“Getting Things Done”: Clarifying

A couple posts ago I covered the complete workflow summary, and then I told you lots of things about capturing stuff.  Now we’ll talk about the “clarifying” steps, where you decide whether something is: trash, someday/maybe, reference, or actionable.

Is this thing trash?

Very simple: If you’re not sure if something is trash, then it isn’t (at least not yet).  Don’t throw away an object or task that is going to nag at your mind because you abandoned it.  Something’s trash when you’re sure you can really forget about it and let go.

Trash bins and recycling are “merged stuff”

When you decide something is trash, and you physically put it in the trash (or shredder, or recycling bin, or box of books that you will take to your favorite used book store when it fills up), you’ve “merged” it with other stuff.  So now, that box of 20 books is not 20 separate instances of “Do I want to keep this book?” but rather one “This needs to go to the bookstore” task.  You’ll still have (presumably recurring) tasks to take out the trash, pour the shredder contents into the recycling bin, etc.  So at that point, the mental “stuff” that is associated with thing you’re recycling can go away; it has become part of the “empty the bin” task.

Reference Material

Reference needs to be put where you expect to find it and where you can find it in order to be useful.  Otherwise it’s no good to you; it’s just a mess and has become “stuff” again.

For example: Someone at the office sends you email explaining how to change the toner cartridge in the printer. Not asking you to do it now, but sending it for future reference.

That can probably go into some email folder you make called “Reference” or “Archive” or something, because most email programs at this point will let you just search for “toner” and you’ll find the mail.  The big thing is to keep such mail separate from your inbox, and that’s where most people fall down. (I’ll talk about the “Inbox Zero” principle later in this series.)

Your completed tax return, in paper form? Probably should go into a physical file folder labeled “Tax returns” or the like.  A cookbook? Probably should go on a shelf that’s convenient in the kitchen, and you might organize that shelf alphabetically, or by cuisine, or both.

From a GTD perspective, any library of books you keep is basically considered reference! If you decide “I would like to re-read the story of Harry Potter,” you refer to the books on your shelf.  So they’re reference.


David Allen considers a label maker an essential part of a serious GTD reference system, and I agree.  Your file folders look so much more awesome, and you feel so much more PROFESSIONAL and IN-CONTROL and PUT-TOGETHER, when you look at them all neatly labeled.

Unless you’ve got magnificent calligraphy, if you use file folders, get a label maker.  For years I’ve used the Brother P-Touch PT-70 model; recently I upgraded to the PT-D210.  Here’s a photograph of some of my file folders:

As you can see, the big plastic dividers (black, red, blue) have labels on them for major categories in the file box, such as “Taxes”.  And then we have the individual folders.  Look how well I pretend to be an adult!

I have similar folders at work.  For each person who reports to me, I have a folder for their performance reviews and salary letters, each with their name printed beautifully on the label.  It makes me feel good, and if ever I have to pull one out and show them something from their folder, they’re going to know they’re taken just that little bit more seriously.

One other tiny detail: If you have a spouse or roommates, and they’re practicing this system, each person gets their own label maker.  It’s another part of making everything convenient.  Unlabeled folders and the label maker should be handy, so when you get something that needs to be filed, you don’t go “Ugh, that’s a pain, I have to find the label maker, I’ll do it later.” Or “Argh, I was gonna borrow my spouse’s label maker, but she’s taking a nap in the bedroom and it’s on the desk in there because she was using it.” The PT-D210 was $20 at my local office supply store and has got way more features than I am likely to need.  So my wife has one as well.

In short: Your reference system needs to be easy to use, and preferably fun.  You should feel entertained by putting stuff in order.  It should give you a sense of accomplishment, of having your **** together.


Remember, the “Someday/Maybe” list is for:

“I dunno right now if I’m ever going to care and do anything about this.  It needs time for me to sleep on it, or for other things to happen in my life, before I care.”

It is not for:

“I know something needs to be done about this in the future.  I just can’t do it now because of specific conditions.”

For example, you may not be able to pay a bill until the 15th of the month because of the company’s policies.  Or whatever.  That bill is not a “Someday/Maybe” item.  It’s an actionable item that has to be deferred; that goes on your calendar.  (More details on that in another post.)

The Someday/Maybe list will get reviewed regularly to see if anything on it has become either trash because you no longer care, or actionable because you now know that you do.  It’s sort of the Schrödinger’s Cat Of To-Do Lists: when you review it, some of the things on it will stop being indeterminate and will become either “alive” or “dead.”

There’s really nothing more I can say about the Someday/Maybe list.  It’s pretty simple conceptually.  Now I will have plenty to say about the review process in a later post, but you will review all your lists from time to time so that you still feel confident and relaxed about being organized.

Okay.  That’s it for the clarifying portion of the workflow.  The next post will go into the steps to organize your actionable items, the “stuff” that actually insists on being done.