David Allen on How to Fix Your Life

Did you grow up with a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, Jim, in a case? I mean, how overwhelming was that? It's like, "Oh my God! How many things could I learn tonight?" I don't think anything's changed about that, other than it might be easier to Google something than to pull out that musty old encyclopedia and try to find something in there--though it might be more enriching if you did. But I don't know that that's true at all. I think we live in great times. I just think it's fabulous that you and I can talk like we are right now, around the world. I mean, I could go on and on.

If you were the only person, by the way, who had a word processor on the planet, think of how much money you could make, Jim! It's just that everyone else who's writing has one too. And if you were the last person on the planet, by the way, you don't need a planner; you don't need GTD. It's really about managing the intersections that you've allowed yourself to integrate into your life.

Which reminds me: let me close another loop here. When I said nature was so relaxing, my theory is that kids on their cellphones are experiencing nature, even though they're not out in nature. Being on the cellphones is the place that gives them those kinds of multiple inputs, that I think kids are relaxing with it. I don't think they're stressing out with it; I think that's how they're relaxing, as opposed to the kinds of physical and psychological worlds that they're in. They're much more maybe constrained than if you grew up in the country. So "Wow, let me loose!" So kids--they don't need to get rid of stress; they want to get out of jail. That's the difference. So if I'm selling them GTD, then I say "Hey, kids, here's a way that you can get yourself out from under this and get the stuff you really want and move on it." There are some kids that are getting stressed at fairly early ages, given the stuff they're committed to, but that's more rare than otherwise. Does that make sense, Jim? It truly is just a theory that I have, but I don't see that as an unhealthy thing--that kids have access to all that technology.

Which leads to the chronic concern that distractedness, and the omnipresence of screens from kids' earliest days, will somehow affect the way people think. What about this "Kids today ..." concern?

Well, I think they're more informed simply because of the ease of information. It's a lot easier to be able to get data you want when you want it. As opposed to "Oh, yeah," now just with my iPad I wake up in the morning and go, "Okay, why is the number 13 unlucky in our culture?" I just looked that up two days ago. It's just one of those things, I don't know how long I've had that question. Now I can go find that out. Whether that makes me smarter or not, it certainly makes me more information rich. I've got more data at hand. What you do with it, I guess, has to do with your intelligence, and how easily you integrate it and combine it with other stuff.

So I think in a way we're able to--a lot of the electronic tools let you leverage your mind: I get to use my mind, I don't have to keep using my mind to keep respinning over something, because I now have a place to capture it that puts it in the appropriate map. So I only have to have ideas once. So that gives me, I think, an increased capacity to be thinking about and managing and spinning a lot more plates without any [more] stress than I ever had before. So it may look like I'm smarter, but it may just be that I'm more prolific with what I do with my cognitive abilities. And also I think people, because of what I mentioned earlier--because there's so much stuff that people then have to make decisions about--[are] learning to make good executive decisions about "what's really important to me" matters. I think a lot more people are facing that. I can't say how well they're learning it, but they never had to have that lesson before like they are now.

Do you think we'll evolve new rules or protocols for dealing with distractedness and attention--for instance, rules about smartphone use?

Hmm, that's a good question. As I looked in my own company, as we do this, we don't make a lot of hard and fast rules about any of that stuff. I think that that's always been some sort of an issue, about whether people were distracted, whether you can tell whether they're listening to your conversation or not, whether you care. I think the kids probably have different conventions with that stuff already. They just don't have any expectation that if somebody else is standing in line, that they should talk to them, if they're talking on their cellphone or if they're texting. It does kind of look robotic, these little kids walking around texting x, y, and z. But I don't have an answer to that, Jim. I don't know.

And you've worked around the world. Is anything in our current American predicament specifically American? Or is this a worldwide phenomenon of technology and connectedness?

I think it's the same if you're talking to the same kind of professional with the same kind of job.

I think what's probably happened is, the world hasn't quite caught up yet to how many middle-class professionals there are that have these more knowledge-worker jobs. But certainly the few that I've met around the world are having the same issues that everybody else is. Again, it's a little bit of a bias, because most of them are working in global companies. So Goldman Sachs is a 24/7, around-the-world organization, and anybody working in it--they don't allow some countries to not work as hard. So that's why I think at that level it's probably pretty much the same thing. A hundred million people now have the "problem" of e-mail overload.

I know that you've laid out your message in your books and in seminars and recordings. Still, I'll ask you: What is the single main point you'd like people to remember again, gaining a feeling of control in their lives?

All the stuff that is coming in needs to be externalized. I don't know that I could get it any simpler than that. You need to capture the stuff that's potentially meaningful, you need to clarify what those things mean to you, and you need to keep a series of maps of the results of all of that so you can step back and see it from a larger perspective. That's the only choice: you're ultimately going to have a lot more to do than you can do, so the question is, do you want a half-empty or half-full life?

Really, you can only do one thing at a time with conscious attention, so you either are saying "That is the thing I need to do" or you're going "Shit, I'm not sure this is what I need to do." And one is stress-free productivity, and the other is an ulcer. Right? In a way, it comes down to that.

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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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