Book review: The See-Saw, by Julia Hobsbawn; Making It All Work, by David Allen

Julia Hobsbawm's warm sympathy or the brace-up exhortations of David Allen? Alix Pryde enjoys the Venus-and-Mars contrast and finds value in both books.

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Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

I love books about time management. I just never have time to read them. Both these books address the perennial question of how to cope with increasing pressures in our personal and professional daily lives. But if The See-Saw is from Venus, then Making It All Work is from Mars. Julia Hobsbawm's approach is light-hearted: she sympathises with the issue and shares stories about how she and others cope. By contrast, David Allen provides a prescriptive manual for a systematic approach to 'stress-free productivity' in this sequel to his 2001 book, Getting Things Done. It's sprinkled with flow charts.

I told my best friend that I'd been asked to review a couple of books on work/life balance and, after she stopped laughing, she said: 'And you have the time?' By coincidence, that was how Hobs-bawm's friend reacted when she announced she was writing one. Hobsbawm runs her own PR business - she was previously in partnership with the PM's wife, Sarah (Macaulay) Brown, both pioneers of ethical PR. Hobsbawm is also a wife, mother of three, step-mother of two, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister...

The See-Saw is her metaphor for how work and life are rarely perfectly balanced. Usually one is flying high while the other is in the doldrums. Implicit in that is accepting that what makes it all fun is the dynamic. As Hobsbawm points out, it helps to think of four dimensions: work, family, partner and self - the last two being easily denied due time and attention.

I'm fascinated by how others organise themselves and always on the look-out for gems of personal effectiveness. So this book is something of an Aladdin's Cave of Julia's and her friends' hard-won habits of success. The punchy top tips and the half-page case studies have been planted throughout the book with such care that they can be read without distracting from the flow. The tips provide inspiration while the case studies, frankly, engender a feeling of dread (which then turns into gratitude for the comparative ease of your own work/life set-up).

If I have a criticism it's that rather than focus on being a bible for the working mum, the book tries to be relevant to the working father and working non-parent too. It ends up feeling a bit like a hassled working mother - losing power by being pulled in different directions, trying to please everyone. As Allen himself would advise: power = concentration = elimination of distraction.

In contrast, Allen's Making It All Work is a dense, industrial tome, complete with aviation and martial arts metaphors. Following Hobs-bawm's friendly, self-deprecatory warmth, it was a shock to launch into its initial self-congratulatory onslaught about how Getting Things Done has become a global phenomenon. In that earlier book, Allen set out 11 steps - five for managing workflow and six 'horizons of focus'. He has boiled this down into two key stages: 'getting control' and 'getting perspective'.

Allen's view on work/life balance is that it's a hoax. His point is that it's about being productive across the whole of your endeavours, and whatever that translates into in terms of the split of your time between work and life, then that's what's right for you. The Making It All Work title is a deliberate double entendre, as he champions applying the principles, techniques and tools you would use in the workplace to your personal life as well. Interestingly, Hobsbawm believes that applying such a mindset to your home life can actually cause stress - spending time and effort calendarising everything, rather than, say, dropping in on a friend.

Once I'd got over Allen's US-style level of self-confidence, I found a great deal of value in his book. He has put enormous time and thought into understanding both what makes us productive and what generates stress. So much of his approach rang true to my personal experience. And at the same time, I could see why various techniques that I've tried to put into practice but that haven't been sustainable for me were missing a subtle refinement that might turn them into something I can stick to.

These books address the same core issue but in very different ways. It's a bit like the choice between visiting the friend who'll give you tea and sympathy or the one who'll tell you to pull yourself together. Only you know which you need at a given time. Despite their different approaches, both authors promote the importance of being clear about what you're doing and why, and allowing yourself to let go of other things.

As for my friend's incredulity about my taking on writing a book review... well, thanks to techniques that I applied from both these books, reader, I did it.

The See-Saw: 100 ideas for work-life balance
Julia Hobsbawm
Atlantic Books
£6.99

Making It All Work: Winning at the game of work and the business of life
David Allen
Piatkus Books, £12.99

Alix Pryde is chief adviser to the BBC's chief operations officer and one of MT's '35 Women Under 35'. She is also a wife and mother

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