Making It All Work – in the real world

This is the nineteenth 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.

Much of this book focuses not on the day-to-day actions that fill our lives, but on a broader view of them. Goals, purpose, principles, areas of focus – they seem very grandiose and fairly unapproachable at first glance and not important, at least not in the sense of a day-to-day busy life.

Here’s the thing, though – they’re incredibly important. Over the last few years, I’ve found that much of the time and money I once spent in my life wasn’t tied to any sort of greater life perspective. It was all about the “now” – and when the “now” shifted into the past, I was left with a present that felt very empty. I basically felt like I wasn’t going anywhere at all in life, that it was fairly empty and hopeless. I would often dream that my “future self” would somehow magically solve everything – he would have money and fame and fortune and all the answers – but I also knew that I was never going to miraculously turn into that great “future self.”

I was merely running in place and I really had only myself to blame.

Over the last few years, I’ve strived to fix that, and both of Allen’s books (this one and Getting Things Done) have helped greatly in that journey, along with a pile of personal finance books and other materials.

What I’ve found is that there is no one “ready-made” solution for getting your life in order. The reason I like Allen’s books so well – and many of the other books that have helped along the way – is that, while they usually offer a “system” of some kind, that “system” is usually just composed of a big mountain of individual tips from which a thoughtful person can pull what they need to build their own system.

What do I mean by “system”? Allen spells it out pretty well on page 269:

There’s nothing like having outstanding tools, comfortable environments, and simple behavioral tricks to turbocharge your productivity. It’s easier to win a game and conduct successful business with proper gear, a conducive atmosphere, and some smart habits and rituals that support the best practices.

In other words, a “system” is merely all of the bits and pieces that enable you to go through life at your absolute best as much as possible.

Allen spends most of this chapter outlining some of his most useful “bits and pieces” for the system that works for him – and I’ve actually found most of them are useful for me, too. Here are the ones that Allen mentions that also click with me.

Ensure that you have great capturing tools I need to constantly have the ability to jot down the things that come into my mind and put them in a place that I know is secure and reliable. Without that, spare thoughts – appointments, things to be done, books to find out more about, etc. – begin to fill my head, distracting me from whatever task is at hand. When I’m at my computer, I use Evernote. When I’m elsewhere, I usually just use a pen and a pad.

Set up your calendar and action list manager A good reliable calendar is essential, as is a tool that helps you keep track of your “next action” list – your to-do list, in other words. I use Google Calendar for my calendaring needs. I have tried lots of different systems for a “next action” list manager, but I keep going back to Remember the Milk, which just brings more features that I need to the table than any other such service.

Set up ad hoc list functionality For me, this mostly means a list of my ongoing projects as well as a list of sorts for each project outlining where I think it needs to be going. I don’t keep these in Remember the Milk – instead, I use Google Docs for these because they tend to be a bit more free-form than just an ordinary list.

Structure effective personal office, home, and transit workstations I’ll admit that my home office often isn’t in the order I’d like it to be in – that’s an ongoing challenge for me. However, my “transit workstation” – my laptop bag – is probably more useful than my home office. I keep my laptop in there, along with several different chargers, a notepad, plenty of pens, and so on, along with some source material for at least a few articles. Why is this so important? I know that at any moment, I can grab this bag and be professionally functional for several days almost no matter where I go.

Complete mind sweeps For me, a big part of being able to focus on the task at hand relies on having as clear a mind as possible. I achieve this (in part) through mind sweeps – in other words, I write down everything that’s on my mind (usually with each discrete thought on a separate line or on a separate small piece of paper) and throw them all into my inbox. From there…

Incorporate time for processing Processing is a key part of making all of this work. Once or twice a day, I process my inbox, meaning I take each item that’s in there and figure out what to do with it. Is it a new entry on my to-do list? Is it a calendar entry? Is it something I can do right away? Is it an email? Whatever it is, I deal with it and get it out of my inbox and into some other place that makes more sense than a catch-all.

Build in the weekly operational review Once a week (usually on a weekend day when my wife is putting the kids down for a nap), I spend an hour or so reviewing the week. I make sure that there isn’t anything clogged in the inbox, go through my project list and make sure they’re all moving forward, and so on.

Create elevated horizon events Once every three months or so, I have a long weekly review, taking two or three hours. During these, I step back and try to look at everything going on in my life from a broader perspective. Is everything in line with what I value most? Is my life headed towards the picture I have for it in five or ten years?

Every great system is made up of useful pieces. These are just some of mine – at least, the ones brought to my plate by David Allen.

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