David Allen’s Bottom-Up Productivity Framework

I’m finishing David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Allen shares great concepts in his book. After reading more of his book, I picked up on a core concept, one I alluded to yesterday: his framework – working bottom up.

Allen believes it’s hard to take on new responsibilities, be creative, or think longer term until you’re effectively managing what’s already on your plate. To manage what’s on your plate, you must know the totality of what has your attention. Allen suggests capturing all lingering physical, digital, or mental “incompletes” and recording them in a system. This will give you a clear picture of everything on your plate.

After that, you’ll “clarify,” which I mentioned yesterday, then “organize” to put everything where it belongs, and then “reflect” periodically to review and update your incompletes. I won’t get into the specifics of each step. But notice that everything so far has focused on current, ground-floor activity.

After this, you’re ready to “engage” and start making action choices. Allen provides three priority frameworks to help manage action in a bottom-up manner. This is counter to how many approach this. Here they are (listed bottom up, of course):

Now: Choosing Action in the Moment

When you have time to accomplish something, this framework helps pinpoint what to work on.

  • Context – What are your circumstances? Are you at your desk in the office, on a plane, or in a lobby waiting for a meeting to begin?
  • Time – How much time do you have available?
  • Energy – What’s your energy level? Are you in top form or in low-energy state?
  • Priority – What’s the most important task?

Many people waste time trying to figure out what to work on. Going through this framework sequentially helps you quickly identify what to work on (you will have already categorized tasks that can be only done in a particular context, for instance, so you can ignore everything else for the time being). It’s helpful when you have free time you didn’t anticipate.

Today: Evaluating Daily Work

Throughout the day, you’ll likely be engaged in one of these three work types:

  • Doing predefined work – Doing something on a next-action list is a good example.
  • Doing work as it shows up – Having an impromptu chat with a direct report or responding to an email requesting a status report are examples.
  • Defining your work – Reviewing a project and adding tasks to your next-action list is a way to define your work.

The goal is to manage your total inventory of work in a balanced manner, instead of only reacting to unexpected work. Deciding what to work on is a balancing act that relies on your intuition. But having the habit of defining and refining your work helps your intuition by crystallizing what you’re saying no to when an unexpected task arises.

Reviewing Your Work

On a regular basis, you should review your work. Starting at the bottom, of course.

  • Ground – Confirm that all your lists of next actions are current. You want to make sure you’re not missing anything. For example, call brother.
  • Horizon 1 – Confirm that your projects list captures all commitments requiring more than one action. The goal is to capture short-term commitments so you can free your mind. For example, onboard new hire.
  • Horizon 2 – Confirm that all your areas of focus and responsibilities are captured on a list. For example, parenting. This level will determine what projects you start.
  • Horizon 3 – Define your direction and intentions over the next one to two years.
  • Horizon 4 – Paint a vision of life in three or more years.
  • Horizon 5 – Define your life’s purpose.

Horizons 3–5 focus on the future; the others, more on the present. The goal is to get and keep the nearer horizons current so you have the mental bandwidth to think about the more distant horizons.

I see the value for most, not all, people in Allen’s bottom-up process. It’s a great approach to working productively and intentionally by getting the mundane under control so you’ll have the bandwidth to gain clarity in the long term. His approach is well suited for those working for an organization.

For entrepreneurs creating and growing companies, tweaking is required. Entrepreneurs usually start with a problem and craft a vision of what the world could look like if they solve that problem. Then, they figure out how to solve that problem and craft a mission to scale that solution. After that’s done, that’s when embracing Allen’s bottom-up work approach and iteratively turning a vision and mission into reality makes sense for entrepreneurs.