As a sequel to his best selling Getting Things Done…David Allen in Making It All Work focuses more on actually doing things, helping us with prioritization of the many items on our action lists. Probably not as simple a book to read as GTD with more complex issues to address, he spends a considerable amount of time explaining the “horizons” of focus. 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.
Allen has added to this an attention to focus and perspective, and Making It All Work provides a valuable addition to Getting Things Done. The book’s subtitle, “Winning at the Game of Work and the Business of Life” highlights that he is committed to also bringing these systems into our non-work lives.
Pay attention to what has your attention
The focus is not as a time management system but an “attention management system”. It is a framework for helping us focus our attention to where it belongs at any particular moment, and to achieve the clarity that a trusted system allows. We can then 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, could or might be doing conspire to steal our attention away from the task at hand.
The aim is to create a sound system and habits for capturing and processing thoughts as they occur for review later when you can give them the attention they deserve. We are then free from the hold over us that everything we’re not doing can exercise, knowing that we’ll attend to it appropriately at the right time when we are better placed to tackle them.
The ultimate goal is to establish a system that allows us to respond naturally to new “stuff” and instinctively place our 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.
“Making It All Work” has an emphasis on control and perspective – aligning your management of work with your greater life goals and purpose. Using two axes, “control” and “perspective”, and a set of four quadrants similar to Covey’s urgent/important quadrants (urgent = low control, important = high perspective). The ideal place to be is one where you have a great deal of control and a great deal of perspective therefore working as efficiently as possible on tasks of great importance and with minimal stress.
The control axis refines the core GTD methodology, using the terminology” Capture, Clarify, Organize, Reflect, and Engage. To start getting things done you walk through the 5 steps: capture, clarify, organize, reflect, engage, to maintain your system, you… capture, clarify, organize, reflect, engage, and to get back on track (as we will get off it), you… capture, clarify, organize, reflect, engage.
- Capture/Collect: Is “paying attention to whatever has your attention.” Capture is meant to be indiscriminatory — if it has your attention, you capture it. Our minds are imperfect, and unfortunately not in predictable ways. We will forget things that are of utmost importance (like our wedding anniversary), and obsess over trivial matters (like remembering to pick up milk on the way home). Capture functions at two levels, – the thorough “mindsweep” when we get started, and then during each weekly review, where we take stock of every possible thing that has our attention, no matter how minor, and the incidental capture of fleeting thoughts so that we can get them into our system without seriously interrupting whatever task we’re currently focusing on.
- Clarify/Process: Clarification is the process of deciding what to do with the “stuff” you’ve captured. This is the stage of processing your “inbox”, going over meeting notes and letters, sorting all the notes in your diary, etc.
- The first question to ask is, “Is it actionable?” If it is, then you determine what action needs to be taken (create a next action, start a new project, defer to someone else) and add that to the relevant list or your diary.
- If it isn’t actionable, you need to decide if it’s reference material to be filed away, something to mull over and defer until later, or nothing at all (and can be tossed).
- Organize: All your projects, calendar items, tasks to do asap, goals, reference materials, and so on are kept and made available as the engine room in your system using 6 categories to handle the “things” that need organizing:
- Outcomes: High-level personal statements like your vision of yourself in 5-10 years, your principles, a list of your areas of focus, and low-level functional material like your projects list.
- Actions: Split into 4 key categories they are the lists and other material that drive your daily activities. The categories are “Projects” that you have a committment to finish, “Calendar” or your diary for time specific actions, your “Next Actions” list sorted by context (e.g. @home, @office), and your “Waiting for” list to remind you of work deferred to others.
- Incubating: Projects and actions that you aren’t ready or willing to take on at the moment, or that you’re not sure you want to take on at all. These go on your “someday/maybe” list.
- Support: All your material that is needed to work on your active projects.
- Reference: All documents, research material, articles, and other stuff that is not needed for current projects but which may prove useful for future projects.
- Garbage: Everything that doesn’t have a place in your life right now.
- Reflect/Review: The key is a Weekly Review, a regular “time out” from the hustle of day-to-day work in order to bring your system up to date and look forward into the future.
- Engage/Do: The execution of tasks from your “next action” lists in the appropriate context. The purpose of all the other stages is so that at any given moment, you can focus fully on the one task that, given where you’re at and the time available to you, is the single most important thing you could be doing right now. The work of defining, scheduling, assessing, and preparing for the actual action is already taken care of.
Getting perspective means two things.
- Consciously sorting your priorities before you ever undertake any tasks so that you’re not wondering what you should be doing in the heat of the moment – you’re just doing.
- Answering the question – “Is what I’m doing right now the most important thing I could be doing in my life?” The power of asking this question about everything we do is about the choices we must make if we are to live a meaningful life.
He uses the metaphor of an airplane going from the runway to its cruising altitude at 50,000 feet to explain the various Horizons of Focus or “perspective”.
1. Runway – Next Actions
- The runway is where you actually do things. This level overlaps with the “engagement” step of the process. While we can’t always get much perspective from this close up, if we’ve managed the “control” part we can work confidently, knowing that we’re doing what we need to be doing.
2. 10,000 Feet – Projects
- 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 pair of shoes to more complex ones like writing a business plan.
- Projects should be indexed on a master list, and reviewed weekly to make sure we keep on top of them.
3. 20,000 Feet – Areas of Focus
- This is where we consider all the areas of our life that we need to maintain or somehow pay attention to. Examples include your business, your family, your health, your house, your car, etc.
- How detailed this is depends on your particular needs and situation – in your job you might distinguish between the hat you wear as a specialist in a role (say, marketing) and the equally important hat you wear as a manager of your business, while at home your separate roles as father and husband might be folded into “family”.
- A master list of Areas of Focus helps to generate new projects and actions.
- When integrated into your weekly review, 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.
4. 30,000 Feet – Goals and Objectives
- Goals can be longer-term than for projects. Many of your goals might take longer than a year but many will be shorter-term objectives. The difference is 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, 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”, “get a personal trainer” and “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.
5. 40,000 Feet – Vision
- “If you were wildly successful in the coming years, 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.
- Periodically, 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 in say 5 years 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.
6. 50,000 Feet – Purpose
- 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?
- From your purpose flows your principles, your values.
- A 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 is the most important thing we could be doing with our lives.