Get your life back to widget-cranking!

Oh, for a widget-cranking job again! Ever have gigs like that, where all you did was crank widgets? Like a summer job in college? Remember how bored you were, and how psychologically healthy it was? All you had to do was show up. Every morning there was a big pile of un-cranked widgets, right next to the widget-cranking machine (with your name on it). It was not confusing—what to do, or how to spend your day. And what did you get to experience all day? Completion! Crank…widget! Crank…widget!

5 o’clock—outa here! How many thoughts of widgets or widget cranking did you have until the next day? Zero. And how much energy did you have to boogie (and other things) that night? Tons. Because you were young? No, because you were cranking widgets.

Those jobs are still available, though not nearly as many. But there’s a problem. You want what kind of car? What kind of home? What kind of school for your kids? Oops. You’ve probably gotten used to a lifestyle for which the value you add for cranking widgets won’t pay. Now you’ve got to manage widget crankers, and three are a real pain. You’ve got to design systems for widget cranking, and you’ve got computers that won’t talk to each other. Or you’re supposed to be growing a senior team that will help you think about whether widgets are what you need to be cranking three years from now or not. Not so easy.

You need to get those much more complex and ambiguous jobs back to the widgets you need to crank about them. No matter how sophisticated the work, the action steps that make it happen always boil down to: Email Bill. Draft ideas on the strategic plan. Call Susan. Buy paint. Look up consultants on the Web. We just have to think a little bit, to define and list those specific actions, and then we can get back to the free, fun, and clear kind of energy we had with the more mindless jobs that kept us so healthy in our heads.

My life and work are back to the cranking widgets level. It’s great. For the most part, I really think about all my stuff once a week in the GTD Weekly Review®, to identify the right widgets to crank. I use that time to be intelligent enough to define the things to do when I’m not so smart. The rest of the time I get to be sort of dumb and happy, doing smart things.

–David Allen

This essay appeared in David Allen’s Productive Living Newsletter. Subscribe for free here.

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  1. Nice article! But…..there are some types of work – deep work – where it really can’t be made into widgets. As a professor and scientist, there are many times I just block time on my calendar for deep work – thinking through major problems. I don’t see how this can be reduced down to widgets. Am I wrong? Please let me know if I am.

    1. Even “deep work” still boils down to “Pick up pen, write down my observations of the experiement.” or “Call John to set next semester’s planning meeting”. The point of the essay is in the value of “getting your work off your mind”, so that you’re free to bring 100% of your focus to bear on whatever your work is in any given moment. It’s even that much more critical for “deep work”, that when you’re engaged in it, you’re not being distracted by “don’t forget to buy cat food on the way home.”.

    2. Hi David, you might be limiting your definition by thinking that a widget has to be a small amount of time like 5–10 minutes. You mentioned thinking about major problems. Assuming you have those problems defined as projects, and that you’ve scheduled the block of time, that block of time is a widget to take action on that project.

      I’ll start this as a thread in the forum for a potentially longer discussion.

  2. I’ve been increasingly finding cranking to be one of the most productive things I can do, as well. I include GTD maintenance as part of my cranking. I try to use the un-schedule (“The Now Habit”– Neil Fiore) too. And of course, the free daydreaming that having a trusted system affords.

  3. Hi David,

    I have been working on research proyects at university, so I completely understand your need for deep work.

    GTD is highly useful in order to clear your desk (and even better, your mind!) for the right focus. Proactive handling of all “academic widgets”, for example administrative forms, paperwork and other kind of non-academic distraction can really boost your concentration!

    Once your thinking about the big problems, the question “what is the next action to solve this?” is one of the most reliable guidances in order to turn those great ideas into extraordinary, tangible outcomes.



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