Allen claims that anxiety about undone-but-nagging tasks is so profound that it creates "an all-pervasive stress factor whose source can't be pinpointed." Most professional people are so accustomed to this pressure, he says, that they can barely imagine its absence—an ideal state he calls "nothing on your mind." In this condition a person is, he claims, like an athlete in the zone, wasting no time or energy fretting about what he didn't do yesterday or should do tomorrow but simply meeting each challenge as it occurs. "The more something is on your mind," he says, "the less it is usually getting done." Each heap of papers on a desk or clutter of e-mails in an in-box takes a person further away from the desired state, because every single element represents something left unfinished.
The first time I met Allen, at the seminar in Dallas, I raised my hand when he was explaining this principle. I think I was trying to prove that I was a tough, skeptical journalist, not some gullible Moonie. Was it really true that disorder in part of one's life inevitably spreads to the rest of it? What about people who function in tunnel-vision mode, blocking out every distraction around them, like a doctor in a battlefield hospital? Or like a magazine writer who bravely concentrates on the keyboard and the screen despite an office full of junk?
Well, Allen replied, consider this: "People usually feel great about their jobs just before they go on vacation. It's not really about the vacation, it's about all the loose ends they're forced to tie up before they go." And could I truly claim that people had none of their "energy" (a favorite Allen term) drained by the disorderly parts of their working environment? "Think of how good you feel," he said, "and all the energy that gets uncorked, when you finally finish something that has been nagging you for a long time, like cleaning the garage." He's probably right—I watched my wife clean the garage one time, and she seemed to feel better afterward.
To test Allen's theory, and with the help of Anne Gennett, one of his "coaches," I eventually spent two days digging toward the surface of my desk through letters, receipts, clippings, and similar detritus. And yes, as each stack moved into the trash or some other "done" status, a little drop of dread fell off my brow.
So what is Allen's plan? I was not kidding when I said that the details and implications of his message are discussed by hundreds of people on Web sites, so any unauthorized summary like mine will be challenged. But I see four crucial principles in his system.
The first is what he calls "getting everything out of your head." That is, finding some equivalent to a datebook that you can trust to contain a complete list of the things you want to, have to, or are expected to do. Only when your mind really believes that all your duties are written down and retrievable can it stop waking you up at night. At his seminars Allen has attendees spend half an hour or more on a "RAM dump"—writing down everything they are worried about or planning for, from an upcoming vacation to a business report. At the end of the exercise he asks whether simply beginning the list made people feel slightly more in control of their lives; usually they say yes.