Robert Moses, Getting Things Done

Posted in books, personal at 4:19 pm by danvk

I recently finished The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s critically-acclaimed biography of New York Master Builder Robert Moses. At 1200 pages, it’s an undertaking. But I’d highly recommend it if you live in the New York area.

One passage about Moses’ daily routine struck me:

A third feature of Moses’ office was his desk. It wasn’t a desk but rather a large table. The reason was simple: Moses did not like to let problems pile up. If there was one on his desk, he wanted it disposed of immediately. Similarly, when he arrived at his desk in the morning, he disposed of the stacks of mail awaiting him by calling in secretaries and going through the stacks, letter by letter, before he went on to anything else. Having a table instead of a desk was an insurance that this procedure would be followed. Since a table has no drawers, there was no place to hide papers; there was no escape from a nagging problem or a difficult-to-answer letter except to get rid of it in one way or another. And there was another advantage: when your desk was a table, you could have conferences at it without even getting up. (p. 268)

Moses’ approach to snail mail sounds a lot like the “Getting Things Done” approach to email: make your inbox a to-do list and keep it empty. Moses wouldn’t do anything until his mail was cleared. He wouldn’t let tasks pile up, so he always had a clean plate every day. He even tailored his office to enforce this workflow.

I’ve been trying the Moses technique on my work inbox recently. When I arrive in the morning, I deal with all the emails waiting for me. No excuses. No starring and leaving the message as a “to-do” in the bottom of my inbox. There are many emails/tasks that I’d prefer to ignore, but it turns out that most of them only require ten minutes of work to deal with completely.

So far, this is working well for me. But will I be able to keep it up? Robert Moses did for forty years, so there’s hope!


  1. Craig Fratrik said,

    August 19, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    I’d like to Like or +1 this post. When is the integration coming :).

  2. syn said,

    September 2, 2011 at 11:15 am

    well, i dont think its clever to have a todo list that other people can add stuff to. a to do list has in its nature that only stuff that needs doing is on it. so they are priotized by the list owner.

    an inbox is just that, an inbox, with lot of stuff other people think is important, it has nothing to do with you, just ignore it. i’m highly efficent because i only respond to important emails. mt todo list is always 3 items, sometimes less, never more.

  3. The Overhead Wire said,

    October 27, 2011 at 11:58 pm

    What a perfectly timed post. Looks like the Power Broker movie is coming out. Also, a few years ago I saw Robert Caro speak and it was quiet great.