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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 September 10, 2019

      How to Master the Art of Prioritization

      How to Master the Art of Prioritization

      Do you know that prioritization is an art? It is an art that will lead you to success in whatever area that matters to you.

      By prioritization, I’m not talking so much about assigning tasks, but deciding which will take chronological priority in your day—figuring out which tasks you’ll do first, and which you’ll leave to last.

      Effective Prioritization

      There are two approaches to “prioritizing” the tasks in your to-do list that I see fairly often:

      Approach #1 Tackling the Biggest Tasks First and Getting Them out of the Way

      The idea is that by tackling them first, you deal with the pressure and anxiety that builds up and prevents you from getting anything done—whether we’re talking about big or small tasks. Leo Babauta is a proponent of this Big Rocks method.[1]

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      Approach #2 Tackling the Tasks You Can Get Done Quickly and Easily, with Minimal Effort

      Proponents of this method believe that by tackling the small fries first, you’ll have less noise distracting you from the periphery of your consciousness.

      If you believe in getting your email read and responded to, making phone calls and getting Google Reader zeroed before you dive into the high-yield work, you’re a proponent of this method. I suppose you could say Getting Things Done (GTD) encourages this sort of method, since the methodology advises followers to tackle tasks that can be completed within two minutes, right there and then.

      Figure out Your Approach for Prioritization

      My own approach is perhaps a mixture of the two.

      I’ll write out my daily task list and draw little priority stars next to the three items I need to get done that day. They don’t need to be big tasks, but nine times out of ten, they are.

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      Smaller tasks are rarely important enough to warrant a star in the first place; I can always get away without even checking my inbox until the next day if I’m swamped, and the people who need to get in touch with me super quickly know how.

      But I’m not recommending my system of prioritization to you. I’m also not saying that mine is better than Leo’s Big Rocks method, and I’m not saying it’s better than the “if it can be done quickly, do it first” method either.

      The thing with prioritization is that knowing when to do what relies very much on you and the way you work. Some people need to get some small work done to find a sense of accomplishment and clarity that allows them to focus on and tackle bigger items. Others need to deal with the big tasks or they’ll get caught up in the busywork of the day and never move on, especially when that Google Reader count just refuses to get zeroed (personally, I recommend the Mark All As Read button—I use it most days!).

      I’m in between, because my own patterns can be all over the place. Some days I will be ready to rip into massive projects at 7AM. Other times I’ll feel the need to zero every inbox I have and clean up the papers on my desk before I can focus on anything serious. I also know that my peak, efficient working time doesn’t come at 11AM or 3PM or some specific time like it does for many people, but I have several peaks divided by a few troughs. I can feel what’s coming on when and try to keep my schedule liquid enough that I can adapt.

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      That’s why I use a starred task list system rather than a scheduled task list. It allows me to trust myself (something that I suppose takes a certain amount of discipline) and achieve peak efficiency by blowing with the winds. If I fight the peaks and troughs, I’ll get less done; but if I do certain kinds of work in each period of the day as they come, I’ll get more done than most others in a similar line of work.

      You may not be able to trust yourself to that extent without falling into the busywork trap. You may not be able to tackle big tasks first thing in the morning without feeling like you’re pushing against an invisible brick wall that won’t budge. You might not be able to deal with small tasks before the big tasks without feeling pangs of guilt and urgency.

      My point is:

      The prioritization systems themselves don’t matter. They’re all pretty good for a group of people, not least of all to the people who espouse them because they use them and find them effective.

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      What matters is that you don’t fall for one set of dogma (and I’m not saying Leo Babauta or David Allen preach these things as dogma, but sometimes their proponents do) until you’ve tried the systems extensively, and found which method of chronological prioritization works for you.

      And if the system you already use works great, then there’s no need to bother trying others—in the world of personal productivity, it’s too easy to mess with something that works and find yourself unable to get back into your former groove.

      “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

      In truth, this principle applies to all sorts of personal productivity issues, though it’s important to know which issues it applies to.

      If you thought multitasking worked well for you each day and I’d have to contend that you are wrong—multitasking is a universal myth in my books! But if you find yourself prioritizing tasks that never get done, you might need to reconsider which of the above approaches you’re using and change to a system that is more personally effective.

      More About Prioritization & Time Management

      Featured photo credit: Sabri Tuzcu via unsplash.com

      Reference

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