Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal development, personal productivity, or entrepreneurship book.
As I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m a huge fan of David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. That one simple volume (which I identified as one of the ten books that changed my life) pretty much transformed how I organized my time, moving me from an unorganized slacker who had difficulty managing just a tiny apartment, a job, and a dating relationship into a person who managed a full time job, a house, two young children, and launched The Simple Dollar in his spare time. In short, Getting Things Done was a personal epiphany – and the very first book on time management I recommend to anyone (provided that they have the attention span to get through it – it is fairly dense).
Because of that, I was incredibly excited to receive David Allen’s latest book, Making It All Work, in the mail. Making It All Work is Allen’s true follow-up to Getting Things Done (his other book, Ready for Anything is something of a “Getting Things Done for Dummies” book), except this time around, Allen focuses primarily on some of the areas that GTD didn’t really touch upon – namely, control and perspective.
From my reading, I tend to think of the two books in the following way: Getting Things Done is the tool box, providing everything you need to get your life in order, but it’s lacking any sort of guidance on some of the larger things you can construct with it. How does it fit in the larger context of life? That’s where Making It All Work steps in – it’s much more of a context book.
While I’m a wholehearted “left-brain” type, I did find a ton of intriguing ideas and thoughts from Making It All Work. Let’s dig in and take a look.
A Walk Through Making It All Work
1. Introduction: From Getting Things Done to Making It All Work
Allen opens the book by essentially criticizing the limits of GTD – while it helps you become more effective at accomplishing individual tasks, it doesn’t go very far towards helping you put all of those tasks in perspective. What are you really building towards? What’s genuinely important to you and how does that take priority over other things? How do you make sure that your inbox doesn’t become too full, or that you don’t take on too many relatively minor responsibilities that begin to squeeze out your real priorities in life? These are the questions that Making It All Work intends to address.
2. The GTD Phenomenon
Why did GTD become so popular? Allen takes a rather egoless perspective here, arguing that it was mostly just a collection of appropriate long-existing principles packaged together that matched the needs of the time, that the principles were very easy to pick up, and that they could be folded together in different ways. I know that for me, I only use some of the bits and pieces I learned from reading Getting Things Done – writing down ideas as soon as they come into my head, processing those ideas once a day (at least), and doing a weekly review to make sure I haven’t overlooked anything. (Really, I mean it – if you haven’t read my review of Getting Things Done, you should – it’ll put a lot of these comments in context.)
3. Making It All Work – The Process
Many people like to think about the “work/life barrier” – the separation between their job and their personal life. Most people don’t like things that cross that barrier, and they get quite irritated when their job interferes with what they want to do with their personal time (and vice-versa, sometimes). Allen argues that this is really a trivial point. He believes that the real goal – whether you’re at home, at work, or anywhere else – is to get into “the zone” where you’re so engaged with whatever it is you’re doing that such barriers don’t matter. (I actually agree with him, by the way, but this will be a controversial point for some.) With all of the things being thrown at us all of the time, how can we actually get into “the zone” on a consistent basis.
4. The Fundamentals of Self-Management
The key to getting “in the zone” as often as possible is knowing how to manage your own mind, and Allen argues that the two keys to this are control and perspective. Control merely refers to the ability to choose between different options at any given moment – you don’t have to do any specific thing, but you have a lot of options at your disposal. Perspective refers to the ability to discern which of those options is the best one to choose at the moment. Obviously, these two are intertwined – Allen portrays them as a grid, actually. For example, a person with little control or perspective is a victim, a person with lots of control but little perspective is a micromanager, a person with lots of perspective but little control is a visionary “crazy maker,” and a person with lots of perspective and lots of control is a commander. Allen does point out that there are advantages and disadvantages of each state, but that it’s always better to seek to improve both control and perspective in your own life as it will make you more effective and more able to get in “the zone” of peak productivity. He also points out that these areas are in flux – there are some parts of our life where we are effectively victims, others where we are visionaries, and others where we are commanders – but that we tend to get in “the zone” and be most productive in areas where we are commanders.
5. Getting Control: Capturing
Allen identifies five distinct areas where we can get more control over our situation and lays each one out in a chapter, starting with capturing. Capturing basically means putting down on paper all of the things that are tugging at your mind: the tiny tasks you deal with all the time, the larger projects, the bits of information you’re trying to make yourself remember, the things you’re dreaming about, the things you wish you were working on, the things you’re planning for in the future, and so on. Sweep it all out of your mind onto paper. Don’t worry about how it’s organized yet. Just get out some paper and jot everything down that crosses your mind that has any importance to it – your next work task, the big project you’re considering, the Christmas gift idea you have for your Aunt Jenny, that idea you have for a short story – all of it. This clears your mind from the need to store and recall all of this material, which is important because that information is burning brain cycles. Allen also recommends keeping a journal where you jot down the events of each day, simply so you don’t have to waste time recalling when things happened and the details of such events – they’re in your journal.
6. Getting Control: Clarifying
So what do you do when you have this list of things dumped from your mind? You process it. Go through each item and ask yourself if it’s an action you can take right now. If it is, do it immediately (if it’s quick) or add it to your list of things to do today. If it’s not, add it to your date book, file it away for reference, throw it away, or start a folder for it (if it’s a potential future project). Do this with every item on your list. Then, whenever you have a new idea or something new comes in, add it to your list of things and just process that list every day (or twice a day). This way, you never need to waste your brain space on a to-do list or on remembering little facts or pieces of information – you can just dump it down and deal with it in due time. This enables you to stay in the zone and devote your brain power to the task at hand instead of wasting cycles on this stuff.
7. Getting Control: Organizing
As Allen puts it, “[b]eing organized simply means that where things are suits what they mean to you.” In other words, if you have a list of phone numbers, it makes sense to have them near your phone (or programmed into the phone). If you have books, put them on your bookshelf with the rest of your books. Organization doesn’t have to be the complicated routine that many people make it out to be – it’s simply making sure you can find things when you actually need them. Thus, for some people, their organization scheme can look anarchical to others – the key is that they know where the stuff is and it makes immediate and obvious sense to them. Figure out where your stuff goes intuitively for you – don’t worry about some great organizational scheme. Given that basic idea, however, Allen does spend quite a few pages laying out his own ideas about organizing information and things.
8. Getting Control: Reflecting
Allen argues that the previous three pieces of the puzzle won’t really work if you don’t review them on a consistent basis. He advocates spending an hour or two a week just making sure things haven’t fallen through the cracks, that you’re actually staying on track with your big projects, and that your organization of information hasn’t fallen apart, either. His argument for this is pretty simple – the time lost when your system isn’t working is far greater than the time spent making sure everything is still working fine.
9. Getting Control: Engaging
By engaging, Allen merely refers to the idea that you’re not doing all of this in a vacuum. The choices you make along the way – deciding which tasks to do and so on – always affect other people, and you should consider these effects when you reflect on the choices you’re making. A key part of this is really understanding the true core values of your life. Is your family really the center of your life, or do you value your career above all else? There is no easy and automatic answer to this question.
10. Getting Control: Applying This to Life and Work
So how do these five elements of getting control over a situation apply in the real world? Allen tackles that here with an extended anecdote about Gracie’s Gardens, a business left abandoned after the passing of the proprietor and how the person who is tasked with cleaning it up takes care of the situation – the assets, the correspondence, and so on. Although the situation is pretty simple, it makes the roles of the five elements of control quite clear.
11. Getting Perspective
Here, Allen begins to look at six different key elements of getting perspective over one’s situation. Allen’s basic argument here is that perspective helps you clearly distinguish the important from the unimportant and makes the elements of control you have over your time that much more effective.
12. Getting Perspective on the Runway: Next Actions
Allen starts off at the most basic place: what is your next action? In other words, if you’re sitting there ready to do something, what exactly are you going to do? Some of the time, this choice is very easy – you’ll merely engage whatever fire needs to be put out at the moment – but at other times, the choice is profound. Will you work on that PowerPoint presentation or play catch with your son in the yard? The choice becomes much less clear very quickly, and that’s why it pays to have a higher level of perspective.
13. Getting Perspective at Ten Thousand Feet: Projects
From the immediate action, Allen steps back a bit to look at projects, which he defines as collections of discrete actions that produce an outcome and can be completed within a year (although usually less). For example, my garden might be a project, or teaching my son how to write his letters. Usually, the projects you have on the table all have an immediate action to offer, but how important is that immediate action? It really depends on the relative importance of the project. Do I define it as more important to work on my son’s Qs or to get those tomatoes in the ground? Personally, I view the writing project as more important and would help my son before heading outside – however, perspective is important here, too. If my son wants to go outside and play in the yard, or if he’s taking a nap, that’s the perfect time for me to grab the trowel and head out back.
14. Getting Perspective at Twenty Thousand Feet: Areas of Focus and Responsibility
What aspects of my life need regular maintenance? That’s the question at this level – what are your areas of focus? More importantly, what areas take clear priority over the other ones – can you establish a hierarchy? I have several, with my writing and my family clearly on top of the pile. I also see the value of reflecting on this carefully, because if you truly understand the areas of responsibility in life and understand how they rank and relate to one another, it becomes much easier to just automatically prioritize smaller projects and tasks.
15. Getting Perspective at Thirty Thousand Feet: Goals and Objectives
Beyond your areas of responsibility are your wider goals. What do you want to achieve with your life, particularly in the next two to five years? What will you have accomplished? In many ways, I feel like I accomplished very little for the first twenty seven years of my life. I feel as though I began accomplishing things in the last three years – having children, launching The Simple Dollar, writing a book that’s already begun to turn up in unexpected places. What’s my eventual goal, the one that will probably cover the next few years of my life? I want to push some interesting changes in how people are able to access personal finance education for all ages (something you’ll be hearing about in the future but is already in the works). What Allen is driving at here is how exactly are you going to make your mark on the world? If you don’t know, it’s time to start thinking about it.
16. Getting Perspective at Forty Thousand Feet: Vision
So what’s beyond your life goals? Allen next moves onto what kind of life those goals, if successful, lead to. Let’s say I achieve every major goal I have set out for the next few years. Where will I be? What will come next? How much further can I reach? Do the goals I have in place for the next two to five years put me in a place that I actually want to be? If so, which of those goals are the most effective at putting me in a good place for the long haul?
17. Getting Perspective at Fifty Thousand Feet: Purpose and Principles
From there, we zoom out to your whole life. What principles do you live by? What is the purpose of your life? What do you hope to accomplish with your life, and are you actually setting long-term goals to get there? What do you want written as your epitaph?
What really stands out for me in this is that each level of perspective is something of a filter for the lower levels. More importantly, they each demand a lot of introspection, but once you figure things out, they form a very quick and very effective filter for pretty much every choice you have to make in life. Without this introspection – and it does take time – I might spend a lot of time puzzling over whether I should play with my kids or work on an article. That time spent deciding what to do – or making incorrect rash choices – is time in the present that’s lost. On the other hand, the more time I spend (when I have that spare time) truly reflecting on the higher levels of perspective in my life, the easier (and quicker) such minor choices become – and the easier it becomes to get things done. I think this is one of the biggest points of the book.
18. Getting Perspective: Gracie’s Garden Revisited
To show how the principles of control (from earlier in the book) intersect with the levels of perspective, Allen goes back and takes another look at the analogy from Chapter 10. Allen literally takes the priorities for the project from the level of purpose and basic principles all the way down to next actions and shows how they all link together and inform each other. Knowing each higher level makes it much easier to figure out what needs to be done at that level, all the way down to immediate next actions.
19. Making It All Work – In the Real World
Allen closes the book with a bunch of simple steps on how to get started: among them, start sweeping out all of that stuff that’s in your mind and get it down on paper, spend some time getting your stuff organized, and spend a lot of time reflecting on all of the levels of perspective and how they apply to your life – the latter of which you can do when you’re commuting or waiting at the doctor’s office, for example. When you get all of these pieces in place, it becomes quite easy to figure out what you need to do next, not have things fall through the cracks, and still have more free time than you ever thought possible.
The “control” portion of the book is basically a rewrite of the mechanics of Getting Things Done. It’s just rewritten in a structurally different way, breaking things apart quite a bit differently than how it was broken down before. For me, the most liberating part of Getting Things Done was simply the idea of doing “head sweeps” – jotting down all of the little ideas in my head so I didn’t have to think about them. I was quite glad to see a chapter devoted to it.
The “perspective” part of the book was where Making It All Work really stood out. Although Allen did include this material in his first book, it took up all of a few pages and was largely glossed over. Here, it takes up the majority of the book – and it’s vital stuff.
The difference between the two books is the difference between engineering and philosophy. Getting Things Done is the “engineering” book – it does a better job than this one of logically laying out the pieces of how to organize all of your tasks. Making It All Work is the “philosophy” book – it doesn’t focus on the details of an organizing system much at all and instead focuses on why you would do it and the thinking you need to do before such a system would work. These two books, in the end, complement each other.
If you tried reading Getting Things Done and didn’t like it at all, Making It All Work backs strongly away from the minutiae of organizing your time and instead focuses on why you’re organizing it. Instead of setting up a system, the real meat of this book comes from introspection – the actual “system” here is secondary. Thus, I tend to think this book has quite a bit of useful meat for people interested in time management even if they didn’t like Getting Things Done.
On the other hand, if you did like Getting Things Done, quite a bit of Making It All Work will seem repetitive. You’ll recognize most of the middle chunk of the book as a rewrite of Getting Things Done and, if you already know how to use the system, this part probably won’t contribute new thoughts into your head. Where this book begins to kick into gear for you is in Chapter 11 – the real value of this book for GTD fans is the chapters on perspective.
I thoroughly enjoyed Making It All Work. While it didn’t mechanically change anything I do for time management, it gave me a ton of food for thought about the choices I make each day, thinking that I can already tell is making it easier to make immediate choices about what to do next. Making It All Work is a terrific complement to Getting Things Done and well worth reading for anyone interested in the topic.