Top-down or Bottom-up?

Tuesday, February 1st, 2005
Steve Pavlina, in his recent post, entitled: "The Essential Missing Half of Getting Things Done," suggests that "what's missing from GTD is the high-level part of the system." Steve is quite articulate in his explanation of what he means. (If you've not read his post, I encourage you to read it here.) In short, the first part of Steve's post suggests that while he's found GTD to be invaluable to him, GTD does not provide the process for defining mission vision and purpose -- the compass.  I agree. But then, I don't think David Allen ever intended GTD to provide this.

Much of Steve's post resonates with me. I agree that GTD, as a methodology, does not provide the mission or vision that a person ought to have for their life. I also agree with Steve that it is important to know where you want to go so that you can make sure that your actions and activities support your vision and that you are ready for anything. In an ideal scenario, we would start at the 50,000 foot level, working on our life purpose all the way down to our runway of next actions.

In my experience, however, it is often difficult to consider focusing on the larger issues, such as life purpose and objectives, when I feel overwhelmed by the day to day; I simply cannot see the proverbial forest for the trees.  While it certainly seems logical to start with the big picture and sort out actions later, I submit that for many people it's simply too huge a task to start detailed planning at the top when then tedious distractions of the day to day -- unclarified and ambiguous thoughts and ideas -- are consuming energy that might otherwise be spent on strategic planning. I believe that this is why I read of so many people who, after attempting to implement the 7-habits, feel let down and find themselves more overwhelmed than when they began.

Let me share a little from my own personal experience: For much of the past two decades, I've designed and developed action management systems for highly productive individuals and organizations. You would think that with this effort I would have had total and complete clarity early on about my mission, vision and purpose. Well, I most certainly did not. It was not for a lack of trying either. I really wanted to have a defined mission (one that I believed in), I wanted to embrace the 7-habits, and I wanted to get my high-level strategy mapped out.  None of my productivity systems, while effective at managing actions and projects, could provide me with the direction that I needed. I knew  that I needed to have clarity at a higher level. I just found it difficult to get past the day to day to really think clearly and objectively about my higher purpose; I was continuously distracted by the low-level stuff (both physical and mental) that I kept piling on my plate. As a result, I found it difficult to devote the attention required to the big picture to develop my personal and family mission statements. High level thought in this area became frustrating and unproductive. (Some of you may know what I mean.)

It was at this basic level -- my need to focus on personal high-level thinking -- that GTD really helped me out the most -- not by allowing me to start from the top down -- but by allowing me to start from the bottom up. By allowing me to clear the decks of low-level items that were consuming mental bandwidth, I was able to achieve the clarity that I needed to sit down and think about bigger issues, such as: "Why am I here?", "What's my life purpose?", and "What will I leave behind?".  With the answers to these questions clarified and objectified, I was then able to revisit my projects and actions and evaluate whether or not they were still relevant to my big picture.  You see, even if I had put life on hold to work out my big picture plan, my focus would have been distracted by the small stuff that I had not yet resolved.

In 1998, Kathy and I wrote our family mission statement. This document, along with my personal and business mission statements have served as guide for making decisions that affect our family.  While I do not refer to these documents often, I know that they are there; they provide me with great clarity when I need to make key decisions. It has been a wonderful process to go through and I highly recommend it.

For those of you who can put everything aside and focus exclusively with the big picture stuff, I salute you; it is a powerful process and the ideal way to begin. For the rest of you, do not be discouraged if day-to-day distractions keep you from developing your big picture for a little while.  I want to encourage you and let you know that you can get your big picture goals mapped out; you may just have to do a little mental house cleaning first.

Discussion/Comments (3):

Leveraging Focus and Vision

One more thing: For those of you who have had the opportunity to attend one of David Allen's "Leveraging Focus and Vision" seminars or Stephen Covey's 7-Habits seminars, you already know how powerful and inspiring it can be to think about the big picture. I submit that you will get the most from these and other planning resources when your decks are clear and you can focus effectively. Without a clear deck, taking on a project on the order of defining one's life purpose can be a formidable task.

Two years ago, my daughters and I attended David's seminar in Santa Monica. Though I had attended the seminar before, it was a delightful and inspiring experience to attend with my children.

This seminar and workbook provided a perfect compliment to the low-level GTD methodology.

Highly recommended!


Posted at 2/2/2005 1:30:46 AM by Eric Mack

Both saying the same thing

Eric, while your post seems like a sort of counter-point to Steve's article, you are both saying the same thing: we all need both bottom up and top down views to manage our lives.

The slightly different spin has only to do with timing. The standard argument that one needs to "clear the deck" with bottom up focus before focusing on the top down issues makes sense, but that perspective is a best fit for people that are just getting started with GTD. I think for most people, even those of us that have been GTDing for a while, are unlikely to achieve the luxury of completely clearing the decks in our lives before we get to focus on the big picture.

In fact, if a GTDer finds that every day is consumed with deck-clearing (which I think would be easy to do), he/she probably just needs to stop clearing the decks at some point ("This is good enough for now") and start steering the ship.


Posted at 2/3/2005 10:31:45 AM by

Family Mission Statement


Just read your Family Mission Statemnt linked from this article.

I found it incredibly moving and inspiring and just wanted to thank you for being brave enough to publish such a personal statement.

I'm going to share this with my partner and see if we can take some time out (2 children under 4 and a third due any day!) to create our own statement.


Posted at 2/4/2005 7:03:18 AM by Andy

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