Dealing With Bad Surprises

By David Allen

As I continue to explore how best to coach executives dealing with the slings and arrows of their outrageous fortunes, my solution du jour is simple: optimize how you deal with surprise. This holds true for C-level folks, their assistants, their companies, their kids, their housekeeper, and anyone else you'd like to throw into the equation. 

Not to belittle the recent tragic events in Japan with an obvious metaphor, but you can bet something is coming toward you, still unseen, that will shake whatever structures you have established in your psyche and your world -- your priorities, projects, and plans. It will be input that must be incorporated into the totality of your life and work. It will cause you to have to reshuffle many of the meaningful components of your day-to-day experience, as well as triggering realizations of meaningfulness about which you were previously unaware. 

You will have to recalibrate your significances and form a new gestalt. You'll need to get your new act together.

Your take on this change can range from exhilaration to devastation. But no matter what emotion you have along that spectrum, there are two major ingredients for an optimal response: (1) actively focused engagement, and (2) having a clear deck. 

This is common knowledge and practice for good sailors. When I acquired my first boat, a veteran skipper told me something very useful. He said, "If someone on your boat is about to hurl, give them the helm!" Even better for equilibrium than just a visual focus on the horizon is to actually take command of the vessel. The driver in a car never gets carsick. Surprise will rock the boat, so as soon as you can, grab the wheel.

A second factor, however, is equally critical for stability -- no residue. If you've ever been on a sailboat in an unexpected squall, you'll know that "ship shape" is not an idle phrase. One loose, unnecessary, or out-of-place piece of gear can ruin your day, if not your boat. Martial artists train to clear their mind. If you are jumped by four people in a dark alley, you don't want a thousand unprocessed e-mails lurking in your psyche.

When I'm not doing anything else, I'm cleaning up my backlog to zero -- e-mails, paper, notes, thoughts -- all the collected and self-generated inputs that demand attention. There's a surprise coming toward me, too. 

David Allen is the author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity and other books, and Founder/CEO of the David Allen Company.

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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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