Making It All Work – The GTD Phenomenon

This is the second 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 workLast time, we talked about procrastination and why people avoid projects that have unclear parameters – “the purpose, the boundaries, the contents, and the rules.”

As I’ve mentioned before, the real benefit of Making It All Work is that it takes the invaluable time management tactics of Getting Things Done and places them in a broader context, relating, on a deep level, the individual choices you make today to the broader directions and responsibilities of your life. To put it simply, Getting Things Done helped me to do more, while Making It All Work made me think more about what I was doing.

Allen starts all of this off by using GTD as a foundation, which makes sense. GTD focuses heavily on the “immediate” aspects of task and time management – what are you going to do right now? How will you make sure that the task you were given right now will be done in the immediate future? How do you maximize your focus right now? Allen (on page 14) identifies four key elements that explains why GTD has worked for so many (myself included):

First of all, the concepts work, in an understandable and logical way.
Second, they are easily implemented, by anyon, at any time, with common tools everyone has.
Third, the problems that GTD addresses, and the awareness of them, continue to grow steadily and globally.
Fourth, the model corresponds to something deeper and more intuitive that resonates in the human psyche at many levels.

I agree with all of these. The GTD system is simple and makes sense. The challenge of it – for me – is simply that my life is so stuffed with things that need doing that I often have a very hard time purely keeping up with all of the stuff I need to do. The system, when it’s humming, does a better job of managing all of that than anything I’ve tried.

Why does it work? For me, it comes down to one thing: focus. The entire point of the system is to eliminate distractions from your work so you can focus on the immediate thing that you’re doing. From page 33:

GTD is primarily about focus – eliminating the things that distract it and giving you tools that facilitate your ability to direct that focus toward what you need, in the way you need it, and on when you need to do it.

Why is focus so important? This is the factor I find most compelling about GTDit advocates what I would describe as the opposite of multitasking. Instead of dealing with a bunch of things at once – answering the phone, remembering messages, writing a report – GTD is all about handling them one at a time. If you have something you need to focus on, write down the things you need to remember for later and put them in a trusted system, then eliminate as many distractions as you possibly can. This will allow you to get the task at hand done better and faster than you would have possibly thought.

Here’s the thing, though: our modern world often pushes us to lower and lower sustained periods of concentration and more and more elements of distraction and interruption. On page 36:

New technologies like email, BlackBerrys, instant messaging, cell phones, and the like have brought to the fore the question of the potential costs of sub-clinical distractability, and study after study has attempted to document the business downside to the lack of focus such phenomena foster. Their real economic sots are hard to measure, but inferences can be drawn from documented statistics about the decrease in average concentration time and increase in interruptions. Companies have consequently tried to institute such polieice as “no email Fridays” and “quiet hours” not only to curb the inefficiences that result from the psychic noise, but also to give sufficient breathing room for the reflective, creative process that some are savvy enough to recognize as strategically important for their knowledge workers.

The ability to handle such distraction is beneficial in some ways and really harmful in others.

It benefits the person by enabling them to deal with a diverse set of small tasks quite well. If you’re able to accept input from a lot of different sources and can deal with the individual pieces quickly, then effective distractibility and quick attention switching can pay dividends.

The problem appears when you start looking at jobs that reward creative thinking and sustained focus. In such jobs, being easily distractable is a big minus.

Not being easily distractible is also important when you’re doing individual planning and long-term thinking. Focus is rewarded when you’re setting goals and trying to work towards them.

This is why GTD pairs so well with the core ideas of Making It All Workthe ability to think creatively and focus on your life at a higher level than “what needs to be done today” or “what needs to be done this week” is essential for planning a very bright future.

There’s another problem at work here: how do people manage to do this long-term thinking if they’re living a life full of distractions? The simple answer is that they entrust it to their subconscious in a way. Their psyche grabs ahold of the important threads of their life and hangs on tight. From page 41:

The way most people seem to operate is by entrusting only their psyche to manage what’s incomplete. But the mind then tries to keep all the agreements simultaneously, which is impossible. The result is the pardox that by contunially attempting to relieve the stress of unfinished work, more stress is created.

To put it simply, our brains don’t really prioritize well unless we put active thought into prioritizing and get things straightened out externally (with a to-do list or a calendar, for example). Instead, when we have a bunch of unfinished stuff, our subconscious grabs on to all of it, and since it doesn’t really have a sense of what comes first, we feel overwhelmed and stressed out.

Here’s an example: I’m sitting in my office writing this article. Right now, my son is downstairs with a touch of the flu, and I have a desire to go check up on him (Sarah’s down there, too). However, I also know that if I spend my time torn between two things I feel like I should be doing (checking on my son and writing the article), neither one will get done very well and I’ll just feel stressed out. I’ll sit here at my desk, thinking about my son off and on, and I won’t be focused on getting this article done.

You can back off even further than that, in a way. I also know, on some level, all of the different responsibilities and things to do I have going on in my life right now. I have to schedule a couple of meetings. I have to get an agenda written and electronically distributed. I’m worried about my daughter’s progress with potty training. I’m concerned as to whether I’m a good husband or a good parent.

All of that stuff – and a lot more – clogs my mind up if I let it. It makes it much more difficult for me to focus on the specific task at hand. With all of that floating around, I can’t truly focus on the task of writing this article.

What’s the solution? On page 42, Allen outlines it:

In order to relieve the pressure of broken self-agreements, you must know that:

+ You have captured, clarified, and organized your commitments, at all horizons, and
+ You will consciously engage with them as often as you need to.

The GTD system does a great job of handling the commitments at nearby horizons – “what do you need to be doing right now.” Where Making It All Work succeeds is at the further horizons. How do I get the issue of being a good husband and a good parent out of my mind (which means that the task I’m working on is slower) and into some sort of thought-out context where I have time to think about what I need to do and have those tasks available in such a way that they’re just a normal part of my trusted systems?

That’s really what this book is all about, and it’s incredibly empowering.

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