Think you’re busy? Johann Sebastian Bach had 20 kids

People today feel overwhelmed because they’re not in true survival or crisis mode as often as they have been in much of our history.
People today feel overwhelmed because they’re not in true survival or crisis mode as often as they have been in much of our history.
Image: AP Photo
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As I mentioned earlier today, I’ve been writing about and learning from the productivity expert David Allen for nearly a decade. Eight years ago, I wrote a profile of him for the magazine. In our newest issue I have highlights from a conversation I had with him, about coping with the modern nightmare of email and all-hours connectedness. This is the kickoff to a monthly series in which Alexis Madrigal and I will take turns interviewing interesting and influential figures in the tech world.

You should, of course, subscribe to the magazine to read the interview and our other great features. In the meantime, here is a longer version of what we discussed.

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?

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.

So that’s what’s different, is how broad, I suppose, and how potentially overwhelming it is, if you don’t have a clear focus, to know how to discriminate what’s meaningful and what’s not in your world.

Being able to carve out islands where you need that, that’s always been true, but I think more and more of us are now faced with that, especially when more and more people have access to your calendar and [can] stick stuff on there. And part of that is just my own personal professional development as I moved up, sort of, and now have a company of 50 people, and now [that] I’ve got other people putting stuff on my calendars, I’m going, “Whoa, wait a minute.” I’ve been coaching people about this before, but now I actually have to do it—I’ve got to block out a three-hour block so nobody grabs that, because I need that kind of time to be able to do that kind of thinking. So, yeah, that’s a trick. It’s just that the problem is, a lot of people won’t keep their own agreements with themselves, and that’ll be the first meeting you’ll unhook from, is the one you’ve made with yourself, and then you feel even worse.

So again, back to my general philosophy, [which] is: look, make as few plans as you can, capture every single thing that is potentially meaningful, and make sure you’ve got the appropriate maps to be able to know where to focus.

It’s always been true about [Getting Things Done] GTD, but I think [you need] a way to be able to see: How do you set priorities about all this stuff? Well, you need maps. You need maps to orient yourself. You need a map that says “Hey, in the next three years, what’s coming toward me that I need to be aware of?” “In the next three minutes, what’s coming toward me?” Those are different maps. By the way, you know, a “map” would be any list that you have that orients you: “Here’s my whatever-it-is project.” That’s a map. Obviously your calendar is a map. So having all the potentially relevant data determined so you can populate your appropriate maps and then spread out [in] your map room and say “Okay, what do I need to look at right now?” So the ability to be able to decide what needs to go on what map and then building the behaviors to make sure that you’re then negotiating with those maps appropriately.

You know, primarily, Jim, I guess it really backs down to–and I guess this is going to be my message forever, because I don’t know how long it’s going to take the human beings to change this habit–but your psyche is not your system, in terms of remembering and reminding. And as soon as you’ve got more than seven meaningful things that you’re trying to negotiate and juggle and manage the relationship between them, and they’re all in your head, you’re dead. You deal with whatever is yelling longest and loudest and then feel bad about the whole game. However, when you get all that out of your psyche, it doesn’t relieve you of the personal executive responsibility to then say “Okay, how do I allocate my attention and my focus right now?” But what it does is, it frees you up to be doing that with your intelligence. So utilizing your intuitive intelligence is something you’re not going to be able to computerize.

And what kind of tools–computerized and of other sorts–do you actually use to organize your own life? I know this is sort of like asking a chef about his favorite food, but what do you rely on?

Sure, well, I use Lotus Notes, because we use that as our enterprise application, and I use the e-productivity add-on to the Lotus Notes that my friend Eric Mack designed, which turbocharges the list management and the e-mail and calendar management within that context in a GTD kind of way. So that’s how I manage [my] calendar and my action list and so forth. I’m still syncing to a BlackBerry, because we haven’t upgraded our back-end server so we can do these on iPhones; I will do that as soon as we can do that.

And I use TheBrain, I use MindManager, for different purposes. As you know, they’re different functionalities. And I use–what else? So I use my little note-taker wallet–that’s where most ideas are generated, in strange and weird little places, and so I have a ubiquitous, just-paper-based tool. I take notes, usually paper-based, because it’s just easier to do that. It’s more ubiquitous, and I like the feel of it. I’m still playing around with various kinds of things. The iPad is just beginning to move into some functionality, as opposed to just an entertainment tool. It’s still kind of clunky, but there’s a drawing app that I really love to do. Adobe makes an app that’s a very simple one, so you can just draw stick figures and draw stuff like that and you can also project it on the iPad on a screen. So just trying to play around with that. Still can’t beat markers on a whiteboard. So I’m still pretty low-tech in terms of drawing, capturing, thinking tools in that way. I use the Microsoft Office set. I’m on a Mac and I’ve got Parallels, so there are a few apps that I use still on the PC side of it, that aren’t as good as on the Apple side of it.

And what about noncomputerized, physical tools?

Oh, everything gets thrown in my physical in-basket. My physical in-basket is my savior. It is my safety net, it is my catchall, it is my “Gee, I don’t want to have to think about any of that stuff yet.” And so you need that parking lot. It’s really critical to have a parking lot like that, because capture is a very different process than decision making and organizing. So I have to keep those distinct, so that allows me a placeholder so that then when it’s time, when that stuff starts to pile up, and I go “Okay, it’s starting to stink and there’s mildew in there, I better empty out my in-basket”—so then that frees up my head; that allows me to just place-hold stuff. But mostly it’s just that low-tech stuff I put in there. I probably throw out 80 percent of my notes.

And we’re talking about real, on-paper notes?

Correct. I only have–it would be nice to do electronic; it would be nice if all of that went to the same place, so a universal in-basket would be nice. It’s not a crying need, because I know where all that stuff is. The problem with all this digital stuff is “out of sight, out of mind.” That’s the bad news about the computer and why low-tech is oftentimes better–because it’s in your face. I know quite a number of people, high-tech people, who have gone back to paper-based planners and lists because it’s much more evident, and it doesn’t sort of go away and you [don’t] go numb to it, which you can very easily do on the computer. You have to have a high level of GTD discipline and knowledge-worker discipline to get yourself to go back in your computer and make sure none of that stuff is lying fallow for any length of time.

I teach this stuff, and I talk about purging all my mind maps–you know, geez, I’ve probably got about 150 mind maps that have just collected all kinds of stuff in there, and I think I’m pretty good in terms of having pulled any potential actionable stuff or meaningful stuff, but it can mount up like crazy.

Let’s talk about another aspect of the always-connected world: distractedness. What’s your view of the world in which everyone is always looking at a smartphone to see what’s just come in. Does this matter?

Yes, it’s very frustrating when people are engaged elsewhere when they’re actually supposed to be pretending like they’re in some social environment. The truth is they actually are, it’s just a virtual social environment, not the physical one. But I’d just as soon they not be there physically, because it’s bothersome to have them distracted. They’re partially there and partially not, so some part of me feels I have to engage with them in some more-interesting ways. Now, that might just be because I’m 66 years old.

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?

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 deprivation.

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.

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.

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.

This originally appeared on The Atlantic. Also on our sister site:

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