Today I received an email from a friend who had been flirting with the concepts of Getting Things Done for quite a while. He had followed Lifehacker off and on, read a few articles elsewhere, and even tried implementing some of the concepts, albeit minimally, in his own life. What he observed, however, was that most GTD-users seem to be hyper-organized, hyper-busy, and lacking in perspective. He was right, and that’s exactly what David Allen observes in his new book, Making It All Work, albeit not quite as bluntly as my friend put it. GTD can, however, work wonders, if you remember to work the whole system. In fact, it’s pretty simple…
Working the full Getting Things Done system breaks down to four essential steps:
- Understand and Remember that Perspective and Control Are Equally Important — I can’t overemphasize this step enough. The key to a balanced life is understanding that perspective and control are equally important. Allen argues that, in order to enjoy a fulfilled life, you need to know what you want and then take steps to get it. This statement seems painfully obvious to most of us, but take a moment to think about your life. Do you really know what you want? Do you know what you want personally? Professionally? In your relationships with your family and friends? With the world around you? Perhaps more importantly, do you know how to get it? If most of us are really honest, the answer is no. We find ourselves in situations every day where we’re not sure what we want or don’t know how to get it. Some of the situations seem unimportant–what to eat for lunch, for example–and some much more so–like making a major career decision or deciding to get married. Each of us face these challenges every day, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s normal. But the first step to successfully mastering your life is understanding that, in any situation, having both perspective and control will give you the tools you need to make the best decisions possible and get satisfying, fulfilling results.
- Take Steps to Get Control — Once you understand that both perspective and control are necessary, it’s time to start getting some of each. Allen rightly starts with control, since most people have too much noise and face too many distractions to properly get perspective without first creating a sense of organization in their lives and taking a thorough inventory of their personal and professional obligations. Wikipedia provides a decent overview of Allen’s steps to gain control here, though you should really check out the book if you haven’t already.
- Take Steps to Gain Perspective –After you’ve gained some control of your life, it’s time to gain some perspective. The weekly review, which we’ve discussed previously, is a critical first step in this process. Creating and regularly reviewing horizons of focus, however, is even more important. Briefly, horizons of focus are the various levels at which you have commitments to yourself and others. They start small, at the project level, and continue to grow in size and abstraction. Considering these horizons, however, is critical to knowing what you want and achieving perspective.
- Repeat — It should probably go without saying, but this is a cyclical process. Gaining perspective actual fuels the need to shift priorities and take actions, thus restarting the loop. As you realize what projects and commitments you’ve taken on that don’t meet your priorities, you’ll begin to shift your focus. Likewise, as you realize those people and projects that really matter to you, you’ll want to spend more time in those areas.
It’s important to note that Allen’s system doesn’t just apply to work; it applies to your entire life. GTD users may seem life they work harder than others and may appear “hyper-organized,” but those who truly understand the system and work it properly are actually quite better off. If your priority is your family, friends, or significant other, so be it. If your hobby is more important to you than getting a raise at your job, that’s okay. The key is to figure out what matters to you and then act accordingly.
Most GTD users forget, or perhaps never even realize that steps 1 and 3 exist. They don’t understand that what’s really necessary is a balance between control and perspective. This balance can only be reached by conducting weekly reviews and periodic assessments of the horizons of focus just as faithfully as creating next actions and organizing them by context. Succeeding at the “game of work and the business of life,” as Allen puts it, is about deciding what you want (perspective) and then choosing and enacting the steps necessary to make it so (control).
Although it’s certainly normal for people to have differing levels of control and perspective at any given point (in a day, a year, or their entire lives), anyone who tries to “get organized” without taking steps to gain both perspective and control will find themselves out of sync, with only an imbalanced, chaotic life to show for it.