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

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.

So what is Allen's plan? I was not kidding when I said that the details and implications of his message are discussed by hundreds of people on Web sites, so any unauthorized summary like mine will be challenged. But I see four crucial principles in his system.

The first is what he calls "getting everything out of your head." That is, finding some equivalent to a datebook that you can trust to contain a complete list of the things you want to, have to, or are expected to do. Only when your mind really believes that all your duties are written down and retrievable can it stop waking you up at night. At his seminars Allen has attendees spend half an hour or more on a "RAM dump"—writing down everything they are worried about or planning for, from an upcoming vacation to a business report. At the end of the exercise he asks whether simply beginning the list made people feel slightly more in control of their lives; usually they say yes.

As an ongoing practice, Allen says, people need to create and use a "leakproof collection system," into which new thoughts, chores, and plans will reliably flow. GTD contains extensive discussions of the practical aspects of such systems: for instance, why it's useful to have one special file folder—made of rugged plastic, and red, so that it's easy to find—always with you when you travel. All receipts, meeting notes, and similar travel junk can get shoved into that one place, to be processed when you get back. (I have found this a big improvement over my previous "What is this little scrap of paper in my coat pocket?" receipt-management strategy.)

In keeping with this principle, Allen encourages people to write down "to-do" items—a video to rent, a call to make—as soon as they crop up or pop into their heads. He carries a Palm Pilot for that purpose, and in the mid-1990s he helped found a software company, Actioneer, whose products included software to make note-taking easier on a Palm. (I first heard of Allen when I bought Actioneer software.) I've internalized Allen's gospel to the extent that I try always to have a note pad—paper or electronic—with me; and I'm nervous when someone tells me he's going to do something but I don't see him write it down.

The second crucial principle is what Allen calls "next action" thinking—his version of the homily "A journey of a thousand miles ..." The more important the goal (fix your marriage, get a better job), the easier it is to procrastinate, because people don't know just where to start. Allen emphasizes that almost any undertaking involves a specific and manageable next thing to do. He has seminar attendees go through their "RAM dump" list and figure out for each major goal the next specific step they could take. Usually this is as straightforward as making a phone call or setting up an appointment. The habit of next-action thinking reduces each new challenge or commitment to a series of specific steps. As a corollary he says that meetings should never end without an agreement on what next step each participant is expected to take.

Once long-term goals have been thus atomized, Allen's third principle comes into play. This involves a series of reminders and tricks to increase the chances that all the little to-dos actually get done. What do people do when they want to be sure to take something on a trip? he asks. They put it in front of the door, so they can't miss it on the way out. He suggests similar tricks to reassure yourself that you will remember obligations when you can do something about them. An example is the "tickler" system—a set of forty-three file folders that sit on your desk. They are labeled "1" through "31" for the days of the month, and "Jan." through "Dec." for the months of the year. If there's something you don't want to deal with now but must handle by the 15th, you put it in the "15" folder—and trust yourself to open that folder by or on that day. (This sounds nuts; it actually helps.) Similarly, he suggests organizing to-do items on the basis not of urgency or priority but of where you perform them —things you can do by telephone, things you can do online. Here's a stupid-sounding illustration I have found surprisingly useful: Allen suggests keeping running lists, either on paper or in an electronic organizer, of things you need from the drugstore, the hardware store, et cetera, so you can check the lists when you happen to be in those places. This has helped me avoid the typical cycle of, for example, 1) noticing that I need a new light bulb when I try to turn on the desk lamp, 2) not thinking about the light bulb when I pass an appropriate store, and 3) finding the desk still dark.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 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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