03/28/2008 02:47 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Taking Work Personally

Work-life balance is a hot topic. People often ask me questions about how to define the boundaries between business and personal commitments. Should I include my personal with my business stuff on my "Projects" lists? Should I have "Reorganize the garden area" on the same list as "Reorganize my department?" The answer is that it depends on the purpose of your list.

If you have the same reason for lists that I do - to get everything off your mind, except whatever you're currently doing, as quickly and easily as possible - then having everything, whether you'd consider it "personal" or "business," in as few places as possible is the most efficient. Also, because I can't do a "project" anyway - I can only do an action about it - for the most part I only need to review my "Projects" list as part of my overall review of everything, to ensure I have appropriate actions on moving parts. That usually happens in one fell swoop with my weekly review.

Put all your commitments on as many lists as you want. If you decide to split personal and professional, it's just going to take you that much more effort and time to review all the lists, to get them off your mind. The individual art of this for each of you is to create as many lists as you need, and as few lists as you can get away with.

But let's take a deeper look. I think many times behind the question of whether personal and professional things should go on one list lies a discomfort that's not easy to articulate. People often react as if they're looking at something weird when they see it all together in my system. Perhaps it's really the bigger question - you mean it's OK to focus with as much rigor and integrity on my personal life as on my professional stuff? Perhaps it's the feeling people have sometimes expressed that handling the business of life in a businesslike way seems somehow cold, sterile, and mechanical.

My retort to all that is that you're the one that's weird in thinking "work" and "personal" are different things. In the history of the planet only in the last dozen decades have people assumed these were different, and I don't imagine that farmers or most craftspeople ever have. Frankly, splitting them apart seems cold and mechanical to me.

Much of our culture seems to live by the principle of "You don't bring work home." We don't want the problems that plague us in one arena to disturb another. I've had relatives whose families truly never knew exactly what they did at work - it was just a tacit assumption that those were different and parallel universes that hardly ever intersected. In simpler worlds than I am accustomed to, I can see the value of that separation. We don't want to burden others unnecessarily with our distractions, or to have them undermine other important areas of responsibility. Also, we need to unhook and shift our focus regularly from anything we're engaged in, to keep our perspective fresh. But for most of the people reading this post, to over-compartmentalize your world may add to stress and distraction, not relieve it.

Consider these comments from a Division President of a Fortune 50 corporation in which we recently piloted our GTD seminar:

"The biggest value is in the work/life balance piece. So many people in our culture are trying to work with that in our culture, a lot. Being able to integrate everything holistically - really, that's huge. Instead of trying to compartmentalize your kids, your home, your spouse, your work, your non-profit life, the other parts of your life... to be able to integrate it all into one piece. I don't know that in our culture there's ever been permission to do that! We tend to compartmentalize everything about work here. And it's very freeing to put it all together. I think that's a real key. It's like permission to say, 'Hey, we live one big messy life!'"

Along that line, there is a trend to make your home office your main office. For sole contributor businesses and small-business entrepreneurs that's already normal, but it's becoming more common for the corporate types to make their "office office" their satellite while controlling the main part of their life and work from home. I'm not saying right or wrong - just that it's the trend, and I think there's a message there. I've worked with several successful corporate professionals who, when they bought their big house in the 'burbs, turned the living room into their office. Many people never live in the formal living room/dining room area anyway. Their "living" rooms are actually their kitchens and dens. The original living/dining room had the best light for daytime working, the best shelves for their library, and was close enough to the refrigerator for mid-work coffee and snacking.

If you have divided your life into "work" and "personal" because you don't want to be distracted by one while you're in the other, consider this: while you're doing anything, you shouldn't be distracted by ANYthing else. You are at your best when you only focus on one thing at a time, and the most effective personal system is one that facilitates that focus. Your whole life is your work, and to assume anything less may constrain your perspective and therefore your performance. At any moment you want to be able to put it all to rest. All of it.


You can find out more about David Allen and GTD at
The David Allen Company is a professional training, coaching, and management consulting organization, based in Ojai, California. Its purpose is to enhance performance and improve the quality of life by providing the world's best information, education, and products in the fields of personal productivity and work/life balance.