Personal File July/August 2004

Organize Your Life!

The modern condition is to be overwhelmed by everything. Now comes David Allen, who can teach even you how to stop stewing and start doing
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I try to stay out of cults, but there's one I'm itching to join. To be honest, I'm just about in. It is based on the writings and thoughts of David Allen, a business consultant in Ojai, California, which is near Santa Barbara. Over the past twenty years Allen has attracted a strong corporate following with books, articles, and seminars that present his system for "mastering workflow." After hearing about him four years ago and then reading his books, attending a two-day seminar in Dallas, and trying to keep up with the multitude of Web sites where people parse his advice as if it were the Constitution, I find Allen to be both a useful and a fascinating figure. His usefulness arises from the very practical how-to tips he dispenses, of which examples follow. His fascination involves what his system, and the enthusiastic reception it has met, say about the aspects of modern working life that drive many people nuts.

The most coherent introduction to the David Allen Way is his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2001), which has sold 200,000 copies. The message is also contained in an eight-CD recording of one of Allen's seminars, which sells for $90—and at the seminars themselves, which cost $695 to attend. Allen says he wrote the book to encapsulate the system he had developed in working with aerospace, financial, pharmaceutical, and other companies. The main promise Allen offers clients is not necessarily that he will help them do more work but that he can show them how to feel less racked and anxious about the things they can and cannot do.

As I open the copy of GTD on my desk (devotees use that abbreviation both for the book and for the larger philosophy), I am reminded of how cultish the David Allen world view could appear to, um, nonbelievers. In his introduction Allen quotes one client as saying, "When I habitually applied the tenets of this program it saved my life ... when I faithfully applied them, it changed my life." The back cover of GTD has a blurb from Patricia Seybold, a noted computer consultant, that begins, "David Allen's prescriptions saved my life!" Hundreds of testimonials in the same vein appear on the Web sites. (The main ones are Allen's own site, www.davidco.com, which includes a "Posting Board," and several active Allen-related discussion groups on Yahoo.) "It is not overstating things to say that you have changed my life, both personally and professionally," Joseph Jones, the head of a consulting firm called Critical Domain, wrote to Allen. "Thank you, thank you, thank you." When I spoke to fellow seminar-goers and called some veterans of the Allen system, I got similar responses.

The doctrine that inspires this devotion starts with the idea that the difference between done and undone tasks is more stress-inducing than most people recognize. In earlier times, Allen says, work was more physically exhausting than it is today. But it produced less anxiety, because people could easily tell what they had to do and whether it had been completed. Either the wood was chopped or it was not. The typical modern day, he says, is a fog of constantly accumulating open-ended obligations, with little barrier between the personal and the professional and few clear signals that you are actually "done." E-mail pours in. Hallway conversations end with "I'll get back to you." The cell phone rings. The newspaper tells you about movies you'd like to see, recipes you'd like to try, places you'd like to go. There are countless things that everyone really "should" do more of—exercise, read, spend time with the family, have lunch with a contact, be "better" at work. The modern condition is to be overwhelmed—and, according to Allen, to feel not just tired but chronically anxious, because so many things you have at some level committed to do never get done.

The anxiety is compounded, he says, by a foible of the human mind: it can't remember, and it can't forget. No one can possibly remember all the promises, deadlines, and other "shoulds" of personal and occupational life. The proof is the need for datebooks. No sane person tries to keep all future meetings in his or her head. But, perversely, the brain also can't forget; at some deep and not very efficient level it is always stewing about the things you should have done but haven't, and it tends to remind you of them at the worst time—typically, 3:00 A.M. A vague but powerful awareness of all these uncompleted promises, or "open loops," is what Allen sees as the basic source of work-related stress. Again, datebooks illustrate the point. People complain about their schedules, but they rarely wake up at night worrying that they won't remember to go to the airport on the right day. That is because they trust their datebooks and trust themselves to look at their datebooks regularly.

Allen claims that anxiety about undone-but-nagging tasks is so profound that it creates "an all-pervasive stress factor whose source can't be pinpointed." Most professional people are so accustomed to this pressure, he says, that they can barely imagine its absence—an ideal state he calls "nothing on your mind." In this condition a person is, he claims, like an athlete in the zone, wasting no time or energy fretting about what he didn't do yesterday or should do tomorrow but simply meeting each challenge as it occurs. "The more something is on your mind," he says, "the less it is usually getting done." Each heap of papers on a desk or clutter of e-mails in an in-box takes a person further away from the desired state, because every single element represents something left unfinished.

The first time I met Allen, at the seminar in Dallas, I raised my hand when he was explaining this principle. I think I was trying to prove that I was a tough, skeptical journalist, not some gullible Moonie. Was it really true that disorder in part of one's life inevitably spreads to the rest of it? What about people who function in tunnel-vision mode, blocking out every distraction around them, like a doctor in a battlefield hospital? Or like a magazine writer who bravely concentrates on the keyboard and the screen despite an office full of junk?

Well, Allen replied, consider this: "People usually feel great about their jobs just before they go on vacation. It's not really about the vacation, it's about all the loose ends they're forced to tie up before they go." And could I truly claim that people had none of their "energy" (a favorite Allen term) drained by the disorderly parts of their working environment? "Think of how good you feel," he said, "and all the energy that gets uncorked, when you finally finish something that has been nagging you for a long time, like cleaning the garage." He's probably right—I watched my wife clean the garage one time, and she seemed to feel better afterward.

To test Allen's theory, and with the help of Anne Gennett, one of his "coaches," I eventually spent two days digging toward the surface of my desk through letters, receipts, clippings, and similar detritus. And yes, as each stack moved into the trash or some other "done" status, a little drop of dread fell off my brow.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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