'Making It All Work' In 60 Seconds

Wednesday Jan 14th 2009 by Mike Elgan

The power of concentration, along with a few helpful Web-based tools, can improve your productivity markedly.

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a column in this space called "Getting Things Done In 60 Seconds." The piece was a practical, immediately usable summary of David Allen's popular productivity book, "Getting Things Done.

I wrote that column after discovering that many people want to embrace Allen's system, but never do so because, ironically, they're too busy, overworked and stressed out to focus on it. (I guess that's like being too fat to exercise.)

So for that column I created a stripped down method based on "Getting Things Done" (GTD) that anyone could read in one minute and use immediately. I hoped my column would save readers enough time that they'd be able to go buy Allen's book and embrace the whole system.

Based on the e-mail I received -- and still receive -- my scheme worked. My 60-second column was just the nudge some people needed to jump on the GTD bandwagon.

"Getting Things Done," was Allen's first book, which launched an empire and a following (or, as Wired Magazine called it, a "cult of hyperefficiency"). His follow-on, "Ready for Anything," was a welcome addition to the program.

Two weeks ago, however, Allen published a new book called, "Making It All Work."

I consider this book a must read for anyone who intends to ever accomplish anything. The reason is that it focuses on two very powerful concepts. The first is the idea of self-management -- managing yourself as if you're your own employee. Time management? Ha! "You can't really manage time," according to Allen. "What you can manage is yourself." In a nutshell, you manage yourself best when you maximize both perspective and control. This is really what "Getting Things Done" teaches you how to do. "Making It All Work" helps you understand self-management better and put it into practice more effectively.

But the second idea exactly identifies the true source of productivity: Control over attention.

In mid-December, I wrote a column in this space called, "Hard Work Is Dead. Call it 'Work Ethic 2.0.'" In that column, I quoted New York Times columnist David Brooks as saying, that "control of attention is the ultimate individual power." He added: "People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them."

Typical of his laconic style, Allen nails this concept even more concisely in his new book by saying: "Power = Concentration."

Counterintuitively, control over attention is the most powerful result of effective self-management and, indeed, the whole "Getting Things Done" system. The knowledge that all your projects and tasks are in your "trusted system," that they'll all be handled according to your own priorities and on time, allows you to ignore all that "stuff" with a clear conscience and focus on the task in front of you.

So here's what you need to know about "Making It All Work":

• It will pay for itself in both time and money.

• You can read a tiny section at a time, just 10 minute per day.

• If you want to be maximally productive, read each of Allen's three books, one small section at a time, a bit each day. When you're done with the entire series, start over and read it again. It will inform and inspire.

• The system works not by turning you into a calculating workaholic, but by 1) clearing your mind of distractions; 2) making sure nothing falls through the cracks; and 3) helping you make better decisions about what to do and when.

So there you have it: "Making It All Work" in 60 seconds.

As a bonus, here are four tools Allen doesn't mention, but which I personally recommend for maximizing GTD productivity:

Re:Snooze - This free service (donations are welcome) sends you e-mails at whatever frequency you tell it -- daily, weekly, annually, or any other frequency.

Reqall - Think of a task while you're away from your desk? Hit speed dial and start talking. Reqall (also free) transcribes your spoken words into written e-mail, delivered to your inbox.

Evernote - Like Microsoft's OneNote, Evernote is a free-form do-it-all place to organize everything. You can scan (or take camera-phone pictures of) stuff, and it will scan it, so you can actually do text searches for words that appear in the pictures. A basic implementation of GDT involves lists of both tasks, and projects, which include project-specific tasks. Evernote is a powerful place to maintain all that. Press the Alt key and click, and you get a to-do list style check box. The online site syncs with your desktop application, so you can access your stuff from any computer or even from your cell phone.

Backpack - Ideal for managers, Backpack is a free-form place more or less usable like Evernote. But it has more features tailored to workgroups -- for example, a group calendar. Generally speaking, I would recommend Evernote for home-office, freelance, consultant or other information-intensive professional with staff to manage, and Backpack for managers who work in offices or need to function as part of ongoing workgroups (and who can expense it -- the service costs at least $24 per month).

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