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Getting Things Done across Cultures

Wednesday June 21st, 2017

Time management and productivity are one of the most important things to master for professionals in the 21st century. Whether they come from the US, Ghana or Italy: the tools of mastering your time are universal and do not depend on culture.


You must all recognize this: enthusiastically starting a new self development program, but at the time the program comes to an end you have already found the new ‘next thing’ and did not implement the previous one. Enthusiastically deciding to read a good book on productivity and time management and forgetting to follow-up. That’s me. One year ago I read ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) by David Allen, as it is the most cited book on productivity and time management ever written. I followed up only partially and went back to my old routines.

Good reason to take up the book again (ok, switch on the iPad, that is) and this time really make serious work on it. I started reading last Monday and by now have implemented to main body of the program into my work routines. My mailboxes have been reorganized, I have a system for capturing anything that comes to mind, I use Evernote to the full capacity and beyond now, and have a watertight system for following-up whatever I have committed to.

Getting Things Done


GTD is a system for organizing your productivity, in such a way that the things that need to be done don’t clutter your mind (causing constant stress) but get processed in a system you can rely on. ‘Mind like water’: your mind can be used in a relaxed state for things that really matter (such as working on your personal goals), while the things that normally clutter your mind (the amorphous blobs of “I still have to…”) are gone. Only to be picked up at the moment they are relevant to you. Especially the technique of crystal clear decision making on the next physical action for everything you’re involved in, seems to be a very powerful method. We often forget to become concrete: “I still have to write a blog” is by far not a concrete action that we can pick up, work on and close.

I think we all recognize the stress of unfinished things that keep bothering our minds. Whether we’re in France, Congo or Korea, productivity and time management are relevant for us. And whether we are in The Netherlands, Argentina or the US, the tools we can use to boost productivity are the same (although the way we deal with the tools may vary, and our notion of time can be different).

I realized however that the time management method that Allen introduced in 2001 was born in an American mind. Capturing all your next actions such that you can do them at the right moment of the day. Efficiency of task handling. Regularly reviewing your ongoing projects and open ends. Following up on everything you delegated. Managing your daily workload and meetings as efficiently as possible. Concepts we know across the world, but that have a more powerful meaning in the US.

Managing time in the US


Managing time is a central theme – and one specific dimension of culture – in my workshop ‘working with the US’ (<link>). Compared to Europeans, Americans live by the motto ‘time is money’ and take pride in organizing their workday as efficiently as possible. The Americans I worked with designing this program all admitted this is an important value in the US. They recognize that being efficient and productive is something they are more concerned about than most other cultures in the world. And although we Europeans like to think of our selves as very efficient and to-the-point, from an American perspective we are not efficient and to-the-point at all.

Americans tend to work at a high pace, and are focused more than others on their personal objectives set by their boss. These personal objectives drive their work. And although Europeans have personal objectives as well (and often their bonus at the end of the year relies on reaching these targets), Americans use these as a compass to direct their energy. Where Europeans more often take additional tasks outside their direct scope of control (“This project is important too…”), Americans will generally screen off their work from distractions such as other important projects, to focus entirely on their personal goals.

In meetings Americans like to get to the point quickly, and finish the meeting well in time such that they can ‘move on’. Keep going. The end of a meeting in the US is usually characterized by a quick recap of all actions and agreements, and as soon as this is done people close their laptops, get up and move on. Not so in France, where the expectation is that at the end of the meeting you stay around, socialize and chat a little but, put in a bit of gossip and then move for lunch. Americans will consider this small talk and staying around a waste of time. They rather get up and move on.

Erin Meyer in her fantastic book ‘Culture Map’ describes a European manager visiting the US, casually entering the office of an American manager ‘just to say hello’. They never met before, and only interacted through the regular virtual media such as conference calls and email. But ‘just saying hello’ in the US – when not done efficiently – can quickly be interpreted as “You’re wasting my valuable time.”

When Americans are busy working on something and get interrupted, it’s very normal for them to say “Sorry, I’m busy right now, come back later.” This would be perceived as ‘rude’ or ‘selfish’ in many other parts of the world. And when Americans suddenly become unresponsive to the emails that we are firing at them, we will get worried about what’s going on. The American will explain: “It’s nothing personal, I’m just working on something else.”

Efficiency. Getting things done. One of the things I love about the American culture, and a work attitude that is often interpreted wrongly in other parts of the world: ‘workoholics’, ‘cold and distant’, ‘superficial’ and ‘uninterested in me as a person’ are stereotypes that are used often for the efficient Americans.

Time to get back to ‘Getting Things Done’. I targeted myself to work my way through chapters 6 and 7 today, and finish implementing the system by the end of the week. My personal target. So I say: Sorry, I have to go, I’m working on something.”

One Reply to “Getting Things Done across Cultures”

  1. Johanna says:

    Great summary of the book and interesting insights! I will get the book, too… after I finished the books that are accumulating on my nightshed at the moment (incl. The Lean Startup by Eric Ries & The Growth Director’s Secret by Andrew Brent).

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