Technology November 2012

Busy and Busier

Productivity expert David Allen talks with James Fallows about the future of getting things done.
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JF: What about the sheer volume of information we have to cope with now? Isn’t that a difference in degree that becomes a difference in kind?

DA: Information overload is not the issue. If it were, you’d walk into the library and die. As soon as you connected to the Web, you’d just explode.

In fact, the most information-rich place in the world is the most relaxing: it’s called nature. It has more varied horizons, more detail, more input of all sorts. As a matter of fact, if you want to go crazy, get rid of all your information: it’s called sensory depravation.

The thing about nature is, it’s information rich, but the meaningful things in nature are relatively few—berries, bears and snakes, thunderstorms, maybe poison oak. There are only a few things in nature that force me to change behavior or make a decision. The problem with e-mail is that it’s not just information; it’s the need for potential action. It’s the berries and snakes and bears, but they’re embedded, and you don’t know what’s in each one.

Not only that, but e-mail has a trait that fits the core of addictive behavior, which is random positive reinforcement.

JF: What is that?

DA: So you get an e-mail from your mom, or you get an e-mail from your boss—they contain snakes or berries or bears, but they’re not self-evident until you look. Now, some part of you, subliminally, is constantly going, That could be meaningful, that could be meaningful, that could change what I’m doing, that might be something I don’t want to decide about … You multiply that by the hundreds, if not thousands, of items sitting there.

The degree and depth of the “busy trap,” where you’re always distracted and trying to catch up, is going to increase.

All those things you’re not deciding about wear you down, and decision-making functions just like a muscle. If you’ve had half a day of a lot of decisions to make, you don’t have much willpower left the rest of the day. So then we walk around with what I call the GSA of life—the Gnawing Sense of Anxiety that something out there might be more important than what you’re currently doing. You don’t remember what it is, but it might be more important than whatever you’re doing, so you’re not present anywhere. You’re at work worrying about home, and you’re at home worrying about work, and you’re neither place psychologically when you’re there physically. That’s hugely undermining of your productivity, and certainly adds hugely to the stress factor.

What’s different these days? Nothing is different really, except how frequently this occurs. You and I have gotten more change-producing and priority-shifting inputs in the past 72 hours than your parents got in a month, some of them in a year. I was reading that in 1912, someone was complaining about the telephone, exactly the same things you hear people say about e-mail: “Oh my God, it’s going to ruin our quality of life”; “conversations are going to become surface-only and not meaningful”; “all the interruptions and distractions!” It reads like right now. I am hearing the same things I did when I first got into these issues, at Lockheed in 1983. In those days, if you even had a pocket Day-Timer, you were considered something of a productivity geek. The difference is that rather than a small minority of people experiencing this stress, it’s a much larger group of people, at every level.

And as organizations have gotten a lot flatter, you see more “executive responsibility” at every level. In the military, how many decisions does a corporal need to be able to make in the field right now? What if it’s Black Hawk Down and CNN gets in my face with a microphone, and I’m a junior officer—what the hell do I need to be aware of? That’s why [at the Air War College] they’re teaching even the kids the global politics and situational awareness that used to be just for generals. The flatter we’ve become, the more [we require] a much higher percentage of our professional workforce to have the kinds of skills we’re talking about right now.

JF: How will we handle “busyness” in the future? Better, because of technology? Worse, because of overload? Both?

DA: I think the degree and depth of the “busy trap,” where you’re always distracted and trying to catch up, is going to increase, because more people will be affected by it.

Things on your mind need to be externalized—captured in some system that you trust. You capture things that are potentially meaningful; you clarify what those things mean to you; and you need maps of all that, so you can see it from a larger perspective. With better technology, I’d like a set of maps—maps of my maps. Then I could say, “Okay, which map do I want to work on right now? Do I want to work on my family map, because I’ve got family members coming over for dinner?” Then you can drill down into “Oh, my niece is coming. She likes this food, her favorite color is pink, her dog is named …” Then you can back off and say, “That’s enough of that map. What’s the next map I want to see?” Or: “I’d just like to read some poetry right now.”

These issues are very old. But we may find better tools to put the brain on steroids.


This is the first of a new series of conversations about the future, to be moderated in alternate issues by James Fallows and Alexis Madrigal.

James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent.
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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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