Making It All Work: Getting perspective at 20,000 feet: areas of focus and responsibility

This is the fourteenth 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.

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.

What, exactly, are areas of focus? I think the best way to spell this out is to give you some examples from my own life.

Areas of focus, as Allen describes them on page 228:

This level functions as an abstraction of your reality, a tightly focused series of ten to fifteen categories in areas that you are particularly responsible for, interested in, or pay special attention to, just to keep your ship afloat and sailing steadily.

I’ve considered what my areas of focus are many times in the past few years and I’d probably list them as follows:
Writing Simple Dollar content
Writing other content
Responding to readers
Maintaining websites
Personal finances
My marriage
Teaching my children
My health
Family activities
Household maintenance
Friendships and family
Community/civic service

I would say that these areas pretty much define all of the things that I focus on with any significance. Every project I take on fits into one or more of these areas of focus, and all of these areas of focus are part of at least one broader goal or mission in life.

So, what use does this have? For me, the real value in knowing these areas of focus is that when I review things once a week, I can look at each of these areas and ask myself, simply, “Are things up to snuff in this area?”

Let me explain what I mean. Within each of these areas, I’ll have a bunch of little one-off tasks and some broader projects that I’m working on during any given week. During a certain week, though, I might be spending a lot of time on the “gaming” and on the “friendships” and not as much on the “family” part of things – for example, when I go to a gaming convention like GenCon. Or, another example: I might spend a week where I’m focused on writing a book – the “writing other content” part of things – and I spend less time focused on household maintenance.

When I reflect on these areas at the end of the week, I can usually identify which areas in my life that I’ve been neglecting recently and make a conscious choice to focus more on that area in the next week. This is a self-correcting mechanism – it ensures that I don’t let some aspect of my life get away from me while I’m too focused on other things.

Allen puts it this way, on page 233:

Often the benefits of visiting the more elevated horizons will be the opportunity to indentify a number of important topics that have had your attention but that have tended, at least initially, to lurk further back in the recesses of your mind.

Now, one interesting thing to note is that this isn’t strictly hierarchical. Most of my projects are tied to one or more areas of focus, but it isn’t a matter of each project strictly being a part of a specific area of focus. If I have a project that involves teaching my son how to multiply, then I know it’s part of my focus of teaching my children things.

But what does a game night on Saturday evening fall into? It’s about friends. It’s about gaming. It’s also about household maintenance – we’ll have to clean up and get everything ready. It touches on other areas, too – parenting, my health, my marriage.

The important question I ask myself at the end of the week is whether or not my efforts in each area of focus were substantial during that week. If they were not, then I know that I need to either focus more heavily on that area of my life in the coming week or, if I’m consistently not putting any effort into that area, rethink that area entirely.

Allen concurs in a simple way on page 234:

Twenty-thousand-feet themes do not lend themselves as such to specific projects, but rather they serve as reminders and affirmations of activities that we simply want to be doing and thinking about more consistently – reading more, exercising more, paying a little more attention to the extended family, being open to more ways to assist in the community, being more conscientious about health, diet, and exercise habits, and so on.

In other words, the big reason for thinking about this level is to make sure our day-to-day activities are in balance and on track. When you keep backing up from here, you start to get into broader areas that focus not only on what you’re doing today, but project ahead into the future.

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