near, so far. Still a book you should read.

I've made my living as a writer for a very long time now, but I've kept a respectful (wistful) distance from the realm of runaway bestseller hits. The second book with my name on the cover, which appeared when I was 23 years old, eventually sold in the millions and millions of copies. Unfortunately I had hired on as a writer for a total fee I now recall as being $500, though it could have been as much as $750.

The book that was going to straighten out Congress
—more than 40 years ago.

It was the book at the right, Who Runs Congress?, the result of a Ralph Nader project, which I wrote with Mark Green and David Zwick in a summer-long eight-week burst. The bulk of the proceeds went not to the authors but to build the Nader movement, which has been mainly to the good. (Yes, I know ... ) My first book, The Water Lords, was from another Nader project two years earlier, and I believe then the pay consisted of room and board plus $250.

After the Congress Project experience I leapt at a "real" writing job that came open, at The Washington Monthly (replacing Taylor Branch, and working with Walter Shapiro) for $8400 per year. Since then I have been grateful for whatever I could earn in journalism. I also decided after my negotiating brilliance with Who Runs Congress? that my best career prospects weren't as a deal-maker.

Now I have a chance to ride once again in the sidecar of publishing success. More than a decade ago, I wrote an Atlantic article about the productivity expert David Allen. He is the author of a very successful book called Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity and originator of what is now known as the GTD approach to life. Since then I've stayed in touch with David Allen, seen him once or twice per year, and come to think of him and his wife Kathryn as friends.

Some readers may never have heard of David Allen; others will recognize him as a celebrity. As @GTDGuy, he has 1.2 million followers on Twitter; his GTD seminars attract large audiences around the world; and the original Getting Things Done has sold steadily in large volumes since its appearance in 2002.

And tomorrow, the first major revision of Getting Things Done goes on sale. It's been updated to reflect the changes in world technology in the dozen years since its first publication, and also to reflect some of the life lessons David Allen has learned in that time. I know those things about the book because I had the opportunity and pleasure of reading an advance draft so as to write the Foreword to this new edition—which I did on a purely volunteer basis and as a gesture of respect, friendship, and hope that people actually read the book!

Here is a sample from the intro, in which I try to explain why GTD seems different from the usual heap of "Be a WINNER at life!!" business tracts:

         What makes Getting Things Done different? In ascending order of importance, I would like these three qualities, each evident in nearly every chapter.

         One is its practicality, by which I really mean its modular and forgiving approach. Many self-improvement schemes work from an all-or-nothing, “everything must be different, starting tomorrow” premise. If you want to lose 40 pounds, take control of your financial destiny, straighten out your family, or have the career of your dreams, you have to embrace a radical top-to-bottom change in every aspect of your life.

         Occasionally people do make these radical leaps... But for most people, most of the time, approaches that are incremental and forgiving of error are more likely to pay off in the long run. That way, if there is one part of the approach you forget or fall behind in, you don’t have to abandon all the rest.

         David Allen’s ambitions for his readers are in a sense even grander than those of most other books. His goal is nothing less than helping people remove stress and anxiety from their work and personal lives, so they can match every moment of their existence to the purposes they would most like to pursue. Yet with a very few exceptions – for instance, his sensible insistence on developing a “capture” habit, so that you are sure to write down or otherwise record every commitment you make or obligation you accept, rather than torture yourself trying to remember them all, and the related insistence on having one central, trusted repository where you keep such data – a great advantage of his system is its modular nature. This book is full of advice that works better if embraced in its totality but is still useful when applied one-by-one....

         This is advice from a man who clearly understands that people are busy and fallible. He is writing to offer them additional helpful tips, rather than extra reasons to feel guilty or inadequate. The book is also written with an understanding that life consists of cycles. Things go better, and then worse. At some points we fall behind; at others, we catch up, or try to. When episodes occur, as they will for anyone, in which we are overwhelmed or unable to cope, the book suggests achievable day-by-day steps toward regaining a calm sense of control.

It would be too much to say that anything really gives me a "calm sense of control." But the book is both calming and encouraging. Check it out! And congratulations to David Allen on its appearance.