How to Deal with Stuff: Actionable Items

5 min readMay 22, 2024


“The path to success is to take massive, determined actions” ~ Tony Robbins

As I have already mentioned, the ultimate goal of Clarifying (the second stage of the GTD methodology workflow) is to completely empty the inboxes.

To achieve this, you have to process all the items in each inbox one by one until there are none left. Here, the word process means to clearly define what relationship each of the inbox items has with you and decide what you are going to do with them.

More specifically, processing an element consists of asking oneself a few very specific questions about that element in order to remove it completely from the psyche.

Clarifying may seem a complicated procedure at first, but in reality it is something we all do on a regular basis. GTD simply invites you to do it more frequently, consciously and consistently, given the importance of this phase in achieving control.

Simplistically, it’s a matter of deciding whether a captured item is actionable or not, and determining the end result and the actions required to progress towards that result. If the item is not actionable (i.e. no action is involved) then you need to decide whether to trash it, revisit it at a later date, or whether it is reference material.

In this article we will focus on actionable items.

Is it actionable?

This is the first distinction you must make about anything that lands in your world.

A thing is actionable when you can do something about it and, in addition, you want to or should do it.

And there are only two possible answers: yes or no. If you have any doubt about the answer, then the answer is “no, but maybe in the future something will need to be done”. A thing may not be actionable at the moment you are clarifying its meaning, but it may be actionable at some future time.

The cost of not making this distinction is that you accumulate a large number of things of different natures in the same place. When you do this, your mind develops a refusal to deal with the things that are in that place because of the mental effort it must expend to sort and prioritize that pile of things each time it is confronted with it. When going through your unfinished business has a high energy cost and a lack of clarity, you end up not giving it adequate attention.

How many emails are piling up in your inbox that you don’t deal with because you haven’t decided if you need to do anything with them?

Indecision and ambiguity are enemies of your personal productivity. When you realize this and get into the habit of closing “open loops” as soon as they appear, your life changes completely.

Processing actionable items

Once you have determined that something is actionable, you must apply a mental process consisting of two questions. According to David Allen, the creator of Getting Things Done, this basic mental process is the “secret to a productive life and work”:

  1. What is my desired outcome? That is, what am I really committing to?
  2. What is the next action? That is, what do I need to do to get closer to that desired outcome?

When something needs to be done, it’s critical to define what it means for that something to be “done” and to think about how “doing” will look like. These two questions rarely come to mind when you capture something — that’s why you need to do this second phase of intentional clarification.

A capture of the type “Taxes” is not something you can act on. “File income tax return by June” is a clearly defined outcome that gives focus and direction. “Collect last year’s income and expenses” is a specific action that allows you to move in the right direction.

This simple way of thinking allows you to turn vague and amorphous things into real projects you can work on.

The value of deciding the desired outcome

Defining the end result is a critical ingredient in engaging positively with your commitments.

You need to know where you’re headed to get there in the most effective way possible.

This, which is obvious as a concept, is often not so obvious when you are dealing with your day-to-day tasks.

Clearly defining what you are looking for has a major impact on your ability to approach things in a relaxed manner.

For example, if you’re having a problem with a person, it’s easy to procrastinate solving that problem until you’ve clearly defined what the background to the problem is and how you can address it. The moment you recognize the problem, define the desired outcome and formulate some action to begin to solve it, the issue becomes unstuck and you can afford to address it in a more effective and relaxed way.

It’s impractical to start taking action only after defining the entire process that leads to solving a problem. In other words, it’s not effective to design all the actions that make up a project before starting to carry it out. GTD advocates generating a movement that brings you closer to the final result instead of doing this kind of over-planning that will rarely be accurate, precise, and will almost always require changes. Planning more than necessary is another way to procrastinate.

There will be times when what you are clarifying cannot be solved with a simple action or a project, but you need to put in place a whole system to help you manage a certain part of your personal or professional life that you are not managing properly.

For example, issues such as “exercising” or “saving” have to do with maintaining appropriate health and financial standards. In GTD, you will define areas of focus for these two aspects of your life, so that you can always keep them in mind and thus create new projects and actions focused on their improvement (“join the gym”, “walk every day 30 minutes at a good pace”, “read a personal finance book”, “consult my manager about possible investments”, etc.).

Everyone has some part of their life that they don’t pay adequate attention to. Capturing and clarifying all things related to these areas makes it all work.

The moment you clearly define the desired outcome, you have created a game that your brain will try to play and win.

The value of defining the next action

The second part of this small mental process, answering what next action to take, is also a critical component of gaining control.

Defining something specific and physical to be done allows you to connect the desired result with the hard reality. It involves thinking about different possibilities, available resources, possible risks and problems, etc. It’s something that usually requires time and energy.

Ultimately, the success of any project rests on its actions.

The execution of actions, something we will see in more detail when we talk about the fifth and final stage of GTD, is the final step to gain control and perspective.

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