20,000 Feet

Managing Your Areas of Goals and Responsibilities

Areas of Responsibility are the places, things, people, and projects you care about enough to do and where others rely on you for something. They’re different for each of us depending on the kind of work we do and the shapes of our families and friendships. These areas define who we are since they are how we spend our time and attention.

Understanding these areas gives you a high-level look at what you need to be good at, efficient at, better at, and what you can let slip or cannot drop. You might have five or twenty areas, and they won’t all be equally as important to you. By gaining this view at 20,000 feet, as David Allen puts it, you’re able make better decisions about what you need to be getting done:

Listing and reviewing these responsibilities gives a more comprehensive framework for evaluating your inventory of projects.

Defining What’s Important

We usually have a general idea of what we’re responsible for or want to make a focus, but listing them out—as with defining anything—helps set a clarity of vision for how you should be spending your attention.

Where you can really gain is by adjusting your areas of responsibility, to more appropriate life areas based on what you want to be doing with your attention, not just what you are currently responsible for. Travel may not be a current responsibility of yours, but you’ve been dreaming about it and want to be putting more time into that. Shouldn’t this be given a reasonable ranking in the areas you spend your time?

I defined this list in order of importance of what matters to me and how I want to be spending my time in both my personal and work life:

  • Life
    • Boyfriend/Brother/Friend/Son
    • Adventure
    • Writing
    • Teaching/Sharing/Learning
    • Technical/Systems
    • Finances
    • Household
  • Work
    • Execution
    • Project Planning
    • System Administration

What’s Important to You?

Make a list like this for yourself. Don’t just put what you currently spend your time doing but use this list to shape how you want your life to look. It’ll take some time, and it’s worth considering if the areas that are part of your life now are something you want to keep, or if you can remove things and simplify. What have you been dreaming of but haven’t made a priority? What falls through the cracks but shouldn’t any longer?

We’re going to connect this list into your system to better track progress and be prompted to create and do projects that will help you improve in each of these areas.

Your Areas Should be “Actionable”

You’ve got this fancy list of projects and actions listed out, but what helps you decide what to do next? Contexts are great for filtering out tasks you physically can’t do based on limitations—“you can’t mow the lawn from your iPhone”, as Sven Fechner says. I’ve created a folder structure in OmniFocus with a hierarchy matching the the list above to organize my projects based on what matters. Shaping your list of actions based on the areas in your life helps outline what’s most important to you and as a result, what actions should be on the top of your stack. In Project view, OmniFocus can sort the list of actions based on your folder structure, so that the actions at the top of your folder structure—what’s most important to you—are always at the top of the list and the tasks that matter less to you are given their appropriate positioning. Whatever system you’re using, consider shaping the order of how you add and complete tasks around the areas you defined and what’s you value most. When you sit down to catch up on some emails, if you’ve defined that your relationships take priority, as I have at the top of my stack, then that email to your Mom should happen before work stuff.

Keep Working Towards What Matters to You

I’ve read about people who suggest avoiding empty folders in OmniFocus; that they’re clutter. To me, once I’ve defined something as being important and created a folder to represents a section of life I want to be focusing on, it being empty is a problem. It means that I’m not working towards something in that area. If my Adventure folder is empty, I’m not planning a trip. Reviewing and seeing that I don’t have plans to improve my life somewhere I’ve chosen to focus on gives me a kick and prompts me to start doing something there. Maybe it’s just adding a few single actions or the nudge I needed to start researching that big trip I want to do, keeping these areas in view and in a reviewable system means that I don’t lose focus on what I set out to improve on.

Functional Component

The systems in our life are meant to help automate much of what we do so we can think about something once and more easily make ongoing decisions about what we want to be doing. By defining what areas are important to you and shaping your to-do list around that, you make it easier on yourself every time you look at the list. You don’t need to choose whether it’s more important to go pick up something at the hardware store you have on your Household list or go get that thing you’re wife asked of you. You’ve made the decision that your relationship is most important and will take trump on other tasks every time and the list of things you should be doing reflects this. You also have a way of reviewing the things you want to be doing from a high-level and can push yourself in the right direction when you notice that you’re not working on a certain area like you should.

Put what’s important to you first so the things that matter get your attention.