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An interview with Chris Crouch, creator of the GO System

Continuing my interview series [1] with the top experts in personal productivity, I'm very pleased to share highlights from my conversation with Chris Crouch, creator of the GO System and author of Getting Organized: Learning How to Focus, Organize and Prioritize. Chris's company runs a certification program and sells products like an implementation kit. You can find some of his articles here.

I wrote about Chris's book a few months ago (see Some thoughts from the book "Getting Organized" by Chris Crouch), and I'm grateful he took time to share from his deep and wide-ranging knowledge and interests. So if you like big ideas and lots of great book references, enjoy!

Getting started in the field

Chris got his start somewhat by accident. He was a CPA in a big eight firm, which had a rigorous working environment and required employees to handle a lot in order to survive (sound familiar?) He soon realized he needed to change his old way of doing things, which wasn't working. That lead to his studying the field of personal productivity, which he naturally took to.

This eventually brought him to the attention of the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, who asked him to teach others. They made him an executive in the company, with carte blanche to go anywhere, do anything, and get any resources needed (books, or tapes, or new hires) to sift out the ideas that made the most sense.

He says it's been a long journey, but it stared with a passion, rather than being a job or hobby. I love how he put it: It was something that I couldn't stop studying if I wanted to. Exactly!

Influences and models

Some influential thinkers of Chris's:You'll note there aren't many traditional organizing books here. Chris owns books like those too, but points out that people who need help aren't likely to read a 300 page book on organizing.

Challenges to getting organized

Chris talked a lot about personal issues standing in the way of being productive, what he likens to a Gordian knot. He claims you have to untie it one piece at a time. Some tools he recommends to deal with psychological issues are Transactional analysis and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.

In his book he writes about six reasons people get disorganized [2], and points out that dealing incoming items (e.g., paper, calls, emails) is the one most books address, though it's not the real issue. He says getting down into personality issues is where you can really do some good. Chris gives procrastination as a good example, with at least a dozen causes. (One of the primary ones is perfectionism, which he claims usually goes back to childhood experiences of trying to get it too right, where the price of a making mistakes is too high.)

To balance the seriousness of these big issues, Chris encourages an attitude of having fun unravelling them - of understand ourselves better.

Top-down vs. bottom-up approaches

I asked Chris about the idea that some advocates promote - that most of us are too overloaded with the day-to-day influx and commitments to think about bigger issues. David Allen is best known for this, and compares it to more "top-down" philosophies like Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People which stress starting from purpose and vision, then drilling down to projects and action.

I was surprised that he emphatically disagrees with this. Chris uses a puzzle-solving exercise to show how vision is essential. In this problem, you randomly mix the pieces of a child's puzzle and put it together. He identifies three approaches: 1) Randomly pick up pieces and try to fit them together (what I'd call brute-force search), 2) lay the pieces out and look for patterns (color, shape, pattern, etc.), and 3) look at the picture on the box. :-)

Which is better? The first is possible (see the Infinite monkey theorem) but makes you ... well, a monkey. The second is an improvement, and applies what Fritz calls a Current Assessment. But the third starts with a vision, which Chris says is the best. In other words, "Where do I want to go?" is the Fritz's Clear Vision, "Where am I now?" is the Current Assessment, and the final step is an action plan.

He says claiming starting bottom-up is a false economy, akin to the Tortoise and the Hare story. There are rare exceptions where the vision doesn't come first - acute situations requiring immediate attention (a fire or injury, say) - something many of us are in perpetually - but he says we should quickly calm down to work back up to the higher levels.

Getting clients

To build a practice, Chris found what works best is to do 30 minute preview presentations (lunch & learns) at company meetings. This works well because the audience gets to see your content, gets to experience it, and get to experience you. Doing these programs removes the two fears potential clients have in bringing in someone new - content that might not be good, and a speaker who doesn't motivate - either of which can make the sponsor look bad.

In addition, he wrote many white papers and got them published quickly. NAPO was one of his big target markets, so he wrote about what it takes to be successful in the organizing business, and how to develop business clients. He says these papers help ensure that only serious prospects would call: they have taken the time to read 20 pages, which filters out those less interested. This means he's reduced the odds of wasting time on the others. (Seems a nice application of The 80/20 Principle.)

Staying on top of the field

Continued learning about personal productivity is something Chris loves, what he calls increasing his profound knowledge. Chris tracks news, books, and ideas using a hybrid paper/electronic system. Everything, regardless of storage form, is indexed by Paper Tiger software. He enters titles, notes, and keywords for the items, then uses the system to search for related work as needed. The program then spits out a filing code indicating where the information is stored. (My big-arse text file does this, albeit in a seat-of-the-pants manner. But the point is to use something that works.)

He's also a fan of taking concepts apart using mind mapping [3]. He says the process helps extract the usable insights, and helps him digest and play with them for a while. After doing this, he says it's smarter than your memory - it's starting to get encoded in your brain.

The importance of networking

Chris started his business by applying concepts from The Tipping Point (summary here). He asked two of his best friends to learn his system, use it for a few weeks, and if they liked it, to help spread the word. As a result, they connected Chris with influential people in their companies, and the work spread. Once he had a small base of supporters, it started to feed on itself and led to people who heard about him becoming new clients - viral marketing. He points out he's never made a cold call.

Mythology, passion, and having a calling

I asked Chris about his biggest factors in his success, and he was very clear: his personal passion overrides everything. He says operating from your passion is what people notice and are attracted to. This idea led to a discussion of Joseph Campbell, and the The Hero's Journey, of which Chris is a big fan.

He calls the journey a template for life, the opposite of Thoreau's "quiet desperation" [4]. Chris says most people haven't found their true calling in life, or they know it but refuse it. And the template says the result is either life will dry up for you, or you will get kicked back out into the real adventure. "You'll get fired or something like that." (Or quit :-)

To learn more, he recommends starting with The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler.

Major Overhauls vs. small steps

We talked about whether big productivity improvements can come from small steps, or if the "one big push" approach (which David Allen's book describes) is better. In his experience the piecemeal approach (a little here and there) doesn't work near as well as taking a big breath and doing it over a day or two. He says once you do that you are less likely to let it slip back out of order - it taps into it feeling so good.

His thought is that if you are ready to "end the clutter madness," to go into your office and gut it: Take everything out except the furniture, then put back only the things that really need to be there. And be ruthless about what goes back in there.


Chris says approaches to handle email have to consider the personal component. He doesn't see books on the topic addressing the underlying issues - they only deal with the symptoms. For example, none ask "Why would someone come into their office and turn their time, energy, and focus toward answering emails, when they know they have much higher priority work?" This connects to the above discussion about challenges in getting organized.

He thinks little hacks (e.g., setting alarms) are fine, but a serious email problem that's eating up all of your time requires a radical intervention he calls truncation [5]: Cut out email entirely for one month. By making it unavailable, your nervous system will adjust to not having it. When you bring it back up, give only certain people your email address, and start fresh.

(Note: He likes the book Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload by Mark Hurst.)

Personal workload capacity

(Refer to the graphic below in the following discussion.) Chris recommends we don't overload ourselves, and demonstrates with his workload capacity graph [6]. The horizontal axis represents time, the vertical one stands for workload, and the green line in the middle (from left to right) is your workload capacity - the maximum workload you're comfortable with.

Most people operate like the red wave - sometimes the workload is above their capacity, but its OK because sometimes it's below. Others operate in the severely overloaded mode - the blue wave. This is a hopeless situation where they are always above their capacity. A final possibility is to work totally below the line, but occasionally touch it at the highest point in the cycle (the yellow wave).

That's where Chris lives.

He stays way below his capacity on purpose, and doesn't over-promise. He claims it eliminates a lot of these issues other people have. For example, by not over-scheduling he has flexibility to handle interruptions (and opportunities, like talking to me), and can more easily be present with people he works with. He says they're often surprised he's available and willing to take time to talk.


(This led to a discussion about flow, and what we can do to work within - or increase - our capacity. I won't go into that here, but refer to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's - pronounced "ME-high CHICK-sent-me-high-ee" - oft-mentioned book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience for detail. There's a nice visual summary in this article.)

Final tip on productivity

I asked Chris to give one final suggestion about being more productive, and he referred again to Joseph Campbell's advice to "Follow your bliss." He says a lot of people wouldn't understand what that has to do with productivity, but it's the ultimate answer. Chris followed this up with another Campbell quote, "Where you stumble, there is your treasure." (This from his interview by Michael Toms, An Open Life.)

Here's how Chris put it:
If you get on a true path that is in alignment with your calling, a lot of these other little things will fall by the wayside. And when you do that, that means you don't spend too much time, effort, or energy on things that aren't congruent with that path. It fixes almost everything.


Reader Comments (10)

Matt, I've come to see that procrastination can be one area that prevents folks from doing tasks in a timely manner. In one study, Dr. Piers Steel of the university of Calgary concluded that temptation is one of the most pervasive causes of procrastination. In today's tech world, the temptation seems to be greater than ever!

Thanks for the really chock full articles you write, Matthew.

November 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRobyn McMaster, PhD

Thanks for the results re: procrastination.

In one study, Dr. Piers Steel of the university of Calgary concluded that temptation is one of the most pervasive causes of procrastination. In today's tech world, the temptation seems to be greater than ever!

Neat! The news release from January 10, 2007 is [ here | http://www.ucalgary.ca/news/january2007/procrastination-release/ ]. Lots of interesting points there, including:

o Most people’s New Year’s resolutions are doomed to failure
o Most self-help books have it completely wrong when they say perfectionism is at the root of procrastination, and
o Procrastination can be explained by a single mathematical equation

Re: the latter, from [ Procrastinators Unite! Well, maybe tomorrow.... | http://www.businessweek.com/careers/workingparents/blog/archives/2007/01/procrastinators.html ]: The equation is dubbed the Temporal Motivational Theory, and takes into account factors such as the expectancy a person has of succeeding with a given task (E), the value of completing the task (V), the desirability of the task (Utility), its immediacy or availability (Ã) and the person's sensitivity to delay (D).

It looks like this: Utility = E x V/ÃD

I haven't read it, but I've included the conclusion below, FYI.

Thanks for the really chock full articles you write, Matthew.

Much appreciated! Thanks for reading.

From "The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review of Quintessential Self-Regulatory Failure, Piers Steel, University of Calgary":


References to procrastination can be found in some of the earliest records available, stretching back at least 3,000 years. Some of the first written words, agrarian guides, have lamented it as a substantial problem. Mentions of procrastination have appeared in early Roman and Greek military documents and in ancient religious texts. Looking ahead, procrastination does not appear to be disappearing anytime soon. On the contrary, it and other problems due to temporal discounting should continue to grow in frequency, particularly in the workplace.

Specifically, problems associated with procrastination and lack of self-control appear to be increasing. At the same time, jobs are expected to become more unstructured or at least self-structured (Cascio, 1995; Hunt, 1995). This absence of imposed direction means that the competent worker must create the order—he or she must self-manage or self-regulate (Kanfer & Heggestad, 1997). As structure continues to decrease, the opportunity for workers to procrastinate will concomitantly increase. Furthermore, the prevalence and availability of temptation, for example, in the forms of computer gaming or internet messaging, should continue to exacerbate the problem of procrastination. There are simply more activities with desirable features competing for our attention. Also, as mentioned previously, other forms of self-regulatory failure are becoming very widespread. Consumer behavior, for example, appears particularly susceptible. An examination of credit card purchases revealed about five times as much last-minute Christmas shopping done in 1999 as in 1991 (“Many Shoppers,” 1999), and credit card debt is reaching unsustainable levels (Sivy, 2000).

November 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell


Thanks for this interview with Mr. Crouch. I know DA has a lot of fans out there, but Mr. Crouch has been my guru since 04'. I have taken more from his teachings than all the other "productivity experts" combined.

His info on visioning is grounded in what I believe are the truest fundamentals for productivity enhancement (coupled with a definite purpose and the proper order of events, both also discussed in his book). All of his teachings have made perfect sense to me and accommodated my thinking on how I wanted to improve. I find his simplicity and pragmatic writing style refreshing (not written in a self-help style, I prefer to call his writing style "proctored teaching").

This was a good interview of a guy whose work I respect. His What? So What? Now What? format stuck me as genius in presentation for this type of formatted material. I've read the book four times, and now you've inspired me to start the fifth reading. I pulled it off the shelf and it's so marked up with marginalia, (each time I read it I used a different color pen for notation) I'll order another copy tomorrow.

Nice job, keep up the good work and continued success.

November 9, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDavey Moyers

As usual, Davey an excellent comment.

simplicity and pragmatic writing style ... "proctored teaching"

Surprising: I couldn't find an "What is proctored teaching?" answer on the net after a quick search. I'd like to hear more. Any educators want to chime in?

This was a good interview of a guy whose work I respect.

Thanks, Davey. He's pretty amazing - one of those "I really need to listen to" people.

(Side note: These interviews require a surprising amount of resources, but I think they're valueble for lots of reasons. I'm glad they're appreciated.)

His What? So What? Now What? format

I agree completely. A nice, tight little framework for getting ideas across cleanly.

Thanks very much for reading.

November 9, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matt, as always, I learn so much from your posts. I'm really beginning to believe that there is no one system, one guru, etc. for everyone. My own system is evolving to be an amalgamation of several different methodologies. Thanks for supplying some more possibilities!

November 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Thanks very much, Rebecca.

I'm really beginning to believe that there is no one system, one guru, etc. for everyone

I agree. I think the big shift is when people *realize* they need a system, and start the journey of finding one. I think it's a crucial part of doing (or becoming) what we want. Excellent point.

Appreciate your reading.

November 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matt - Thanks for posting the interview!

I'm not sure I agree entirely with Chris's puzzle analogy for top-down vs. bottom-up planning. If I was going to assemble a jigsaw puzzle, I would begin by looking at the box-top, then laying out all the pieces face up, then grouping those into logical patterns before I started putting them together. I need to have control over where I am before I can get properly started on where I'm going.

November 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRicky Spears

Hey, Ricky

Glad you liked it.

I'm not sure I agree entirely with Chris's puzzle analogy for top-down vs. bottom-up planning...I need to have control over where I am before I can get properly started on where I'm going.

Excellent point. I'm not ready to change my thinking to the "top-down approach is crucial." My personal experience is the strongly the opposite.

And that's why I love doing these interviews for my readers (and me!) Stimulating ideas and conversations that aren't available elsewhere, IMHO.

November 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell


Excellent interview! I really enjoyed this one, because Chris' views are so fresh, compared to the overworked pablum (also known as common sense) that gets published and promoted these days.

I need to spend more time digesting his ideas, but I'm certain that I'll end up incorporating them in some way into my own teaching and thinking.

November 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDan Markovitz

Hey Dan, I agree. In particular, I've been thinking about (and trying) his comments re: Personal workload capacity.

Thanks for commenting.

November 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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