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Book Review: David Allen’s “Making It All Work” (Part 2 of 3)

Book Review: David Allen’s “Making It All Work” (Part 2 of 3)

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    Note: I decided that I’d better make this three parts instead of the originally-planned two. Allen’s work is, of course, central to the whole field of personal productivity, so it’s worth really diving into it. Don’t miss Part 1 here.

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    At the center of Making It All Work is a renewed emphasis on control — effectively managing the work in your life — and perspective — aligning your work with your greater life goals and purpose. Allen lays these out along two axes, control and perspective, developing a set of four quadrants that are surprisingly resonant with Stephen Covey’s urgent/important quadrants (urgent = low control, important = high perspective). For Allen, the ideal place to be is one where you have a great deal of control and a great deal of perspective — that is, where you’re working as efficiently as possible on tasks of great importance and with minimal stress.

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    Getting Control

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      The control axis in Making It All Work essentially rehashes and expands the core GTD methodology from Allen’s earlier work, with some slight changes in terminology” Capture, Clarify, Organize, Reflect, and Engage. Considering that this territory is already well covered in his earlier work, it might be surprising that Allen devotes 125 pages to it here — but as it is the main doable part of GTD, the part that you can set the book down and apply immediately, it seems worthwhile to revisit it. And Allen’s thinking has evolved somewhat, especially in the “Do” (“Engage”) part, where he devotes much more attention (thus addressing a big criticism of GTD, that it spends a lot of time helping us prepare to do stuff but stops just at the point where we actually do do stuff).

      GTD is noted for its simplicity, and it’s the simplicity of this part of it that earns it the most adherents and yields the greatest tangible benefit. To start GTD, you walk through the 5 steps: capture, clarify, organize, reflect, engage. To maintain your system, you do the same: capture, clarify, organize, reflect, engage. To get back on track after the inevitable slip-ups: capture, clarify, organize, reflect, engage.

      • Capture: GTD is all about attention, and capture is all about, in Allen’s words, “paying attention to whatever has your attention.” Our minds are imperfect, and unfortunately not in predictable ways. We will forget things that are of utmost importance (like our wedding anniversary), and obsess over trivial matters (like remembering to pick up milk on the way home). Capture functions at two levels — both the thorough “mindsweep” when we get started with GTD and again during each weekly review, where we inventory every possible thing that has our attention, no matter how significant or minor, and the incidental capture of fleeting thoughts so that we can get them into our system without seriously interrupting whatever task we’re currently focusing on.
      • Clarify: Capture is meant to be indiscriminatory — if it has your attention, you capture it. Calrification is the process of deciding what to do with the “stuff” you’ve captured. This is the stage of processing your inbox, going over meeting notes and letters, sorting all the notes in your Moleskine. The first question to ask is, “Is it actionable?” If it is, then you determine what action needs to be taken (create a next action, start a new project, defer to someone else) and add that to the relevant list or your calendar. If it isn’t actionable, you need to decide if it’s reference material to be filed away, something to mull over and defer until later (which means it goes into your tickler file), or nothing at all (and can be tossed).
      • Organize: Organization is at the heart of the “system” part of GTD — it’s where all your next actions, projects, goals, reference materials, and so on are kept and made available. Allen outlines 6 categories of “things” that need organizing:
        1. Outcomes: High-level personal statements like your vision of yourself in 5-10 years, your principles, a list of your areas of focus, and low-level functional material like your projects list.
        2. Actions: The lists and other material that drive your daily activities, including your next actions sorted by context (e.g. @home, @office), your “waiting for” list to remind you of work deferred to others, and your calendar detailing what needs to get done when.
        3. Incubating: Projects and actions that you aren’t ready or willing to take on at the moment, or that you’re not sure you want to take on at all. These go on your “someday/maybe” list.
        4. Support: All your planning documents and collateral material that are needed to work on your active projects.
        5. Reference: All documents, research material, articles, and other stuff that is not needed for current projects but which may prove useful for future projects.
        6. Trash: Everything that doesn’t have a place in your life right now.
      • Reflect: Called “Review” in Allen’s earlier books, the new term reflects a more active and creative approach to looking over existing commitments and generating new project and ideas. The key is still the Weekly Review, a regular “time out” from the hustle of day-to-day work in order to bring your system up to date and look forward into the future.
      • Engaging: The selection and execution of tasks from your next action lists in the appropriate context. What’s new here is Allen’s head-on approach to priorities. For Allen, the entire purpose of all the other stages is so that at any given moment, you can focus fully on the one task that, given where you’re at and the time available to you, is the single most important thing you could be doing right now. The work of defining, scheduling, assessing, and preparing for the actual action is already taken care of — leaving you free from moment to moment to pursue the particular action that is most appropriate for that moment.

      In the next and (hopefully) last part of this review, we’ll look at the other axis, perspective. Allen’s take on perspective is centered around the Horizons of Focus (10,000 feet, 20,000 feet, etc.) that he introduced in Getting Things Done, but which here are described in far greater depth than before. We’ll begin in the next post where we end in this one, with action, the “runway” level where doing occurs. See you then!

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      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work) How to Admit Your Mistakes How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques How to Learn Something New Every Day and Stay Smart

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      Last Updated on January 21, 2020

      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

      Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

      This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

      The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

      The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

      Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

      Curiosity

      Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

      People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

      Patience

      Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

      When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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      Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

      A Feeling for Connectedness

      This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

      A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

      The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

      How to Self-Taught Effectively

      With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

      1. Research

      Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

      Learning the Basics

      Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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      Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

      What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

      Hitting the Books

      Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

      Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

      Long-Term Reference

      While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

      My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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      2. Practice

      Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

      A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

      Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

      Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

      3. Network

      One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

      These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

      Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

      Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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      4. Schedule

      For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

      Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

      Final Thoughts

      In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

      If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

      At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

      More About Self-Learning

      Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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