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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.

      More by this author

      How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques Back to Basics: Capture Your Ideas The Science of Setting Goals (And Its Effect on Your Brain) Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

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      Last Updated on March 25, 2020

      How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques

      How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques

      Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes effectively.

      I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

      One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

      Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

      The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

      And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

      What to Write Down

      Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

      Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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      1. Dates of Events

      Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

      For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

      2. Names of People

      Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

      3. Theories or Frameworks

      Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

      4. Definitions

      Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

      Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

      5. Arguments and Debates

      Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

      This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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      6. Images

      Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

      Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

      7. Other Stuff

      Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

      I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

      8. Your Own Questions

      Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

      3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

      You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

      1. Outlining

      Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

      Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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      For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

      2. Mind-Mapping

      For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

      Here’s the idea:

      In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

      The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

      If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

      You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

      3. The Cornell System

      The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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      About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

      You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

      In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

      You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

      The Bottom Line

      I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

      I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

      More Note-Taking Tips

      Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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