Book Notes: Making it All Work

Something new I’m going to try doing this year is book notes. I’m continually more bought into the idea that writing down your thoughts helps you harden and remember them. Books take a lot of time to read: if I’m going to invest the time in a book, I should be ok investing another ~hour in calcifying the lessons I learned—so that’s what I’m going to try to do. This should help me better filter what books to read: if it’s not worth spending the time to write the notes, I probably shouldn’t read the book (obviously excluding entertainment-only reading).

Here are the notes for Making it All Work. The book wasn’t great, I wouldn’t read it unless you haven’t read Getting Things Done and are new to personal productivity. Here are the notes! Enjoy.

Improving your productivity system

  • David Allen has a zen feel to how he describes things. Meditation, and the idea of generally being self-aware about what you are thinking, feeling, experiencing, etc is a very useful tool. When I sat back and thought about how I ‘felt’ when trying to work on something, I was able to identify various little blockers and better determine what the best thing to do at the moment is. In other words, being aware of where you aren’t performing well is key to improving. This takes time & effort.
  • For instance, there were times I just felt distracted and I didn’t have any state of a specific project ‘loaded up’ in my mind. When I already have ideas around a project, email, etc ‘loaded’ into my mind I can work much more quickly on executing. Doing something physical—kettlebell swings, going for a run, pull-ups, etc—can shift me out of a distracted mode and convince my mind to focus its attention on the next project. I find that this sort of ‘focus shift’ using something physical can help when I’m switching between projects.
    • I find this is true with parenting too. If your kid is in a bad mood / having a meltdown, shifting the physical environment can solve the problem. When my toddler is having a meltdown I suggest we go on a "barefoot walk" around the neighborhood (I’m weird and like walking without shoes on) and she immediately stops crying is ready to go.

And frankly, if you have any thought more than once, in the same way about the same subject, you’re probably involved in unnecessary work and exhausting your creative energy.

Thinking about the same thing over and over is a ‘process smell’: you aren’t clear on what you need to do next and don’t trust your system.

Paying attention to what has your attention

Good catchphrase from the book that encompasses this.

GTD is fundamentally much more about mind management than about time management

Time management tools have never worked well for me, but GTD has.

Given the vast changes in speed, volume, and ambiguity of what grabs our attention these days, we face an increasing need to have an “extended mind” that can truly relieve the pressure from our psyche and free it up for more valuable work.

I have felt the increase in information throughput in my life and have spent a lot of time intentionally decreasing it. The other half of the equation is developing processes and systems to help manage the information you do ne ed to care about. Todoist and Obsidian have been helpful here, but I need to continue to improve my processes.

Create clarity about your work

  • He talks a lot about ‘task dumping’: getting everything you are thinking about dumped somewhere where you know you are going to look at it again. I’ve made this an obsessive habit over the last decade, but reflecting on it I need to do better at this in the mornings. I pray & read every morning, and tasks / projects can distract me during this time. Having a pad of paper (explicitly not using your phone, since it can be distracting just to have it around) to jot down thoughts to ‘clear’ them from your mind is an effective practice for me that I need to get better at.
    • He defines this as "accepting, clarifying, sorting, reflecting, and engaging". I think this is a good articulation of the process we need to go through before intentionally working on the right thing.
  • Chunking down loosely defined tasks (I use todoist) is something I don’t spend time on right now. Without a clearly defined next action, it’s hard to complete the task, and it takes extra cognitive overhead to start working on the task (because it has multiple components).
  • An easy improvement here for me is task splitting. If there’s a large task, even if it’s well defined, I can punt the ‘large’ task to be due in the future, and add a simple next action to my near-term todo list.
    • This applies to parenting too. A task can seem complex and overwhelming to kids, even if they have done it before and seems obvious to you. "Unload the dishwasher" is more ambiguous than "put the forks and spoons away that are in the bottom of the dishwasher". I’ve seen breaking down the task for my kids be an important way of getting them engaged with a project more.
  • In my todo list, there are a bunch of investigative tasks. Writing or researching something I’m interested in. This could be anything from thinking about a parenting problem with my wife, investigating a new productivity tool like Raycast, implementing a new health habit, etc. These are rarely ever things I’m going to be able to complete in one sitting, and I’m rarely able to do more than one per day. However, they clutter up my todo list and weigh down on my psyche (i.e. if I see a ton of tasks due in one day, I get overwhelmed, even if I know they don’t need to be completed right now). I need to think through this and determine how to automatically limit these types of tasks each day.

Ambiguity is a monster that can still take up residence and lurk in the sharpest, most productive places and among the most sophisticated people.

Unlocking the creative process

  • Whenever I’m hugely productive I feel this: "Loss of control and perspective is the natural price you will pay for being creative and productive. The trick is not how to prevent this from happening, but how to shorten the time you stay in an unsettled state. "
  • Spending time organizing yourself is an important function: "Much of the energy in propelling a rocket is spent in course correction—it is, in a way, always veering out of control and off-target."
  • Patrick Lencioni’s work is aligned with the idea that the unsaid human issues in the room (whether at work or home) affect your ability to be creative and solve problems together: "Perhaps we all are more attuned to one another than we realize, and if someone is disconnected from the mutual intention of the occasion because of unacknowledged issues, they just won’t participate fully in the game, which will mitigate the group’s cohesion and positive energy."
  • Separating creativity from analysis or rigor is important. I’ve found you can spark creative thoughts by intentionally including bad, wild, or dumb ideas in a list. It makes it feel easier—even if it’s an exercise you are doing with yourself—to express more creative ideas. "Good brainstorming is stifled by any attempt to analyze and evaluate the meaning and merit of those ideas too soon."

Levels of perspective

I’ve always felt it’s hard to calculate the next best thing to do. There are too many options, there is too much to do. In the book, it’s articulated that the reason this is hard is that there are too many inputs and it’s impossible to determine the next best thing. By organizing your tasks and thoughts well, you can make a better intuitive judgment aided by your best-effort prioritization and your psyche will slowly trust your judgment. For me, I often feel mental friction when I’m not certain about what to do next and I think this idea will help me here.

He makes the argument that it’s critical to think in terms of "level of perspective" or "horizons of focus":

  • Purpose/Principles
  • Vision
  • Goals
  • Areas of Focus
  • Projects
  • Tasks

I think this is a good model, even if the exact wording of these categories might change depending on how you think about the world. I need to refine some of my thinking on the higher-level areas of focus; reflecting on this during reading the book made me realize how much I’m missing at the "top".

The true power in a long-range vision is the acceptance that holding that picture inside your consciousness permits you to imagine yourself doing something much grander than you would normally allow yourself.

Big thinking is a skill. Some people don’t have it naturally (like myself). Clarity around a long-range vision does seem to enable your mind to think bigger.

No effective framework will ever get any simpler than the continuum of purposes/principles, vision, goals, areas of focus, projects, and next actions.

This was a helpful structure for me. I was missing the higher-level categories and need to work on defining them and putting them in a place where I can be reminded and structure the lower levels around them.