The Ultimate Skill: Clarifying Precisely What Is What

FacileThings
6 min readOct 4, 2023

“Things rarely get stuck because of lack of time. They get stuck because the doing of them has not been defined” — David Allen.

Okay, you’ve already captured a lot of things that need your attention. The next step to properly manage your commitments is to determine the exact meaning of everything that has come up in the capture phase. In the GTD methodology, this second stage is called Clarify.

This step requires a completely different state of mind from that of capturing. When you capture things you don’t need to think, just collect what grabs your attention, deposit it in an inbox and forget about it instantly. However, clarifying involves reflecting and making decisions.

It is a transformation process in which a shapeless mass of stuff that makes up the inbox will be converted into a manageable and achievable set of items.

This is probably the most complicated process in the methodology, but it becomes mechanical when practised enough. And it is, without a doubt, a revealing and definitive skill when mastered.

To clear your inbox, you need to focus on each issue that forms it separately and put it through a thought process, which I will try to simplify here.

Transformation process

This decision-making process has several steps. The best way to solve it is to ask yourself a series of questions in the right order.

First question: What is it?

The first step is very simple. Take the first issue in your inbox and ask yourself the question “what is it?” . It’s simply a matter of recognizing the issue at hand.

Second question: Does it require action?

In this step, you are going to determine whether the issue in question requires some kind of activity on your part or not. The answer to the question “does it require action?” divides issues into two very simple categories: Either it is something you have to do or it is something that does not require any action on your part.

Non-actionable items

If an item doesn’t require action, it will have three possible classifications:

  1. Trash: Anything unrealizable, unnecessary or unwanted. Some forms of trash are harder to recognize than others because they contain some kind of hypothetical value. Rule of thumb: If you can’t find a solid argument as to why you will need the item in the future, it’s trash.
  2. Someday/Maybe: Anything that doesn’t require action now, but might require action in the future. They are usually things that you would like to do when circumstances permit, but that you really have no obligation to do.
  3. Reference material: Anything not doable that might be needed later. They are usually items that contain information that at some point could be useful to you, so that, if the time comes, you will want to have them accessible in some way (we will talk about where and how to store these items in the next article, when we talk about the third stage of GTD, organizing).

Actionable items

If an item requires action, you’ll need to ask yourself next, “what’s the next action?”

The next action is the next step, physical and visible, that will allow you to make progress with the item you are dealing with. Sometimes the next action is not too obvious, which can lead to a vague and inaccurate description. If the next action isn’t well defined it will generate stress and you will avoid carrying it out; this is called procrastination.

It’s true that sometimes we have to deal with actions that we don’t feel like doing, but the most common reason why we avoid doing something is because we are not clear about what the next action should be. So it’s very important that you define the next action as clearly and simply as you can, so that when the time comes to execute it you don’t need to rethink what that means.

To properly describe a next action, make sure that:
- It includes a simple action verb.
- It indicates where you need to perform it.
- It states what tools you will need to execute it.
- It is specific enough that you can execute it without thinking about anything else.

Don’t think about the actions that will come after the next action, if more actions are needed. When you have executed that action, then you will think about what the “new” next action is. It’s all about building momentum and starting to take action.

Okay, so you have already defined a next action in a very clear way. The next question is “can I do it right now?” . To this question you will only answer “yes” in case the action demands very little time. This is called the Two Minute Rule.

The benefit of completing time-sensitive actions immediately, within the clarifying process, is that you will quickly eliminate some of the things on your mind and have a smaller inventory of unfinished items. This tends to generate a sense of accomplishment and peace of mind.

If you cannot perform the action in a couple of minutes, then you will have to postpone it. We will see later, when we talk about the Organize stage, how you can classify this action depending on whether you can do it at any time or it must be done at a certain date and/or time, or if it must be done by someone else.

One last question remains: “When I execute the action, will I be finished? If you’re done, that’s it. On to clarifying the next item.

But if, when you perform the action, you are unable to conclude the matter, then you must ask yourself, “when will I be finished?” The answer to this question will be the description of a project. In GTD, a project is any result that requires more than one action to be achieved.

As you can see, this mental process helps you to have a clear idea of where you are going (project) and what is the first step you must take to get there (next action). In other words, you have already generated the necessary conditions of control and perspective to be able to manage the matter successfully.

As I said at the beginning, it takes some time to get used to using this thought process with each of the pending issues you capture, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a fundamental change in the way you manage things.

Every time you clarify, try to empty your inbox completely. If you don’t, you will get into the habit of only clearing what you feel like doing; this is a dynamic that only generates stress and procrastination.

You should clarify all the things you have captured as often as you feel most comfortable, but don’t let too much stuff pile up in your inboxes. That could be the source of an organizational block. Try to clarify everything at least once a day.

If you use FacileThings to implement your GTD system, the Clarify option helps you absorb this transformative process in a natural way. It also notifies you when you have enough actions in your inbox to dedicate some time to clarify. And, even if you don’t like it at first, you won’t be able to choose which item to clarify; you will have to clarify them all ;)

In the next article we will see how to conveniently organize the issues you have clarified.

Originally published at https://facilethings.com.

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