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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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      Last Updated on July 8, 2020

      3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

      3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

      It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

      This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

      Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

      When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

      This is why setting priorities is so important.

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      3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

      There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

      1. Eat a Frog

      There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

      Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

      When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

      2. Move Big Rocks

      Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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      You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

      If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

      For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

      To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

      In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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      3. Covey Quadrants

      If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

      Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

      1. Important and Urgent
      2. Important and Not Urgent
      3. Not Important but Urgent
      4. Not Important and Not Urgent

        The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

        Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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        You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

        Getting to Know You

        Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

        In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

        These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

        More Tips for Effective Prioritization

        Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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