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

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

Making It All Work

    The second major theme in David Allen’s Making It All Work is “perspective”. (The first major theme, “control”, is discussed in part two of this review.) This part of the book expands greatly on the “Horizons of Focus” to which Allen commits only nine pages in the original Getting Things Done.

    Getting perspective means two things for Allen. First, and less importantly, it means consciously sorting your priorities before you ever undertake any work, so that you’re not wondering what you should be doing in the heat of the moment – you’re just doing.

    Second, getting perspective is about answering the question that has become something of a mantra for Allen: “Is what I’m doing right now the most important thing I could be doing in my life?” The power of this question – and the power of asking this question about everything we do – should be apparent. It is about the choices we must make if we are to live a meaningful life.

    Allen uses the metaphor of an airplane ascending from the runway to its cruising altitude at 50,000 feet to explain the various Horizons of Focus. On the runway, life appears… well, as big as life. Problems come at us and need solving, tasks take as long as they take to finish, we are (hopefully) fully engaged in the busy-work of living our lives.

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    From 50,000 feet, the minute details of day-to-day life are invisible, and the entirety of our life unfolds below us – this is the “big picture” view of our lives. At each level in between – 20,000 feet, 40,000 feet – a slightly different balance between this big picture and the hubbub of everyday living presents itself to us, allowing for different kinds of planning and thinking.

    Let’s walk through (or, I guess, fly through) the individual Horizons of Focus and the kinds of activities associated with each.

    Runway – Next Actions

    20090204-making-it-all-work-cover

      The runway is where you actually do things. This level overlaps with the “engagement” step of the GTD process, so much of it I already covered in part two of this review. While we can’t always get much perspective from this close up, if we’ve managed the “control” part of GTD, we can work confidently, knowing that we’re doing what we need to be doing.

      10,000 Feet – Projects

      Projects in the GTD sense have always meant something a little different than projects in common usage. For Allen, a project is the process of achieving any short-term (under a year) goal that requires more than two steps to complete. By this definition, most of us can expect to have from 30 to 100 projects at any given moment, from things as simple as buying a new suit to complex ones like writing a book.

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      Allen recommends projects be indexed on a master list, and reviewed weekly to make sure we keep on top of them.

      20,000 Feet – Areas of Focus

      The 20,000-foot level is where Making It All Work really starts to expand on Allen’s earlier work. This is the level at which we consider all the areas of our life that we need to maintain or somehow pay attention to. Examples include your career, your family, your health, your house, your car, and so on. How fine-grained this is depends on your particular needs and situation – in your job you might distinguish between the hat you wear as a specialist in some function (say, marketing) and the equally important hat you wear as a manager in your department, while at home your separate roles as father and husband might be folded into “family”.

      A master list of Areas of Focus acts as a trigger list, helping to generate new projects and actions. More importantly, when integrated into your weekly review (or every other, or every fourth, or every quarterly weekly review, depending on how complex your life it), your list of Areas of Focus can help make sure that you are maintaining a healthy balance between the various parts of your life, making it a valuable tool.

      30,000 Feet – Goals and Objectives

      Goals aren’t very clearly distinguished from projects, except that they can (but don’t have to) be longer-term than the year Allen suggests as the timeframe for a project. Things like sending your kids to college, building sufficient savings to enjoy a secure retirement, or writing your memoirs are examples of goals that might take longer than a year; but in the short-term, goals like running a marathon, raising $5000 for charity, or learning how to paint might be reasonable objectives. The difference lies not so much in the length of time needed to complete them, but in the amount of attention they require – an active project should be reviewed weekly, according to Allen, while goals might be reviewed quarterly or even annually.

      The “action” of goals isn’t in the goals themselves but in the projects and next actions they generate. If “run a marathon” is your goal, then suitable projects might be “develop a nutrition plan” and “get a personal trainer” and, indeed, “sign up for a suitable marathon”. The point of consciously setting and recording goals is two-fold: a) to act as another trigger list to make sure you keep making progress by generating projects, and b) to motivate you to act.

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      40,000 Feet – Vision

      “If you were wildly successful in the coming years,” Allen asks, “what do you imagine or see yourself doing or being?” Your answer to that question is your vision. Vision acts as a check on your actions, giving you a standard against which to measure the projects, goals, and areas of focus you’ve carved out for yourself. From time to time, and especially when something in your life changes drastically, it is a good idea to ask “How does what I’m doing now measure up against my vision of what I want to be doing 5 years [or however long] from now?” If the answer is that it doesn’t, somehow, then either something in your life needs to change, or you need to rethink your vision.

      50,000 Feet – Purpose

      Finally, purpose is your reason for being, your “higher calling”. Why are you here? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What do you want people to say about you when you’re gone? How would you defend your life to your ancestors, your descendents, or your god?

      From your purpose flows your principles, your values. Would you commit adultery, given your avowed purpose in life? Would you lie? Would you support corporations that exploit their workers or make use of products produced using slave labor?

      A clear mission statement and short list of principles can do a great deal of good in helping you keep your head clear when emergencies arise – or just when planning out the next few years of your life. This is the highest level from which we can consider our lives, and having a clear idea of our purpose is the only way we can answer the question of whether what we’re doing , right now in the heat of the moment, is the most important thing we could be doing with our lives – which is to say, the only way we can ever be sure that what we’re doing when we carry out the day-to-day grind of next actions, is going to be in any way meaningful to us as people.

      Conclusion

      Making It All Work is a worthy addition to the GTD collection, though it is hardly the stand-alone volume Allen seems to think it is. Folks looking to get immediately productive should still start with Getting Things Done – and maybe come back to Making It All Work in a year or so.

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      What Making It All Work does do is address some of the issues that people who have already spent some time with GTD tend to run into. Getting Things Done offers a methodology for immediate action, but it can be easy after a while to get caught up in next actions and maintaining their lists – and forget why they wanted to be more productive in the first place. Making It All Work is a good reminder that yes, there is a more important reason for all this than getting the next quarterly report done on time, and the next one, and the next one, and….

      The book is not without it’s flaws, however. For one thing, while Allen certainly tries, he never completely manages to escape the corporate world that Getting Things Done was explicitly set in. There is still decidedly more “game of work” and less “business of life” than I think even Allen wanted.

      My other complaint is with the overall tone of the book. Where Getting Things Done succeeded was in its simplicity, and this was mirrored in it’s structure and voice. Getting Things Done was a breezy afternoon read; Making It All Work is a weighty tome. It gets better as you go, though – the first 3 chapters can be skipped entirely, but the rest of the book makes for good reading, if a lot slower than Allen’s earlier work.

      Allen said in an interview with Merlin Mann a few years ago that between Getting Things Done and Ready for Anything, he’d pretty much said all he had to say about GTD. Making It All Work puts the lie to that statement – Allen clearly found something worth adding to the GTD oeuvre. While not for beginners, anyone with a little GTD experience under their belt will likely find a lot to think about – and to inspire them – in Allen’s latest book.

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      Last Updated on July 17, 2019

      The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

      The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

      What happens in our heads when we set goals?

      Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

      Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

      According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

      Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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      Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

      Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

      The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

      Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

      So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

      Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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      One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

      Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

      Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

      The Neurology of Ownership

      Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

      In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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      But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

      This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

      Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

      The Upshot for Goal-Setters

      So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

      On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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      It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

      On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

      But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

      More About Goals Setting

      Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

      Reference

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