Making It All Work: getting perspective

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.

Penguin Group (USA)
'Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and the Business of Life,' David Allen, Penguin Group (USA), December 2008, 256pp.

This is the exact point at which the book moved from an interesting rearrangement of the ideas in Getting Things Done to something on an entirely different level: a deep, critical look at life priorities and how they affect what you do on many different levels.

Why spend half of the book on effectively remaking Getting Things Done, then? Simply put, it’s foundational material for the rest. Without some sort of sensible system for keeping track of all of the things you have to do, you’re going to be spending most of your long-term focus on simply keeping tab on things without the space to really think deeply and figure out the larger directions in your life and how they connect with the day-to-day elements of your life.

In other words, Getting Things Done is akin to forming a strong foundation upon which you can conceive and build some of the great things in your life. Without it, you’re building on top of sand – all of it is inherently weakened because you don’t have control of the day-to-day in your life.

Allen looks at it from a somewhat different angle on page 200:

Let’s assume that, having read or listened to the first part of the book, you’ve gotten things under control. Now the question is: Where do you put your focus? The purpose of getting control in the first place is to be able to be clear of distraction. But why? And distraction from what?

In other words, when you’ve got a good grip on what needs to be done, the next step is to back off a bit and figure out, in a broader way, what actually needs to be done. That requires perspective and consistent reflection.

Allen spends a lot of this chapter looking at this issue through a very specific example: reading materials. We all have a lot of reading materials that we’d like to get to someday (I know I certainly do).

That accumulation of material in itself is a problem. It’s just a pile with no real priority within it. Which of these is actually the most important to read? Page 101:

What, of all the things you’ve captured that you think you ought to read, should you really be reading? Here comes the perspective part. Is there material in that stack that was interesting a while ago but has since lost its luster for you? Which of the reading is truly important for you?

When I consistently asked these questions of myself and of the books I had on my shelves, I came to some very fundamental conclusions about what I was doing wrong.

First, having a big shelf full of books that I’m not going to read anytime soon is a waste. Why have them? They’re sitting around taking up space and often distracting me from what I might actually want to read. If I want to have a big list of “someday” books, why not just have a big list of “someday” books instead of a big waste of space?

Second, the decision on what book to read next is often best made when I’ve finished a book and am selecting another one. Having a strict “queue” often resulted in frustration. I’d come to the next book that I had decided long ago would be the next one and I’d realize that my interest in that book had passed. I’d try to force myself through it, but then I’d burn completely out on it and get nothing out of the hours I’d invested in the book.

Because I stepped back and really thought about my accumulated books and reading habits, I came to some very different conclusions than I had held before and it’s made my reading habits much more efficient. Rather than spending my time accumulating books for a bookshelf, books that I might get around to reading someday, I’m just reading the book that looks the most interesting to me, deciding whether to keep or trade it when I’m finished, and moving on to the next one. If I know of a book I want to read now, I reserve it at the library – if I finally get that reserved book and it’s no longer of interest to me, I just return it immediately.

Why did this happen? I used to think about reading from a longer term perspective quite a lot, but I began to find that although my interest in reading is a higher level life value, my specific choice of reading material was actually often a day-to-day thing. I’m far better off choosing my books on a whim (or from an accumulated list of “to be read” books) than I am trying to decide a queue far in advance.

Thus, I spend much less of my time thinking about books in a “meta” sense and much more time doing the actual, enjoyable reading, which is what I really enjoyed spending my time on to begin with.

That kind of thought process can be used in almost every aspect of our lives, from how we manage our money to how we choose to spend our lazy afternoons. Our day-to-day actions are often tied to larger goals and ideas that we rarely think about consciously, but if we step back and think about them for a while, we often easily find better ways of doing things in our day-to-day lives.

The next several chapters focus on these types of perspective shifts.

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