Most of us are busy. Very busy. And these days busyness is more common than, well, the common cold. Compounding the feeling that our hair is constantly on fire is the fact that many of us are plugged in – all the time. Most of us have armed ourselves with technological gadgetry that allows us to send, receive, and search for data 24/7.  It can be overwhelming. We aren’t necessarily wired, for example, to manage overflowing inboxes with expert efficiency, and we can’t squeeze more hours into our day. So learning how to manage our busyness (and our stress levels) has become as vital as making sure we eat and breathe.

David Allen, guru of “stress free productivity,” has some thoughts on both a solution for the chaos and an explanation for why more of us are dealing with busyness – and the skills to tackle it. “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.”

Let’s look at email. Some of us get a tidal wave of it every day, and managing it (well) can be challenging. But, Allan points out that information overload is not the real issue: “If it were, you’d walk into the library and die. As soon as you connected to the Web, you’d just explode.” Allan believes that each new email we get – whether it’s work-related or from our favorite retail store alerting us to another sale – is an enticement to potential action. We are compelled to check our email every time we hear that ping because we don’t want a mystery – we want to know if that newly arrived bit of data is a call to action. And we want to know right away. We want to know now.  And when this happens over and over again, we begin to get overwhelmed. “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.”

So how do we rid ourselves of GSA? We have to externalize it, says Allan, in whatever way allows us to best record the things we find most meaningful as we go through the day. In doing so “you clarify what those things mean to you.” And there’s no arguing that greater clarity is a good thing, for that’s exactly what we need to help see through the daily miasma of data, to-do lists, and impending deadlines. But here’s an ironic twist: the very technology that’s made it easier for us to cocoon ourselves with data (do you ever turn off your phone anywhere else other than an airplane?) hasn’t yet evolved to help us deal with it better.

“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.’”

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