David Allen on How to Fix Your Life

So, what do you need to feel comfortable about what you're doing and, maybe more importantly, what you're not doing? Well, you need to have a map of all the possibilities. You know, I just spent four hours with the head of [a large government organization] last week, and all we did were two mind maps--one for his job and one for his personal life, just to do the 20,000-foot areas of focus and interest and accountabilities about all of that--and then spent time making sure he got all the projects he needed ... to make sure he wasn't letting anything fall through the cracks, and then did a triage on some of the projects he needed to get rid of and hand off to associates. He just needed to externalize that, be more objective about it. He's buried, as is everybody.

So in a way, it really does come down to that: stop using your psyche as a place to try to collect and organize what you care about. If you try to keep it in your head, then it becomes like quicksand in there. So the good news is that all of this is forcing us to learn that lesson. And then, in the great, glorious future, we'll have nothing on our minds and can develop our inner wisdom. Why not?

How will we handle "busyness" in the future? Better, because of technology? Worse, because of overload? Both?

I think the degree and depth of the "busy trap," where you're always distracted and trying to catch up, is going to increase, because more people will be affected by it.

Things on your mind need to be externalized--captured in some system that you trust. You capture things that are potentially meaningful; you clarify what those things mean to you; and you need maps of all that, so you can see it from a larger perspective. With better technology, I'd like a set of maps--maps of my maps. Then I could say, "Okay, which map do I want to work on right now? Do I want to work on my family map, because I've got family members coming over for dinner?" Then you can drill down into "Oh, my niece is coming. She likes this food, her favorite color is pink, her dog is named ..." Then you can back off and say, "That's enough of that map. What's the next map I want to see?" Or: "I'd just like to read some poetry right now."

These issues are very old. But we may find better tools to put the brain on steroids.

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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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