Last time we covered collecting all your “open loops” into either Outlook, OneNote, or both. So now you should feel confident that in Office 365 you have absolutely everything that matters to you, that you have any inclination to change or accomplish.
So what do you do with it?
The next step in the Getting Things Done methodology is Clarify. For each item you’ve collected, we need to answer a few questions.
What is it?
This seems like an obvious question. You’d have to know what it is to write it down in the first place right? Well, maybe not. Generally, things will be one of three things: actionable, reference or trash. But before you know which one it is, you need to define what “call Jim” or “lawn” really means. Does this item tell you something about the world, or suggest a change you’d like to make in the world?
Is it actionable?
This is an important question. If there’s nothing you need to actually do with this information, you can save it reference in OneNote if you think you might need to refer to it later, or just trash it if you don’t. A lot of things we jot down don’t require us to actually do anything, and this can take a real load off your mind, but first you have to know you don’t need to do anything about it. One look at most people’s to do lists or inboxes would lead you to believe that they’re a lot more overworked than they actually need to be.
If the item is not reference or trash, then you need to decide what needs to be done. Most people don’t actually have actions on their to do lists. Instead, they have vague “stakes in the ground” that remind them that something needs to be done, but not what that particular something is. That means every time they look at their lists, they have the cognitive overhead of having to deduce that for every item before prioritizing which one to start with. GTD helps you do that necessary thinking ahead of time, so when it comes time to do stuff, you can just do it. You will have already thought about it.
What’s the next action?
If you wanted to move this item to completion, what would be the very next physical action you’d take to accomplish it? Make a phone call? Bench a server? Write a script? Actions tend to start with verbs. They’re specific. “Call Jim” would be changed to “Call Jim at 555-3643 to discuss the Henderson contract.” Try to rewrite every action so that you could hand that action on a post-it to someone else in your office and expect them to do it. Be specific. Put these in your Tasks list in Outlook, along with appropriate start and end dates if they’re time-sensitive.
Sometimes, even most of the time, you might find that when you actually stop and think about an item, a whole mess of actions jump out at you. You’ve discovered a project. Technically, a project is any outcome you’re committed to realizing that requires more than one action. This can get silly, as you can divide “Make a PB&J” into several actions, so use your own intuition about how granular you need to be.
As actions tend to start with verbs, projects tend to be nouns. A good project title should be a declarative statement about how the world will look when the project is complete. That’s how you know when the project is done. It matches. For example, “lawn” might turn into “My lawn is neatly trimmed, with landscaping showing off a rose garden near the fence.”
For projects, I suggest saving each project as a separate note in OneNote. Next time, we’ll go over how to organize those, and how Outlook and OneNote work together.
Jeff Kirvin, PEI
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