Technology November 2012

Busy and Busier

Productivity expert David Allen talks with James Fallows about the future of getting things done.
Mark Weaver

In three decades as a writer, speaker, and consultant, David Allen has built a worldwide following for the approach to organization and “stress-free productivity” that he calls Getting Things Done, or GTD. His book Getting Things Done has sold 1.5 million copies since its publication in 2001, and his Twitter account (@gtdguy) has more than 1.2 million followers.

Eight years ago in The Atlantic, National Correspondent James Fallows described his attendance at an Allen seminar and subsequent attempt to apply GTD principles to his life. Allen’s approach is based on the idea that stress arises from trying to keep track of obligations in one’s head, rather than finding a trusted system to capture them, whether on paper or electronically, for frequent review. Here, Fallows asks Allen about today’s always-on lifestyle and his forecast for where productivity goes from here.

James Fallows: I bet most people reading this discussion feel they’ve hit a crisis point in “busyness,” with e-mail, text messages, and all-hours connectivity. Are today’s stresses something new?

David Allen: Everybody’s going to top out at some point, where your psyche just can’t manage any more. I was just reading that J. S. Bach had 20 kids. People complain now, “I’m so busy with the kids.” Okay, have 20 kids and see what happens. If you’re a musician or a writer, you could always be doing more work. So I don’t know that it’s ever been different for someone with an open-ended profession or interest.

Another reason a lot of people are feeling overwhelmed is because people are not in true survival or crisis mode as often as they have been in much of our history. The interesting thing about crisis is that it actually produces a type of serenity. Why? Because in a crisis, people have to integrate all kinds of information that’s potentially relevant, they have to make decisions quickly, they have to then trust their intuitive judgment calls in the moment. They have to act. They’re constantly course-correcting based on data that’s coming up, and they’re very focused on some outcome, usually live—you know, survive. Don’t burn up. Don’t die.

But as soon as you’re not in a crisis, all the rest of the world floods into your psyche. Now you’re worried about taxes and tires and “I’m getting a cold” and “My printer just crapped out.” Now that flood is coming across in electronic form, and it is 24/7.

To cope, you need the executive skill and the ability to make rapid decisions about how you allocate limited resources. There’s nothing new under the sun about that. What’s new is how many more people have to be making those kinds of executive decisions now. You’ve moved the executive requirement down through all the ranks.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent. 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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