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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 November 5, 2019

      How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

      How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

      Assuming the public school system didn’t crush your soul, learning is a great activity. It expands your viewpoint. It gives you new knowledge you can use to improve your life. It is important for your personal growth. Even if you discount the worldly benefits, the act of learning can be a source of enjoyment.

      “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

      But in a busy world, it can often be hard to fit in time to learn anything that isn’t essential. The only things learned are those that need to be. Everything beyond that is considered frivolous. Even those who do appreciate the practice of lifelong learning, can find it difficult to make the effort.

      Here are some tips for installing the habit of continuous learning:

      1. Always Have a Book

      It doesn’t matter if it takes you a year or a week to read a book. Always strive to have a book that you are reading through, and take it with you so you can read it when you have time.

      Just by shaving off a few minutes in-between activities in my day I can read about a book per week. That’s at least fifty each year.

      2. Keep a “To-Learn” List

      We all have to-do lists. These are the tasks we need to accomplish. Try to also have a “to-learn” list. On it you can write ideas for new areas of study.

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      Maybe you would like to take up a new language, learn a skill or read the collective works of Shakespeare. Whatever motivates you, write it down.

      3. Get More Intellectual Friends

      Start spending more time with people who think. Not just people who are smart, but people who actually invest much of their time in learning new skills. Their habits will rub off on you.

      Even better, they will probably share some of their knowledge with you.

      4. Guided Thinking

      Albert Einstein once said,

      “Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

      Simply studying the wisdom of others isn’t enough, you have to think through ideas yourself. Spend time journaling, meditating or contemplating over ideas you have learned.

      5. Put it Into Practice

      Skill based learning is useless if it isn’t applied. Reading a book on C++ isn’t the same thing as writing a program. Studying painting isn’t the same as picking up a brush.

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      If your knowledge can be applied, put it into practice.

      In this information age, we’re all exposed to a lot of information, it’s important to re-learn how to learn so as to put the knowledge into practice.

      6. Teach Others

      You learn what you teach. If you have an outlet of communicating ideas to others, you are more likely to solidify that learning.

      Start a blog, mentor someone or even discuss ideas with a friend.

      7. Clean Your Input

      Some forms of learning are easy to digest, but often lack substance.

      I make a point of regularly cleaning out my feed reader for blogs I subscribe to. Great blogs can be a powerful source of new ideas. But every few months, I realize I’m collecting posts from blogs that I am simply skimming.

      Every few months, purify your input to save time and focus on what counts.

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      8. Learn in Groups

      Lifelong learning doesn’t mean condemning yourself to a stack of dusty textbooks. Join organizations that teach skills.

      Workshops and group learning events can make educating yourself a fun, social experience.

      9. Unlearn Assumptions

      You can’t add water to a full cup. I always try to maintain a distance away from any idea. Too many convictions simply mean too few paths for new ideas.

      Actively seek out information that contradicts your worldview.

      Our minds can’t be trusted, but this is what we can do about it to be wiser.

      10. Find Jobs that Encourage Learning

      Pick a career that encourages continual learning. If you are in a job that doesn’t have much intellectual freedom, consider switching to one that does.

      Don’t spend forty hours of your week in a job that doesn’t challenge you.

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      11. Start a Project

      Set out to do something you don’t know how. Forced learning in this way can be fun and challenging.

      If you don’t know anything about computers, try building one. If you consider yourself a horrible artist, try a painting.

      12. Follow Your Intuition

      Lifelong learning is like wandering through the wilderness. You can’t be sure what to expect and there isn’t always an end goal in mind.

      Letting your intuition guide you can make self-education more enjoyable. Most of our lives have been broken down to completely logical decisions, that making choices on a whim has been stamped out.

      13. The Morning Fifteen

      Productive people always wake up early. Use the first fifteen minutes of your morning as a period for education.

      If you find yourself too groggy, you might want to wait a short time. Just don’t put it off later in the day where urgent activities will push it out of the way.

      14. Reap the Rewards

      Learn information you can use. Understanding the basics of programming allows me to handle projects that other people would require outside help. Meeting a situation that makes use of your educational efforts can be a source of pride.

      15. Make Learning a Priority

      Few external forces are going to persuade you to learn. The desire has to come from within. Once you decide you want to make lifelong learning a habit, it is up to you to make it a priority in your life.

      More About Continuous Learning

      Featured photo credit: Paul Schafer via unsplash.com

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