Episode #27: GTD Keys to Clarifying

In this speech excerpt, David Allen shares the GTD® keys to clarifying your work.

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GETTING THINGS DONE Episode #27: GTD Keys to Clarifying

ANDREW J. MASON: You’re listening to Getting Things Done, the official podcast of the David Allen Company, with our feature segment from David on Keys to Clarifying.

Welcome everyone to Getting Things Done, GTD for shorthand. My name’s Andrew J. Mason and this podcast is all about helping you on your journey practicing the art of stress-free productivity. Clarifying is the second step of the Getting Things Done methodology.

After you’ve captured what has your attention, clarifying is the step where you make critical decisions about those thoughts you’ve externalized and you’ll possibly see some actions emerge from those decisions. This is the step David addresses in his book Ready for Anything, Chapters 22 and 23, where he says, “You have to think about your stuff more than you think, but it’s not as much as you’re afraid you might.” I personally would say that’s some of the beauty of the clarifying step. It sharpens your focus, gets rid of excess and draws out potential next actions.

As an aside, I’d also suggest pairing this episode with episode three, The Guided Mindsweep and what you’re about to hear will help you make decisions about all this stuff David helps you capture in that episode.

And now, without further ado, here’s David Allen on Keys to Clarifying.

DAVID ALLEN: The late and great Peter Drucker, the great management guru in the U.S., he would caution all of you as knowledge workers that your biggest task is defining what your work is, defining your work, because your work is not self-evident. The e-mail that you’re getting right now while I’m speaking does not tell you what to do about that e-mail; you have to decide that. You have to decide what it means to you. You have to decide, is there something I’m gonna do about that? So you need to clarify the meaning of those things that you wrote down, just like in your kitchen, you clarified: Is this a dirty dish? Is this a clean dish? Is this a spice? Is this good food? You need to decide what these things are that are not where they need to be and on automatic.

So what does what does it mean, mean? Well there’s a very simple formula in algorithm about how you determine what these things mean to you, in order to manage them appropriately and to appropriately engaged with them. If I were to sit down with you with your lists, the first thing I’d ask you about the first thing you wrote down, and what exactly is that? That’s kind of a dumb question but sometimes it’s not.

How many of you ever get e-mails from somebody, maybe some department in your company that you’ve been cc’ed on that has six attachments; the blah, blah, the protocol therefore – the policies and the protocols of therefore and the reds responsiveness and the blah, blah, blah?

Any of you ever add those to the huh pile? You open up and go “Huh!” and close it up. That’s the huh pile. So you need to – excuse me this is from HR – what exactly are they asking me to do? What is this? Is it a request, is it information? What is this? I can’t tell you how much stuff I’ve spent thousands of hours, quite literally, not just Malcomb Gladwell’s ten thousand, I have spent 50,000 hours, one on one with the best and brightest on the planet, applying this. You’d be amazed, how much stuff they’ve accumulated that they go, “What the hell is this?” It’s theirs! It’s already come through.

Anyway, once you decide what it is, then the next question you need to ask yourself and the question you need to ask yourself about the first thing you wrote down is: Is this something you’re committed to move on? Is it actionable?

There are two optional answers to that question. Anybody guess what those two answers are? I know this is technically rusty – this is technical stuff, this is deep but stick with me. As simple as this is, most of you have a bunch of stuff lying around in your life and work right now that you have not made that determination. But there’s actually something you’re gonna do about that thing you got about the concert series coming up, or that training program coming up. You haven’t decided.

Now we all get a lot of stuff in our life, by the way, and you know, appropriately, we all get a lot of our site that there’s no action on. There’s three subcategories basically. First of all, there’s trash – you didn’t need it to begin with or now that you’ve seen it you don’t need it.

Then there are some things – actually a lot of things, especially in the digital world that you get, e-mails that you get, “There’s no action on this – I need to store this.” This is cover your ass stuff, keep track of this, make sure I can find it later on in case I need it. Then there’s reference material.

And then there’s some things you get you go, “Hmm, I don’t know yet, I can’t decide. I need to put it on hold.” Incubate. For instance you may hear about a training program coming up in the university here but it’s six weeks away, you’ve got some other pending things, so you can’t decide right now, but you might want to do it if things clear up, so you’d want some sort of reminder later on to rethink that. So – incubate.

So those are three subcategories of non-actionable things that show up in your ecosystem.

Now, I imagine most of what you wrote down a few minutes ago would probably land on the yes side because they were top of mind things, probably the first thing that you probably thought of. Now if you have an actionable thing, the first question I’m gonna ask you about the first thing you wrote down is: okay, if it’s actionable, what’s the next one? What’s the next physical, visible action you would need to take, if you had nothing else to do in your life but finish the first thing you wrote down? I hope you’re looking at the first thing you wrote down.

First of all, is it an actionable item, yes or no? If it’s not, is it just reference or is it a someday/maybe – you might want to later. If you say, “No, there is something I need to do about that”, I go “What?” If you had nothing else to do in your life but get closure on the first thing you wrote down and you walked out of this room and I’m gonna pay you a million eros to start – where would you go? What would you do? Is it a phone call to make, a website to surf, a conversation to have with your life partner, a document you need to draft or edit? What is it? What’s the very next thing you need to do?

Most of you, by the way, have not written down the next thing to do. You wrote down a thing. You haven’t yet determined what doing looks like and where it happens. You haven’t finished your thinking about it. This is such a key question to build into your DNA.

Wait a minute, what’s the very next thing that would need to happen, if I were gonna move the needle on this thing – about what it is?

How many of you have already decided what the very next action is? How many of you are playing along with me here? Great! Good for you! Now the first, if I were sitting next to you, I’d say, can you do – can you actually take that action right now in two minutes or less, and if so, we’d do it right then. Great best practice, once you determine a next action, if you’re ever gonna do it at all, and you can do it in less than two minutes, do it right then, ‘cause it would take you longer to track it and look at it again then it would be to finish it when it’s in your face.

I have tons of executives that will say, just that one behavior was worth paying me all the money they paid in terms of the extra six months to their life that gives them. This is Teflon. Don’t let that stuff stick around. You folks in a high e-mail environment, 30-40% of your actionable e-mails are less than two minute turnaround, as long as you can type.

Now, if you can’t finish the action in two minutes or you can’t do it here because you need a phone and you don’t want to do that while you’re here, then you need to ask yourself, are you the right person to do this action? And if not, hand it off to whomever is the right person to do this action. Delegate; give it to whoever is a better person to do this.

When we coach senior executives, we have to go warn all of their direct reports that laxative is about to hit their boss’s brain and when I work with them all day, and they generate 62 tasking e-mails that go to their staff, it’s not because they just made those up, it’s because they’re the bottleneck.

Trust me folks, the more senior people are the more constipated. Trust me. ‘Cause if all you’re doing is cranking widgets, you’re not avoiding stuff, but if you have to implement diversity for 5,000 widget crankers – later, ‘cause you haven’t determined the next action on what to do about that big ambiguous thing, and understandably so. Anyway – delegate, if you can. And that may be I need to hand this to my wife or my husband or my life partner, or I need to hand this to my boss. They need to see this next, or I need to go – this needs to go over to this department next. Whatever – so common sense, if the next step is not yours, then move it over.

And then if it’s none of those, meaning it’s an action you need to take, gonna take longer than two minutes, you can’t delegate it to somebody, that’s then what you need to add to your inventory of all the next actions you need to do, as soon as you can do them; calls you need to make, e-mails you need to send, documents you need to draft or edit, website you need to surf, things you need to buy at the hardware store, things you need to talk to your life partner about. That’s then what goes in that inventory. Most of you have about 150 to 220 of those. Actually, as students, I’m not sure. I haven’t worked one on one with that many students; several, but mostly mid to senior level professionals, that’s the amount of volume of current outstanding things that would move the needle or move things forward that they’re committed to finish.

Speaking of which, the other question you needed to ask and answer about the first thing you wrote down is: once you decided the next action, if you take that action will that finish this? Will one action finish this commitment? And if you say, “No”, then you have a project you need to capture.

What’s the outcome? Hire the assistant, get tires on your car, manage the next vacation or holiday you’re going on. And so we have a very broad definition of project called anything you can’t finish with one action step and that needs to be captured because that’s a critical inventory to stay afloat in your world. What are the things I’m committed to complete out there that one action won’t finish them?

Well most mid to senior level professionals anyway have between 30 and 100 of those projects; get tires on my car, hire the assistant, launch the ad campaign, research a new expansion of my credit line, look into a new mobile phone service – all that stuff.

ANDREW J. MASON: If you want to dive deeper into Clarifying, you can check out chapter six of Getting Things Done, where the entire process is broken down and stepped through as well as check out GTD Connect, where there are hundreds of other webinars, chats, discussions and resources that’ll help you along the way. Head over to GettingThingsDone.com/podcast and click on GTD Connect. Then use the coupon code podcast on checkout to receive a special discount when you decide to join.

Well that’s gonna do it for me, but until next time, I’m Andrew J. Mason, asking you, now that you’ve listened to this episode, what’s your next action?

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