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

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.

Grouping tasks by context (where and when you might actually do them) rather than by ultimate importance is a basic difference between Allen's system and that of the productivity expert Stephen R. Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1990) and the originator of the popular Franklin Covey line of paper and electronic organizers. Covey's system is based on a careful matching of your long-term goals with your hour-by-hour activities, so that you spend as much of your time as possible doing the most "important" tasks. Allen claims that his system is more flexible and less likely to be overwhelmed by the assault of e-mail, phone calls, and last-minute new obligations that make up the working day.

The final principle of Allen's system is developing the habit of review. Once goals are written down and broken into manageable steps, with reminders placed where you will actually heed them, you should keep scanning your lists of commitments rather than ignore them. In principle this is no more demanding than looking at your datebook each morning to see where you're supposed to go. In practice, Allen says, the "weekly review" —an hour or so spent going over the list of all long-term projects and short-term next actions—is the heart of his system. If you develop the habit of writing everything down, he says, you can remove anxiety about things' falling through the cracks. And if you apply the habit of looking over everything once a week, you can feel comfortable about never being more than a week behind in tending to important matters. "We all tolerate a certain level of scrounginess, but not more," he says in the seminar. "Most people feel too scroungy if they don't brush their teeth every day. So they have to do it. Some people feel too scroungy if they don't do it after every meal." His goal is to build in a similar sense of guilt and compulsion about reviewing your lists. "You have to think about your 'stuff' more than you think," Allen says time and again, "but not as much as you're afraid you might."

With talk of guilt and compulsion we're edging back into cult territory, and GTD veterans tend to use language that reinforces the impression. In a recent thread on one discussion board, people confessed their "weakest link" in applying the system—failing to write down all their obligations, or to do the weekly review. Steve Lewers, a software-company executive and a friend of Allen's, recently visited Allen's home and headquarters in Ojai to discover whether Allen lives out his own gospel. "I went straight for his closets to see for myself," Lewers wrote me in an e-mail. "Damn, they look like a Levenger ad! And there he is, with the phones ringing, he and his colleagues cool and relaxed, on top of it all! Damn!"

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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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