He grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana where he acted and won a state championship in debate. He went to college at New College, now New College of Florida, in Sarasota, Florida, and did graduate work in American history at University of California, Berkeley. After graduate school, he began using heroin and was briefly institutionalized. His career path has included jobs as a magician, waiter, karate teacher, landscaper, vitamin distributor, glass-blowing lathe operator, travel agent, gas station manager, U-Haul dealer, moped salesman, restaurant cook, personal growth trainer, manager of a lawn service company, and manager of a travel agency. He is an ordained minister with the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness. He claims to have had 35 professions before age 35. He began applying his perspective on productivity with businesses in the 1980s when he was awarded a contract to design a program for executives and managers at Lockheed.
He is the founder of the David Allen Company, which is focused on productivity, action management and executive coaching. His "Getting Things Done" method is part of his coaching efforts. He was also one of the founders of Actioneer, Inc., a company specializing in productivity tools for the Palm Pilot.
David Allen Company presenters, not Allen, regularly gives one-day public seminars on Allen's Getting Things Done methodology, which cost approximately $595. Allen himself gives public seminars only occasionally, which cost approximately $995. In 2007, such a seminar from Allen himself went for $595 per person or $20,000 per corporate training session.
Allen has written four books, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, which describes his productivity program, Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work and Life, a collection of newsletter articles he has written, Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and Business of Life, a follow-up to his first book and in 2015 a completely rewritten version of his first book Getting Things Done: the Art of Stress-Free Productivity was published. He lived in Ojai, California with his fourth wife, Kathryn, whom he describes as his "extraordinary partner in work and life" in the dedication of Getting Things Done. In May 2014 they moved to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Europe.