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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

      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work) How to Admit Your Mistakes How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques How to Learn Something New Every Day and Stay Smart

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      Last Updated on January 21, 2020

      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

      Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

      This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

      The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

      The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

      Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

      Curiosity

      Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

      People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

      Patience

      Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

      When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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      Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

      A Feeling for Connectedness

      This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

      A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

      The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

      How to Self-Taught Effectively

      With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

      1. Research

      Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

      Learning the Basics

      Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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      Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

      What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

      Hitting the Books

      Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

      Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

      Long-Term Reference

      While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

      My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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      2. Practice

      Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

      A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

      Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

      Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

      3. Network

      One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

      These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

      Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

      Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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      4. Schedule

      For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

      Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

      Final Thoughts

      In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

      If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

      At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

      More About Self-Learning

      Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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