David Allen on How to Fix Your Life

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.

What is that?

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.

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.

Our magazine has published a lot about the possible effects of technology on human knowledge, even thinking. For instance, [Nicholas Carr's July/August 2008 cover story,] "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Where do you stand on these issues? Do you think human deliberation or wisdom is changing for better or worse?

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.

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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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