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  • Writer's pictureWanda Wallace

Getting things done with David Allen

By Dr. Wanda Wallace

David Allen

David Allen, according to Fast Company, is a personal productivity guru. As one of the top 5 executive coaches in the US, according to Forbes Magazine, he helps senior executives increase their productivity and thus reduce their stress. His book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, has spent years on the New York Bestseller list.

I have interviewed him and synthesized a few of his core components. The full interview can be found here.

Clear the decks

David explains the need to clear deck so you can truly focus, what system you use to do that is up to you. “Most people are using their head as an office and your head is a crappy office. Period.” Because you are carrying around all this information in your head, without order or structure, you are unable to focus fully on the right stuff, he says. David says to be focused means having the skill and space to think through an opportunity and know you are prioritizing the correct things.

Five Step Process for Clearing the Deck

David defines the process through five steps:

  1. Capture all the things that are going on and that need to be done. This can be an old-fashioned pen and paper list or any other method for being aware of all the things you have to do or that are weighing on your mind. The average executive will need six hours to go through everything they have to do.

  2. Clarify what the next actions that are needed for each item and note the desired outcome for each. Sometimes you might not be the right person to do the task; thus, finding the right person is part of the task. For example, suppose you have to organize a birthday party. The next action is getting in touch with your brother to confirm dates and budget. Capture all the actions you need to take to tick off the box “organize a birthday party”. Sometimes you might not be the right person to do the task; thus, finding the right person is a next action.

  3. Organize items into clear buckets. 1) Items can be done in two minutes? 2) A project bucket for longer term actions 3) call list and 4) a list to discuss with your partner or spouse, for instance. These are good buckets to begin with; add others as appropriate for you.

  4. Review the information. What are all the possible things you need to do and have you structured them properly? It is helpful to have a coach or other person walk you through the process.

  5. Decide on clear strategies for each project you need to complete.

David describes this five-step process as the secret to getting stuff off your mind, even if you haven’t finished all of the work on your plate. David gives the example of managing your inbox, which is a challenge for many. If you receive an email and you don’t process it, it becomes one of thousands of things you need to deal with and it becomes a distraction. If what is next can be done in 2 minutes, you do it then. If not, then you put it in a bucket. Decide what the next action is. Should it be completed within two minutes, handed off to someone else or put into a bucket – a file, a list, a book or an app – with a reminder?

Success behaviors

David has observed that some of the most successful leaders start their day early and spend a couple of hours before starting meetings at 9. This gives them time to work through their priorities. When those are properly organized, the leader can move through the list more efficiently.

Also, having your list of things you need to get done with you at all times means that if you find yourself with 20 minutes to spare while waiting on a train or for a meeting to start, you can make the best decisions about what you can do in that time, whether it’s make a phone call, catch up with your children or send a note.

“Getting things done isn’t so much about getting things done as it is about getting engaged with your life so you are totally present with what you are doing,” says David. Also, you do need time to reflect on your life. If you are running around doing and never have time to reflect and evaluate, you are probably missing things.


I have come to believe that getting organized as David describes is essential for effective delegation. If you clear about all the next steps, many more of them can be handed off to other people in a timely manner.


David’s website:


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