GTD for Academics: Clarify
The real work of intentionality begins with clarity.
Last week we began our look at the Getting Things Done (GTD) system applied specifically to the academic life, focusing on the first step: Capture. When something that you think is worth remembering or revisiting comes into your mind, get it out of your brain and into some kind of trusted external storage for later review.
"Later" is now. If you did what I challenged you to do at the end of last week's post, you have possibly several "buckets" of captured stuff, steadily accumulating. Now we have to figure out what to do with it. In GTD, this stage is called Clarify.
Wait, Clarify? Shouldn’t it be something like Organize? Actually, no: One of the crucial mistakes many people make when trying to get a handle on their work and life is to organize stuff before being clear about what it is and what relationship they have with it.
My 14-year old son, like a lot of teens, has a room that is often out of control. When I ask him to clean it up, he will sometimes just take everything from his bed, desk, and floor and pile it into the closet. At other times, he’ll put effort into putting things where they really belong, but indiscriminantly: Dirty clothes into the dresser with the clean clothes, books from the school library on the shelves with the ones he owns, and so on. In either case, things may look organized, but all that work has to be undone and redone, because some fundamental questions weren’t asked first: Is that shirt clean? Who owns that book? Is this thing from your floor trash or something to keep? Until there’s clarity on each item, any work we do “organizing” is going to cause more work later.
Clarifying in GTD language is the process of figuring this meaning out. The emails in your inbox, the memos, the stacks of exams — we need Clarity on each of these before our minds can handle them properly. As David Allen said:
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.
How to Clarify
Fair warning: Whereas Capturing is fun, Clarifying is more like work. Many academics who wanted to become more intentional about life and work, find this step intimidating, and give up. I invite, in fact I urge you not to do that. Instead, as you read about this process, think about how it works on one item from an inbox. Start small, then we’ll scale up. The energy you invest in properly Clarifying your captured stuff will pay off many times over.
First, pick an inbox where you have been capturing. (Start with your email inbox if nothing else.) Then pick the first thing in the inbox — the topmost email for instance. Clarifying this item involves six steps, the first five of which I'll phrase as questions:
What is it? This seems like a silly question at first. But items that look the same might be totally different in their content and meaning. Pick two adjacent emails in your inbox; one might be an urgent question from a student, while the other is an agenda for a meeting you’re not even invited to attend. They’re both emails, but they invoke completely different decisions about what to do with them.
Is it actionable? Does the item require or invite you to do something? If it doesn’t, then put it in an appropriate place: If it has no real meaning for you, that place is the trash or recycle bin. If it’s reference information that you might need, put it in a paper file or computer folder where you can find it later. If it’s neither of these but something you might want to look into later, maybe, then write the item down on a list called Someday/Maybe. But if the item is actionable, continue.
What is the next action? By "next action" we mean the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the present reality of this thing toward completion. Be precise. “Journal article” is not an action, nor is “Think about writing journal article”. What do you need to do? “Write journal article” is better, but it’s also not a single action but a collection of actions. In GTD we call such things projects. If your item really is just a single action, and you’ve phrased it precisely with a concrete action verb, then this is also the next action. Otherwise, you need to take a moment to brainstorm some of the actions for the project you just identified, then figure out what the next action is — for example, “Review author guidelines for journal article”. Once you’ve done that, continue.
Can the action be done quickly and simply? The Two-Minute Rule states that if an action takes less than 2 minutes to complete, go ahead and do it right then.Another way to say this, is that if you think something is doable within 2 minutes, go ahead and commit 2 minutes of time to it. If you complete it, then great — it’s done. Otherwise, stop working on it immediately, and move on.
Am I the right person to be doing this? If not, then get it to the right person. GTD calls this "delegation", which feels like bossing people around. In an academic context, it typically means routing the action to the right person and perhaps discussing it with them, rather than just dumping it on their plate. If you are indeed the right person for the action, continue.
If your inbox item made it this far, then you are clear on its purpose; it's actionable in the present day; you've identified the next action; you've estimated that this action takes longer than 2 minutes; and you're the right person for the action. At this point, do one of two things: Put the action on your calendar if it has a due date, or put it on a special "Next Actions" list if it does not.
Then remove the item from your inbox. Delete it, archive it, move it to a folder, etc. and move on to the next item, performing the same process of Clarifying. Keep repeating until that inbox is empty; then move to the next inbox and repeat; and repeat this process until all inboxes are empty.
In the GTD book, the Clarify process is depicted in this flowchart:
There are several details that are hidden by this flowchart and the explanation I’ve offered above. Here are three of the most important:
Time requirements. Running an inbox item through this process gets faster the more you get used to the process, but it’s not nothing, and if you are just starting out you might have a lot of stuff to process. When David Allen works with corporate clients, he often has them clear an entire day out to process all their emails, physical items in their offices, and so on. When I started using GTD I took a whole weekend, and needed most of it. If you can do this, then great. Otherwise it’s OK for now to learn the process and build the habit on just a few items, over the course of a few minutes a day. And keep in mind, this is an investment in time: Clarifying means making future decisions about those items now, so you will not need to think about these things later.
Ruthless filtering. My email inbox is frequently exploding, but when I sit down and clarify the things in it, I often find that many that seemed urgent aren’t even actionable. Some (spam, newsletters I don’t intend to read, announcements that don’t pertain to me, etc.) mean nothing to me, so I delete them. Others are just information, no action or reply required, so I move them to an Outlook folder. Some are things that might be interesting to consider later, so I move them to Someday/Maybe. But only a fraction of my captured stuff makes it to the level of work to be done in the here and now. Ruthlessly filtering out actionable from non-actionable items is the best first line of defense against overwork and exhaustion because it stops needless work from coming into your system in the first place.
Tasks versus projects. Above, we contrasted items that require a single action and those that don’t. A task is a single action, or a collection of atomic actions small enough that it could be done in one sitting. A project, in GTD language, is "a desired result that can be accomplished within a year that requires more than one action step". In academia, many items we capture are projects, not tasks. "Write research paper" is a project, not a task. So is “Grade final exams” and “Prepare for conference travel”. But each has a single, physical action that can be done in one sitting that moves the project toward completion: Review the journal’s author guidelines; write the rubric for the final exam; book hotel for the conference. Even these might need to be broken down further. When we treat projects like tasks, we end up with to-do lists with items that are impossible to “do”, so they don’t get done, we get demotivated, and then nothing gets done.
How I clarify
Here's how this looks on three individual items, which I will pull from my inboxes from where I sit right now. At the top of my work email is this item:
What is it? It's an email from the organizers of a conference where I spoke a couple of months ago, reminding me about submitting my talk as a chapter in the proceedings of the conference.
Is it actionable? No. I’d already decided I was not going to write the talk up as a book chapter. I don’t need to hang on to this reminder and I’m not going to look at it later, so I just delete the email.
For the sake of understanding this process, though, if this had been the first time I’d seen this notice about publishing my talk, I might consider it actionable, and the next action might be Look at calendar to see if I have time/space to write up my talk; or I might consider this to be a project, and the next action on that project might be Review transcript from talk.
Below this part, there’s a message that Ed originally sent to a group of people (including the wrong “Robert”) about an active learning classroom project where I’m one of the leads. The email (not shown here) has some questions for these folks, including for me: Robert, do we have any new recruits to the ALC fan club?
What is it? It's two things: A file, and a message. Once I opened the attached file, I saw it's an updated draft of a memo that I had worked on.
Is it actionable? Again, there are two "it"s here. The file itself is not actionable (Ed is just sending it around, no further action required). It's reference material for the active learning classroom project. So I move it to a OneDrive folder I have for this project. But the question at the bottom is actionable, so we move forward:
What is the next action? Pretty simple here: Reply to Ed about new people on the ALC newsletter list.
Can the action be done in 2 minutes or less? No, because I need to go to the signup form for that newsletter and see who's new. That takes more than 2 minutes of clicking, reading, and typing, so I won't do this right now.
Am I the right person for this? Yes. I write and coordinate the newsletter and a faculty learning community related to it.
Final step: There's no due date on this, so it goes in my Next Actions list, which I keep in ToDoist.
I’ve sucked all the information I can out of this email, so I move the email itself to an Outlook folder I’ve set up for the project. It’s there and I can revisit it if needed, but otherwise it’s now out of the inbox. So we move on.
Normally I’d go to the next thing in my work email and so on, but for variety, here's a third example from another inbox — Google Keep:
What is it? It's a list I made the other day of some killer 80s synth-pop songs that I'd like to learn on my bass guitar and then record myself playing along.
Is it actionable? Yes, because I'd like to learn and record these songs in the present day, not “Someday/Maybe”. However, given a different frame of mind or life situation, this might fit better on the Someday/Maybe list.
What's the next action? This is a project, not a task. Recording a cover song is not something you just sit down and do. So instead of putting this on a "to do" list, I have instead a Projects list: Record bass covers of synth pop songs. Then I isolate the next physical, visible activity that moves me closer to completion. There's no single right answer on this, but I'd write down Purchase MP3s of these three songs because I need to do this, and of all the possible actions (Listen to the songs, Write out the chord changes on the songs, etc.) this one seems the most immediate.
Can the next action be done in less than 2 minutes? Maybe. So I open my music store, navigate to the first song and buy it. But then I discover that the second song has multiple versions recorded of it, and I'll need to think about which one I want. That makes the time estimate longer than 2 minutes, so I stop working on it and move on.
Am I the right person? Yes, because although I could delegate this task to one of my kids, there's no reason to, and it's not an onerous task.
So now I have Purchase MP3s as a next action. Although I'd like to get this done sooner rather than later, there's no actual deadline on it. So it goes into the Next Actions list.
I’m being deliberately verbose as I write out these descriptions. The actual process that goes on in my mind and at my computer is much faster. Typically I can Clarify an entire inbox of 100 items in about 5 minutes because I’ve been building this habit for so long that it’s pure instinct. For someone unused to this process, this will take longer. But you will speed up quickly.
Let's wrap up by considering power dynamics.
Suppose you get an email from your department chair, addressed to you personally, that has some information in it about a student orientation fair that's taking place from 7-9pm on a weeknight, and the chair ends the email with the statement "Take a look at this". How should you process this, especially if you’re a pre-tenure or contingent faculty member, or otherwise on a particular side of the power dynamic in your work? Follow the process:
Is it actionable? The chair might intent for you to volunteer for this event. But it doesn’t actually say this. The culture of overwork in higher ed will pressure you to interpret the email with the maximum possible amount of personal responsibility, but you can use the Clarify step to push back. Don’t assume responsibility; seek clarification instead. A polite email (“Thanks for the information; do you need anything regarding this?”) will suffice. Many times, the answer might be “no” or there won’t be a reply.
What is the next action, and am I the right person for it? Even if this becomes actionable, you might not be the right person for it for several reasons. Maybe there's a person in your department whose job is to coordinate advising; or maybe you just don't want to spend an evening at work because you have a family. The culture of overwork would say That doesn't matter, you have to do all the things if you want to survive in this job. This, too, needs pushback. You have the right to negotiate requests for work, within reason especially if they don't fall within your core job duties. This looks interesting and I'd like to help, but since Bob is the advising coordinator, do you think he'd be a better choice? Or, I'd like to attend but I have plans with my family that evening; is there any way I could help that fits with my schedule? Or some other response that signals that the request is at odds with your own interests.
Clarifying is boundary-setting. In a healthy culture, this would not be risky. But in many places in higher ed, advocating for yourself incurs risk — a lot of it, for some. And in some cases, you might have to say “yes” to something you’d rather decline and for which you have good reason to decline. But it’s important to do what we can, with what we have to push for a healthier work and life. You have the right to clarify the work you are being asked to do. And if you can successfully defend yourself in a few small items, then gradually the power dynamic will shift.
Now you do it
My challenge for you this week:
Right now: Go to one of your inboxes. Pull the top item from the stack and run it through the Clarify loop above. Don't worry so much about the outer ring of the flowchart which shows various lists and folders -- that's what we'll work on next week. The goal for now is to take one thing and get clear on it: Is it actionable at all? What am I to do with it? Is it a task or a project? What is the nexrt action? Am I the right person to do it? And so on.
Then remove the item from your inbox if you haven't already, either by deleting it or putting it into a folder.
If you did the previous step successfully, do it again with the next item in the inbox.
Repeat this process one more time, and as many more times as you want.
As I mentioned above, this is work. So if you feel resistance, you are doing it right, and it's OK if you miss a few things or if the process feels clunky and weird. But keep at it!
Next week we move on to Organize which will go into more depth about all those lists, and how to make sure the stuff we have Captured and Clarified lives in the right place.
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In particular, never use your email inbox as a to-do list. Many people do, and it’s a recipe for overwork. Some emails are single items “to do”. Others contain multiple items, some of which are things to do and others aren’t. Some are just nothing at all and have no business remaining in your inbox in the first place. Using your inbox as a to-do list skips the Clarify step and creates a lot more work for you than it alleviates.
Actually this is probably three projects, one per song.