Busy and Busier

Productivity expert David Allen talks with James Fallows about the future of getting things done.

Mark Weaver

In three decades as a writer, speaker, and consultant, David Allen has built a worldwide following for the approach to organization and “stress-free productivity” that he calls Getting Things Done, or GTD. His book Getting Things Done has sold 1.5 million copies since its publication in 2001, and his Twitter account (@gtdguy) has more than 1.2 million followers.

Eight years ago in The Atlantic, National Correspondent James Fallows described his attendance at an Allen seminar and subsequent attempt to apply GTD principles to his life. Allen’s approach is based on the idea that stress arises from trying to keep track of obligations in one’s head, rather than finding a trusted system to capture them, whether on paper or electronically, for frequent review. Here, Fallows asks Allen about today’s always-on lifestyle and his forecast for where productivity goes from here.

James Fallows: I bet most people reading this discussion feel they’ve hit a crisis point in “busyness,” with e-mail, text messages, and all-hours connectivity. Are today’s stresses something new?

David Allen: Everybody’s going to top out at some point, where your psyche just can’t manage any more. I was just reading that J. S. Bach had 20 kids. People complain now, “I’m so busy with the kids.” Okay, have 20 kids and see what happens. If you’re a musician or a writer, you could always be doing more work. So I don’t know that it’s ever been different for someone with an open-ended profession or interest.

Another reason a lot of people are feeling overwhelmed is because people are not in true survival or crisis mode as often as they have been in much of our history. The interesting thing about crisis is that it actually produces a type of serenity. Why? Because in a crisis, people have to integrate all kinds of information that’s potentially relevant, they have to make decisions quickly, they have to then trust their intuitive judgment calls in the moment. They have to act. They’re constantly course-correcting based on data that’s coming up, and they’re very focused on some outcome, usually live—you know, survive. Don’t burn up. Don’t die.

But as soon as you’re not in a crisis, all the rest of the world floods into your psyche. Now you’re worried about taxes and tires and “I’m getting a cold” and “My printer just crapped out.” Now that flood is coming across in electronic form, and it is 24/7.

To cope, you need the executive skill and the ability to make rapid decisions about how you allocate limited resources. There’s nothing new under the sun about that. What’s new is how many more people have to be making those kinds of executive decisions now. You’ve moved the executive requirement down through all the ranks.

JF: 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?

DA: 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 depravation.

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.

JF: What is that?

DA: 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.

The degree and depth of the “busy trap,” where you’re always distracted and trying to catch up, is going to increase.

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.

JF: How will we handle “busyness” in the future? Better, because of technology? Worse, because of overload? Both?

DA: 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.

This is the first of a new series of conversations about the future, to be moderated in alternate issues by James Fallows and Alexis Madrigal.