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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 17, 2020

      5 Practical Ways to Get Over a Mental Block

      5 Practical Ways to Get Over a Mental Block

      There’s nothing quite like a state of “flow” when you’re working. The rare moments when your inspiration aligns with your motivation likely lead to some of your most creative work. Plus, it feels great to actually check a task or project off the list so you can move on to the next thing. Meanwhile, a mental block — its opposite — can cause work to feel laborious and uninspired. Forget creativity when you have a mental block — it makes it difficult even to start working on what you need to do.

      A mental block can manifest in several ways. Perhaps your imposter syndrome is squelching your creative ideas, for instance, or you’re overwhelmed by the breadth of a project and its impending deadline. Maybe you’re just tired or stressed.

      Either way, having a mental block feels like being trapped in your own head, and it can seriously dampen your ability to think outside the box. The problem is, you’re so locked into your own perspective that you don’t see more innovative approaches to your problems.[1]

      Luckily, jumping over these mental hurdles is simpler than you think. You just need the right strategies to get your flow back.

      Try these five practical ways to overcome a mental block.

      1. Break Your Project Down

      A few years ago, I was working on changing a company product that I believed would hugely benefit our customers. Sounds great, right?

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      As inspired as I was to make people’s lives easier, though, the sheer magnitude of the task at hand felt overwhelming. Every morning, I cracked open my laptop to work and felt totally paralyzed. I loved the idea, yes, but actualizing it felt risky. What if it didn’t turn out the way I pictured in my mind? More importantly, where would I even begin?

      A former colleague gave me great advice over coffee:

      Change how you think. Start by breaking the big project down into small tasks.

      When a major project overwhelms you, you only see the entire forest instead of the individual trees. And as you stare it down, you start to feel discouraged by your own lack of progress, thus slowing you down further.

      Breaking down a massive task into smaller chunks makes the work feel more manageable. You’ll have multiple clear places to start and end with, which will lend a motivating sense of productivity and mastery to your process. Learn more about it here: The Motivation Flowchart: The Mental Process of Successful People

      Think of it as accumulating small wins. When you realize you’re more capable than you have once thought, you’ll develop the momentum and confidence needed to get your big job done little by little.[2]

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      2. Change Up Your Scenery

      Of course, there’s a time and place for sitting down to get things done. But if you’re experiencing a mental block, switching up your surroundings can make a big difference in your output.

      Have you ever noticed how your environment directly impacts your performance and mood?

      Your brain associates your physical surroundings with certain feelings and activities. So, if you feel mentally stuck, your mind may need some new sensory stimuli.

      During this time in your life, it may not be possible to set up shop at a cafe or move from your cubicle to a conference room, so you may need to think outside the box. If you’re working remotely in a home office, try going to your dining table or couch. If the weather cooperates, sit outside for a bit with your computer or take a walk around the block.

      You can also simply rearrange your workspace. Not sure where to begin? Try decluttering. Some studies show that an organized desk enhances productivity.[3]

      The point is to stimulate your brain with new sounds and sights. You may find a much-needed dose of inspiration when you work while breathing in the fresh air, listening to city sounds, or staying in the comfort of your own living space.

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      3. Do an Unrelated Activity

      When it comes to productivity, a bit of distraction isn’t always a bad thing. That’s especially true if your chosen distraction helps you get things done in the long run.

      Have you realized how your most creative thoughts tend to bubble up when you’re, say, lying in bed or taking a shower? In their research of the “incubation period,” scientists have discovered that people’s best ideas seem to surface when they aren’t actively trying to solve a problem.[4]

      In a 2010 study, participants needed to look for a roommate or new employee based on the profiles that the researchers gave. The people who had a brief “incubation period” — in this case, working on an anagram — consistently made better choices than those who spent more time weighing their options.

      If you can’t seem to prime your brain for a project, try doing something completely unrelated to work, such as washing your dishes, working out, or calling a friend. Some experts say finding another low-stake project to work on can help jump-start the creative part of your brain and activate your flow.[5]

      The key is to allow your unconscious mind to do its best work: eliciting the new knowledge your conscious mind may be ignoring or suppressing.[6]

      4. Be Physical

      Feeling antsy? When your mind won’t seem to settle into a state of flow, it may help to swap out your mental activity for a physical one and see how it impacts your perspective.

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      While any physical activity is beneficial for your body — and getting up to move can serve as a helpful form of distraction — certain forms of exercise can more directly impact the mind. To be specific, relaxing, flow-based exercises like dance, yoga, or tai chi can create a gentle sense of momentum in your body, which can prime your brain for the same state.

      Stress-reducing activities may also be necessary. Meditating or taking slow, deep breaths will also calm your nervous system if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Evidence shows that the logical, creative part of your brain essentially shuts off when you’re stressed.[7]

      On the flip side, when your mind and body are relaxed, you can think more clearly, be more creative, and focus for longer periods — all of which will help you overcome a mental block.

      5. Don’t Force It

      It can be frustrating to fight against your own mind. If your mental block won’t go away after some effort, it may be time to take a break. Forcing creative thoughts only adds to your stress levels, which in turn inhibits your ability to think creatively. And if you sit and stare at a project for too long, you’ll not only waste valuable time but also begin to associate this specific work with frustration and produce work you’re not proud of.

      “I know that forcing something is not going to create anything beyond mediocre, so I step aside and work on a different project until it hits me,” the artist Ben Skinner said about his creative process.[8]

      If your work isn’t time-sensitive, then it may make sense to step away for a while to focus on something else, be it an administrative task that requires less creativity or a project that you feel motivated to work on.

      When the time is right, you’ll find your way back to the original task with a fresh, creative perspective (hopefully).

      More on Getting Rid of a Mental Block

      Featured photo credit: Jonas Leupe via unsplash.com

      Reference

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