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Productive Living
David Allen

Hi Folks,

The elegance of productivity doesn't just come from handling your "important" projects and actions, but also includes the rigor of managing the mundane and less important ones. Problem is, most people think they should consistently ignore the mundane and focus on only the important ones. There are limited times and contexts, though, in which you can do that effectively. For the most part, you have limited space or brainpower to tackle The Big Things. The trick is to know how to use the rest of your day, when your brain may be fried and your time constrained. You might find that handling the little stuff will help the other priorities along wonderfully.

All the best,




Sometimes your best tactic is to engage in "dummy" work—activities that require little or no brainpower. And one of the best reasons to get organized is to take advantage of such opportunities.

"Dummy" does not mean dumb or irrelevant. Dummy work actually needs to be done, at some point. Clean out email spam, process receipts, review and update calendars, recharge batteries, organize photos, purge old reference materials (hard or soft copy), clean drawers. Even processing an inbox can be dummy work, if you know how to do it. Dummy work is simply work that requires little creative, developmental thinking. It gives us the obvious task in front of us, sufficient to give us a focus and create productive activity and completion, relieve attention, and give us uplifted energy from obvious closure and progress being made on our "stuff."

Doing dummy work is a great way to take advantage of "weird" time: waiting on hold on the phone, waiting at the doctor, waiting for a meeting to start. It's also a great way to stay productive in "wonky" time: you've just come out of a three-hour brainstorming session and need to leave work in 20 minutes, and your brain is toast.

Here are some of my favorite dummy things to do:

  • Clean out my Read/Review file
  • Empty my inboxes (purge spam, process receipts, input meeting notes, read and toss junk mail, input business card data into my laptop, etc.)
  • Purge old material in my general reference files
  • Fill my bird feeders

Undone dummy work can create unnecessary pressure and frustration on the back end. But most people are not organized enough to take maximum advantage of their opportunities to get these many minor things done, easily, when they could. And when you're in a state to only do dummy work, you don't have the energy to get it ready to get done. If your receipts are everywhere, collected business cards are randomly strewn, your filing system is incomplete to begin with, your Read/Review stack is not immediately at hand, and if you don't have a hard-edged in-tray that's truly functional, dummy work won't be obvious or easy enough to do when you could do it. Many people have actually found it useful to create a "Dummy Things To Do" list—a great example of a smart thing to do to take advantage of not-so-smart contexts!

Be smart and sophisticated on the front end, to create great opportunities to be elegantly productive when your brain is toast.



I am orderly out of spirit of idleness, to save myself the trouble of looking after things.—Alexander Dumas



Q: I've read all your books and here's the challenge I have with contexts. I'm a PR consultant. My office is in my home. I have a laptop, iPad, and iPhone. Therefore, "contexts" don't really work for me because I always have access to email, phone, office, etc. So I have found they're not really meaningful and make it difficult to decide what my next action should be based on your system. Any thoughts or recommendations?

David: "Contexts" are only useful to be able to distinguish what you don't need to look at. You can't do errands at home, so it's nice to have a simple "errands" list. If you're in Starbucks and want to do computer stuff, no need to see all the rest. If one simple list works to keep your head clear, though, that's all that matters.

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