Culture & Competency

Reflections on GTD's Horizons of Focus, Dec 5

I have been a long-term student of personal productivity, have purchased all the books, have tried lots of different systems. My current set up is heavily influenced by David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. As I have been working GTD into my life, I have been thinking about what works for me and what doesn’t. Here’s some thoughts.

Drive Activity Based On What’s Most Important
One of the attractions of GTD is its immediate applicability to the moment-by-moment stuff that shows up, that people have to deal with every waking minute, and that tends to distract us from what’s truly important. For many, the framework that GTD offers in “Projects” and “What’s the next action?” is tremendously valuable. This is the bottom-up approach to productivity and life management.

The opposite approach is top-down, whereby we forcefully structure our days in alignment with what’s most important. So as to provide a language for people to use to frame their top-down thinking, David outlines five general levels at which focus can be directed; the six levels are called the “altitudes” and the framework is called the “horizons of focus”. Those six altitudes and the proffered explanations are:

  1. 50,000 ft … Purpose and core values, our ultimate intention.
  2. 40,000 ft … Vision … long-term outcomes and ideal scenarios.
  3. 30,000 ft … Goals and objectives for the next 12-24 months, in order to make the vision happen.
  4. 20,000 ft … Areas of focus and responsibility.
  5. 10,000 ft … Current projects.
  6. “Runway” … Next actions.

In the GTD model, a top-down approach consists of asking questions at the 50,000 ft level … why am I here on earth? When I die, what do I want to have changed? Thoughts and thinking at this level is then rolled down to the 40,000 ft level … what is my vision of the ideal future? The 30,000 ft level then requires setting 1-2 year goals in order to deliver on the vision (40,000 ft) and mission / purpose (50,000 ft). And then at the 10,000 ft level, there are a series of interim projects that drive the 1-2 year goals you have identified, followed on the “runway” with next actions (call Bob, email Sue, buy stationery, etc.) This is just another way of talking about strategic planning, and of linking today’s actions with the longer term things we want to achieve.

I really like the internal coherence I feel when I consciously drive day-to-day activity from what’s most important to me. Here are the changes I’ve made to the altitudes and horizons of focus framework so as to make it work in my life.

I’ve Renamed 40,000 ft “Vision” with “3-5 year Goals”
After defining purpose and core values at 50,000 ft, my implementation swaps the term “vision” for “3-5 year goals” at 40,000 ft. I think of “vision” as a further explanation of the purpose and core values at 50,000 ft, which can then be operationalized through goals set over the 3-5 year timeframe.

I’ve Disregarded 20,000ft in my Implementation
I have been unable to reconcile my desire for clear lines of strategic roll-down with the inclusion of the 20,000 ft level as an altitude in the GTD model. It seems to come out of nowhere, and for my thinking, breaks the linkage between 1-2 year goals and current projects. My preferred way of dealing with “areas of focus and responsibility” is the Covey concept of “roles”. That is, at the very highest level of 50,000 ft, one’s mission is an all-of-life mission statement that covers all the roles in the person’s life (for me, for example, I currently have three roles reflected in my mission statement: (1) “Husband and Father”, (2) “Collaboration Guy”, and (3) “Individual”). Thus when I make 3-5 year goals, those are within the context of one of these roles. Eg, my goal to author a number of books in the next 5 years is contextualized within my “Collaboration Guy” role).

There is, however, a second aspect of the current 20,000 ft altitude that doesn’t fit at the “role” level as I’ve described it: areas of life that you are maintaining at certain standards. Thus in my implementation, they become just another type of current project at the 10,000 ft level. If there’s something that I need to maintain (rather than actively change) in my world, then it has a desired outcome as a project (10,000 ft) and any appropriate next actions (runway).

I Struggle with having “Altitudes” in “Horizions of Focus”
The naming inconsistency between “altitudes” and “horizons” bugs me. In my understanding, an “altitude” represents a vertical distance from the earth, whereas a “horizon” a horizontal distance when one is standing on the earth. If I’m at a certain altitude, I see myself as looking down on my life (as thus the higher you go, the more complete the picture), whereas if I’m standing on the earth looking directly ahead to the horizon, I’m looking at the boundaries of my life. Some days I get it (eg, to see more of your life, go up a level of altitude and thus you will see a broader horizon), some days I don’t (eg, … but “horizon” is the wrong word to describe what you’re seeing; “boundary lines” or “borders” would be more accurate).

Anyhow, the visualization approach that I’m using is a quarter circle. From where I stand at the point of the quarter circle, I look directly ahead to the boundary lines in the quarter circle. Immediately in front of me are next actions, then projects, then 1-2 year goals, then 3-5 year goals, and finally mission / vision / core purpose divided into role areas. Strategic roll-down (roll-back?) involves clarifying what’s at the uttermost boundary of the quarter circle, and then stepping back to 3-5 year goals, and so on. In my world, this visualization method makes clear the linkage between what’s most important and what’s got to happen today.

I don’t have the software (nor the graphical skills!) to draw it properly, so please imagine this lying on the ground stretching forward to the horizon rather than vertically upwards.

When a goal is set in the 3-5 year area of a specific role, the 1-2 year intermediate goals in the next circle in are visually linked. I do this by further sub-dividing the quarter circle. For example, in my “Individual” role (which takes up 1/3 of the quarter circle), I have identified and set three 3-5 year goals. Thus the 1/3 of the circle is divided into three from the 3-5 year goal inwards to the middle. For one of those 3-5 year goals, I have set two 1-2 year goals. Thus from the 1-2 year goal line, that goal sliver is divided in two. By taking this approach, I found that I had no 1-2 year goals in one of my roles … not a good place to be if one truly embraces the 3-5 year goals that have been outlined.

What is your experience with using the GTD horizons of focus model for strategic planning? Have you made any modifications to make it work in your life? I’d love to compare notes …

1. Pascal Venier, Michael Sampson’s “Reflections of GTD’s Horizons of Focus”, Part 1 (December 5, 2006)
2. Pascal Venier, Michael Sampson’s “Reflections of GTD’s Horizons of Focus”, Part 2 (December 12, 2006)
3. Michael Sampson (that’s me!) … What Drives Projects? Roles and Goals. A Revision of David Allen’s Horizons of Focus (December 14, 2006)

Categories: Culture & Competency