This is the first entry in a twenty part series discussing the wonderful time and priority management book Making It All Work by David Allen. New entries in this series will appear on Tuesday mornings and Friday mornings through December 10.
Earlier this year, I did a chapter-by-chapter review/walkthrough of David Allen’s excellent time management book Getting Things Done (a series which you can read here). Getting Things Done was one of the books that changed my life – it really enabled me to re-think how I was spending my time and how much stuff I was simply letting fall through the cracks. It made me more efficient, more reliable, and much more capable of taking on new endeavors – one of which was The Simple Dollar, which eventually evolved into a new career path.
In 2009, Allen produced a follow-up, entitled Making It All Work, which is the subject of this series. Rather than just re-hashing Getting Things Done and maybe adding a few ideas, Allen took something of a different tack.
Getting Things Done basically described a time management toolbox. It spent almost three hundred pages describing a modular system for organizing all of the stuff a person has to get done – and that system works really well. I use it in my own life to manage this website, polish off the writing of two books in two years, and deal with a household that has three children under the age of five running around.
Rather than continuing to talk about the system itself, Making It All Work is much more philosophical. It instead focuses on how exactly one sets priorities and how one connects all of the day-to-day busywork that people do to the bigger things they want out of life.
When reading Getting Things Done, I felt motivated to get started on accomplishing things. When reading Making It All Work, I found myself reflecting deeply on why I was doing all of this stuff. What was it building towards in my life? What did I want out of my life, and how do I connect that to all of the things I have to do every day?
Allen words that idea a bit differently on page 5:
While Getting Things Done offered a primer and a simple manual, Making It All Work is intended to provide you with a road map – one that will enhance your abilities to process life and work in tandem. The tools for operating your car are different from the manual for fixing it and the map you need to keep you on course and get where you’re going.
Knowing how to drive a car is much different than knowing where you’re going when you’re driving it, yet the two skills work very much in tandem. Having a far-off destination isn’t too useful if you don’t have the means to get there, and knowing how to drive a car isn’t useful if you don’t have anywhere to go.
This all connects back very neatly with the stuff I work on every day. I am much more motivated to work on particular things when I can clearly see why I’m doing this thing. If I don’t have that connection, it becomes just another thing to procrastinate on. Similarly, it’s easier to not work on things that are vague or unclear.
Allen hits this point a bit on page 2:
Approaching work is a game, and one that’s fun to play, as long as we know the purpose, the boundaries, the contents, and the rules. When any of those parameters are unclear, we develop unnecessary stress and are ineffective.
One simple piece of that sums up a big theme of this whole book: “the purpose, the boundaries, the contents, and the rules.” Whenever you’re doing something during your day, can you define the purpose, the boundaries, the contents, and the rules of what you’re working on?
Even more importantly, we tend to avoid those things in our life where those elements are unclear. If a project seems really big and nebulous, most people tend to avoid it. If the end goal of something we’re trying to do isn’t in line with what we want most out of our life, it’s a lot harder to work for it. Getting in shape. Quitting smoking. Success on things like these – and any other project in our life – works best when we know why we’re doing it and we have a clear idea of how to do it (on some level).
The reverse is also true. When we don’t see the overall purpose of a task – or we’re not really engaged in that overall goal – it’s pretty hard to stay focused on that task. How often does your mind wander at work when you’re not engaged in the project at hand or see only busywork in front of you?
On another topic, Allen mentions something that I think is an essential part of reading any book that you want to get value from. On page 10:
I highly recommend that you keep a notepad and pen or other recording device close at hand as you continue to read (or listen to) this book. Doing so would be implementing one of the core principles itself – noticing what you are noticing, which might be something you would want to do something about, and capturing it when you have the thought.
I very rarely read anything without some sort of note-taking device nearby, whether it’s Evernote or a notepad and a pen. I do it for the very reason Allen describes above – if I see a great idea in a book and it makes my mind start to churn, I jot it down so that I can return to that useful thought or idea or task later on.
Of course, a key part of this is to actually process these notes later on, but that’s part of the whole Getting Things Done system.
Finally, here are a couple of final points from this opening chapter that are worth sharing. From page 13:
Nothing is perfect, final, or fixed in this material world. As soon as we are tempted to believe it is, we’ve probably set ourselves up for disappointment.
I devoted an entire chapter in my book to this principle (and an earlier post that covered some of the ideas in that chapter). To put it simply, the future isn’t as predictable as we’d like to believe that it is – and it’s almost always a mistake to bank on the future being perfect, final, or fixed.
This basic idea is what’s behind a lot of personal finance advice. You don’t know what’s coming in the future, so you’re far better off making some more difficult choices today so you’re not forced into very difficult ones later. This means keeping out of debt, having an emergency fund, and so on.
Allen argues the same thing when it comes to managing the things you have to do in the future:
What we’re truly striving for is the permanence that we can count on, amid all the change nad flux. And the most permanent, secure, and stable thing we can possess is a foolproof way to deal with impermanence, insecurity, and surprise.
In other words, skills that enable you to manage all of the stuff that life will bring at you – today or tomorrow – is one of the best investments we can make in our futures. I agree with him almost completely – an emergency fund and a plan for getting out of debt are pretty worthwhile moves for the future, too.
Next time, we’ll take a look at the second chapter, which somewhat provides a “catch up” primer on Getting Things Done.