David Allen’s Ideas about Getting Things Done

Reading about personal knowledge management (PKM) and reading books by Tiago Forte, I became interested in how PKM and productivity can help get more done. I decided to read up on productivity frameworks. Years ago, I read Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. I remember it only vaguely and decided to revisit it. Learning that an updated version had been released, I bought it.

I haven’t finished it yet, but a few of the concepts he writes about have caught my attention. Here are two:


Allen evaluates incoming information based on its actionability, who should execute a task, and how long it will take to accomplish. If something isn’t actionable, trash it, “incubate” it until it becomes actionable, or store it for reference. He has a 2-minute rule for actionable items: anything actionable that you can do in less than 2 minutes should be handled on the spot. Anything that can’t be handled in 2 minutes should be delegated to the appropriate person or deferred to a time when you’ll do it. He has a nice flowchart in the book that simplifies his clarification process.

I’ve used this approach to handling email for some time, aiming to be inbox zero every day. I’m a big fan of my email app’s “remind me” feature. I queue up tasks and email responses that will take more than 2 minutes and handle them at times I’ve dedicated to this predetermined work. This approach has helped keep my inbox tame, ensure that nothing falls through the cracks, and allowed me to be more proactive by doing this kind of work as I deem appropriate.

Identifying Next Actions

For projects with multiple steps and a clearly defined goal, Allen advocates constantly asking, Is there something someone could be doing on this right now? Asking this question continuously surfaces the next actions, keeping a project moving forward.

People sometimes have project plans defining actions to take and when to take them. However, the problem with those plans is twofold. First, they’re hypothetical. Those plans are often crafted before execution begins. They don’t consider current real-world reality. Second, if a team is involved, they’re likely to be top-down. The people executing the work have little or no input into how they achieve the goal for which they’re responsible.

Allen’s approach is more of an iterative bottom-up approach. It reminds me of Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong’s analogy of climbing a mountain shrouded in fog. The goal is defined, but the path to get there is flexible. The next action always reflects the current realities and incorporates learnings from previous actions. For teams, this approach empowers members closest to ground level to pinpoint and take the best action at any given time.

The iteration that results from Allen’s approach of asking this question constantly is more powerful than most people realize. This approach is how the impossible becomes possible. It’s how people successfully navigate uncertainty. It’s progress toward a stated goal with constant recalibration.

I hope to share other good concepts from the book in another post. I’m looking forward to finishing the book.