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

But one reason the system has caught on, I think, is that it offers advantages even if only partially applied. The easiest example is the "two-minute rule." In certain phases of the working day you're mainly learning about possible new obligations—looking at e-mail, checking phone messages, reading memos. If any of the resulting tasks can be finished in less than two minutes, Allen says, you should invariably do them immediately. He carries an egg timer with him to demonstrate the principle. "The rationale for the two-minute rule is, that's more or less the point where it starts taking longer to store and track an item than to deal with it the first time it's in your hands," Allen says. "In other words, it's the efficiency cutoff. If the thing's not important enough to be done, throw it away. But if it is important enough that you are ever going to do it, the efficiency factor should come into play, which means doing it right now. This rule is magic." Every seminar alumnus I interviewed agreed.

Another trick is a process for getting your e-mail in-box back to "empty" each day. This doesn't mean everything gets answered right away—as people who write to me can attest. It means moving through and making triage decisions—deleting much of the contents, answering the messages that can be answered in two minutes or less, and sending the rest to appropriate folders, including "Action" for the ones you have to answer sometime. Provided that you also develop the habit of looking through the "Action" folder often enough, this approach actually brings you closer to being in control of e-mail, rather than the other way around. Allen has lots of similar tips—about filing systems, about planning for travel, and much else.

"The way I describe him to other people is via Henry Ford," Jeffrey Irby, the vice-president of the consulting firm BearingPoint, told me. "Henry Ford didn't invent the car, or the way to build the car. He invented a system for building cars in volume. I think of David Allen as the Henry Ford of the information age. He has put together a well-defined workflow process that applies to anyone in a professional capacity." Like an almost wearying number of people I spoke with, he ended by saying, "It has been life-changing."

David Allen is in his late fifties but looks much younger. He reminds me of the actor Dana Carvey, with his sandy hair and slight build. Before beginning his consulting business, Allen had a motley series of jobs and identities. He was a child actor while growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana; a state champion in debate; a graduate student at Berkeley in the late 1960s; a magician; a karate teacher; a "personal growth" trainer in southern California; a waiter and taxi driver; and the manager of a lawn service and a travel agency. Although he doesn't volunteer the details, he had what I gather was an extended dropout period in the 1970s, when, as he puts it, he "explored various metaphysical paths." These combined experiences have made him an accomplished stage performer. His spiel is word-for-word identical in every seminar (I observed parts of three) but sounds spontaneous. He seems relaxed on stage but every so often whooshes into a blur of karate moves to illustrate a point. In context this is impressive (he is a black belt) rather than weird. Indeed, it lets Allen illustrate the principle of "relaxed focus" that he says can apply to work life, too.

From the EST-style personal-growth movement Allen retained the concept of open loops and uncompleted obligations. By the early 1980s he was beginning to apply this perspective to practical business organization. His first big success was with Lockheed, when a key executive attended one of his seminars and then hired him to design a program for a thousand of the company's executives and managers. He says that half a million people have attended his seminars—most of them in corporate sessions, but some at the "public seminars" he holds around the country seven times a year. Allen's clients have come mainly from what he calls "industries at their 'high noon' period." He means those that are past their initial rush of expansion, so they are large enough to have problems of organization and scale but no longer fast-growing enough to laugh off inefficiencies. His firm has eight other coaches, including his wife, Kathryn.

In his presentations Allen uses the familiar business analogy of the "30,000-foot view." Indeed, he talks about many different vantage points, from the "runway level," where people are applying the two-minute rule, up by 10,000-foot intervals to the "50,000-foot level," where people are considering the meaning of life. It's clear to me, after interviewing him several times in the past two years, that open loops at this loftiest level are what interest him most. "My perspective is that until you have fully fulfilled your destiny as a human spirit on the planet, you'll probably be in some level of stress," he recently told a business magazine. When I joined him for dinner after one seminar in Washington, he said, "Back in the old days I had this naive idea that people would see this cool tool we were offering and say, 'Okay, what else?' We'd have this great big Trojan horse that would march into the staid corporate world and let us find people who were interested in how life is really lived. They'd say, 'Hey, let's go discover God and Truth and the reality that sits behind all this stuff!' But of course that never happened."

He could see me arching an eyebrow, and the conversation went back to the safe realm of e-mail management. "I can help make things work better for you whether or not you buy into the bigger game. You want to operate just at the runway level? That's fine! Let's see how things can get done with the least effort. But if you're interested in where all this came from, where we came from, then we can have another conversation." I'll put it on my list.

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
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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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