Getting Control of Your Life: The Five Steps of Mastering Workflow - The Art of Getting Things Done - Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2003)

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2003)



The Art of Getting Things Done


Getting Control of Your Life: The Five Steps of Mastering Workflow

Don’t let life get in your way.

THE CORE PROCESS for mastering the art of relaxed and controlled engagement is a five-step method for managing your workflow—the ever-present ingestion and expressions of our experiences. No matter what the setting, there are five discrete stages that we go through as we deal with our life, our work, and their consistent inputs and changes. Getting things under control, whether that’s in your kitchen or in your company, will incorporate them. And each of these separate aspects has its own best practices and tools, and must work together with the rest as a whole to produce that wonderfully productive state of being present amid all the complexity. It’s not simply about “getting organized” or “setting priorities.” Those are good things, but they happen as a result of applying these five steps—not by themselves. These procedures I will describe work together as a whole, and using them to produce results is both easier and more challenging than you may think.

A useful definition of liberty is obtained only by seeking the principle of liberty in the main business of human life, that is to say, in the process by which men educate their responses and learn to control their environment.

—Walter Lippmann

We (1) capture what has our attention; (2) clarify what each item means and what to do about it; (3) organize the results, which presents the options we (4) reflect on, which we then choose to (5) engage with. This constitutes the management of the horizontal aspect of our lives, incorporating everything that we need to consider at any time, as we move forward moment to moment.

These are not arbitrary or purely theoretical suggestions—they are what we all do, anytime we want to bring something under control and stabilize it for productive action. If you’re planning to cook dinner for friends, but you come home and find the kitchen a total mess, how do you get on top of it? First you identify all the stuff that doesn’t belong where it is, the way it is (capture); you then determine what to keep and what to throw away (clarify); you put things where they need to go—back in the refrigerator, in the garbage, or in the sink (organize); you then check your recipe book, along with the ingredients and utensils you have (reflect); and you get started by putting butter in the pan to start melting (engage).

The method is straightforward enough in principle, and it is generally how we all go about our work in any case, but in my experience most people can significantly improve their handling of each one of the five steps. The quality of our workflow management is only as good as the weakest link in this five-phase chain, so all the links must be integrated and supported with consistent standards.

Most people have had major inefficiencies in their versions of this control process in the larger contexts of life and work, but the stresses of our new world are blowing out the weak spots. The ubiquity of information access and rapidity of change happening, as you read this, consistently increase the complexity of your life and work. Only having to deal with a messy kitchen would be a relief! Small leaks, with added pressure, become big ones. One missed e-mail, untracked commitment, or decision avoided can have hugely magnified consequences. Because the volume of pertinent content is not diminishing or the input slowing down, avoiding getting a grip on the martial art of workflow mastery will be at your own peril.

Most people have major weaknesses in their (1) capture process. Most of their commitments to do something are still in their head. The number of coulds, shoulds, might-want-tos, and ought-tos they generate in their minds are way out beyond what they have recorded anywhere else.

Many have collected lots of things but haven’t (2) clarified exactly what they represent or decided what action, if any, to take about them. Random lists strewn everywhere, meeting notes, vague to-dos on Post-its on their refrigerator or computer screens or in their Tasks function in a digital tool—all lie not acted on and numbing to the psyche in their effect. Those lists alone often create more stress than they relieve.

Others make good decisions about stuff in the moment but lose the value of that thinking because they don’t efficiently (3) organize the results. They determined they should talk to their boss about something, but a reminder of that lies only in the dark recesses of their mind, unavailable in the appropriate context, in a trusted format, when they could use it.

Still others have good systems but don’t (4) reflect on the contents consistently enough to keep them functional. They may have lists, plans, and various checklists available to them (created by capturing, clarifying, and organizing), but they don’t keep them current or access them to their advantage. Many people don’t look ahead at their own calendars consistently enough to stay current about upcoming events and deadlines, and they consequently become victims of last-minute craziness.

Ask yourself, “When do I need to see what, in what form, to get it off my mind?” You build a system for function, not just to have a system.

Finally, if any one of these previous links is weak, what someone is likely to choose to (5) engage in at any point in time may not be the best option. Most decisions for action and focus are driven by the latest and loudest inputs, and are based on hope instead of trust. People have a constant nagging sense that they’re not working on what they should be, that they “don’t have time” for potentially critical activities, and that they’re missing out on the timeless sense of meaningful doing that is the essence of stress-free productivity.

The dynamics of these five steps need to be understood, and good techniques and tools implemented to facilitate their functioning at an optimal level. I have found it very helpful, if not essential, to separate these stages as I move through my day. There are times when I want only to collect input and not decide what to do with it yet. At other times I may just want to process my notes from a meeting. Or I may have just returned from a big trip and need to distribute and organize what I collected and processed on the road. Then there are times when I want to review the whole inventory of my work, or some portion of it. And obviously a lot of my time is spent merely doing something that I need to get done.

I have discovered that one of the major reasons many people haven’t had a lot of success with getting organized is simply that they have tried to do all five steps at one time. Most, when they sit down to make a list, are trying to collect the “most important things” in some order that reflects priorities and sequences, without setting out many (or any) real actions to take. But if you don’t decide what needs to be done about your assistant’s birthday, because it’s “not that important” right now, that open loop will take up energy and prevent you from having a totally effective, clear focus on what’s important.

This chapter explains the five steps in detail. Chapters 4 through 8 provide a step-by-step program for implementing an airtight system for each phase, with lots of examples and best practices.


It’s important to know what needs to be captured and how to do that most effectively so you can process it appropriately. In order for your mind to let go of the lower-level task of trying to hang on to everything, you have to know that you have truly captured everything that might represent something you have to do or at least decide about, and that at some point in the near future you will process and review all of it.

Gathering 100 Percent of the “Incompletes”

In order to eliminate “holes in your bucket,” you need to collect and gather placeholders for, or representations of, all the things you consider incomplete in your world—that is, anything personal or professional, big or little, of urgent or minor importance, that you think ought to be different than it currently is and that you have any level of internal commitment to changing.

Many of the things you have to do are being collected for you as you read this. Mail is coming into your various mailboxes—physical and virtual. You’re likely still getting packages and letters at home. Physical stuff is still landing in your in-tray at work, along with e-mail, texts, and voice mails into your digital tools. But at the same time, you’ve been capturing things in your environment and in your head that don’t belong where they are, the way they are, for all eternity. Even though it may not be as obviously “in your face” as your e-mail, the stuff still requires some kind of resolution—a loop to be closed, something to be done. Strategy ideas loitering in a notebook, “dead” gadgets in your desk drawers that need to be fixed or thrown away, and out-of-date magazines on your coffee table all fall into this category of stuff.

A task left undone remains undone in two places—at the actual location of the task, and inside your head. Incomplete tasks in your head consume the energy of your attention as they gnaw at your conscience.

—Brahma Kumaris

As soon as you attach a “should,” “need to,” or “ought to” to an item, it becomes an incomplete. Decisions you still need to make about whether or not you are going to do something, for example, are already incompletes. This includes all of your I’m-going-tos, in which you’ve decided to do something but haven’t started moving on it yet. And it certainly includes all pending and in-progress items, as well as those things on which you’ve done everything you’re ever going to do except acknowledge that you’re finished with them.

In order to manage this inventory of open loops appropriately, you need to capture it into “containers” that hold items in abeyance until you have a few moments to decide what they are and what, if anything, you’re going to do about them. Then you must empty these containers regularly to ensure that they remain viable capture tools.

Basically, everything potentially meaningful to you is already being collected, in the larger sense. If it’s not being directly managed in a trusted external system of yours, then it’s resident somewhere in your mental space. The fact that you haven’t put an item in your in-tray doesn’t mean you haven’t got it. But we’re talking here about making sure everything you need is collected somewhere other than in your head.

The Capture Tools

There are several types of tools, both low-and high-tech, that can be used to collect your incompletes. The following can all serve as versions of an in-tray, capturing self-generated input as well as information from external sources:

· Physical in-tray

· Paper-based note-taking devices

· Digital/audio note-taking devices

· E-mail and text messaging

The Physical In-Tray

The standard plastic, wood, leather, or wire tray has for years been the most common tool for collecting paper-based and physical materials that need some sort of processing: mail, magazines, meeting notes, corporate reports, tickets, receipts, flash drives, business cards—even flashlights with dead batteries!

Writing Paper and Pads

Loose-leaf and bound notebooks, note cards, and paper pads of all shapes and sizes work fine for collecting random ideas, input, things to do, and so on. Whatever fits your taste and logistical needs.

Digital and Voice Note Taking

Computers, tablets, smartphones, and all kinds of new mobile tech gadgetry emerging daily can be used for capturing notes for later processing, preserving an interim record of things you need to remember to deal with.

E-mail and Texting

If you’re wired to the rest of the world through e-mail and texting, your software contains some sort of holding area for incoming messages and files, where they can be stored until they are viewed, read, and processed.

Technology Integration

The evolution of the digital world has made it increasingly possible to integrate these various channels automatically. Written notes from paper and whiteboards can be instantly recorded, recognized, and funneled into software storage. Voice messages can be recorded, digitized, and printed out. You can text an idea to your e-mail from your mobile device.

Whether high-tech or low-tech, all of the tools and functions I’ve described serve similarly as in-trays, capturing potentially meaningful information, commitments, ideas, and agreements for action.

The Success Factors for Capturing

Unfortunately, merely having an in-tray doesn’t make it functional. Most people do have collection devices of some sort, but usually they’re more or less out of control or seriously underutilized. Let’s examine the three requirements to make the capturing phase work:

Get It All Out of Your Head

Get a purge for your brain. It will do better than for your stomach.

—Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

If you’re still trying to keep track of too many things in your mental space, you likely won’t be motivated to use and empty your in-trays with integrity. Most people are relatively careless about these tools because they know they don’t represent discrete, whole systems anyway; there’s an incomplete set of things in their in-tray and an incomplete set in their mind, and they’re not getting a real payoff from either one, so their thinking goes. It’s like trying to play pinball on a machine that has big holes in the table, so the balls keep falling out: there’s little motivation to keep playing the game.

Keep everything in your head or out of your head. If it’s in between, you won’t trust either one.

These collection tools should become part of your lifestyle. Keep them close by so no matter where you are you can collect a potentially valuable thought—think of them as being as indispensable as your toothbrush or your driver’s license or your glasses. The sense of trust that nothing possibly useful will get lost will give you the freedom to have many more good ideas.

Minimize the Number of Capture Locations

You should have as many in-trays as you need and as few as you can get by with. You need this function to be available to you in every context, since things you’ll want to capture may show up almost anywhere. If you have too many collection zones, however, you won’t be able to process them easily or consistently.

Funnel all potentially meaningful inputs through minimal channels, directed to you for easily accessed review and assessment about their nature.

An excess of collection buckets can easily happen in both the low-tech and hi-tech arenas. There is a real improvement opportunity for most people on the low-tech side, primarily in the areas of note taking and physical in-tray collection. Written notes need to be corralled and processed instead of left lying embedded in stacks, notebooks, and drawers. Paper and physical materials need to be funneled into physical in-trays instead of being scattered over myriad piles in all the available corners of the world. On the high-tech side, potential sources of input for stuff to be assessed and processed have proliferated tremendously, with the advent of social media, multiple connected devices, and the ubiquity of e-mail. People now often have more than one e-mail account, are participating in at least one if not several social media worlds, and operate with numerous digital devices. Paradoxically, the tendency to accumulate a huge backlog of random inputs to deal with, and the number of people troubled with that, have increased dramatically, as the digital revolution has “streamlined” our lives.

Implementing standard tools and procedures for capturing ideas and input will become more and more critical as your life and work become more sophisticated. As you proceed in your career, for instance, you’ll probably notice that your best ideas about work will not come to you at work. The ability to leverage that thinking with good collection devices that are always at hand is key to staying on top of your world.

Empty the Capture Tools Regularly

The final success factor for capturing should be obvious: if you don’t empty and process the stuff you’ve collected, your tools aren’t serving any function other than the storage of amorphous material. Emptying the contents does not mean that you have to finish what’s there; it just means that you have to decide more specifically what it is and what should be done with it, and if it’s still unfinished, organize it into your system. You must get it out of the container. You don’t leave it or put it back into “in”! Not emptying your in-tray is like having garbage cans and mailboxes that no one ever dumps or deals with—you just have to keep buying new ones to hold an eternally accumulating volume.

Blockage in the flow of anything undermines the ability to be present, fresh, and creative in that arena.

In order to get “in” to empty, however, an integrated life-management system must be in place. Too much stuff is left piled in in-trays (physical and digital) because of a lack of effective systems “downstream” from there. It often seems easier to leave things in “in” when you know you have to do something about them but can’t do it right then. The in-tray, especially for paper and e-mail, is the best that many people can do in terms of organization—at least they know that somewhere in there is a reminder of something they still have to do. Unfortunately, that safety net is lost when the piles get out of control or the inventory of e-mails gets too extensive to be viewed on one screen.

When you master the next two steps and know how to process and organize your inputs and incompletes easily and rapidly, “in” can return to its original function. Let’s move on to how to get those in-trays and e-mail systems empty without necessarily having to do the work now.


Teaching them the item-by-item thinking required to get their collection containers empty is perhaps the most critical improvement I have made for virtually all the people I’ve worked with. When the head of a major department in a global corporation had finished processing all her open items with me, she sat back in awe and told me that though she had been able to relax about what meetings to go to thanks to her trust in her calendar, she had never felt that same relief about all the many other aspects of her job, which we had just clarified together. The actions and information she needed to be reminded of were now identified and entrusted to a concrete system.

It is better to be wrong than to be vague.

—Freeman Dyson

What do you need to ask yourself (and answer) about each e-mail, text, voice mail, memo, page of meeting notes, or self-generated idea that comes your way? This is the component of input management that forms the basis for your personal organization. Many people try to get organized but make the mistake of doing it with incomplete batches of stuff. You can’t organize what’s incoming—you can only capture it and process it. Instead, you organize the actions you’ll need to take based on the decisions you’ve made about what needs to be done. The whole deal—both the capturing and organizing phases—is represented in the center “trunk” of the decision-tree model shown here.

What Is It?

This is not a dumb question. We’ve talked about stuff. And we’ve talked about collection buckets. But we haven’t discussed what stuff is and what to do about it. For example, many of the items that tend to leak out of our personal organizing systems are amorphous forms that we receive from the government or from our company—do we actually need to do something about them? And what about that e-mail from human resources, letting us know that blah-blah about the blah-blah is now the policy of blah-blah? I’ve unearthed piles of messages in stacks and desk drawers that were tossed there because the client didn’t take just a few seconds to figure out what, in fact, the communication or document was really about. Which is why the next decision is critical.



Is It Actionable?

There are two possible answers for this: yes and no.

No Action Required If the answer is no, there are three possibilities:

These three categories can themselves be managed; we’ll get into that in a later chapter. For now, suffice it to say that you need a wastebasket and <Del> key for trash, a “tickler” file or calendar for material that’s incubating, and a good filing system for reference information.

Actionable This is the yes group of items, stuff about which something needs to be done. Typical examples range from an e-mail requesting a summary of the speech you’ve agreed to give at a luncheon to the notes in your in-tray from your face-to-face meeting with the group vice president about a significant new project that involves hiring an outside consultant.

Two things need to be determined about each actionable item:

It does not take much strength to do things, but it requires a great deal of strength to decide what to do.

—Elbert Hubbard

If It’s About a Project … You need to capture that outcome on a “Projects” list. That will be the stake in the ground that will keep reminding you that you have an open loop until it is finished. A Weekly Review of the list (see page 50) will bring this item back to you as something that’s still outstanding. It will stay fresh and alive in your management system (versus your head) until it is completed or eliminated.

What’s the Next Action? This is the critical question for anything you’ve captured; if you answer it appropriately, you’ll have the key substantive thing to organize. The “next action” is the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality of this thing toward completion.

Some examples of next actions might be:

· Call Fred re: name and number of the repair shop he mentioned.

· Draft thoughts for the budget-meeting agenda.

· Talk to Angela about the filing system we need to set up.

· Research Internet for local watercolor classes.

These are all real physical activities that need to happen. Reminders of these will become the primary grist for the mill of your personal productivity-management system.

Do It, Delegate It, or Defer It Once you’ve decided on the next action, you have three options:

1. Do it. If an action will take less than two minutes, it should be done at the moment it is defined.

2. Delegate it. If the action will take longer than two minutes, ask yourself, Am I the right person to do this? If the answer is no, delegate it to the appropriate entity.

3. Defer it, If the action will take longer than two minutes, and you are the right person to do it, you will have to defer acting on it until later and track it on one or more “Next Actions” lists.


Being organized means simply that where something is matches what it means to you.

The outer ring of the workflow diagram shows the eight discrete categories of reminders and materials that will result from your processing all your stuff. Together they make up a total system for organizing just about everything that’s on your plate, or could be added to it, on a daily and weekly basis.

For nonactionable items, the possible categories are trash, incubation, and reference. If no action is needed on something, you toss it, “tickle” it for later reassessment, or file it so you can find the material if you need to refer to it at another time. To manage actionable things, you will need a list of projects, storage or files for project plans and materials, a calendar, a list of reminders of next actions, and a list of reminders of things you’re waiting for.

All of the organizational categories need to be physically contained in some form. When I refer to “lists,” I just mean some sort of reviewable set of reminders, which could be lists on notebook paper or in some computer program or even file folders holding separate pieces of paper for each item. For instance, the list of current projects could be kept on a page in a loose-leaf planner; it could be held in a category within the Tasks function of a software application; or it could be in a simple physical file folder labeled “Projects List.” Incubating reminders (such as “After 01 March contact my accountant to set up a meeting”) may be stored in a paper-based “tickler” or “bring-forward” file or in a digital calendar application.




I define a project as any desired result that can be accomplished within a year that requires more than one action step. This means that some rather small things you might not normally call projects are going to be on your Projects list, as well as some big ones. The reasoning behind my definition is that if one step won’t complete something, some kind of goalpost needs to be set up to remind you that there’s something still left to do. If you don’t have a placeholder to remind you about it, it will slip back into your head. The reason for the one-year time frame is that anything you are committed to finish within that scope needs to be reviewed weekly to feel comfortable about its status. Another way to think of this is as a list of open loops, no matter what the size.

A Partial Projects List

Get new staff person on board

Take August holiday

Produce staff off-site retreat

Publish book

Finalize computer upgrades

Update will

Finalize budgets

Finalize new product offering

Learn new CRM software

Get reprints of HBR article

Get a publicist

Plant spring garden

Research resources for video project

Establish next year’s conference schedule

Finalize employment agreements

Install new porch lighting

Get a new kitchen table

Enroll Maria in middle school

Projects do not initially need to be listed in any particular order, by size, or by priority. They just need to be on a master list so you can review them regularly enough to ensure that appropriate next actions have been defined for each of them.

You don’t actually do a project; you can only do action steps related to it. When enough of the right action steps have been taken, some situation will have been created that matches your initial picture of the outcome closely enough that you can call it “done.” The list of projects is the compilation of finish lines we put before us to keep our next actions moving on all tracks appropriately.

There may be reasons to sort your projects into different subcategories, based upon different areas of your focus, but initially creating a single list of all of them will make it easier to customize your system appropriately as you get more comfortable with its usage.

Project Support Material

For many of your projects, you will accumulate relevant information that you will want to organize by theme or topic or project name. Your Projects list will be merely an index. All of the details, plans, and supporting information that you may need as you work on your various projects should be contained in separate file folders, computer files, notebooks, or binders.

Support Materials and Reference Files Once you have organized your project support material by theme or topic, you will probably find that it is almost identical to your reference material and could be kept in the same reference file system (a Wedding file could be kept in the general-reference files, for instance). The only difference is that in the case of active projects, support material may need to be reviewed on a more consistent basis to ensure that all the necessary action steps are identified.

I usually recommend that people store their support materials out of sight. If you have a good working reference file system close enough at hand, you may find that that’s the simplest way to organize them. There will be times, though, when it’ll be more convenient to have the materials out and instantly in view and available, especially if you’re working on a hot project that you need to check references for several times during the day. File folders in wire standing holders or in stackable trays within easy reach can be practical for this kind of pending paperwork.

The digital world has paradoxically made organizing reference and support materials simultaneously simpler and more complex. It’s quick and easy to capture something from somewhere and copy it somewhere else, but deciding where it goes can be daunting, given the plethora of parking places available to us and the myriad ways that we might want the information available to others as well as ourselves. The best practice is to keep your digital reference world as simple as possible, and consistently reviewed and purged.

The Next-Action Categories

As the workflow diagram makes clear, the next-action decision is central. That action needs to be the next physical, visible behavior, without exception, on every open loop.

Any less-than-two-minute actions that you perform, and all other actions that have already been completed, do not, of course, need to be tracked; they’re done. What does need to be tracked is every action that has to happen at a specific time or on a specific day (enter those on your calendar); those that need to be done as soon as they can (add these to your Next Actions lists); and all those that you are waiting for others to do (put these on a Waiting For list).


Reminders of actions you need to take fall into two categories: those about things that have to happen on a specific day or time, and those about things that just need to get done as soon as possible. Your calendar handles the first type of reminder.

Three things go on your calendar:

· time-specific actions;

· day-specific actions; and

· day-specific information

Time-Specific Actions This is a fancy name for appointments. Often the next action to be taken on a project is attending a meeting that has been set up to discuss it. Simply tracking that on the calendar is sufficient.

Day-Specific Actions These are things that you need to do sometime on a certain day, but not necessarily at a specific time. Perhaps you told Mioko you would call her on Friday to check that the report you’re sending her is OK. She won’t have the report until Thursday, and she’s leaving the country on Saturday, so Friday is the time window for taking the action—but anytime Friday will be fine. That should be tracked on the calendar for Friday but not tied to any particular time slot—it should just go on the day. It’s useful to have a calendar on which you can note both time-specific and day-specific actions.

Day-Specific Information The calendar is also the place to keep track of things you want to know about on specific days—not necessarily actions you’ll have to take but rather information that may be useful on a certain date. This might include directions for appointments, activities that other people (family or staff) will be involved in then, or events of interest. It’s helpful to put short-term tickler information here, too, such as a reminder to call someone after he or she returns from vacation. This is also where you would want to park important reminders about when something might be due, or when something needs to be started (in case it hasn’t been yet), given a determined lead time.

Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.

—Michael McGriffy, M.D.

No More “Daily To-Do” Lists on the Calendar Those three things are what go on the calendar, and nothing else! This might be heresy to past-century time-management training, which almost universally taught that the daily to-do list is key. But such lists embedded on a calendar don’t work, for two reasons.

First, constant new input and shifting tactical priorities reconfigure daily work so consistently that it’s virtually impossible to nail down to-do items ahead of time. Having a working game plan as a reference point is always useful, but it must be able to be renegotiated at any moment. Trying to keep a list on the calendar, which must then be reentered on another day if items don’t get done, is demoralizing and a waste of time. The Next Actions lists I advocate will hold all of those action reminders, even the most time-sensitive ones. And they won’t have to be rewritten daily.

Second, if there’s something on a daily to-do list that doesn’t absolutely have to get done that day, it will dilute the emphasis on the things that truly do. If I have to call Mioko on Friday because that’s the only day I can reach her, but then I add five other, less important or less time-sensitive calls to my to-do list, when the day gets crazy I may never call Mioko. My brain will have to take back the reminder that that’s the one phone call I won’t get another chance at. That’s not utilizing the system appropriately. The way I look at it, the calendar should be sacred territory. If you write something there, it must get done that day or not at all. The only rewriting should be for changed appointments.

That said, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with creating a quick, informal, short list of “if I have time, I’d really like to …” kinds of things, picked from your Next Actions inventory. It just should not be confused with your “have-tos,” and it should be treated lightly enough to discard or change quickly as the inevitable surprises of the day unfold.

The “Next Actions” List(s)

So where do your entire action reminders go? On Next Actions lists, which, along with the calendar, are at the heart of daily action-management organization and orientation.

Any longer-than-two-minute, non-delegatable action you have identified needs to be tracked somewhere. “Call Jim Smith re: budget meeting,” “E-mail family update to friends,” and “Draft ideas re: the annual sales conference” are all the kinds of action reminders that need to be kept in appropriate lists, to be assessed as options for what we will do at any point in time.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.

—Albert Einstein

If you have only twenty or thirty of these, it may be fine to keep them all on one list labeled “Next Actions,” which you’ll review whenever you have any free time. For most of us, however, the number is more likely to be fifty to 150. In that case it makes sense to subdivide your Next Actions list into categories, such as Calls to make when you have a window of time and your phone, or Computer action items to see as options when you’re at that device.

Nonactionable Items

You need well-organized, discrete systems to handle things that require no action as well as those that do. No-action systems fall into three categories: trash, incubation, and reference.


Trash should be self-evident. Throw away, shred, or recycle anything that has no potential future action or reference value. If you leave this stuff mixed in with other categories, it will seriously undermine the system and your clarity in the environment.


There are two other groups of things besides trash that require no immediate action but that you will want to keep. Here, again, it’s critical that you separate nonactionable from actionable items; otherwise you will tend to go numb to your piles, stacks, and lists and not know where to start or what needs to be done.

Say you read something in a newsletter that gives you an idea for a project you might want to do someday, but not now. You’ll want to be reminded of it again later so you can reassess the option of doing something about it in the future. Or you get a notice about the upcoming season of your local symphony, and you see that the program that really interests you is still four months away—too distant for you to move on it yet (you’re not sure what your travel schedule will be that far out). But if you are in town, you’d like to go. What should you do about that?

There are two kinds of incubation tools that could work for this kind of thing: Someday/Maybe lists and a tickler system.

Someday/Maybe It can be useful and inspiring to maintain an ongoing list of things you might want to do at some point but not now. This is the “parking lot” for projects that would be impossible to move on at present but that you don’t want to forget about entirely. You’d like to be reminded of the possibility at regular intervals.

Typical Partial Someday/Maybe List

Get a sailboat

Learn Spanish

Take a watercolor class

Renovate the kitchen

Build a lap pool

Take a balloon ride

Build a wine cellar

Spend a month in Tuscany

Create my own Web page

Set up a foundation for kids

Get a piano

Publish my memoir

Get scuba certification

Learn to tango

Learn to throw pottery

Give a neighborhood party

Build a koi pond

These items are of the nature of “projects I might want to do, but not now … but I’d like to be reminded of them regularly.” You must review this list periodically if you’re going to get the most value from it. I suggest you include a scan of the contents in your Weekly Review (see page 50).

You’ll probably have some other types of information that are similar to Someday/Maybe but that probably need a review only when you have an urge to engage in a particular kind of activity. These would be lists such as:

· Books to read

· Wines to taste

· Recipes to try

· Movies to rent

· Weekend trips to take

· Things my kids might like to do

· Seminars to take

· Web sites to surf

These kinds of reminders can greatly expand your options for creative exploration. Having an organizational tool that allows you to easily make lists such as these, ad hoc, is quite worthwhile.

Tickler System A second type of things to incubate are those you don’t want or need to be reminded of until some designated time in the future. A most elegant version of holding for review of this nature is the tickler file, sometimes also referred to as a “suspense,” “follow-on,” or “perpetual” file. This is a system that allows you to almost literally mail something to yourself, for receipt on some designated date in the future.

Your calendar can serve the same function. You might remind yourself on your calendar for March 15, for example, that your taxes are due in a month; or for September 12, that Swan Lake will be presented by the Bolshoi at the Civic Auditorium in six weeks.

For further details, refer to chapter 7.

Reference Material

Many things that come your way require no action but have intrinsic value as information. You will want to keep and be able to retrieve these as needed. They can be stored in paper-based or digital form.

Paper-based material—anything from the menu for a local takeout deli to the plans, drawings, and vendor information for a landscape project—is best stored in efficient physical or digital retrieval systems. These can range from pages in a loose-leaf planner or notebook, for a list of favorite restaurants or the phone numbers of members of a school committee, to whole file cabinets dedicated to the due-diligence paperwork for a corporate merger. Though more and more information is showing up in digital form, print versions are at times still an effective way for it to be stored and reviewed.

Electronic storage can include everything from cloud-based data storage to archive folders in your communications software.

The most important thing to remember here is that reference should be exactly that—information that can be easily referred to when required. Reference systems generally take two forms: (1) topic-and area-specific storage, and (2) general-reference files. The first types usually define themselves in terms of how they are stored—for example, a file drawer dedicated to contracts, by date; a drawer containing only confidential employee-compensation information; a series of cabinets for closed legal cases that might need to be consulted for future trials; or a customer relations management (CRM) database for client and prospect histories.

General Reference Filing The second type of reference system is one that everyone needs close at hand for storing ad hoc information that doesn’t belong in some predesigned larger category. You need somewhere to keep the instruction manuals for your kitchenware, the handwritten notes from your meeting about the Smith project, and those yen you didn’t get to exchange at the end of your most recent trip to Tokyo (and that you can use when you go back there).

The lack of a good general-reference file can be one of the biggest bottlenecks in implementing an efficient personal management system. If filing and storing isn’t easy and fast (and even fun!), you’ll tend to stack, pile, or digitally accumulate things instead of putting them away appropriately. If your reference material doesn’t have nice clean edges to it, the line between actionable and nonactionable items will blur, visually and psychologically, and your mind will go numb to the whole business. Establishing a good working system for this category of material is critical to ensuring stress-free productivity; we will explore it in detail in chapter 7.


It’s one thing to write down that you need milk; it’s another to be at the store and remember it. Likewise, writing down that you need to call a friend to find out how he’s doing after a significant event in his life and wish him well is different from remembering it when you’re at a phone and have some discretionary time.

You need to be able to step back and review the whole picture of your life and work from a broader perspective as well as drop down “into the weeds” of concrete actions to take, as needed, and at appropriate intervals. For most people the magic of workflow management is realized in the consistent use of the reflection step. This is where, in one important case, you take a look at all your outstanding projects and open loops, at what I call Horizon 1 level (see page 55), on a weekly basis. It’s your chance to scan all the defined actions and options before you, thus radically increasing the efficacy of the choices you make about what you’re doing at any point in time.

Your life is more complex than any single system can describe or coordinate, but the GTD methodology creates a coherent model for placeholding key elements, which still require attention, being kept current, and being reviewed in a coordinated way. Most people have some simple components of this in various places, but the contents and the utilization of these are elementary, at best.

What to Review When

If you set up a personal organization system structured as I recommend, with a Projects list, a calendar, Next Actions lists, and a Waiting For list, not much will be required to maintain that system.

The item you’ll probably review most frequently is your calendar, which will remind you about the “hard landscape” for the day—that is, what things truly have to be handled that day. This doesn’t mean that the contents there are the most “important” in some grand sense—only that they must get done. At any point in time, knowing what has to get done and when creates a terrain for maneuvering. It’s a good habit, as soon as you conclude an action on your calendar (a meeting, a phone call, the final draft of a report that’s due), to check and see what else remains to be done.

Review whatever lists, overviews, and orientation maps you need to, as often as you need to, to get their contents off your mind.

After checking your calendar, you’ll most often turn to your Next Action lists. These hold the inventory of predefined actions that you can take if you have any discretionary time during the day. If you’ve organized them by context (At Home; At Computer; In Meeting with George) they’ll come into play only when those contexts are available.

Projects, Waiting For, and Someday/Maybe lists need to be reviewed only as often as you think they have to be in order to stop you from wondering about them.

Critical Success Factor: The Weekly Review

The affairs of life embrace a multitude of interest, and he who reasons in any one of them, without consulting the rest, is a visionary unsuited to control the business of the world.

—James Fenimore Cooper

Everything that might require action must be reviewed on a frequent enough basis to keep your mind from taking back the job of remembering and reminding. In order to trust the rapid and intuitive judgment calls that you make about actions from moment to moment, you must consistently retrench at some more elevated level. In my experience (with thousands of people), that translates into a behavior critical for success: the Weekly Review.

All of your Projects, active project plans, and Next Actions, Agendas, Waiting For, and even Someday/Maybe lists should be reviewed once a week. This also gives you an opportunity to ensure that your brain is clear and that all the loose strands of the past few days have been captured, clarified, and organized.

If you’re like most people, you’ve found that things can get relatively out of control during the course of a few days of operational intensity. That’s to be expected, but it will continue to increase in tandem with the ubiquity of your always-on, connected world. You wouldn’t want to distract yourself from too much of the work at hand in an effort to stay totally “squeaky clean” all the time. But in order to afford the luxury of “getting on a roll” with confidence, you’ll probably need to clean house and refresh the contents once a week.

The Weekly Review is the time to:

· Gather and process all your stuff.

· Review your system.

· Update your lists.

· Get clean, clear, current, and complete.

You have to use your mind to get things off your mind.

Most people don’t have a really complete system, and they get no real payoff from reviewing things for just that reason: their overview isn’t total. They still have a vague sense that something may be missing. That’s why the rewards to be gained from implementing this whole process are exponential: the more complete the system is, the more you’ll trust it. And the more you trust it, the more complete you’ll be motivated to keep it. The Weekly Review is a master key to maintaining that standard.

Most people feel best about their work the week before they go on vacation, but it’s not because of the vacation itself. What do you do the last week before you leave on a big trip? You clean up, close up, clarify, organize, and renegotiate all your agreements with yourself and others. You do this so you can relax and be present on the beach, on the golf course, or on the slopes, with nothing else on your mind. I suggest you do this weekly instead of yearly, so you can bring this kind of “being present” to your everyday life.


The basic purpose of this workflow-management process is to facilitate good choices about what you’re doing at any point in time. At 10:33 a.m. Monday, deciding whether to call Sandy, finish the proposal, or clean up your e-mails will always be an intuitive call, but with the proper orientation you can feel much more confident about your choices. You can move from hope to trust in your actions, immediately increasing your energy and effectiveness.

Every decision to act is an intuitive one. The challenge is to migrate from hoping it’s the right choice to trusting it’s the right choice.

Three Models for Making Action Choices

Let’s assume for a moment that you’re not resisting any of your stuff out of insecurity or procrastination. There will always be a long list of actions that you are not doing at any given moment. So how will you decide what to do and what not to do, and feel good about both?

The answer is, by trusting your intuition. If you have captured, clarified, organized, and reflected on all your current commitments, you can galvanize your intuitive judgment with some intelligent and practical thinking about your work and values.

There are three models that will be helpful for you to incorporate in your decision making about what to do. They won’t tell you answers—whether you call Mario, e-mail your son at school, or just have an informal conversation with your secretary—but they will assist you in framing your options more intelligently. And that’s something that the simple time-and priority-management panaceas can’t do.

1. The Four-Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment

At 3:22 on Wednesday, how do you choose what to do? At that moment there are four criteria you can apply, in this order: context, time available, energy available, and priority.

The first three describe the constraints within which you continually operate, and the fourth provides the hierarchical values to ascribe to your actions.

Context You are always constrained by what you have the capability to do at this time. A few actions can be done anywhere (such as drafting ideas about a project with pen and paper), but most require a specific location (at home, at your office) or having some productivity tool at hand, such as a phone or a computer. These are the first factors that limit your choices about what you can do in the moment.

There is always more to do than you can do, and you can do only one thing at a time. The key is to feel as good about what you’re not doing as about what you are doing at that moment.

Time Available When do you have to do something else? Having a meeting in five minutes would prevent doing any actions that require more time.

Energy Available How much energy do you have? Some actions you have to do require a reservoir of fresh, creative mental energy. Others need more physical horsepower. Some need very little of either.

Priority Given your context, time, and energy available, what action remaining of your options will give you the highest payoff? You’re in your office with a phone and a computer, you have an hour, and your energy is 7.3 on a scale of 10. Should you call the client back, work on the proposal, process your e-mails, or check in with your spouse to see how his or her day is going?

This is where you need to access your intuition and begin to rely on your judgment call in the moment. To explore that concept further, let’s examine two more models for deciding what’s most important for you to be doing.

2. The Threefold Model for Identifying Daily Work

When you’re getting things done, or “working” in the universal sense, there are three different kinds of activities you can be engaged in:

· Doing predefined work

· Doing work as it shows up

· Defining your work

Doing Predefined Work When you’re doing predefined work, you’re working from your Next Actions lists and calendar—completing tasks that you have previously determined need to be done, or managing your workflow. You’re making the calls you need to make, drafting ideas you want to brainstorm, attending meetings, or preparing a list of things to talk to your attorney about.

Doing Work as It Shows Up Often things come up ad hoc—unsuspected, unforeseen—that you either have to or choose to engage in as they occur. For example, your partner walks into your office and wants to have a conversation about the new product launch, so you talk to her instead of doing all the other things you could be doing. Every day brings surprises—unplanned-for things that just show up—and you’ll need to expend at least some time and energy on many of them. When you follow these leads, you’re deciding by default that these things are more important than anything else you have to do at those times.

Defining Your Work Defining your work entails clearing up your in-tray, your digital messages, and your meeting notes, and breaking down new projects into actionable steps. As you process your inputs, you’ll no doubt be taking care of some less-than-two-minute actions and tossing and filing numerous things (another version of doing work as it shows up). A good portion of this activity will consist of identifying things that need to get done sometime, but not right away. You’ll be adding to all of your lists as you go along.

Once you have defined all your work, you can trust that your lists of things to do are complete. And your context, time, and energy available still allow you the option of more than one thing to do. The final thing to consider is the nature of your work, and its goals and standards.

3. The Six-Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work

Priorities should drive your choices, but most models for determining them are not reliable tools for much of our real work activity. In order to know what your priorities are, you have to know what your work is. And there are at least six different perspectives from which to define that. To use an appropriate analogy, the conversation has a lot do with the horizon, or distance of perception. Looking out from a building, you will notice different things from different floors.

· Horizon 5: Purpose and principles

· Horizon 4: Vision

· Horizon 3: Goals

· Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountabilities

· Horizon 1: Current projects

· Ground: Current actions

Let’s start from the bottom up:

Ground: Current Actions This is the accumulated list of all the actions you need to take—all the phone calls you have to make, the e-mails you have to respond to, the errands you’ve got to run, and the agendas you want to communicate to your boss and your life partner. You’d probably have more than a hundred of these items to handle if you stopped the world right now with no more input from yourself or anyone else.

Horizon 1: Current Projects Generating most of the actions that you currently have in front of you are the thirty to one hundred projects on your plate. These are the relatively short-term outcomes you want to achieve, such as setting up a new home computer, organizing a sales conference, moving to a new headquarters, and getting a dentist.

Complete the projects you begin, fulfill the commitments you have made, live up to your promises—then both your subconscious and conscious selves can have success, which leads to a feeling of fulfillment, worthiness and oneness.


Horizon 2: Areas of Focus and Accountabilities You create or accept your projects and actions because of the roles, interests, and accountabilities you have. These are the key areas of your life and work within which you want to achieve results and maintain standards. Your job may entail at least implicit commitments for things like strategic planning, administrative support, staff development, market research, customer service, or asset management. And your personal life has an equal number of such focus arenas: health, family, finances, home environment, spirituality, recreation, etc. These are not things to finish but rather to use as criteria for assessing our experiences and our engagements, to maintain balance and sustainability, as we operate in our work and our world. Listing and reviewing these responsibilities gives a more comprehensive framework for evaluating your inventory of projects.

Horizon 3: Goals What you want to be experiencing in various areas of your life and work one to two years from now will add another dimension to defining your work. Often meeting the goals and objectives of your job will require a shift in emphasis of your job focus, with new accountabilities emerging. At this horizon personally, too, there probably are things you’d like to accomplish or have in place, which could add importance to certain aspects of your life and diminish others.

Horizon 4: Vision Projecting three to five years into the future generates thinking about bigger categories: organization strategies, environmental trends, career and lifestyle transition circumstances. Internal factors include longer-term career, family, financial, and quality-of-life aspirations and considerations. Outer-world issues could involve changes affecting your job and organization, such as technology, globalization, market trends, and competition. Decisions at this altitude could easily change what your work might look like on many levels.

Horizon 5: Purpose and Principles This is the big-picture view. Why does your company exist? Why do you exist? What really matters to you, no matter what? The primary purpose for anything provides the core definition of what the work really is. It is the ultimate job description. All goals, visions, objectives, projects, and actions derive from this, and lead toward it.

These horizon analogies are somewhat arbitrary, and in real life the important conversations you will have about your focus and your priorities may not exactly fit one level or another. They can provide a useful framework, however, to remind you of the multilayered nature of your commitments and tasks.

Minute-to-minute and day-to-day you don’t have time to think. You need to have already thought.

Obviously many factors must be considered before you feel comfortable that you have made the best decision about what to do and when. “Setting priorities” in the traditional sense of focusing on your long-term goals and values, though obviously a necessary core focus, does not provide a practical framework for a vast majority of the decisions and tasks you must engage in day to day. Mastering the flow of your work at all the levels you experience that work provides a much more holistic way to get things done and feel good about it.

Part 2 of this book will provide specific coaching about how to use these models for making action choices, and how the best practices for capturing, clarifying, planning, organizing, and reflecting all contribute to your greatest success with them.