How to Deal with Your Stuff

4 min readMay 15, 2024


“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” ~ Mark Twain

David Allen calls stuff anything that appears in your world, physically or psychologically, and needs to be defined. This word refers to things that are sufficiently vague or amorphous that you need to determine what they are and what you are going to do with them.

In theory, everything you capture is stuff and, therefore, needs to be clarified. Although it’s possible that not 100% of the issues actually need to be clarified (for example, an event that you have to go to and does not require any preparation could go directly to your calendar, without clarifying), there are few that might be able to skip this process and it’s convenient to assume that everything that lands in your world requires clarification. Spending a few seconds to think about each new commitment never hurts.

For example, when you receive an email, read it and don’t delete it, it is because there’s something else to do about it. What does that email really mean? What are you going to do with it? Do you simply reply to it? Or save it so you can retrieve some potentially important information in the future? Or do you have to take some action to consider that matter complete? Or maybe you have to take several actions? Should you forward it to someone else to handle? That email is going to be in your head (in your inbox) until you define exactly what it means and what you are going to do with it.

Something similar happens with the notes you take from your notebook or the papers you gather on your desk or in your physical tray. They are amorphous things that you must give shape to.

Most of the things we capture have this nature, they are sort of blurred in some way. Still, many people incorporate them directly into their “to-do lists”. This is why traditional to-do lists, full of things of different nature, some of them still vague, ill-defined and not very actionable, are ineffective and a major source of stress. To-do lists lack clarity.

Stuff are everything that make up the “inbox” of your life. Some are more elusive and subtle: problems you have not yet turned into actions, desires you have not yet consciously acknowledged, situations that are gradually changing, etc.

Peace of mind and true productivity come only when all these things are interpreted and channeled into the appropriate lists.

To deal with your stuff you don’t need to do it, execute it, complete it, or finish it. You just need to determine the meaning that each piece has for you and then put a reminder in the right place, that is, on the list of reminders that share the same nature

Capture and clarify, two different operating methods

The difference between the first and second stages of gaining control is important. When you capture the things that catch your attention (first stage), the main rule is “not to think”. Here you should avoid any kind of judgment and not make any decisions. On the contrary, when you clarify what you have captured (second stage) you spend the necessary time to think and evaluate how each thing you have captured affects your life.

When something catches our attention and we capture it, we know it is something potentially important or interesting, but rarely are we absolutely clear on what we should do with it. That’s why we need to dedicate specific time and energy to this.

It is important to understand this difference because it is easy to fall into the trap of doing both steps at the same time, something to which we are accustomed and which is very ineffective, since each stage requires a different predisposition and a different way of operating. The moments of having ideas involve different states and behaviors than the moments of transforming those ideas into reality.

Clarifying stuff requires a completely different operating mode. In addition, the time gap that exists between capturing something and clarifying it allows you to “cool things down”, that is, it helps you to react in a much more rational way. Who hasn’t ever had a hot flash after coming up with a great idea and started working on it as if there was no tomorrow, only to realize after a few hours that you’ve just wasted your time?

It’s the job of your “clarifying self” to coldly evaluate what you have captured and pit it against all kinds of criteria before integrating it into your life.

Empty your inboxes

The ultimate goal of the “clarifying” step is to completely empty your inboxes.

That is why this stage was called “processing” in the first version of GTD.

It’s about going through each of your inboxes (the physical one, your email inbox, your notebook, your to-do app, etc.) and processing each of the items in there until there is nothing left.

Processing each item (clarifying it) means defining its relationship with you and deciding what you are going to do with it.

If you have read our articles on how to manage commitments with the GTD methodology, you already know that no distinction is made between work and personal life. All incomplete things possess a little piece of your brain, whatever their nature, and must be captured and clarified fairly if you intend to achieve the holy grail of stress-free productivity.

Obviously some things will be more important than others, and even some will be totally irrelevant and you will have to discard them, but that’s part of the process. To be well organized you must first know what things to organize.

Once you clarify what each thing you let into your world is, organizing them will be a very simple, almost obvious task. That will be the third stage of the workflow.

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