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.

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!"

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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