Making It All Work – getting perspective at 50,000 feet: purpose and principles

This is the seventeenth 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.

Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? How do I achieve that purpose?

At first glance, these seem like rather vague questions. Most people, if you sit down with them, don’t have a purpose in life, at least not one that they can clearly articulate. We just don’t spend much time – if any – thinking of our lives on that level.

There’s a good reason for that, of course. Such thoughts have incredibly low urgency, particulary compared to the business of day-to-day living. Things like “why am I here” often pale compared to the more direct needs of finishing a work project, preparing dinner, cleaning the house, making sure our son makes it to basketball practice, and so on.

As a matter of course, we almost always put the non-urgent things on the back burner and focus on the urgent things, while ignoring how truly important the various tasks are. Never is this more true than when we address the big questions in our lives – there’s always something more urgent to do.

I find a statement of purpose to be incredibly useful not just for my broad life, but for the specific large things I choose to do. Allen riffs on this a bit on page 251:

On an individual basis, an equivalent personal statement of purpose would represent the highest criterion for direction and meaning. “I exist as a human being to…” On more mundane horizons, it could involve clarification of your purpose for having a family, planting a garden, serving as an officer of a local chamber of commerce, or organizing a bake sale for a local charity.

Why do you do such things? Why do you exist as a human being? For that matter, why do you plant a garden? Why do you go to work?

It took me a long time to really piece through such questions in my own life. For the longest time, I was motivated by what I thought I was supposed to be doing or what others told me I should be doing. For me, such things are incredibly poor reasons to do anything, particularly over the long haul.

The longer I looked at my own life, the more I began to realize that I found success with things when I had an internal reason for doing them. The professional projects that I’m most proud of in my life were fueled by some sort of internal desire or drive. I had a “why” for doing each one of them. The same is true for every personal success – my “reason” for dating my wife, for example, was probably the strongest of any woman I ever knew.

In short, if you have difficulty stating “why” you’re doing something – or that reason isn’t something that really moves you – it’s going to be hard for you to succeed. On the flip side of that, the stronger your “why,” the more likely you are to find success.

This realization led me to spend a lot more time thinking about what I wanted out of life. What really moves me? Helping others moves me. Providing entertainment and provoking thinking in others – or in myself – moves me. This explains, to a degree, why I love to both read and write and why I love to both play and design games.

Here’s the thing, though. These conclusions didn’t come to me in a vacuum. They came to me as a result of doing lots of things in life, thinking about the things I’d done and why I’d done them, and figuring out which ones had meaning for me.

Allen touches on this on page 253:

Too often, though, the admonition to discover and clarify life and organizational purpose has created inordinate pressure to have all the answers before their is sufficient commitment to getting involved and being fully engaged.

In other words, starting with your purpose will usually end in failure. Do stuff, then step back and start drawing some conclusions from that. Without some real experiences to draw from, it’s nearly impossible to really understand what drives you forward to accomplish things.

Of course, a purpose rests upon a set of principles – basic rules that govern how we act in life. These work hand in hand with purpose, often channeling the purpose into something more specific that’s deeply in line with what you believe and desire. Honesty. Constant self-improvement. Being supportive of your spouse. Being in service to your community. These are examples of the types of principles people choose to govern their life by.

Why are such things important? Allen really sums it up at the end of the chapter:

As a general rule, the more you explore and identify what you personally consider the most essential factors and features of your life, the more solid your reference point for the times when you have to make tough choices. Is this decision really in keeping with my purpose? Does it line up with what I consider really important? That’s the kind of perspective that provides the greatest ballast for staying in control in deep seas and rough weather.

In other words, the more time you spend refining your purpose and principles and really trying to understand why you’re here, the more they will help you when you need to make decisions, like telling people yes or no at key moments or deciding where to go next at a career crossroads.

Just remember, though, that actions come first. Principles and purpose are drawn from experience. Through experience, we begin to understand what things work for us and feel “right” to us – and which things do not.

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