David Allen Is A Genius


If you happen to follow my rare personal commentaries on Facebook you’ll notice that the title for today’s article matches with the headline I broadcasted Saturday morning.  I’m being repetitive because I’m twice as convinced in the truthfulness of the statement.

For starters, who is David Allen?  Well, I suppose many titles would fit, but I’d define him as a personal productivity guru.  His first book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity was released in 2001 and remains a best seller and fuels worldwide demand for his workshops and personal coaching/consulting.  In short, he has established an industry around a simple and profound approach to getting things done – or GTD in the vernacular.

Allen’s concepts while easy to understand are profound in their implementation and application.  By no means am I an expert.  Barely a novice is where I’d start my self assessment.  However, as I listen more and more to his ideas and even start to deploy them in my day-to-day… wow, I’m impressed.

I’m only scratching the surface here, but Allen’s thesis is to clear the mind.  He often says that the mind is a great place to have an idea but a horrible place to store that idea.  He elaborates by suggesting that a task on the mind will consume more thought and mental energy than it deserves.  Rather, those thoughts and ideas and action items should all be captured and processed.

Items determined to require more than 3-5 discreet actions should be logged as projects and each project should reflect a ‘next action’ required to advance the effort.

Actions should then be organized into what he calls ‘contexts’ which speak to when and where they should be completed.  It becomes and activity matrix really, which ‘next steps’ can be performed while making phone calls or online or while out running errands?

Lists and folders and note pads and pens are the tools that make this system work… and work it does.

For the last several years I’ve deployed parts of his approach without being aware of his larger premise.  For years, every January, I’ve labeled a file folder as “Year XXXX Tax Documents”.  Throughout the year when I collect a document that might influence my taxes – receipts, W-2s, charitable contribution statements – I simply file it away.

Without realizing it, I had created a context and was filing appropriately.

Allen takes my simple illustration and blows it out times ten.  Everywhere is a context and everything is a project with a discreet next step.  The ubiquitous ‘To-Do’ list then is no longer filled with procrastination begging landmines like “eat the elephant” but contains clearly defined actionable next steps like “take bite” and “chew”.


So why then did I FB “David Allen=Genius” on Saturday and why am I trumpeting it again today?

The answer – to me – is clear.

On Friday I cleared my schedule and spent several hours identifying all of my projects and open actions.  I pulled from my To-Do list, from actions starred in my notebooks, from phone messages, from actions listed on my white board, and from too many previously ignored emails.

While I didn’t do anything, I organized next steps and pictures of completion for each of 20+ individual projects.  After nearly two months of 60 hour work weeks, I left the office early and with a clear mind.  As a measure of success, Friday night I didn’t bolt up in bed with heartburn AND an urgent thought of an undone work item… and another… and another… and another.  Rather, I slept through the night and the next morning actually remembered parts of my dreams for the first time in too long.

I had no less work to do – probably even more – but I had a true literal handle on the work required.  On Monday morning I was able to pick up any project folder and immediately take action towards its resolution.

To make matters better – do you ever hear that expression – I did the same thing Sunday afternoon for my personal/home projects, about 40 individual efforts.  It represents a ton of activity and finding time to execute against all of them will remain a challenge, but I have more clarity as to my outcomes than I’ve had in a while.  Rather than a mind cluttered by so many concurrent games on pong, I have a mind that is now clear and freed from having to remember such that it can creatively engage.

I like this feeling and have scheduled time with myself to re-establish this baseline each week – called the weekly review by Allen if you’re wondering.  This will keep me honest with my activity and organized against my objectives and mentally free to wander and ponder.


Admittedly I’ve only unpacked the small boxes relative to David Allen’s larger inventory of concepts and principles.  While I hope to engage elements of this approach again in the future as I learn and benefit from them, I don’t want your learning curve to rely on me.  Please visit his site for more information, free newsletters, free podcasts, and free downloadable worksheets and articles.

If you’re interested in any of his books, here are links to help streamline your review and purchase decisions.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work and Life

Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and the Business of Life


Photo By: Joe Thorn

Your Turn – If you enjoyed this article, I would personally appreciate it if you would consider commenting below and/or subscribing to our Free Updates via email or RSS updates.  Thanks!


Check out the best new earbud for your podcast listening. The EarWaxed Pro-Cast featuring a flat tangle free wire and built in mic for easy and safe call handling.