David Allen on How to Fix Your Life

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As I mentioned earlier today, I've been writing about and learning from the productivity expert David Allen for nearly a decade. Eight years ago, I wrote a profile of him for the magazine. In our newest issue I have highlights from a conversation I had with him, about coping with the modern nightmare of email and all-hours connectedness. This is the kickoff to a monthly series in which Alexis Madrigal and I will take turns interviewing interesting and influential figures in the tech world.

You should, of course, subscribe to the magazine to read the interview and our other great features. In the meantime, here is a longer version of what we discussed.


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?

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.

So that's what's different, is how broad, I suppose, and how potentially overwhelming it is, if you don't have a clear focus, to know how to discriminate what's meaningful and what's not in your world.

Being able to carve out islands where you need that, that's always been true, but I think more and more of us are now faced with that, especially when more and more people have access to your calendar and [can] stick stuff on there. And part of that is just my own personal professional development as I moved up, sort of, and now have a company of 50 people, and now [that] I've got other people putting stuff on my calendars, I'm going, "Whoa, wait a minute." I've been coaching people about this before, but now I actually have to do it--I've got to block out a three-hour block so nobody grabs that, because I need that kind of time to be able to do that kind of thinking. So, yeah, that's a trick. It's just that the problem is, a lot of people won't keep their own agreements with themselves, and that'll be the first meeting you'll unhook from, is the one you've made with yourself, and then you feel even worse.

So again, back to my general philosophy, [which] is: look, make as few plans as you can, capture every single thing that is potentially meaningful, and make sure you've got the appropriate maps to be able to know where to focus.

It's always been true about GTD, but I think [you need] a way to be able to see: How do you set priorities about all this stuff? Well, you need maps. You need maps to orient yourself. You need a map that says "Hey, in the next three years, what's coming toward me that I need to be aware of?" "In the next three minutes, what's coming toward me?" Those are different maps. By the way, you know, a "map" would be any list that you have that orients you: "Here's my whatever-it-is project." That's a map. Obviously your calendar is a map. So having all the potentially relevant data determined so you can populate your appropriate maps and then spread out [in] your map room and say "Okay, what do I need to look at right now?" So the ability to be able to decide what needs to go on what map and then building the behaviors to make sure that you're then negotiating with those maps appropriately.

You know, primarily, Jim, I guess it really backs down to--and I guess this is going to be my message forever, because I don't know how long it's going to take the human beings to change this habit--but your psyche is not your system, in terms of remembering and reminding. And as soon as you've got more than seven meaningful things that you're trying to negotiate and juggle and manage the relationship between them, and they're all in your head, you're dead. You deal with whatever is yelling longest and loudest and then feel bad about the whole game. However, when you get all that out of your psyche, it doesn't relieve you of the personal executive responsibility to then say "Okay, how do I allocate my attention and my focus right now?" But what it does is, it frees you up to be doing that with your intelligence. So utilizing your intuitive intelligence is something you're not going to be able to computerize.

And what kind of tools--computerized and of other sorts--do you actually use to organize your own life? I know this is sort of like asking a chef about his favorite food, but what do you rely on?

Sure, well, I use Lotus Notes, because we use that as our enterprise application, and I use the e-productivity add-on to the Lotus Notes that my friend Eric Mack designed, which turbocharges the list management and the e-mail and calendar management within that context in a GTD kind of way. So that's how I manage [my] calendar and my action list and so forth. I'm still syncing to a BlackBerry, because we haven't upgraded our back-end server so we can do these on iPhones; I will do that as soon as we can do that.

And I use TheBrain, I use MindManager, for different purposes. As you know, they're different functionalities. And I use--what else? So I use my little note-taker wallet--that's where most ideas are generated, in strange and weird little places, and so I have a ubiquitous, just-paper-based tool. I take notes, usually paper-based, because it's just easier to do that. It's more ubiquitous, and I like the feel of it. I'm still playing around with various kinds of things. The iPad is just beginning to move into some functionality, as opposed to just an entertainment tool. It's still kind of clunky, but there's a drawing app that I really love to do. Adobe makes an app that's a very simple one, so you can just draw stick figures and draw stuff like that and you can also project it on the iPad on a screen. So just trying to play around with that. Still can't beat markers on a whiteboard. So I'm still pretty low-tech in terms of drawing, capturing, thinking tools in that way. I use the Microsoft Office set. I'm on a Mac and I've got Parallels, so there are a few apps that I use still on the PC side of it, that aren't as good as on the Apple side of it.

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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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