Get your job down to cranking widgets

I had an amazing college gig. My job was to deliver papers and envelopes to medical offices around town. I’d show up at work and pick up a van full of deliveries, and, when the van was empty, my work was done. Afterward, I would return the van and go back to my apartment. Guess how many times I thought about delivering papers between drop-off and the next morning?


That was what David Allen would call a “widget-cranking job.” You show up to find a bunch of un-cranked widgets. Once they’re all cranked, you go home. The job description is cut and dry.

Today, my job is quite different. I write and edit articles. I produce one podcast and participate in another. I’m working on a book. I’ve also got the responsibilities of a husband, father, brother, and son. In comparison, my job requires more attention than driving a van around town while listening to music and drinking a soda.

A good number of jobs can be overwhelming. The good news is that any job can be a widget-cranking job. The trick is identifying the widgets and getting them in front of yourself in a timely manner and on a friendly, non-intimidating list.

How do you get almost any job into a widget-cranking job? Try these steps:

Identify the widgets

This is the most crucial and the most difficult step. It often takes more time and attention than you initially assume. I think a case study will be the best way to illustrate the process.

Next week, I’ll produce another episode of my podcast, Home Work. There’s a lot to be done each week, like think of a topic, communicate that idea to my co-host, conduct research once a topic has been agreed upon, share notes, confirm sponsorship details, ensure that my software and hardware works, and so on. It’s easy to look at that and think, “Where do I begin?”

To find the answer, I ask myself this question: “If I had nothing else to do in the world but work on the podcast, absolutely nothing at all, what could I do right now to make progress on it?” And by do I mean a concrete, observable action. Let’s say my answer comes back, “brainstorm topic ideas.” OK, great. What do I need to do that? Well, a piece of paper and a pencil.

OK, but bah! My beloved brainstorming notebook is out of scratch paper. I guess I need to get more. So, the next step on the project Produce the Podcast is “drive to Staples and buy my favorite notebook paper.”

That’s a widget. “Think of a good topic” is hard. “Buy paper” is easy.

From there, I continue to my next step, which is “brainstorm ideas.” Then, I identify two or three good ones for the podcast. Next, I need to “share list of good ideas with my co-host.” All of these actions are easily-cranked widgets. Put them on a list and you’re good to go.

To-do management apps

All you need to crank these widgets is a simple list. High-powered project management software is overkill here. Below are several examples of simple and effective task management applications that might work for you.

  1. Remember the Milk. This handy little app is available for the iPhone and Android phones. It works with Gmail, Google Calendar, Twitter, and has a nice web interface. It’s been around for a few years and works quite well.
  2. Todo List. Todo List can be used entirely browser-based so it will work with just about any smartphone and any computer. You’ll also find apps for Android, the iPhone, Windows Phone, and the Mac OS. It features handy color coding and nearly infinite list sizes, so go nuts.
  3. TeuxDeux. This app lets you sort tasks by day and can be used in a browser. An iPhone app is also available. This one is very nice-looking in addition to being useful.
  4. To.DO. This a solution I’ve only recently started playing with. It’s available for Android, the iPhone, and Chrome. The Chrome browser plug-in is very nice. It syncs automatically with the smartphone apps and reminds you of what needs to be done.
  5. Astrid. Astrid takes your to-do list a step further and makes it easy to share task lists with co-workers, family, and friends. It’s available for the iPhone and Android.

Crank widgets

Once you are clear as to what steps to take, work through your list of simple to-do items. As long as you stay current with your concrete actions, you’ll know exactly what you need to do. You can free your mind to think about non-work things during non-work time.

31 Comments for “Get your job down to cranking widgets”

  1. posted by JC on

    I’ve had widget and non-widget jobs. Boxing mail for the USPS was a total widget job with a finite amount of mail to box each day. I also got a lot of thinking done at the same time. Substitute teaching was very much the opposite. Administering a spelling test was far different that teaching a math concept.

  2. posted by JohnMc on

    Well for efficiency widgetizing your job is a viable strategy for a human. But…. In the world we live in today, if you can widgetize a job you can apply automation tools to it. Which could find you out on the street.

    Not saying a reader should not apply the suggestions here. Just realize it has possible risks when and where you apply it.

  3. posted by klutzgrrl on

    talking of cranking widgets… any updates on what’s happening with the Unclutterer forum? I know it’s only been a couple of days, but I’m getting withdrawral symptoms 😀

  4. posted by Erin Doland on

    @klutzgrrl — We thought it was going to go up last night … then had a glitch … so we thought this morning … then another glitch … I’m crossing my fingers for tonight!! The transition is harder than you might think (harder than I thought, at least!). Sorry it is taking so long!

  5. posted by happymonkey on

    I second the withdrawal symptoms, klutzgrrl!!

  6. posted by klutzgrrl on

    Thanks @Erin for the update! I can imagine it’s far from simple – I think I’m reasonably tech-savvy but a very simple wordpress site is about as much as I can manage!

    I hope it doesn’t give you too many headaches.

    Oh and regarding the actual Widget article: now that I’ve read it, good stuff! I’ve been making sensationally hard work of my work lately, and taking a more concrete approach to it would help a lot.

  7. posted by J.P. on

    Thanks for this reminder of a solid concept. Especially with a creative job, it’s easy to think that the work “just happens”. The reality, though, is that even creativity can be broken down into concrete, observable actions. Otherwise, nothing actually gets created!

  8. posted by sleepykitten on

    I third the withdrawl symptoms – I’ve been checking every couple hours for the forum! 🙂 (I do understand that these things aren’t simple, of course.)

  9. posted by MichelleOH on

    I’ve dealt with swapping/opening several message boards over time. A lot is to be said for the company you choose to use.

    Good luck! Hope to see it back soon.

  10. posted by Jennifer on

    I think this article defeats its own purpose as soon as step #2.

    Using “brainstorm topics” as a widget is good because it quickly moves you toward the bigger project you eventually want to accomplish.

    “Drive to Staples to get paper” is a complete time-waster, because it would be much more productive to pick up any nearby piece of blank paper and begin writing down topic ideas.

    Often I’ll get stuck on something to the point where I get paralyzed and can’t do anything at all. When that happens, very similar to this widget idea, I’ll stop myself and say, “ok what is anything at all I can do that would move this forward?” and once I’m moving on that, many other parts of the project start to flow.

    But going to Staples for paper would just mean I would also stop for ice cream, and then pick up some groceries, and then stop to talk to a friend, and then wash my car, and before you know it the whole day is gone and all you’ve got is paper. If you even remembered to do that.

  11. posted by Michele on

    Interesting article.
    Thanks Erin for the update. *waving*Missing my morning coffee check-in’s on how/what everyone’s doing.

  12. posted by Linda on


    Brainstorming ideas is the hard part and definitely not a widget. As a weekly blogger coming up with an idea on something to write about is the hardest thing I do every week.

    Is going to Staples for your favorite note paper a procrastination tactic. Personally I need the right paper and pen to write, otherwise I feel as if I am pushing each word out of my pen onto the paper.

  13. posted by Dede on

    Jennifer was right – I’d have to grab a piece of paper from the printer, because if I go out on one errand….well, I never go out for just ONE thing, gas is too expensive. “Doing errands” is definitely a procrastination tool for me.

    And for those of us whose phones are not smart, is a low tech way of staying organized and on-task. I’ve used it ever since it was mentioned somewhere on this site.

  14. posted by chacha1 on

    Another one here jonesing for the forum.

    And … if I had to have the perfect piece of notepaper in front of me in order to write down an idea, my head would explode. I know everyone has a different workstyle, but to me that (setting out on safari to hunt down the notepaper) reads as complete procrastination, not as part of accomplishing the task.

  15. posted by Amy on

    Dede –

    Thanks for mentioning pocketmod. I hadn’t seen it before, and it was a lot of fun creating one! I love, love my smartphone, but still am attached to paper and pen. I am stuck between both worlds. I leave little sticky notes all over my desk for reminders, and have even put a sticky note on my phone! Looking forward to using the pocketmod at work and on the go.

    Speaking of smartphones, the app I use A LOT is ColorNote, which I just discovered also has a reminder/alarm feature. I probably saw it mentioned on this site, too. Really easy to use for notes, lists, and tasks (complete with check-off boxes).

  16. posted by Sally on

    I read subscribe to your blog via email. It woul be helpful if it contained the name of the author. I did realize once it said “I’ve also got the responsibilities of a husband, father…” That Erin wasn’t writing this, but I would like to know that ahead of time.

  17. posted by Sally on

    I subscribe to and read your blog via email email. It woul be helpful if it contained the name of the author. I did realize once it said “I’ve also got the responsibilities of a husband, father…” That Erin wasn’t writing this, but I would like to know that ahead of time.

  18. posted by ninakk on

    I can’t wait until the forum is up and running again. Withdrawal symptoms anyone? I just started posting in the Kitchen Cure thread and, oh bugger, I’ve lost the momentum for now.

    I know I’ve been speaking lots of Bento already, but I like the fact that to do’s are visibly part of a project, not just some tasks belonging somewhere. The task is still an event in iCal, but a Projects template shows all the individual tasks through a cross-linking field (which doesn’t work on the iPad anymore, super vexing).

    And each entry in the template is a unique project, which belongs to either Project, Waiting or Someday/Maybe. It’s not complicated at all to maintain, but gives me a higher level of seeing what belongs where. I tried apps such as To Do, but they mean I need to specifically remember the interconnections between tasks myself; not good at all.

  19. posted by Secret Squirrel on

    I miss everyone too! Erin, thank you for the update.

    David, I found this article really helpful and will be sharing it with my colleague, we are both guilty of taking work home in our heads. Thanks very much.

  20. posted by Netleigh on

    Also really missing the forum too. It is a home based weekend and I hope to manage to unclutter a bit more stuff!

  21. posted by Ella on

    Aha, so this is where everybody’s hanging out. I miss the forum community terribly, miss all the news. And like ninakk, my own decluttering momentum is flagging.

    Thanks for the update, Erin. Can’t wait to see the new format. I hope the change to Daylight Savings doesn’t bring more glitches.

  22. posted by Prof.Clutter on

    hi, forum friends.
    I’m pining away in this exile, too. But I did the best I could this week, full accountability in my paper planner & record book, met some deadlines, kept up with ATAD. But I was really getting addicted to sharing my daily progress (and obstacles!).

    In these long days of exile, I have come to the decision that the forum I joined in January for academic writing is not even 0.01% as helpful to me as the unclutterer forums. Besides that, they charge a monthly subscription (ouch!) so I shall unclutter that forum asap before the next billing cycle. I’ll weave my own web of academic accountability within and without my department and field. There are some things money can’t buy, and a good forum community is one of them.

  23. posted by lucy1965 on

    So this is where everyone’s hiding!

    I’ve started packing up DH’s office: our neighbor is beginning finish work on the house Monday. Wish me luck on craigslist, as it’s just become critical to get that desk out . . . .

  24. posted by Jackthetiger on

    Missing everyone on the forum too. I wondered if it was something to do with being outside the US.

    PS: I have photos of our new building site!!!!

  25. posted by vjb on

    Jack – can’t wait to see your site pics!

    Man, the forum can’t go live again fast enough. I miss you all! Serious withdrawal.

  26. posted by sleepykitten on

    Hi forum friends! I’m back to wave again because I am still in serious withdrawal. Prof Clutter is right that a good forum community is hard to find. Try not to lose momentum! It’s tough without the support, but let’s wow each other with our progress once we are back online!

  27. posted by Ella on

    Serious withdrawal here too. This month I’m trying to do the Home Cure (which I only barely touched in January) but it’s tough not being able to refer back to our threads. Through trial and error, I’ve been able to retrieve a few cached pages, which helps a bit, but I’m definitely missing the ongoing support and inspiration from everybody’s daily postings.

    Can you give us another update, Erin?

  28. posted by MichelleOH on

    No updates on Facebook, either. Hope everything’s okay…

  29. posted by MichelleOH on

    Facebook update says hopefully today! YAY

  30. posted by Ella on

    Thanks, Michelle! And thanks, Erin!!! So instead of checking every hour, I’ll be checking every quarter-hour… now if only I can GTD during those 15 minutes. 🙂

  31. posted by Elle on

    I am in the middle of having a similar experience as Jennifer described:
    Often I’ll get stuck on something to the point where I get paralyzed and can’t do anything at all. When that happens, very similar to this widget idea, I’ll stop myself and say, “ok what is anything at all I can do that would move this forward?”
    I would love to read about examples of others moving through the challenging task of figuring out how to break down a complex task into smaller, concrete steps. This was a wonderful article — thanks for writing it.

Comments are closed.