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

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!"

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.

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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.

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