Clarifying: Getting “In” to Empty - Practicing Stress-Free Productivity - Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2003)

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



Practicing Stress-Free Productivity


Clarifying: Getting “In” to Empty

ASSUMING THAT YOU have collected everything that has your attention, your job now is to actually get to the bottom of “in.” Getting “in” to empty doesn’t mean actually doing all the actions and projects that you’ve captured. It just means identifying each item and deciding what it is, what it means, and what you’re going to do with it.

To get an overview of this process, you may find it useful here to refer to the Workflow Diagram on page 123. The center column illustrates all the steps involved in processing and deciding your next actions.

This chapter focuses on the components in the diagram’s center column, the steps from “in” to next action. You’ll immediately see the natural organization that results from following this process for each of your open loops. For instance, if you pick up something from “in” and realize, “I’ve got to call Andrea about that, but I’ve got to do it on Monday, when she’s in her office,” then you’ll defer that action immediately and enter it on your calendar for Monday.

I recommend that you read through this chapter and the next one, on organizing your actions, before you actually start processing what you’ve captured in “in.” It may save you some steps. When I coach people through this process, it invariably becomes a dance back and forth between the simple decision-making stage of processing the open loops and the trickier task of figuring out the best way to enter these decisions in their particular organization systems.



Many of the people we work with, for example, are eager to get set up on a mobile device that might synchronize with the enterprise application that their company is using for e-mail and scheduling. The first thing we would have to do (after we’ve collected the in-tray) is make sure all their hardware and software are working. Then we clean up (print out and erase, usually) everything they have previously tried to organize in their task lists and put it all into “in.” Then we establish some working categories such as “Calls,” “Errands,” “Agendas,” “At Computer,” and so on. As we begin to process the in-tray, the person can go immediately to his computer and type his action steps directly into the system he will ultimately depend on.

If you’re not sure yet what you’re going to be using as a personal reminder system, don’t worry. You can begin very appropriately with a simple loose-leaf notebook or whatever you may be currently using for making lists. You can always upgrade your tools later, once you have your system in place.

Processing Guidelines

The best way to learn this model is by doing. But there are a few basic rules to follow:

· Process the top item first.

· Process one item at a time.

· Never put anything back into “in.”

Top Item First

Process does not mean “spend time on.”

Even if the second item down is a personal note to you from the head of your country and the top item is a piece of junk mail, you’ve got to process the junk mail first! That’s an exaggeration to make a point, but the principle is an important one: everything gets processed equally. The verb process does not mean “spend time on.” It just means “decide what the thing is and what action is required, and then dispatch it accordingly.” You’re going to get to the bottom of the tray as soon as you can anyway, and you don’t want to avoid dealing with anything in there.

Emergency Scanning Is Not Clarifying

Most people get to their in-tray or their e-mail and look for the most urgent, most fun, easiest, or most interesting stuff to deal with first. “Emergency scanning” is fine and necessary sometimes (I do it regularly, too). Maybe you’ve just come back from an off-site meeting and have to be on a long conference call in fifteen minutes. So you check to make sure there are no land mines about to explode and to see if your client has e-mailed back to you OK’ing the big proposal.

But that’s not processing your in-tray; it’s emergency scanning. When you’re in processing mode, you must get into the habit of starting at one end and just cranking through items one at a time, in order. As soon as you break that rule and process only what you feel like processing, in whatever order, you’ll invariably begin to leave things unprocessed. Then you will no longer have a functioning funnel, and it will back up all over your desk and office and e-mail “in” repositories. Many people live in this emergency-scanning mode, always distracted by what’s coming into “in,” and not feeling comfortable if they’re not constantly skimming the contents on their computer or mobile devices. Were they to trust “in” would be totally dealt with every day or two, they wouldn’t be so driven by this need for incessant checking.


The in-tray is a processing station, not a storage bin.

Theoretically you should flip your in-tray upside down and process first the first thing that came in. As long as you go from one end clear through to the other within a reasonable period of time, though, it won’t make much difference. You’re going to see it all in short order anyway. And if you’re going to attempt to clear up a big backlog of e-mails staged in “in,” you’ll actually discover it’s more efficient to process the last-in first because of all the discussion threads that accumulate on top of one another, and you don’t want to respond to something prematurely before you’ve seen the whole discussion.

One Item at a Time

You may find you have a tendency, while processing your in-tray, to pick something up, not know exactly what you want to do about it, and then let your eyes wander to another item farther down the stack and get engaged with it. That item may be more attractive to you because you know right away what to do with it—and you don’t feel like thinking about what’s in your hand. This is dangerous territory. What’s in your hand is likely to land on a “hmph” stack on the side of your desk because you become distracted by something easier, more important, or more interesting below it.

Thinking about the stuff you’ve accumulated usually does not happen naturally, of its own accord. You must apply conscious effort to get yourself to think, like getting yourself to exercise or clean house.

Most people also want to take a whole stack of things out of the in-tray at once, put it right in front of them, and try to crank through it all, immediately. Although I empathize with the desire to deal with a big chunk, I constantly remind people to put back everything but the one item on top. The focus on just one thing forces the requisite attention and decision making to get through all your stuff. And if you get interrupted (which is likely), you won’t have countless parts of “in” scattered around outside the tray and out of control again.

The Multitasking Exception

There’s a subtle exception to the one-item-at-a-time rule. Some personality types really need to shift their focus away from something for at least a minute in order to make a decision about it. When I see this going on with someone, I let him take two or sometimes three things out at once as he’s processing. It’s then easier and faster for him to make a choice about the action required.

Remember, multitasking is an exception—and it works only if you hold to the discipline of working through every item in short order, and never avoid any decision for longer than a minute or two.

Nothing Goes Back into “In”

There’s a one-way path out of “in.” This is actually what was meant by the old admonition to “handle things once,” though handling things just once is in fact a bad idea. If you did that, you’d never have a list, because you would finish everything as soon as you saw it. You’d also be highly ineffective and inefficient, since most things you deal with are not to be acted upon the first time you become aware of them. Where the advice does hold is in eliminating the bad habit of continually picking things up out of “in,” not deciding what they mean or what you’re going to do about them, and then just leaving them there. A better admonition would be, “The first time you pick something up from your in-tray, decide what to do about it and where it goes. Never put it back in ‘in.’”

The cognitive scientists have now proven the reality of “decision fatigue”—that every decision you make, little or big, diminishes a limited amount of your brain power. Deciding to “not decide” about an e-mail or anything else is another one of those decisions, which drains your psychological fuel tank.

The Key Processing Question: “What’s the Next Action?”

I am rather like a mosquito in a nudist camp; I know what I want to do, but I don’t know where to begin.

—Stephen Bayne

You’ve got the message. You’re going to deal with one item at a time. And you’re going to make a firm next-action decision about each one. This may sound easy—and it is—but it requires you to do some fast, hard thinking. Much of the time the action will not be self-evident; it will need to be determined.

On that first item, for example, do you need to call someone? Fill something out? Get information from the Web? Buy something at the store? Talk to your assistant? E-mail your boss? What? If there’s an action, its specific nature will determine the next set of options. But what if you say, “There’s really nothing to do with this”?

What If There Is No Action?

It’s likely that a portion of your in-tray will require no action. There will be three types of things in this category:

· Trash

· Items to incubate

· Reference material


If you’ve been following my suggestions, you’ll no doubt already have tossed out a big pile of stuff. It’s also likely that you will have put stacks of material into “in” that include things you don’t need anymore. So don’t be surprised if there’s still a lot more to throw away as you process your stuff.

Processing all the things in your world will make you more conscious of what you are going to do and what you should not be doing. One director of a foundation I worked with discovered that he had allowed way too many e-mails (thousands!) to accumulate—e-mails that in fact he wasn’t ever going to respond to anyway. He told me that using my method forced him to “go on a healthy diet” about what he would allow to hang around his world as an incompletion.

It’s likely that at some point you’ll come up against the question of whether or not to keep something for future reference. I have two ways of dealing with that:

· When in doubt, throw it out.

· When in doubt, keep it.

Take your pick. I think either approach is fine. You just need to trust your intuition and be realistic about your space. Most people have some angst about all of this because their systems have never really been totally functional and clear-edged before. If you make a clean distinction between what’s reference and supplies and what requires action, and if your reference system is simple and workable, you can easily keep as much material as you can accommodate. Since no action is required on it, it’s just a matter of physical space and logistics. How big would you like your reference library and toolbox to be?

Too much information creates the same result as too little: you don’t have what you need, when and in the way you need it.

Filing experts can offer you more detailed guidelines about all this, and your accountant can provide record-retention timetables that will tell you how long you should keep what kinds of financial documentation. My suggestion is that you discriminate about whether something is actionable or not. Once it’s clear that no action is needed, there’s room for lots of options, given your personal preferences and storage and access capabilities.

The digital world offers additional opportunities and challenges around the what-to-keep vs. what-to-throw-away decision. Because computer and cloud storage spaces seem continually to grow exponentially, the good news is that we are forever getting much more room to store much more stuff. Additional good news is the powerful search functionality that has grown along with it. The bad news is that it can easily foster indiscriminate filing and a lot of numbness to the volume and confusion about where things are, even as good as search functions might be. Because digital storage, without much forethought, has become almost automatic, it is very possible to create an environment of constant input but no utilization. You are creating a library so big and overwhelming, you have limited your capacity to make it functional for the work that’s important for you to do. The key here is the regular reviewing and purging of outdated information, as I suggested in a previous chapter, as well as more conscious filtering on the front end, as you’re processing your input: “Is this really necessary or useful for me to keep, or can I trust that I can access it from the Internet or other sources if I need it?”


There will probably be things in your in-tray about which you will say to yourself, “There’s nothing to do on this now, but there might be later.” Examples of this would be:

· An e-mail announcing a chamber of commerce breakfast with a guest speaker you might want to hear, but it’s two weeks away, and you’re not sure yet if you’ll be at home then or out of town on a business trip.

· An agenda for a board meeting you’ve been invited to attend in three weeks. No action is required on it, other than your briefing yourself a day ahead of the meeting by reading the agenda.

· An advertisement for the next software upgrade for one of your favorite applications. Do you really need this next version? You don’t know; you’d rather sleep on it for another week.

· An idea you had about something you might want to do for next year’s annual sales meeting. There’s nothing to do on this now, but you’d like to be reminded when the time comes to start planning for it.

· A note to yourself about taking a watercolor class, which you have zero time for right now.

What do you do with these kinds of things? There are two options that could work:

· Write them on a Someday/Maybe list.

· Put a reminder of them on your calendar or in a tickler file.

It’s fine to decide not to decide about something. You just need a decide-not-to-decide system to get it off your mind.

The point of all of these incubation procedures is that they give you a way to get the items off your mind right now and let you feel confident that some reminder of the possible action will resurface at an appropriate time. I’ll elaborate on these in more detail in the next chapter, on organizing. For now, just put a Post-it on such items, and label them “maybe” or “remind on October 17,” and set them aside in a Pending category you will be accumulating for later sorting.*


Many of the things you will uncover in “in” will need no action but may have value as potentially useful information about projects and topics. Ideally, you have already set up a workable filing system (as described in chapter 4) for your reference and support information. As you come across material in your in-tray and that you e-mail (and attachments and Web links therein) that you’d like to keep for archival or support purposes, file it.

You’ll probably discover that there are lots of miscellaneous kinds of things that you want to keep but have piled up in stacks or stuffed into drawers because your reference system was too formal or just plain nonexistent. Let me remind you here that a less-than- sixty-second, fun-to-use general-reference filing system within reach of where you sit is a mission-critical component of full implementation of this methodology. In the fast lane of real life, if it’s not easy, quick, and fun to file something away, you’ll stack or simply accumulate it in “in” instead of organizing. And then it will become much more difficult to keep things processed.

Whenever you come across something you want to keep, make a label for it, put it in a file folder, and tuck that into your filing drawer. Or put a Post-it on it instructing your assistant to do the same. Or appropriately tag or categorize it digitally. In my early days of coaching I used to give my clients permission to keep a To File pile. No longer. I discovered that if you can’t get it into your system immediately, you’re probably not ever going to. If you won’t do it now, you likely won’t do it later, either.

For digital inputs that you want to keep for reference, a plethora of options present themselves. If it’s simply an e-mail that you want to keep so you can retrieve it later, I suggest using the storage folders that are usually available in e-mail applications—often in the navigator column on the side of the user window. Many people leave these nonactionable e-mails in their “in” section as a sort of amorphous filing cabinet, which seriously clogs the system. You should feel free to instantly create a new reference file for a new topic, theme, person, or project, and drag or insert the e-mail into it right away.

For documents, attachments, text, and graphics in e-mail that you might want to keep, you will have to develop your own filing procedures. These days there are very effective document storage applications in the cloud, as well as note-making and organizing programs accessible from multiple devices. The power, variety, and rapid evolvement of this enabling technology belie a recommendation for any one universal best practice. It behooves each of us to experiment, customize, and modify our digital libraries for what works best. The key to keeping it effective will be regular revisiting of our data and how we’re organizing it; and keeping it current and usable.

Again, the key driver should be: Do I still have attention on my reference content or system? If so, create a project and next action to unpack that, to get this significant area for you on cruise control.

And If There Is an Action … What Is It?

Doing a straightforward, clear-cut task that has a beginning and an end balances out the complexity-without-end that often vexes the rest of my life. Sacred simplicity.

—Robert Fulghum

This is perhaps the most fundamental practice of this methodology. If there’s something that needs to be done about the item in “in,” then you need to decide what, exactly, that next action is. “Next action,” again, means the next physical, visible activity that would be required to move the situation toward closure.

This is both easier and more difficult than it sounds.

The next action should be easy to figure out, but there are often some quick analyses and several planning steps that haven’t occurred yet in your mind, and these have to happen before you can determine precisely what has to happen to complete the item, even if it’s a fairly simple one.

Let’s look at a sample list of the things that a person might typically have his or her attention on.

· Clean the garage

· Do my taxes

· Conference I’m going to

· Bobby’s birthday

· Press release

· Performance reviews

· Management changes

Although each of these items may seem relatively clear as a task or project, determining the next action on each one will take some thought.

· Clean the garage

… Well, I just have to get in there and start. No, wait a minute, there’s a big refrigerator in there that I need to get rid of first. I should find out if John Patrick wants it for his camp. I should …

· Call John re: refrigerator in garage.

What about …

· Do my taxes

… but I actually can’t start on them until I have my last investment income documents back. Can’t do anything until then. So I’m …

· Waiting for documents from Acme Trust

And for the …

· Conference I’m going to

… I need to find out whether Sandra is going to prepare a press kit for us. I guess I need to …

· E-mail Sandra re: press kits for the conference.

… and so forth. The action steps—“Call John,” “Waiting for documents,” “E-mail Sandra”—are what need to be decided about everything that is actionable in your in-tray.

The Action Step Needs to Be the Absolute Next Physical Thing to Do

Until you know what the next physical action is, there’s still more thinking required before anything can happen—before you’re appropriately engaged.

Remember that these are physical, visible activities. Many people think they’ve determined the next action when they get it down to “set meeting.” But that’s not the next action, because it’s not descriptive of physical behavior. How do you set a meeting? Well, it could be with a phone call or an e-mail, but to whom? Decide. If you don’t decide now, you’ll still have to decide at some other point, and what this process is designed to do is actually get you to finish the thinking exercise about this item. If you haven’t identified the next physical action required to kick-start it, there will be a psychological gap every time you think about it even vaguely. You’ll tend to resist noticing it, which leads to procrastination.

When you get to a phone or to your computer, you want to have all your thinking completed so you can use the tools you have and the location you’re in to more easily get things done, having already defined what there is to do.

Determine what physical activity needs to happen to get you to decide.

What if you say to yourself, “Well, the next thing I need to do is decide what to do about this”? That’s a tricky one. Deciding isn’t really an action, because actions take time, and deciding doesn’t. There’s always some physical activity that can be done to facilitate your decision making. Ninety-nine percent of the time you just need more information before you can make a decision. That additional information can come from external sources (“Call Susan to get her input on the proposal”) or from internal thinking (“Draft ideas about new reorganization”). Either way, there’s still a next action to be determined in order to move the project forward.

Once You Decide What the Action Step Is

You have three options once you decide what the next action really is:

· Do it (if the action takes less than two minutes).

· Delegate it (if you’re not the most appropriate person to do the action).

· Defer it into your organization system as an option for work to do later.

Do It

If the next action can be done in two minutes or less, do it when you first pick the item up. If the e-mail requires just a thirty-second reading and then a quick yes/no/other response back to the sender, do it now. If you can browse the catalog in just a minute or two to see if there might be anything of interest in it, browse away, and then toss it, route it, or reference it as required. If the next action on something is to leave a quick message on someone’s voice mail, make the call now.

Even if the item is not a high-priority one, do it now if you’re ever going to do it at all. The rationale for the two-minute rule is that it’s more or less the point where it starts taking longer to store and track an item than to deal with it the first time it’s in your hands—in other words, it’s the efficiency cutoff. If the thing’s not important enough to be done, throw it away. If it is, and if you’re going to do it sometime, the efficiency factor should come into play.

Many people find that getting into the habit of following the two-minute rule creates a dramatic improvement in their productivity. One vice president of a large software company told me that it gave him an additional hour a day of quality discretionary time! He was one of those three-hundred-e-mail-a-day high-tech executives, highly focused for most of the workday on three key initiatives. Many of those e-mails were from people who reported to him—and they needed his eyes on something, his comments and OKs, in order to move forward. But because they were not on a topic in his rifle sights, he would just stage the e-mails in “in,” to get to “later.” After several thousand of them piled up, he would have to go in to work and spend whole weekends trying to catch up. That would have been OK if he were twenty-six, when everything’s an adrenaline rush anyway, but he was in his thirties and had young kids. Working all weekend was no longer acceptable behavior. When I coached him he went through all eight-hundred-plus e-mails he currently had in “in.” It turned out that a lot could be dumped, quite a few needed to be filed as reference, and many others required less-than-two-minute replies that he whipped through. I checked with him a year later, and he was still current! He never let his e-mails mount up beyond a screenful anymore. He said it had changed the nature of his division because of the dramatic decrease in his own response time. His staff thought he was now made of Teflon!

The two-minute rule is magic.

That’s a rather dramatic testimonial, but it’s an indication of just how critical some of these simple processing behaviors can be, especially as the volume and speed of the input increase for you personally.

Two minutes is in fact just a guideline. If you have a long open window of time in which to process your in-tray, you can extend the cutoff for each item to five or ten minutes. If you’ve got to get to the bottom of all your input rapidly, in order to figure out how best to use your afternoon, then you may want to shorten the time to one minute, or even thirty seconds, so you can get through everything a little faster.

You’ll be surprised how many two-minute actions you can perform even on your most critical projects.

It’s not a bad idea to time yourself for a few of these while you’re becoming familiar with the process. Most people I work with have difficulty estimating how long two minutes actually is, and they greatly underestimate how long certain actions are likely to take. For instance, if your action is to leave someone a message, and you get the real person instead of his or her voice-mail, the call will usually take quite a bit longer than two minutes.

The world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation. The hand is more important than the eye… . The hand is the cutting edge of the mind.

—J. Bronowski

There’s nothing you really need to track about your two-minute actions—you just do them. If, however, you take an action and don’t finish the project with that one action, you’ll need to clarify what’s next on it, and manage that according to the same criteria. For instance, if you act to replace a cartridge in your printer and discover that you’re now out of extra cartridges, you’ll want to decide on the next action about getting them (“Order printer cartridge refills online”) and do, delegate, or defer it appropriately.

Adhere to the two-minute rule and see how much you get done in the process of clearing out your “in” stacks. Many people are amazed by how many two-minute actions are possible, often on some of their most critical current projects. They are also delighted with applying this approach to small incompletions that have been lying around and nagging at them much too long.

The two-minute rule has become a salvation for many in getting control of their huge e-mail volume. In an active e-mail environment, it is likely that at least 30 percent of your actionable e-mails will require less than two minutes to respond and dispatch (assuming you have decent keyboard skills). If you’re engaging with your e-mail, holding to this suggestion quite significantly improves responsiveness and productivity in your ecosystem. When I spend time with someone cleaning up his or her e-mail inventory, invariably there are dozens of quick actions generated that “move the needle” on multiple fronts, unsticking significant backlog.

That said, you shouldn’t become a slave to spending your day doing two-minute actions. This rule should be applied primarily when you are engaging with new input; for example, processing your in-tray, interacting with someone in your office or home, or simply dealing with some random intersection in the hallway. But if you don’t do it when it shows up, and you do still need to do it, you will have to take the time and energy to capture, clarify, and track it, to prevent its encroachment into your head.

Delegate It

If the next action is going to take longer than two minutes, ask yourself, “Am I the best person to be doing it?” If not, hand it off to the appropriate party, in a systematic format.

Delegation is not always downstream. You may decide, “This has got to get over to Customer Service,” or “My boss needs to put her eyes on this next,” or “I need my partner’s point of view on this.”

A systematic format could be any of the following:

· Send the appropriate party an e-mail.

· Write a note or an over-note on paper and route the item out to that person.

· Send him or her a text or leave a voice mail.

· Add it as an agenda item on a list for your next real-time conversation with that person.

· Talk to him or her directly, either face-to-face or by phone, text, or instant message.

Although any of these options can work, I would (with some exceptions) recommend them in the above order, top to bottom. E-mail is usually the fastest mode in the system; it provides an electronic record; and the receiver gets to deal with it at his or her convenience. Written notes are next because they, too, can get into the system immediately, and the recipient then has a physical particle to use as an organizational reminder. If you’re passing on paper-based material as part of the handoff, a written communication is obviously the way to go; as with e-mail, the person you hand it off to can then deal with it on his or her own schedule. Voice mail and texting can be efficient, and many professionals live by it; the downside is that tracking becomes an additional requirement for both you and the recipient, what you say is not always what gets heard, and texts are infamously cryptic. Next would be saving the communication on an agenda list or in a folder for your next regular meeting with the person. At times this is necessary because of the sensitive or detailed nature of the topic, but it then must wait to get moving until that meeting occurs. The least preferable option would be to interrupt what both you and the person are doing in the moment to talk about the item. This is immediate, but it hampers workflow for both of you and has the same downside as voice mail: no written record.

Tracking the Handoff If you do delegate an action to someone else, and if you care at all whether something happens as a result, you’ll need to track it. As I walk you through in the next chapter, about organizing, you’ll see that a significant category to manage is Waiting For.

As you develop your own customized system, what you eventually hand off and then track could look like a list in a planner, a file folder holding separate papers for each item, and/or a list categorized as Waiting For in your software. For now, if you don’t have a trusted system set up already, just put a note on a piece of paper—“W/F: reply from Bob”—and put that into a Pending stack of notes in a separate pile or tray that may result from your processing.

What If the Ball Is Already in Someone Else’s Court? In the example cited previously about waiting for some documents to arrive so you can do your taxes, the next action is currently on someone else’s plate. In such situations you will also want to track the action as a delegated item, or as a Waiting For. On the paper that says “Do my taxes,” write something like “Waiting for tax documents from Acme Trust” and put that into your Pending stack.

It’s important that you record the date on everything that you hand off to others. This, of all the categories in your personal system, is the most crucial one to keep tabs on. The few times you will actually want to refer to that information (“But I called and ordered that on March 12”) will make it worth establishing this as a lifelong habit.

Defer It

It’s likely that most of the next actions you determine for things in “in” will be yours to do and will take longer than two minutes to complete. A call you need to make to a customer; an e-mail to your team that you need to spend a little time thinking about and drafting; a gift you need to buy for your brother at the sporting goods store; a software application you need to download from the Web and try out; a conversation you must have with your life partner about the school you’re thinking of sending your daughter to—all of these fit that description.

These actions will have to be written down somewhere and then organized in the appropriate categories so you can access them when you need to. For the moment, go ahead and put Post-its on the pieces of paper in “in,” with the action written on them, and add these to the Pending stack of papers that have been processed.

The Pending Things That Are Left

If you follow the instructions in this chapter, you’ll dump a mess of things, file a bunch, do a lot of two-minute actions, and hand off a number of items to other people. You’ll also wind up with a stack of items that have actions associated with them that you still need to do—soon, someday, or on a specific date—and reminders of things you’re waiting on from other people. This Pending group is made up of the actions you’ve delegated or deferred. It is what still needs to be organized in some fashion in your personal system, a topic I’ll cover in step-by-step detail in the next chapter.

Identifying the Projects You Have

This last step in getting to the bottom of “in” requires a shift in perspective from the single-action details to the larger picture—your projects.

Again, I define a project as any outcome you’re committed to achieving that will take more than one action step to complete. If you look through an inventory of actions that you have already been generating—“Call Frank about the car alarm”; “E-mail Bernadette re: conference materials”—you’ll no doubt recognize a number of things that are larger than the single action you’ve defined. There’s still going to be something to do about the car alarm after the call to Frank, and there will still be something to handle about the conference after the e-mail to Bernadette.

I hope you’re able to see the very practical reason for defining projects as broadly as I do: if the action step you’ve identified will not complete the commitment, then you’ll need some stake in the ground to keep reminding you of actions you have pending until you have closure. You need to make a list of projects. A “Projects” list may include anything from “Give holiday party” to “Divest the software product line” to “Finalize compensation package.” The purpose of this list is not to reflect your priorities but just to ensure that you’ve got placeholders for all those open loops.

Right now you probably have between thirty and a hundred projects.

Whether you draw up your Projects list while you’re initially processing your in-tray or after you’ve set up your action lists doesn’t really matter. It just needs to be done at some point, and it must be maintained, as it’s the key driver for reviewing where you are and where you want to be, and to maintain a sense of week-to-week control of your life.

For now, let’s make sure your organizing setup is “all systems go.”