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Book Review: David Allen’s “Making It All Work” (Part 1 of 3)

Book Review: David Allen’s “Making It All Work” (Part 1 of 3)

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    December saw the release of David Allen’s Making It All Work:Winning at the Game of Work and the Business of Life, Allen’s long-awaited follow-up to his classic Getting Things Done (Ready for Anything, published in 2004, acts more as a companion to Getting Things Done than a sequel). Making It All Work seems to have been written with the primary goal of addressing some of the the most common criticisms of Allen’s GTD methodology, and clarifying its role outside of the workplace.

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      To that end, Making It All Work focuses much more extensively on the most glaringly underdeveloped part of GTD: actually doing things. For most people, the biggest stumbling block in GTD is its lack of prioritization, which leaves GTD’ers often at a loss about what item from their extensive next action lists they should be working on at any given moment.

      Allen thankfully avoids adding a simplistic prioritization scheme to his method; instead, he spends a considerable amount of time expanding on the horizons of focus – woefully short-shrifted in Getting Things Done – and integrating the different levels of awareness with his original process. For Allen, the clarity that comes of working from a trusted system rather than in our heads frees us up to more effectively trust our intuitions about what we should be working on in the heat of the moment.

      Add to this a renewed attention to focus and perspective, and Making It All Work provides a valuable addition to Getting Things Done. It’s not by any means a replacement for the earlier book – and, unfortunately, it lacks the earlier works plain-spokenness and simplicity – but anyone looking to deepen their understanding of and comfort with GTD will find a lot to think about in Making It All Work.

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      In this two-part review, I will highlight some of the main features of Making It All Work, beginning with the foundations of GTD as a framework for effective action in today’s post, and continuing with an in-depth look at the work’s major new contributions to GTD in part 2.

      Making it all work

      As the subtitle, “Winning at the Game of Work and the Business of Life” suggests, Making It All Work is committed to escaping the bounds of the business world and bringing GTD into our non-work lives. The title’s double play suggests Allen’s core message: extend the principles of GTD throughout your life, treating all your tasks, projects, and goals as part of the vocation of living.

      Allen is relying heavily on the assumption that we won’t read too much into the idea of “work” – that is,that we’ll avoid the word’s unpleasant connotations of sacrifice, labor, and hardship. Clearly he doesn’t intend for us to consider taking our significant other out for a romantic evening on the town as the same kind of task as, say, arranging a construction crew to repair your office building’s sewage lines.

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      What he does intend is for GTD’ers to apply the same principles they apply to their least appealing tasks throughout their life – that is, that we should consider every action as part of our steady march towards some greater life purpose and, on a practical level, rely on our physical system of lists, calendars, and weekly reviews to assure we make the most of all our tasks no matter how emotionally significant.

      Pay attention to what has your attention

      Allen has argued repeatedly that GTD is not a time management system but an attention management system, and he hammers on this theme repeatedly in Making It All Work. GTD is, Allen insists, a framework for helping us focus our attention where it belongs at any particular moment – and once we’ve achieved the clarity that a trusted system allows, we can trust our instincts to guide us to the best and most important thing to be paying attention to.

      The alternative is scattered attention, lost focus, and ultimately minimal productivity. When our attention is misplaced, all the things we should be doing or might be doing or want to think about doing or aren’t doing but wonder if we ought to be doing – and on and on – conspire to steal our attention away from the task at hand.

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      With a solid set of lists and triggers, and strong habits for capturing and processing thoughts as they occur to you for review later when you can give them the attention they deserve, we can release the hold over us that everything we’re not doing can exercise, knowing that we’ll give it its due at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way.

      Where the rubber meets the road

      Although “mind like water” references are less common in Making It All Work than in Allen’s earlier books, that is still the ultimate goal – to establish a set of habits and practices that allow one to respond gracefully to new inputs and to instinctively place one’s attention where it will do the most good. With that kind of trust and clarity, priorities become irrelevant – we will naturally work on whatever task is most meaningful for us right now, and know that other tasks will get their turn at the moment when it’s best to tackle them.

      These are not new ideas for followers of Allen’s work, but they are given new context and new importance in Making It All Work. In part 2 of this review, we’ll look at some of the most significant departures from or additions to the GTD methodology.

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      Last Updated on March 31, 2020

      Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

      Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

      Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

      Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

      There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

      Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

      Why We Procrastinate After All?

      We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

      Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

      Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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      To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

      If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

      Is Procrastination Bad?

      Yes it is.

      Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

      Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

      Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

      It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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      The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

      Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

      For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

      A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

      Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

      Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

      How Bad Procrastination Can Be

      Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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      After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

      One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

      That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

      Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

      In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

      You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

      More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article: 8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

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      Procrastination, a Technical Failure

      Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

      It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

      It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

      Learn more about how to fix your procrastination problem here: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

      Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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