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Sensei for the Time-Sensitive

David Allen says work in the knowledge economy requires a new kind of mental calisthenics. Information management is not a science but an art -- a martial art -- and it's time to start training.

by John Hoult
October 2000

Enter "information overload" into and, in .09 seconds, you'll have 257,000 results. Case in point. offers at least 10 books to combat the problem. Change agents and free agents alike cite it as one of the chief perils of the new economy. But David Allen, a self-management consultant, will tell you otherwise.

"Information overload is not the problem," Allen says. "If it were, you'd walk into a library and die. The problem lies in the amount of information you allow into your life without deciding what it means and what you're going to do with it." Allen says fighting the overload battle on so many fronts -- whether email, voicemail, paperwork, meeting notes, or reading material -- isn't a science, it's a martial art, and you need a black belt to thrive. Here's his five-point program:

1. Get everything out of your head.

Any information in your head is in the wrong place. Either it bugs you more than it should, or you're not able to give it the attention it deserves. Collect all the ideas you can -- but not in your head. Carry a notepad, a tape recorder, anything. Keep everything: ideas, emails, project notes, and must-read paperwork in one inbox for processing.

According to Allen, people tend to file all their projects into their psychic RAM -- the "I would/could/should/need to" space in their brain. Psychic RAM is timeless: As soon as you tell yourself you should be doing something, a part of you thinks you should be doing it right now. To cut down stress, get everything out of your head and into a system your mind can trust.

2. Decide on the goal. Decide on the next step.

Most stress stems from people failing to decide instantly on the next step. You must first define your desired outcome for a project, a phone message, or a newspaper clipping. Then define the next action that will bring you closer to that outcome -- delegating a presentation, returning a call, or filing a clip in a background file. Finally define the context that will foster that action.

First, define victory: Ask yourself what result you want and how you'll know when you've reached that outcome. Then, ascertain the next step toward that goal. If you had no other responsibilities, what would you do to push this along? Don't overplan. If your list reads, "Call Fred. If Fred's dead, call Sue," that's overplanning. Keep your eye on the goal, make your next step, and remain flexible to what arises.

Finally, figure out what you need to achieve that next action. Do you need a computer? A phone? A car? Your boss's feedback?

3. Organize the thinking, not the paper.

Some next steps you can do right away; others require planning. Organize the ideas, not the paper. Take the decisions you just made -- the outcome, the next action, and the context in which you can do it -- and put them into a system that you review regularly. Keep lists of projects underway and those still in planning. List them by the outcome desired. Track the next steps and the things you're waiting on for each.

4. Review the details. Review the plan. Review the priorities.

Review on at least three levels. On a daily basis, you need to know, and deal with, the minutiae of your life. Weekly, you need to update your project plans. What landed on your plate this week, and how does it fit in with what's already there? And in the long term, you must understand the big picture -- how does each step fit in with the life-long priorities you've set? Spend time detached from the daily grind to avoid getting ground up by details.

Reviewing allows you to renegotiate with your boss, with your spouse, or with yourself. When something new comes up, renegotiate right away: "That's cool, but something's going to have to slip. Is that okay?" Have the uncomfortable conversations up front to avoid the painful ones later on. To do that, you need to know your inventory.

5. Act!

Four questions to help you determine your next steps:

Context: What can you do? Without a phone, you can't make phone calls, so relax and pick something you can move ahead on.

How much time do you have? Don't try to do a major project review in the seven minutes between meetings. Use that time to check voicemail, return a quick email, prepare for the upcoming meeting, or just to dump notes from the past one into your inbox for later processing.

How tired are you? Save lists of low-brainpower chores and do them when you're exhausted -- that's productivity! If you're not wiped out, put your efforts into plowing through your next steps, putting out fires ( there will always be fires ), or defining the outcomes and next steps for new or continuing fires.

What's the priority? Trust your gut on this. You'll know what to do next so long as you know all the choices you have.

To read more about David Allen's philosophy, check out You Can Do Anything - But Not Everything from FC issue 34. To contact David Allen, email

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