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zen habits: Cranking Widgets: Turn Your Work into Stress-free Productivity

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Cranking Widgets: Turn Your Work into Stress-free Productivity

Every Tuesday is GTD Tips Day at Zen Habits.

One of the great revelations that David Allen makes in Getting Things Done is his analogy of cranking widgets. In a nutshell, he talks about those simple jobs where you come to work in the morning with a pile of widgets to crank, and you leave work with a pile of nicely cranked widgets. It's a mindless job, but there's not much stress, and it's satisfying, and it's simple. And you know if you're being productive because you are really cranking those widgets.

For most of us, it's not that simple. We've got a million emails, voicemails, phone calls, documents and visitors to deal with. That's on top of a list of projects and to-dos that can drive anyone crazy. With all of that going on, we look at our list and see an item that says, "Redesign website" or "Research market trends". Frankly, those are not widgets that can be cranked. They are intimidating projects that might sit on the to-do list while we go check out our favorite blog (Zen Habits, most likely!).

So what to do? Turn your work into a Cranking Widgets job.

Here's how:

  • For every project that you have, select one next-action. You can make a whole list of next-actions if you want, but it's most important to get one next-action. This is defined as the very next physical action that needs to be done to move your project forward. Let's look at that carefully: very next means that it's something that should be done first, instead of later, otherwise the project can't move forward; if there are more than one of those, just choose one. Physical action means something you can do in the physical world: things like call, email, write, list, read, decide, talk to, brainstorm, buy. Things that can't be done in one action are multiple actions, widgets that can't be cranked.
  • Take a look at your to-do lists and make sure that all items are crankable widgets. Sometimes things on our to-do lists are actually multiple widgets combined into one item. Start garden, for example, might entail things like list tools needed, call mom for seedlings, go to store to buy tools, get watering can from shed, turn over dirt, etc. Redesign website might start with a next-action of surf web for inspiring examples of good design, or read article on design, or draw three design ideas, or brainstorm new website name.
  • List the widgets by the type of crank used. This is another way of saying that you should group by context. Group phone calls together. Group reading items together (in a folder). Group emails to be written together. Group websites to research together. That way, when you're cranking out the phone calls, you have them all on one list, and can just crank, instead of searching for the widgets that need to be cranked.
  • Just crank. If you've truly broken your to-do list down to crankable widgets, there's no more thinking involved, at least not at a higher level. All you gotta do is crank them. When you crank one, celebrate, and get going on the next. At the end of the day, you should have a nice stack of cranked widgets, and that's pretty satisfying.
See also:


Alan W said...

I'm in the middle of reading Getting Things Done for the first time.

I got pretty much all of what I needed to know from blogs like these, and had some good beginnings of the process happening, but I bought the book and Ready for Anything too.

I've just this second written a journal entry that reads (paraphrased)" I love organising shit until I get to the point where the time comes to do it ... I'm still organising shit !...What's the catalyst for making the "time" come to me?"

Probably getting off my fat arse I decided was the answer, which is pretty much what you said in this post.

My question is, to all who may experience the same inertia. What, apart from guilt, could consistently cause you to move on these actions that are cranking widgets and why can it be so hard to do this?

Are we lazy, or do we just like to look at how pretty all this organising is.

It gets done eventually, and it feels good, but wouldn't it be so much nicer to do it NOW and get the good feeling NOW. But somehow that isn't enough motivation although it should be

Leo said...

Hi Alan ... excellent comment and questions! Congrats on starting GTD. I think it'll work well for you. It's a great tool that can help us get stuff done (but it's not a miracle cure, of course).

You've touched on the same things that I was planning to write about in an upcoming post, but in brief, I can offer a few tips:

1) Perhaps your motivation isn't great enough. See my Top 20 Motivation Hacks for more on this.
2) See also my Favorite Procrastination Hack for a great method that helps me. Also see Top 10 Productivity Hacks.
3) Sometimes the problem is that our widgets are still too intimidating. Take a look at the items on your to-do list. Perhaps you can break them down even further. If you have to write an article, for example, just write for 5 minutes, or just outline. That will at least get the ball rolling, and it's not as intimidating.
4) Procrastination is a habit. It needs to be broken and replaced with more productive habits. I recommend joining the Zen Habits March Challenge and making this your goal for this month. Replace it with a habit called "Do It Now!"

Hope this helps. I'll write more about this soon.

Teri said...

Here is the tricky bit: when you really work a "cranking widgets" job, you actually have time to think. You can plan just about anything in detail because you don't have to spend all your time dealing with some interruption or distraction. The reason that GTD doesn't work for some folks is that they simply will not take time to think about their job (aka the weekly review). If you don't have a job that gives you time to think, then you have to MAKE time to think. If you can do that, the organizing part will fall into place.

Leo said...

Great comment, Teri! That's an excellent point. I believe I have some of the most intelligent readers in the world.

scott said...

two things:

1)I just ran across this blog and I am infatuated. Thanks for writing this!

2)I use basecamp's personal (free) account for goal setting/tracking. It works really well for me - hopefully some others can use it as well.

Leo said...

Hi Scott, thanks for the comment!

1) Glad you like the site. Stick around, check out the archives, subscribe, keep commenting and make it even better!

2) I'd love to hear about how you use Basecamp. I tried Backpack (it's simple little brother) and it is pretty nice, but didn't quite meet my needs.

Scott said...

Leo - not a problem, you're definitely in my newsgator now.

really, i just use basecamp to set milestones and to-do lists. I categorize the lists to match my life (i.e. Fitness, Personal Development, or names of particular projects I'm working on)...then, i can cross things off as i complete them. it actually forces you to break down goals like you said in this post...one step at a time :)

i set the milestones as longer term goals (i.e. I want to lose 10 pounds this month)...then, i have one place to go to see everything i want to accomplish, and how long i have to do it.

let me know if you want any more info!