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How to process stuff - A comparison of TRAF, the "Four Ds", and GTD's workflow diagram

As part of my self-training to be a personal productivity presenter and coach, I'm reading [1] every related book I can get my hands on. (My goal? Be a world-class expert [2] in the field.) One thing I regularly come across are relatively simple ideas for workflow management, esp. "TRAF" (Toss, Refer, Act, File) and the "Four Ds" (Delete, Do, Delegate, Defer). How do these compare with the more complex GTD workflow diagram? Read on!

The players

In this section I'll describe the three approaches to managing inputs that we'll be comparing - TRAF, the "Four Ds", and GTD's workflow diagram.


TRAF is Stephanie Winston's system, as described in her books Organized for Success and The Organized Executive (the two I've read). As she puts it:
... there are only four and a half things you can do with a piece of paper. you can throw it away, refer it, act on it, file it, or (the "one-half") read it.
So we have:
  • Toss it,
  • Refer it (i.e. pass it along or discuss it with someone else),
  • Act on it personally (includes now or 'resurfacing' it later, and reading), or
  • File it.
You can read more about the idea in Staunching The Paper Flow - Tips For Time Management and The Art of Organization. (You might enjoy the acronym variations in Chunking Your Inbox by Bert Webb.)

The "Four Ds"

The Four Ds - Delete, Do, Delegate, Defer [3] - is a classic workflow management idea whose origins I haven't found [4]. There are many sources on the web, including 4 Ways to Take Control of Your E-mail Inbox By Sally McGhee, and Information Overload by Kathy Paauw. This gives us:
  • Delete it,
  • Do it (now),
  • Delegate it, or
  • Defer it (act on it later).
(Note: McGhee, whose work is closely related to Allen's, uses the same two minute rule as GTD for the Do it step.)

GTD Workflow Diagram

As opposed to the first two approaches, David Allen's workflow diagram (showing GTD's Processing and Organizing phases - their Rosetta Stone) is graphical rather than verbal [5], and is more complex. The official version is here, but you have to "buy" it (for free). A more accessible rendition is on Doug Johnston's site. I won't go into the diagram's details here, but briefly, the center "trunk" shows the processing steps, as stuff flows from the top down.

(Note: You may prefer Sally McGhee's diagram, which is closely related to Allen's. You can find more detail in her book Take Back Your Life!: Using Microsoft Outlook to Get Organized and Stay Organized.)


So how do they stack up? Here's one way to compare them:

Actionable?Organizing BucketTRAFFour Ds
Y + delegateWaiting ForReferDelegate
Y +<2minDo itActDo
Y + >2minDefer it (Calendar, Next Actions)ActDefer

For simplicity I've used GTD concepts as a reference point, mostly because it seems to subsume the others (more below). Notes:
  • The Actionable? column refers to Allen's "Is It Actionable?" step
  • The Organizing Bucket column refers to GTD's organizing scheme (i.e., where to park things so that they map to meaningfulness)
  • Y + delegate means the item is actionable and can be (should be) delegated.
  • Y +<2min means it's actionable, can't be delegated, and can be done in less than two minutes.
  • Y + >2min means the same, but longer than two minutes.
  • - means no direct equivalent in the method.
  • As I understand it, Winston's Act step includes immediate, and deferred action.


As you can see in the above table, GTD is more comprehensive than the other two, and subsumes both. But there's a trade-off in both communication and learning: TRAF and The Four Ds are more readily explained and applied (due to their relative simplicity), which probably makes them more memorable too. However, I want to be fair by pointing out the simpler ideas are often presented in the context of a larger system, which typically includes many of the missing elements identified here.

Of course when it comes down to it, the point is to find a set of tools and a methodology [6] that helps us be more productive, and that is ultimately a personal choice. Will I be giving up GTD for these others? No. But I am glad I know about them.

What do you think? Do you have a comparable system that you like?


  • [1] I've had to build some reading skills to keep up with the demand. They're summarized in How to read a lot of books in a short time, for those interested.
  • [2] What's the definition of an expert? From this article:
    So how do you get to be a world-class expert? By working your butt off, according to the brilliant cognitive psychologist, Anders Ericsson (e.g., Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Rèomer, 1993). Ten thousand hours of deliberate, well focused, thoughtful practice will turn you into a world-class expert, whether that expertise is in music, sports, dance, chess, science, or politics. And Ericsson's research suggests you can only do about 20 hours of this intense work per week.
    I also like the analysis in Building a Niche of One. You may also like Notes on the Psychology of Expertise.
  • [3] Some of the other "Four Ds" I found: stress reactions (Denial, Dismissal, Deferral, Development) and Steps for Coping With Withdrawal (Deep Breaths, Drink Water, Do Something Else, Delay).
  • [4] I found this comment by Judy Gleeson intriguing:
    The 4 D's have been in over 12 books on time management and every course notes I have ever read on the topic. It's derived from the 4 quadrants of time management from an urgency/importance matrix.
    I haven't been able to verify it, though...
  • [5] To get a sense of the complexity of converting the workflow diagram to text, see Matt Vance's excellent GTD summary.
  • [6] As Eric Mack points out in Methodology + Technology = Productivity, tools by themselves don't necessarily make us more productive - we need the knowledge of how to use them.
  • On the back of my US paperback edition of Allen's book it says:
    Apply the "do it, delegate it, defer it, drop it" rule to get your in-box empty
    Interestingly, "drop it" isn't mentioned anywhere in the book, that I can determine.
  • In How to Declutter Your Life the author finishes talking about TRAF with:
    Some people swear by this system, but for me, it’s a goal rather than an absolute. I just encounter too many in-between items ... and you probably do too.

Reader Comments (11)

A few other related thoughts:

[ Re: GTD Lite | http://www.davidco.com/forum/showpost.php?p=26702&postcount=20 ]: - Use the 5 D's while processing (in order of preference): Delete/Delegate/Document(file)/Defer/Do

[ Golden Rule #1: When In Doubt, Throw It Out | http://www.clutterbug.net/articles/20000524.shtml ] : "FREE": File it. Recycle it. Enter it. Everyday.

March 29, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Laura Stack has 6Ds - From [ How to Process Email and Deal With Information Overload | http://theproductivitypro.typepad.com/the_productivity_pro/2006/08/how_to_process_.html ] :

1. DISCARD = Delete it
2. DELEGATE = Forward it
3. DO = Reply immediately if it will take you three minutes or less
4. DATE = Needs work but not now.

As usual, great stuff from her.

December 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

My favourite is the 5-D Filter (TM) which was presented in the 2002's Time/Design (R) Quick Start Guide: Dump it, Defer, Delegate, Differenciate, Do. It also was accompanied with a really fascinating graph.

I feel that the Differenciate was a very nice touch. This involved "Differentiat[in] the projects and tasks that are high impact from those that are more detail oriented."

January 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterPascal Venier

Thanks, Pascal. I like. Turns out I've been invited to take Time/Design's three day train-the-trainer program in March, so I'll be learning lots about their system. Good stuff!

January 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

my favorite D is the delegation one :D

February 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRecord Management

In My opinion, start with defining the purpose of your office. From that define metrics based on your customer's expectations. Set up a system where this metric is easy to track and visible. Then choose the system of organization that best serves.

I recommend that you strive for one-piece flow, keeping minimal inventory of items to be actioned and track the turnaround time for this items requiring action. I use 5S.

December 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Vandewinckel

I like your thought here, Jeff. I'd love to hear some details about applying 5S to personal systems.

Thanks for reading!

December 17, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

nice explanation through workflow diagrams.

June 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMetadata Removal


June 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell
Nicely done! I've used this as a reference in a blog post for Jan. 9, 2012. Thank you for the content.
January 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKimber H. Miller
You're welcome, Kimber. For others, here's the link: http://kimberhm1.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/12/
January 12, 2012 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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