Making It All Work – Getting perspective on the runway: next actions

This is the eleventh 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.

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    'Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and the Business of Life,' David Allen, Penguin Group (USA), December 2008, 256pp.
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Starting with this chapter, Making It All Work spends some time focusing on how to determine what’s actually important (and unimportant) and how to prioritize things at each level of focus in one’s life, moving from your to-do list all the way up to your overall life goals. For me, these chapters were the real value of the book, because they gave me a framework to step back and really re-evaluate what my priorities were in each area.

The first chapter focuses on your “next actions” – in other words, your immediate to-do list of stuff you need to get done in the next few days. Allen, on page 210:

Wash the car, call your mom, draft a proposal, talk to your boss about a new idea, surf the Web for a gift for your brother, buy nails at the hardware store, check your voice mail.

This category refers to all the physical, visible actions that you can take. They could be the next things to do on your projects or larger outcomes, or simply single-step eventsthat you pursue because of some area of interest or responsibility.

To put it simply, this is the kind of stuff that your to-do list should be composed of each day: specific tasks broken down so that you don’t have to think about what to do in the heat of the moment. Your only decision should revolve around which one to do next.

How can you make that decision easier? Interestingly, Allen points to having a complete to-do list on page 211:

You will automatically feel better about what you’re doing if the invesntory of defined actions available to you is as complete as possible. At the risk of stating the overly obvious, the more aware you are of what you’ve told yourself you need to get done, and the more accessible the options are for you to consider, the more you will trust your plan of attack and your choices about the actions you’re not taking.

Think about it this way. Imagine you’re looking at your to-do list and it’s as complete as you can possibly make it. You know everything you need to do is on that list, so you can just look through the items, pick the one that feels the most important or relevant to the moment, and run with it.

On the other hand, imagine you’re looking through your to-do list, but as you’re looking, your mind is constantly coming up with things that you need to be doing that aren’t on your list. Should you do something on your list … or one of those ideas that popped up in your head?

This is why the list preparation process is so important and why it’s well worth investing the time in getting a system rolling that can create this kind of thorough list for you. By doing it, you no longer have to think in the heat of the moment. You can just glance at your options and move forward with great confidence.

That sounds great, but it feels unapproachable. How can a person be that organized? Allen touches on this question on page 213:

In our two-day intesnive coaching with individuals, usually 90 percent of the program is focused on this horizon, simply because its approach is so unfamiliar and the volume of material to deal with is so sizable.

Trust me, it can be done, but it takes a lot of upfront work. In fact, it takes so much upfront work that for a long time, I didn’t believe that the work would ever be worth it. Yet, in the end, I find that every single day, my day is made smoother by having this list of genuinely important specific tasks. I am able to move from item to item much, much faster than before and I can focus on the item while I’m doing it with a depth that didn’t happen before.

The startup time was immense, but the rewards I get from all of that effort – turning all of the stuff in my life into a to-do list – is something that rewards me greatly every single day.

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