GTD practitioners often refer to the act of completing tasks as "cranking widgets." Psychologically, it's gratifying to think of your work as a box full of unfinished widgets that you crank through a machine, toss into the finished pile, and afterwards, go home to enjoy the rest of your day. It’s psychologically gratifying because there’s no thinking involved when it comes to cranking widgets - the thinking part has already been done. You simply crank widgets, fill a box and then go home. The reality though is that the majority of people struggle to get a good grasp on their workload and how to measure their productivity because the work that they are expected to do requires a lot of thinking and doesn't involve the production of a physical widget, so their work product is also something intangible. In this blog post, we'll examine how to take all your complex office work and convert them into a box of un-finished widgets for you to crank.
The Modern Office Dilemma
Let's first discuss why getting work done is such a problem now. A few generations ago, productivity was measured by how many widgets you were able to crank during your shift. Without modern factory automation, workers had to do all the assembly and production by hand. You arrived each day to a box of unfinished widgets which you processed and then placed in a box when you were done. Productivity was easy to measure back then - by the day's end, your box of unfinished widgets was empty and your box of finished widgets was full.
For most of us today, those factories have been replaced with offices and cubicles, and physical widgets have been replaced by knowledge-work that lacks any defined physical edges. A factory worker could hold a finished widget in his hand and have an immediate sense of accomplishment, but the modern office worker can't do the same when they're assigned tasks such as putting together meetings or researching venues for an event. The lack of discernable edges to the work that we do today makes measurable productivity difficult and that's why we need to get back to idea that our work, as intellectual and complex as it may be, are still widgets that we can crank and toss into a box.
Converting Office Work Into Crankable Widgets
Modern office work can be difficult to get done because, before we can start, it requires us to think about what to do, how to do it, where to do it, when to do it and what resources we need to be able to get it done. Usually it’s the case where we become so entangled with the thinking part, that we fail to execute the doing part of it which creates the problem.
So how do we do convert our office work into widgets? Probably the biggest factor involved here is training your mind to view your work as widgets to be cranked. Stop viewing your projects, big and small, as complex, multi-step projects and instead view them as a series of next actions that you simply crank every day and the aggregated results of all those next actions equals the desired outcome that you want to achieve.
You also want to make sure that your to-do lists are filled with only next actions and not with any projects that you can’t act on. An easy way to tell whether or not a task is a next action is that a next action starts with an action verb, such as buy, write, send, call, etc. It also needs to be as clear and as specific as possible. Remember that the goal here is that when it comes time to actually do the things on your list, you shouldn't have to think about them very hard at all. That's part and parcel with the GTD philosophy - get the thinking out of the way first, so that the actual doing is stress-free and painless.
Some Tips To Get You Started Cranking Widgets
- Avoid putting projects on your task lists and make sure that you’re only putting next physical actions on your lists. Remember that projects are outcomes that result from multiple next actions, but they are not actionable themselves and placing them on your lists will lead to procrastination.
- Identify at least one next action for each of your projects and place them on your list.
- Group your next actions by their context. The context can be a physical location or an area where you have all the resources that you need to be able to perform those next actions.
- Remember that next actions are observable, specific and start with an action verb. There shouldn’t be any thinking involved with a next action, only doing.
- Keep your calendar free for commitments with defined time edges to them. Your calendar is not the place to house your next actions.
- Dish out only the amount of next actions that you can reasonably handle during your day. It’s demoralizing to see, much less handle, more next actions than you can possibly do in a given day, so only dish out the amount of unfinished widgets that you feel that you can handle in a given day.