Making It All Work – The Fundamentals of Self-Management

This is the fourth 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.

making it all workTime management. Money management. Health management. Management of your stuff. Relationship management.

All of those things (and a lot more) boil down to is self-management. What is your capacity for determining what needs to be done in your life and actually executing those things that need to be done?

Can you see what needs to be done?

Do you have the ability to do the things that need to be done?

Allen boils this all down, on page 61:

The two key ingredients for making it all work are:


The more control you have, the better. The more perspective you have, the better.

Allen subdivides levels of control and perspective into four distinct areas. Of course, it’s worth noting that we all find ourselves in each of these areas sometimes, but typically one of these areas dominates our lives and life choices.

Victim / Responder
Low Control, Low Perspective
Allen sums up what life is like for a “victim/responder” on page 63:

In a self-management context, this means that you are simply dealing with only the latest and the loudest. You are likely doing “emergency scanning” of voice mails and e-mails, letting the not-yet-critical stuff mount up in heaps, dealing exclusively with the tasks you have to do at the moment.

When I read this description, I couldn’t help but think of how every task in a person’s life has two key characteristics: urgency and importance. A victim/responder simply does all of the urgent tasks without worrying much at all about their actual importance.

To put it simply, if this description sounds like your life, then serious changes are in order. There are times when we all find ourselves here – dealing with crises, handling minor things, and so on. However, without the ability to step back from this state (preferably, the ability to step back quite often), we become numb to the bigger issues and simply just focus on whatever happens to be on our plate, whether it’s important or not. That’s not a route to any kind of success.

Micromanager / Implementer
High Control, Low Perspective
So, what about the “micromanager”? From page 65:

This is the natural domain of the proverbial bean-counter, the financial guy who, if he wields too much power, strangles a company by cutting off investment in innovation, design, and research. […] Another typical example of this sort of thinking is the person who, instead of having nothing well organized, has nothing, well organized.

We’ve all come across this in our lives: people who have built their own little empires and rule over them with an iron fist. They’re completely in control of some very minor situation and you have to follow their arcane rules to gain access to what they’re controlling.

Perhaps this is your boss or an administrative assistant you have to regularly deal with. Perhaps it’s you.

In either case, the key to growing beyond this paradigm is to step back and ask yourself what sort of role your area of control plays in the lives of others. Are you sacrificing successful interaction with others to keep more control over your own situation? Are you making life difficult for the people who need your help simply so you can maintain control over one or two minor things?

Could you be more productive and more helpful to the people around you if you focused on the bigger picture of what’s going on in the organization rather than the narrow focus of the area you control?

I keep thinking of the mind-numbing amounts of paperwork I had to do at my previous job. There were many, many instances where a smoother framework could have been introduced, but to do so would mean loss of a bit of control for a short period during the transition, so such improvements were constantly shot down – to the detriment of all.

“Crazy Maker” / Visionary
Low Control, High Perspective
The opposite of the micromanager is discussed on page 67: the “visionary”:

[T]hey have too many ideas in proportion to the amount getting done, they take on too many commitments vis-a-vis available resources, and they make everyone around them nuts by random and uncontrolled directives. Their systems and behaviors are not functioning to capture and contain all of their creative output.

I find myself in this area quite a lot of the time. I have more ideas than I know what to do with or possibly have time to follow up on. Quite often, I don’t filter them enough and begin engaging in too many projects.

In other words, I have the perspective I need to set long-term ideas and carry through with them, but sometimes I fail to have the control needed to pick and choose amoing those long-term ideas.

Think of the person you know who always has some sort of great idea but seems to have difficulty following through on them – you’re looking at a visionary. Perhaps it’s you.

I think that in many cases, visionaries and micromanagers can make a great team if they trust each other and listen to each other and give into each other on occasion.

“Captain & Commander”
High Control, High Perspective
However, it’s this final status that is the most valuable for almost everyone to have. On page 69:

The ideal of the model I’m proposing here incorporates an appropriate mix of perspective and structure, with your energies and focus directed by an internal rather than an external source. This is the state of flow, of being in the zone, of being “on.”

The success factor here isn’t what you’re doing or how much of it you’re doing, but how you’re engaged with what you’re doing. Why are you doing it? How are you doing it? What’s the end goal? How will you get there? When you have all of that inside of you and you’re able to simply throw yourself into the task at hand to the point of losing track of time and simply getting things done, you’re there.

How do you get there? Allen points back at what I consider to be the fundamental principle of the Getting Things Done model: simply get all of those spare ideas and thoughts and plans for other things out of your head and into some trusted system. Write them down and put them in a place that you’ll review later.

The more I do that, the easier I find it to simply slip into the flow, where all that matters is getting stuff done in a sensible way.

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