In this episode we continue our GTD® short series with a discussion of the Clarification and Organization steps.
Under the GTD we’ve captured our tasks, commitments, and ideas; now it’s time to clarify and organize them
Earlier this month, in episode 440, I started a short series on David Allen’s Getting Things Done® productivity system with a brief overview of the system. Then in episode 441, in response to a listener request, I did a little more detailed review of the first step in the GTD system, which is capture. This week I’m looking more closely at the next two steps: clarify and organize.
I need your help!
Before we get into that, though, I want to remind you of my request from last week for your help in preparing an upcoming episode about the tools we use for capture (and the other GTD® steps). Whether or not you purposely follow the GTD system, most of these steps show up in any productivity system–we all have to capture information and then clarify and organize it so that it’s usable. As I mentioned last week, I’ve had some requests to talk about the various types of tools for capturing and managing tasks and commitments. I would love to include your input on this. Would you share what tool or approach you use to manage tasks, commitments, and information, including why you’ve chosen it, what you like about it, etc.? You can share your thoughts by email–either type it up or just record a voice memo on your phone and send it to me at email@example.com. Or you can go to theproductivewoman.com and click on the “Send Me a Voice Message” button on the right-hand side. If you send a voice message, either by email or through that button on the website, I’ll be able to include that recording in the actual episode, so be sure to let me know who you are–first name is fine– “Hi, this is Susan from San Diego” or “I’m Leanne from London”–and keep your message to a minute or so.
The Clarification Step
The clarification stage of the GTD method is essential for processing and understanding the tasks you’ve captured. By asking specific questions, you can identify the desired outcome and the next actions needed to progress. Here’s more about this aspect of GTD.
Purpose of clarification: Clarifying your tasks helps you gain a clear understanding of what needs to be done, the desired outcome, and the steps required to achieve it. This process promotes effective decision-making and prioritization, enabling you to focus on the most important tasks. On the FacileThings blog, writer Maria Saez says it this way:
“In this phase, the captured stuff gets defined and a decision is made as to what to do with it.”
Remember at the capture step, we are not editing ourselves or processing things. We’re just getting everything into our system. According to the GTD website, the clarify step is where, for each of those things we’ve captured, we answer the questions, what is this? and what am I going to do about it?
Handling ambiguous tasks: Some tasks or ideas may be vague or unclear when initially captured. The clarification process helps transform these ambiguous tasks into well-defined actions with specific outcomes. This can reduce procrastination and make it easier to engage with the task.
A series of questions:
1. First, what is this? (a project? a task? an errand? an appointment? a piece of information? an idea?)
2. Second, is this something I’m going to do something about or with?
If no, then you can (1) trash it, (2) keep (no action, but you want to be able to refer to it later), or (3) on hold for later decision/action.
If yes, then what’s the very next action you need to take?
Will one action complete it, or is this something I’ll need to keep track of until it’s complete? If it can’t be completed with one action, it’s a project. More about that below. Once you’ve decided what the next action is, you have 3 options:
- Do it (the 2-minute rule).
- Delegate it.
- Postpone it–make a decision about when you will do it.
Outcome-focused thinking: When clarifying tasks that take more than one action, ask yourself, “What is the outcome I want to achieve?” This question helps you define the end goal, which can guide your actions and decisions throughout the project or task. Outcome-focused thinking also helps you stay motivated, as you have a clear vision of what you’re working towards.
Identifying next actions: After defining the desired outcome, determine the next action required to move the task forward. This could be a simple step, like sending an email or making a phone call, or a more complex action, such as conducting research or completing a report. Breaking tasks into smaller, actionable steps makes them more manageable and less overwhelming.
Manageable tasks: By breaking down larger projects or tasks into smaller, actionable steps, you can more easily track your progress and maintain momentum. Smaller tasks also tend to be less intimidating and can be completed in shorter time frames, allowing you to experience a sense of accomplishment more frequently.
Processing captured items: As you clarify tasks, process the items you’ve captured by either adding them to your task lists, filing them as reference material, scheduling them on your calendar, delegating them to someone else, or deleting them if they’re no longer relevant.
Regular clarification: Make it a habit to consistently clarify your tasks, either as you capture them or during a dedicated processing session. Regular clarification helps keep your system up-to-date, ensuring you always have a clear understanding of your tasks and priorities.
The Organization Step
After you’ve clarified your captures, the next step in the GTD system is organizing it. This step helps you manage your tasks efficiently by categorizing them into different lists based on priority, context, and due dates. The GTD website notes that “Organizing identifies the various placeholders or “buckets” where actions and support material are stored that you’ve processed.” Organizing tasks in this manner allows you to stay focused, maintain clarity, and prevent overwhelm when faced with multiple tasks. According to GTD, you have four lists or “buckets” to put the things you’ve clarified:
1. Projects — remember, these are the multi-action “tasks” that you identified in the clarification step, defining the outcome you want
2. Next Actions — these are one-step tasks, either one-off or the very next action step in your projects.
- Some subdivide this into context categories such as Calls, Computer, Office, Home, Errands, Agendas (people and meetings)
- Organizing tasks based on context can help you batch similar tasks together, reducing the mental effort required to switch between different types of tasks. For example, you can create separate lists for tasks that need to be completed at home, at work, or while running errands.
- Can do this on separate pages in a paper planner or notebook, or use tags and labels: Tags and labels are a great way to further categorize and differentiate tasks within your lists. They can be used to indicate the type of task (e.g., “Research,” “Email,” “Phone Call”), the project it belongs to, or any other information that might be useful in organizing and prioritizing your tasks.
3. Waiting For — these are actions for which you’re awaiting something from another source–somebody else to do something, etc.
4. Calendar— (for time- or day-specific actions or information)
5. Optional: a Someday/Maybe list, for things you might do someday
Priority-based lists: Assigning priorities to your tasks helps you focus on what’s most important and ensures that you complete high-priority tasks before moving on to less critical ones. You can use a simple numbering system (1-3, for example) or labels like “High,” “Medium,” and “Low” to assign priority levels to your tasks.
Due date-based lists: Sorting tasks by due date is useful for meeting deadlines and ensuring that time-sensitive tasks are completed on schedule. You can use calendar apps, digital to-do lists, or even a simple paper planner to organize tasks by their due dates.
Personal and professional lists: Separating personal and professional tasks can help you maintain a work-life balance and ensure that you give equal attention to both aspects of your life. You can use different apps, notebooks, or digital tools to keep these tasks separate or use tags and labels to differentiate between them within a single tool.
The clarification stage of GTD is crucial for understanding and breaking down tasks into actionable steps. By defining the desired outcomes and identifying the next actions needed to progress, you can make tasks more manageable, improve decision-making, and boost productivity.
Once you’ve clarified, organizing your tasks into separate, clearly defined lists based on priority, context, and due date will help you be better equipped to focus on what needs to be done and make consistent progress. This approach can help you avoid becoming overwhelmed and ensure that you’re always working on the most important tasks at any given time.
This might seem complicated and time-consuming, but it doesn’t have to be. If you set aside 15 minutes at the end (or beginning) of each day, or 30 minutes a week, to clarify and organize the stuff you’ve captured as you go, you’ll reap the benefits of a clearer mind and a clear path to accomplishing the things you need and want to do.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m working on an episode about the tools we can use to accomplish these steps and how to use them effectively and would love your input on what tools you use for capturing, clarifying, and organizing the tasks and information you manage. Remember to share your favorite tools for capturing tasks, commitments, and important information for an upcoming episode. Email me (either a typed message or a voice recording from your phone) at firstname.lastname@example.org or click on the “leave a message” button on the right-hand margin of the TPW website (remember if you send a voice message, either via email or using the website button, to let us know your first name and your city, state, or country).
What do you think?
What are your thoughts on the clarification and organization steps of the GTD system? Post your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me
Resources and Links
TPW short series on the GTD system
- The Organize Stage of GTD, Explained
- Getting Things Done: Your Step-By-Step Guide
- GTD Best Practices: Organize (Part 3 of 5)
- The Clarify Stage of GTD, Explained
- Step 2: Clarify – Getting Things Done®
- GTD: 11 Guidelines for Clarifying/Processing Your Stuff
- What Is GTD “Clarify”? Your Complete Guide to Step 2 | Shortform Books
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