The Clarify Stage of GTD, Explained

5 min readDec 1, 2021


During this second phase the stuff captured in the previous phase will become clearer and more concise. This is precisely what “clarifying” is about. It’s a new thought process for those who don’t use GTD and you’ll need to do it step by step until you get used to it.

You will need to ask yourself a series of questions in relation to each one of the captures. Their answers will help you determine the shape and magnitude of what you have in hand; in other words, it will give you the information you need to be able to work on it properly.

In this phase, the captured stuff gets defined and a decision is made as to what to do with it.

First of all, defining consists in reformulating in a clearer and more precise way what has been previously captured. This specification of what previously may have been just an amorphous statement is what is properly called “clarifying”. Therefore, the first question you should ask yourself is What is it? (what does it mean to you?)

At this point you will use some simple criteria which you will subject the captured issues to in order to decide what to do with them. These criteria are derived from the question Is it actionable? and the various options that reveal the possible answer (something is actionable when you can do something about it and you want to or should do it):

If the answer is “no”, it is one of the following three cases:

  1. It’s something you’re not going to do or have any interest in, so you trash it.
  2. It’s not something you want to do as soon as possible, but you might want to do in the future. You incubate it.
  3. It’s information that may be useful. You file it away as reference material.

If you decide that an issue is actionable, you will need to specify what the next action is. The “next action” is the next visible, physical activity that moves something forward or completes it. Reminders about these actions will be a substantial component of your management system.

Now you need to ask yourself what is the next physical and visible action you could take to move forward on this issue? (what is the next action?). Once you have decided what the next action is you have three options:

  1. Do it: if it takes you less than 2 minutes to complete it, the good practice is to do it as soon as you define it, as long as you are in the right context and in the mood to do it (more on this in the “Two-minute rule considerations” section below.).
  2. Delegate it: If you are not the right person to carry out the action, delegate it.
  3. Postpone it: If it takes more than 2 minutes and it is up to you to do it, the good practice is to defer its execution to a later time and keep track of it in the lists of next actions.

Finally, you need to ask yourself if you can conclude the capture with this action. If so, you are done; if not, you need to define the desired outcome and add it to the project list. This will serve as a reminder that this task is not yet done by the time you complete that action.

In GTD we call “project” any desired outcome that requires more than one action in order to be done and can be achieved within a maximum period of one year. This means that this category will include quite small things that you wouldn’t normally call “projects”; such as repairing a car, which require several steps, starting for example with calling the garage to make an appointment and might end with picking up the car once it is fixed.

Is this a project?

Whether an activity is considered as a single action or is divided into several actions will depend, among other things, on one’s personal mastery of the task in question and the way one manages it.

For example, filing your income tax return may be a one-time action if your return is so simple that you only need to accept the draft that the IRS sends you or, even if it isn’t so simple, it’s the same every year and you’re already familiar with the process. If you are not familiar with the process or your return includes many types of returns and considerations, you may need to define a project.

Two-minute Rule considerations

David Allen suggests immediately executing any action that will take you less than two minutes during the Clarify phase. This two-minute rule can be very powerful, but its apparent simplicity carries some risks.

The logic behind this rule is that, in certain cases, the execution of a given action takes less time than its clarification, organization and follow-up, making the inherent processing of the GTD methodology unnecessary.

If you take this suggestion too lightly, you may corrupt the constituent core of the GTD workflow, in which each stage is linked to a specific mental work mode. If you apply this rule “for everything” you will break the natural workflow, as you will constantly alternate between the “analytical mode” required by the Clarifying stage and an “executive mode” proper to the Executing stage.

In addition, David Allen warns us that the “two minutes” is a guideline figure that can be expanded, which is sometimes misinterpreted as “do it on the spot if you have time”.

However, there are specific cases in which this formula can be beneficial. As David Allen himself points out in his book, email management often requires quick actions that can be done immediately, thus freeing up a considerable amount of work (immediate responses such as “thank you” or “ok, let’s meet on Friday” should not be postponed).

Our recommendation is to apply the “two-minute rule” only in cases where it will not interrupt the Clarifying process and does not jeopardize the emptying of the tray, and if it does, it is preferable to postpone it, even in the case of actions that require little time.

The sequence of questions needed to clarify

Clarifying is an iterative process in which you think about each of your captures, ask yourself a series of questions about them, and organize the results, leaving the inboxes empty at the end of the process. For each capture, the sequence of questions is as follows:

  1. What is it?
  2. Is it actionable?
  3. If it is not actionable, what are you going to do with it?
  4. If it is actionable, what is the next visible and physical activity that you can do to move this thing forward? What are you going to do with it?
  5. If it requires more than one step, what is the desired outcome or project?

Clarify, in a nutshell

What is it? Turning previously captured stuff into self-evident statements.

How do you do it? By clearly defining those inputs and deciding what, if anything, you are going to do with them.

When do you do it? On a regular basis, depending on your activity level, and at least once a day.

What for? To identify your commitments and decide what to do with them, so you can get them under control and out of your head.

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