Understanding GTD’s 6 Horizons of Focus

5. August 2013 08:00 by Calvin Yu in Productivity  //  Tags: , ,   //   Comments

Critics of David Allen’s Getting Things Done® (GTD) methodology often complain that his system adopts too much of a horizontal approach to time management; in other words, his system focuses on managing small day-to-day tasks without any sense of higher purpose or direction. While it's true that the horizontal workflow methodology of GTD has really taken most of the center stage in terms of popularity, the truth is that it's only half of the total GTD equation. The other half of GTD is very much a vertical planning system and David Allen even coined the phrase "horizons of focus" to describe this vertical process. Utilizing both horizontal and vertical time management will make your GTD system more productive.  In this blog post, I’ll explain this less-popular, but still critical component of the GTD methodology.

Horizontal Versus Vertical Planning

GTD can be broken into two distinct parts: 1) horizontal planning and 2) vertical planning. Horizontal planning is the more popular part of GTD, which involves collecting, processing, organizing, reviewing and doing next actions. Horizontal planning is focused with handling all those granular tasks and to-dos that make up our day-to-day lives.

Vertical planning takes on a more strategic top-down approach to managing our time. It focuses on what our primary goals are in the various roles that we have in our lives and it aligns all of our actions with our higher purpose. It works like a work breakdown structure where your next actions feed your projects, your projects feed your short-term goals, your short-term goals feed your medium-term goals, your medium term goals feed your vision and your vision feeds your life purpose.

The Airplane Analogy

Airplane analogy for GTD's horizons of focus

David Allen describes his horizons of focus by using the analogy of an airplane flying at six levels of altitude. The lowest level, the runway, describes our day-to-day next actions, while the highest level, at 50,000ft, describes our purpose and core values. Here's an overview of the six horizons of focus:

50,000 Feet - Purpose and Core Values
40,000 Feet - Vision (3-5 year goals)
30,000 Feet - Goals and Objectives (1-2 year goals)
20,000 Feet - Areas of Responsibility
10,000 Feet - Projects Runway - Next Actions

Now let’s review each level in detail.

50,000ft - Purpose and Core Values

This is the highest horizon of focus and this is the level from which all your visions, medium and short term goals, projects and ultimately your next actions spawn from. Some even call this the spiritual level since it requires a lot of introspective work regarding who you are, what drives you and what your purpose in life is. Practically speaking, at this level, you might want to craft out a personal mission statement and five of your core values that drive your actions. You might also want to ask yourself the question, "What kind of legacy do I want to leave behind once I'm gone?" Also consider what your driving principles and beliefs are that fuels your actions.

40,000ft - Vision (3-5 year goals)

At this level, you want to ask yourself where you would like to be in the various aspects of your life in 3 to 5 years. Where do you want to be financially? Where will you live? What will your career be like? How about your family life? Since we're talking about longer-term goals here, we don't necessarily need to be specific about planning it, rather it's better that we articulate a powerful vision of how our lives will look and feel when that future arrives. You should be able to close your eyes and envision what your life will be like in 3 to 5 years. The more vivid you can make this vision, the better it will work for you.

30,000 Feet - Goals and Objectives (1-2 year goals)

Unlike the 40,000ft level where your goals were more abstract, at the 30,000ft level, your 1 to 2 year goals are going to be more tactical in nature. You'll want to concentrate on making your goals specific and measurable so that 1) you know exactly what you're going to accomplish in 1 to 2 years and 2) you can measure your progress and keep yourself accountable for achieving those goals. Your goals at this level are going to be comprised of two or more of your 10,000ft projects.

20,000ft - Areas of Responsibility

This level always seemed to be out of place to me in the hierarchy of horizons, but in any case, this level represents your various life roles and responsibilities, such as being a father, son, wife, student, manager etc. At this level, you'll want to think about your roles and responsibilities and what 10,000ft projects you should concentrate on that will best serve these established roles.

10,000ft - Projects

Projects are defined as any outcome that requires more than one next action to complete. At the 10,000ft level, your projects will take under a year to complete and will serve one of your roles at the 20,000ft level as well as feed into one of your 30,000ft goals and objectives. Projects create a majority of your next actions at the 0ft level, so it's important to keep track of your projects, as well as filter them through the higher levels of horizon so that you can be sure that those project are feeding your higher goals and objectives.

0ft - Runway

At the bottom of the horizons of focus is the runway level. That translates to your physical next action steps that are the hallmark of the GTD philosophy. At this level, you're focused on getting these action steps done and crossed off your list and by doing so, you're creating movement towards the completion of your 10,000ft projects.

Putting it all Together

All these different horizons of focus coalesce when you review your GTD system. There's no right or wrong way to review these levels, so I'll just describe how I do it. Every day I review my next actions and committed projects. Every week, I review my areas of responsibility as well as my 1-2 year goals. Every quarter, I like to review my 3-5 year visions just to keep them fresh in my mind and to remind myself where I want to take my life in the near future. Lastly, I make it a habit of reviewing my purpose and core values at the beginning of every year. Reviewing all your horizons of focus ensures that you're living a purpose-driven life and that you've created a path towards designing the life that you want to live.

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