“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”
― Rabbi Hillel
Organisations have systems–from organograms to annual reviews–designed to ensure that the right people focus on the right things over time. These often align to the group’s purpose, to ensure the corporation remains prosperous or that the charity fulfils its mission. In my career, I found that the more this was made clear to me as a member of the group, the easier it was for me to advocate for the best interests of that group within that given framework.
But who advocates for me? Increasingly sophisticated systems have cropped up all around us now–from companies and political groups to social media websites–driving forward their agendas, and attempting to influence our behaviour, with systematic rigour. The more I am bombarded with these messages about what to buy, where to click, how to vote, the more I have gained my own understanding of the William Blake quote, “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s.”
So, what might a system that helps me to advocate for my own best interests look like? What has worked best for me is the same type of thing that works well for most organisations–to make what matters explicit, and review it regularly. Rather than a “job description”, I need a “life description”. Rather than an annual “performance review”, I need my own regular “appropriate engagement review” across the different areas of my life and work.
In the GTD methodology, we advocate getting clear about what matters along various horizons of focus. One very powerful place to start with this is at the level called Areas of Focus. Unlike projects, areas of focus are not necessarily something specific that will get done, as much as a domain that will require on-going attention. “Health”, for example, is an area of focus for me. It’s not done until my last breath. Likewise, my areas of focus at work remain the same until I change job function.
I have enumerated all of these major areas–from family and friendships to home and garden to interests like poetry and responsibilities like personal finance–in one long list. Then about once per fortnight, during the time in my GTD Weekly Review when I look at various checklists, I review my areas of focus list. I simply ask myself, for each item, “Are things on track?” If the answer is “Yes”, I skip to the next item with a sense of gratitude that all is well there. If the answer is “No”, I then ask myself what I would need to do to get things back on track. I am looking for a specific next action, and possibly a project outcome, that I can record in my GTD system to make this area good (according to my own standards) once again.
Using GTD, I don’t have problems, I have projects. That is, once I have identified a gap, no matter how I feel about being “off track”, I can identify the endpoint of the gap (project) and the very next thing I will do to start to close the gap (my next action). Invariably, doing this systematic thinking takes some of the sting out of being off track. Then it just becomes a matter of systematically moving these things forward to close the gap, and keep those things that matter to me on track and in balance.
The beauty of this feedback mechanism is that it encompasses everything that matters to me individually. This means that I won’t give undue attention to a hobby at the expense of my health–or, if I start to, the health area will show up for me to deal with. My list is actually not all about me, either. Family, friends, and community show up there as well. They are some of the areas that matter most to me, and are most fulfilling to engage with, yet no other external system will let me keep focus on them quite like regularly reviewing my own customised areas of focus list.
I believe there is a corollary to David Allen’s statement that “You can only feel good about what you are not doing when you know what you are not doing.” It is that you can only really achieve appropriate life balance when you actually know all that you are trying to balance. So for me, to keep the good things in my life good, rather than extinguishing long-smouldering fires in certain areas when they eventually blaze up, I systematically remind myself of these meaningful areas, so that I can proactively choose where to focus my energy and time.
In a world that is increasingly competing for my energy and time, and doing so with increased sophistication, this is one of the best ways I have found to keep advocating for my own highest and best interests, and to keep it all in focus.