03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Priorities, Priorities, Priorities

A core issue of life and work is this: At any point in time, are you appropriately putting the right amount of attention on the right thing? Are you doing what you ought to be doing, with not too much or too little horsepower, and for the most fitting reasons? Are you focused on what you ought to be focused on with the proper energy and from the most cogent perspective? This would be a big enough task, if nothing ever changed; but because things do change so often, it is a Herculean task.

There are at least three dimensions of focus shifting that come into play as we go through our day/life. First, we have "horizontal" motion across the myriad of things which engage our immediate attention. Call from mom, cash flow, pen out of ink, reservation for tonight, email to John, proposal draft, noise next door, etc. We all shift our focus thousands of times a day across a huge spectrum of life's "stuff."

Secondly, we maneuver our minds "vertically" about specific things. We focus on the staff meeting and range up and down within that topic -- What do I want to achieve? What's on the agenda? What should we tell people ahead of time? What are the most important things to talk about? How are people feeling? What time does it start? Should we have refreshments? Can I talk to Anne about her project there?

Thirdly, we range in a "depth of field" dimension. This is the arena of horizons and priorities. Where do I want to be, five years from now? What's my workload -- can I take on this new project? What do I really care about in my life that needs attention? Does my job need a new definition? What's got to get done to ensure a successful product launch? Should we have kids?

Imagine what a job we all have! Imagine the complexity! At any moment you may need to traverse any direction in this three-dimensional dynamic, in order to maintain stability and coherence. (And as complex as this model may seem, I'm sure it's still a gross oversimplification of all the vectors at play.) One thing comes into focus and something else goes out of focus. Almost minute to minute some new inner idea or outer input creates a new field of attention and energy, initially unclear with fuzzy edges, distracting us from something else we've been doing. We must be able to go from telescope to microscope to Cinemascope at a moment's notice, with a wide-angle lens always at the ready.

If you're like me, operating at some optimal level of personal effectiveness in and through all of this is an ongoing challenge for which I need processes and techniques and the good habits to use them. We need to be able to hold a focus when we need to, and to shift that focus completely when that is required. Much of my work has been to identify those assistive methods and support structures and to help folks install their own versions thereof. There's a need for the kinds of tools and triggers that allow freedom for this kind of rapid refocusing at will with maximum available energy.

A big part of that game is dissolving the subliminal distractions of all the still-active commitments that people have allowed to accumulate, much more than they usually realize. Clear concentration -- full attention with intention - is the key. I've often said, "Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax." That's true, but it is perhaps more accurately said as ".proportional to your ability to concentrate." Especially if you're in a Formula I auto race or you have to fire a good friend. But try to concentrate if you're not relaxed. And try to relax, if you're distracted. Sure, stressful situations engender an intense focus, but in the deepest sense being relaxed means that your nervous system and consciousness are fully available for the job at hand, not partially stuck back in the quicksand of unmanaged open loops.

Capturing, clarifying, tracking, and constantly renegotiating with ourselves all of the things that potentially have our attention is critical for horizontal and vertical clarity. But all of that must still be mapped to the third dimension of the important checklists and bullet points of life and work: projects, areas of responsibility, desired futures, key values, and core purpose.

Come back every Monday for more from David Allen.