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.
- 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.