David Allen on How to Fix Your Life

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.

And what about noncomputerized, physical tools?

Oh, everything gets thrown in my physical in-basket. My physical in-basket is my savior. It is my safety net, it is my catchall, it is my "Gee, I don't want to have to think about any of that stuff yet." And so you need that parking lot. It's really critical to have a parking lot like that, because capture is a very different process than decision making and organizing. So I have to keep those distinct, so that allows me a placeholder so that then when it's time, when that stuff starts to pile up, and I go "Okay, it's starting to stink and there's mildew in there, I better empty out my in-basket"--so then that frees up my head; that allows me to just place-hold stuff. But mostly it's just that low-tech stuff I put in there. I probably throw out 80 percent of my notes.

And we're talking about real, on-paper notes?

Correct. I only have--it would be nice to do electronic; it would be nice if all of that went to the same place, so a universal in-basket would be nice. It's not a crying need, because I know where all that stuff is. The problem with all this digital stuff is "out of sight, out of mind." That's the bad news about the computer and why low-tech is oftentimes better--because it's in your face. I know quite a number of people, high-tech people, who have gone back to paper-based planners and lists because it's much more evident, and it doesn't sort of go away and you [don't] go numb to it, which you can very easily do on the computer. You have to have a high level of GTD discipline and knowledge-worker discipline to get yourself to go back in your computer and make sure none of that stuff is lying fallow for any length of time.

I teach this stuff, and I talk about purging all my mind maps--you know, geez, I've probably got about 150 mind maps that have just collected all kinds of stuff in there, and I think I'm pretty good in terms of having pulled any potential actionable stuff or meaningful stuff, but it can mount up like crazy.

Let's talk about another aspect of the always-connected world: distractedness. What's your view of the world in which everyone is always looking at a smartphone to see what's just come in. Does this matter?

Yes, it's very frustrating when people are engaged elsewhere when they're actually supposed to be pretending like they're in some social environment. The truth is they actually are, it's just a virtual social environment, not the physical one. But I'd just as soon they not be there physically, because it's bothersome to have them distracted. They're partially there and partially not, so some part of me feels I have to engage with them in some more-interesting ways. Now, that might just be because I'm 66 years old.

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?

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 deprivation.

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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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