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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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      The Gentle Art of Saying No

      The Gentle Art of Saying No

      No!

      It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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      But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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      What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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      But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

      1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
      2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
      3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
      4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
      5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
      6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
      7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
      8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
      9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
      10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

      Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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