Join David Allen for an in-depth discussion in this video Clarifying meaning, part of Getting Things Done.
Well, now that we've covered the first step which is capture, it could be a little daunting if you actually made a big list or big collection of all the things that you have your attention on, if you just left it there. You don't want to just leave it there. If you stop there, and a lot of people do. They write a lot of things down but then they don't do anything with what they write down and then they become compulsive list makers. And they've got lists stuck all over everywhere. And Post-Its on their screen and on the refrigerator door and stuck, you know, all kinds of places.
So, this whole thing needs to be a holistic model. That is, all of these stages have to work together because you actually want a flow. You don't want it to back up like bad plumbing. If you don't empty your in-basket. So the big challenge here is, if you've gotten your head into your in-basket, is now get the in-basket empty without putting it back in your head. That's where we're going to go, particularly to stage two and stage three. Steps two is to clarify what these things are that you've captured. And then step three will th, then be to organize the results of that. Those fit very closely together, but I will split them apart to talk about each one individually.
So, we need to now clarify what it is that we had our attention on. And what does clarify mean? Well, in a way you could think of it as processing the stuff that you've captured. Most people still have some thinking and decision making about stuff that's on their lists. Very often, I'll see things on a to-do list that look like mom or bank or doctor or strategic plan, and that's great. You captured something there that represents something you have your attention on, but there are probably more decisions to make about mom.
Why did you write it down? I mean, it's historical data. You probably had one. But why is it on the. Oh, it's her birthday coming up. right. So the interesting thing is that things will have your attention and tend to distract you if you don't give them appropriate attention. So the first thing you have to do is identify the thing that's pulling, you know, on your brain. Like mom's birthday coming up or bank, I need look at increasing my credit line. So those are the things you need to capture, but then there's still some decision making you need to apply. I mean, what attention do you need to put on mom and, and, and her birthday? What attention do you still need to put on the bank and your credit line? So that's the executive decision making you need to make about what do these things really mean.
And what specifically are you going to do about them, if anything. So there's some very simple but very profound questions you need to ask about everything that you've captured or collected. And by the way, you know, the email that has been mounting up while you've been watching and listening to me. The things in your voicemail. Those are also things that are captured and are incomplete that you need to then put through the clarification process. What do you need to ask yourself about an email? In order to know what to do wi, with it if you're going to empty out the in basket portion of your application.
So here's the key questions you need to ask. If you pick up something out of your in-basket, something you had your attention on, the first question is, is it something that is actionable? Is it something that you actually need to do something about? There are two optional answers to that question. Yes. And no. Maybe is a no. So, you going to do anything about mom's birthday? Are you going to do something about the bank or the credit line. If you say no, and by the way there's a lot of things that we capture or collect or that are collected for us, for instance in your email, that there is no action on.
There's a lot of those things. I'm sure you take meeting notes. Those are cut, captured ideas but there's many things that are in those notes that you probably don't need to do something about. And the no, if there is a no answer. That is, there's no, I'm not going to do something about this. You still have three decisions to make. Or three options about what the non actionable things really are or what they need. First is trash or recycle or delete or shred. Like now I don't need this. Now that I've seen it I don't need it or I didn't need it to begin with. So that's obviously one option.
No action on this. It then needs to be tossed. By the way, a lot of people need to make that decision about a lot of things sitting in their email right now, as well as things sort of lying around. As I say, trash self generates. It does not self destruct. Everything in the center drawer of your desk probably belonged there at one point. But if you open those drawers right now, I'll be there's a lot of things that well, those really don't belong there, they're out of date or they're dead. So, that's obviously a, a critical category. Well, hey, I don't need it, get out of my universe, my ecosystem doesn't need that, that's done.
So trash is option one if it's not actionable. Option two if it's not actionable would be, well there's no action on this now, but there might be later. That's a category that we call incubate. Incubate means I need to, I need to let this hold for a while. I either need think about it some more, or I need to let some time pass before I make a decision. So your, your commitment with those things is merely to reassess at some later time and some later date. So that's incubate. And, for instance, maybe you realize your mom's birthday's coming up.
But it's not coming up for a couple of months. You have a lot of pending things sitting out there. You want to wait to find out what happens with those before you make any commitments about mom and birthday. Sure, that's fine. So you might say, hm, I just need a reminder, maybe, two or three weeks before mom's birthday. And then, you know, my sister and I can decide if we want to do something then. So you would just then need to park some reminder, which we'll, we'll touch on when we get to the organize thing. Once you've decided it is incubate, you do need something for those kinds of things. Let this be on hold for a while.
So the bank, for instance. You might say, well I don't really want to, maybe, research that yet because we're looking at other options for cashflow. But it is a good idea. And maybe we should rethink that in two or three weeks. So, that's the parking lot idea, if you will. Let's park it, not throw it away. There might be something to do about it. So, that's incubate. So, again, non-actionable things are trash or potential future action and then the third category, and you get a lot of that, are things that have no action on them. But they're reference material. I need to keep that.
I need to be able to refer back to that in case me or somebody else you know, has a need for it. In case I need to go back and see what was there. So supported material, collaborative material for projects. Things you might want to keep you know, I tend to store emails by person or topic, or project. Just to park them there in case I need to refer back to them. So three non actionable categories. Trash, incubate, or reference. Now, if you, actually did the exercise of getting things out of your head, I imagine most of the things you wrote down, you'd say yes, there is some action I need to take on that.
I do need to buy cat food, I do need to do something about the bank and our credit line, I do need to do something about my doctor's appointment, or, the next holiday or vacation coming up. So, when you say okay, there is an action, then there are two really key questions that bring real clarity to what your work is. And I use work in the very broad sense, anything you want to get done that's not done yet. And those two key questions. And these you can you know, write them on your forehead, write them anywhere, bake them in. Because these become essentially what I call the zeros and ones of productive thinking.
First of all, what's the very next action? If it is an actionable thing, what's the very next thing I need to do to move this forward? If you are going to give your mom a birthday party, what's the very next action you need to take on that? Is it a call you need to make? Is it something to surf the web about? Is it an email you need to send? Is it something you need to talk to somebody face to face about? So, when I say next action, I'm talking about very granular, very specific, visible physical action. You need to know where that action would actually take place.
So set meeting is actually not a next action, because it could be an email or a phone call, you could task your assistant to set the meeting. What's the very next thing? A way to think about that is if you had nothing else to do but whatever that thing was about, that project or that item. And you were going to start to move on getting closure or completion about it, where would you go, what would you do? What's the next action, you'll hear that over and over again. It's a critical, critical question to clarify. Because those actually do not show up automatically clarified.
Very few people when I look at their to do list actually have written down what the next action is about the things they wrote down. Like what's the next action about the doctor? Oh, yeah, you know, I really need to call. Wait, before I do that I really need to talk, you know, but before I do. And that's, I just hear, I've heard that for thousands of hours when I've sat working one on one with the executives that I coach. They just still haven't made that decision yet. And if you haven't made that next action decision, there's a part of you that knows you still have thinking and deciding to do, you know, about the stuff that you've, that you've captured.
So, clarifying the very next action, not all the actions that you need to take, just the very next one. That's interesting that we've discovered that. That actually lets your mind relax when you at least know what the trigger action is, not necessarily all the succeeding ones that will come after that. The second question you need to ask and answer is, look, if this one action that I take doesn't actually complete what had my attention. In other words, I'm going to call my sister about mom's birthday but that doesn't complete the birthday party being done. I now have a project.
In other words, what's the outcome that is embedded or in, involved in this thing that has my attention? A project if you will. So just using the can, the common language of a project and creating a list of all of your projects, you actually can't do a project. A project like give mom a birthday party or handle the next holiday. Or to launch the strategic plan, or to finalize the budget. You actually don't do those things, you do actions about those so that at some point the budget's been finalized, you've taken the trip, you've gone to the doctor, those things actually occur.
So, a project is just an outcome. That's more than one action is required. The problem is if you don't actually then capture what's the project that's driving these things that have your attention, and you take one action and then you get distracted or you get pulled off to do something else. Now you don't have a placeholder out here in the world. Your mind takes it back. Oh, I haven't finished yet. And it goes back inside your head. And that's what you don't want. Again, this is all about being able to be present with what you're doing and being able to have the kind of space that you need inside your head.
And having projects and actions tied to them. Man, that is such a master key for this. So again, if things are actionable, the two key questions are, what's the very next action? And if that one action won't finish or complete whatever this is about, what's the project? Those two items become really master keys. If you think about meetings that you've been in where people didn't clarify what are we trying to accomplish or if you've been in discussions and people walked away without going, so what's the next action and who's doing it? Those things, when they're actually brought into those environments and into those situations, automatically create a lot more focus, a lot more control, and people walk away with their heads clear, as opposed to, gee, I think something ought to happen, but we didn't clarify what it was.
So once more, clarify means, first of all, we've captured what's pulling on our attention, but then we need to put more specific attention on those things to discover exactly what they mean. Because to go to the next stage, which is to organize the results of that, clarifying what these mean and which category they go into is a primary step to begin with.
NEW for 2015: In an exclusive bonus chapter, David Allen answers some of the most frequently asked questions he receives about Getting Things Done, including why GTD is different and how it can scale for larger teams and organizations.
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Q: This course was updated on 1/02/2015. What changed?
A: We added 45 minutes of new content in the Bonus Interview chapter. Learn why Getting Things Done is different from other productivity improvement methods, and how it can work for you, your family, and your team.