Priority: Productivity Czar David Allen’s Secret To Getting Things Done

What’s the best thing to do right now? First, Allen says you need to know why you’re doing it.

Priority: Productivity Czar David Allen’s Secret To Getting Things Done

“Until you have the whole inventory of everything you need to do,” says productivity guru of gurus David Allen, “it can be tough to prioritize.”


Allen, whose Getting Things Done system is certainly the stuff of best sellers and may qualify as a quasi-weird movement , emphasizes the inventory-taking aspect of productivity.

To be able to trust–rather than hope–that you’re prioritizing in the right way, Allen says, you need have an articulated sense of how the tasks at hand fit into the whole schematic of your life. That schematic can be rooted out by asking a few crucial questions, Allen says:

  • why are you on the planet?
  • what’s the vision you and your partners have in where you want to be?
  • short-term, what do you need to accomplish to make the vision happen?
  • what are all the parts of your life that need to be maintained so that with your house and your health and your relationships, you make sure that the whole engine gets there?
  • what are the 50 to 70 projects you’ve got about all that?
  • and what are the 250 action items you need to do?

This is heavy–but necessary–stuff, he says. These are the discussions we “need to mature” before we can trust that we know the best thing to do when we’ve got a spare 8 minutes free. If we’re not connecting our long-term view to our present activities, we might have the sensation of busyness, but we’re not getting anything meaningful done.

This brings to bear to prescient points: that our decisions get better when we map them out and that the work we’re flying at presently needs to be grounded in long-term thinking.

Map it out

The more specifically you describe a task, the easier it is to turn it into an action.

Specificity is also crucial in forming habits: Saying that you’re going to eat 3 salads this week rather than “eating more veggies” allows you to get direct feedback on whether or not you did it.


What Allen–and his Getting Things Done system–exhort us to do is to get to a granular level of specificity with all of our various professional projects, creating a living taxonomy of our working lives. This is kind of ordering is especially useful, we think, if you’ve got all sorts of side hustles going on.

This kind of ordering is a skill in and of itself. A hard–but learnable–one. So, naturally, a handful of companies are doing dream-project-task taxonimization for you–Everest and Lift are a few prime life-structuring examples.

Know what you’re mapping

But before you can organize around something, you need to know what you’re organizing around. We know that the happiest people have the hardest jobs, but that’s because they’ve found patterns of work that suit them. So how do we find ours?

As we’ve covered before, even if you’re very, very smart, you may have a “stunted career vocabulary“–which can be readily expanded, given a little reflection.

[Image: Flickr user Kris Krüg]


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.