How to Fix Your Life

by Francisco Saez

This chapter is a free excerpt from The Pursuit of Mastery.

April 29, 2013

In early 2013, David Allen, personal productivity expert and creator of the Getting Things Done (GTD) personal productivity system, gave an extensive interview to The Atlantic that was published under the title, “David Allen on How to Fix Your Life.” This interview is essentially a collection of his most valuable insights on how to address several common issues of today’s world. Here are some highlights:

Crises

Because in a crisis people have to integrate all kinds of information that’s potentially relevant, they have to make decisions quickly, which means they have to 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 achieving a very particular outcome.


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April 29, 2013

In early 2013, David Allen, personal productivity expert and creator of the Getting Things Done (GTD) personal productivity system, gave an extensive interview to The Atlantic that was published under the title, “David Allen on How to Fix Your Life.” This interview is essentially a collection of his most valuable insights on how to address several common issues of today’s world. Here are some highlights:

Crises

Because in a crisis people have to integrate all kinds of information that’s potentially relevant, they have to make decisions quickly, which means they have to 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 achieving a very particular outcome.

But as soon as you’re not in a crisis, all the rest of the world floods back into your psyche. Now you’re worried about taxes and flat tires and “I’m getting a cold” and “my printer just crapped out.”

Today, this flood often takes the shape of an electronic communication, and it is literally 24/7. This can be really overwhelming, if you don’t have a clear focus helping you discriminate what’s meaningful and what’s not, you can easily drown.

Method

How do you set priorities about all this stuff? Well, you need maps. You need maps to orient yourself. A map would be any sort of to-do or task list that orients your daily actions.

You have to be able to decide what needs to go on what map and then perform only those actions and behaviors that will most directly allow you to navigate these maps effectively.

Your psyche can’t be your system for remembering every single thing you need to do and accomplish. As soon as you’ve got more than seven meaningful things bouncing around your head, you’re dead.

Tools

I have a commonplace, physical, paper-based tool to help me take notes simply because it’s easier than almost anything else.

My physical in-basket is my savior, because it allows me to capture all the important things from my days, and capturing is a very different process than both decision making and organizing. Too often, the problem with all this digital stuff is it slips into “out of sight, out of mind” mode, while a physical paper-based in-basket is always present, and can always be physically handled, reviewed, and examined.

Information overload

Information overload is not really the issue.

The problem with email and other forms of electronic communication is that it’s not just information, it’s the constant presence of something that might require some sort of action. Not only that, but email possesses a trait that fits one of the core ingredients of addictive behavior, which is random positive reinforcement. You get the gnawing sense of anxiety that something out there might be more important than what you’re currently doing, and as a result, you’re not present anywhere.

Handling this information overload is really about managing the information that you’ve allowed yourself to integrate into your life. The fact of the matter is that you’ve simply got more data at hand. What you do with it, how effectively you turn this data into something meaningful and productive, has to do with your intelligence and how easily you integrate it and combine it with other stuff.

Electronic tools let you leverage your mind, so be sure you use it effectively.

Solution

All the stuff that is coming in needs to be externalized. When something comes into  your life, you face a situation in which you must say either, “That is the thing I need to do,” or, “Shit, I’m not sure this is what I need to do.” One statement is stress-free and productive, while the other is an ulcer.

What do you need to do 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. As I said earlier, stop using your psyche as a place to try to collect and organize what you care about. Use tools for that and save your brain for creative problem solving.

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