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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

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      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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      The Gentle Art of Saying No

      The Gentle Art of Saying No

      No!

      It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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      But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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      What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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      But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

      1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
      2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
      3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
      4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
      5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
      6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
      7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
      8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
      9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
      10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

      Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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