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6 powerful "look into" verbs (+ 1 to avoid)


In one of the recent podcast interviews I did with David Allen, we talked about procrastination and how he tries to get people -- especially knowledge workers -- back to just "cranking widgets."

I love this term, because, in his humorous way, David captures how any thing we want to accomplish in this world eventually has to manifest itself in an intentional physical activity. Seemingly over-huge super-projects like "World Peace," "Cancer Cure," or "Find Mutually Satisfying Vehicle for Jim Belushi" all still come down to physical actions, such as picking up a phone or typing an email.

And David is wise, in that interview, also to highlight the importance of what he refers to as a "'look-into' project," which just means that even deciding if a project is interesting and useful to undertake can be a project in itself. It also means that, even with an outcome of "deciding," that meta-project still consists solely of physical actions. In this case, it's the physical actions that help you locate the additional information you'll need to make a timely and wise decision about whether to proceed at all. In sum, no matter what, it all still should come back to widgets and how they get cranked.

Like a lot of you, I've struggled with how you turn "thinky work" into physical action widgets, but here are a few of my favorite task-verbs to get you started in the right direction. They're presented here in a rough approximation of the order in which I use them in my own "look-into" projects:

  1. web-research - Usually my first stop in learning the broadest possible information about anything. And, for me, that means I'm primarily visiting two sites: Wikipedia and Google. Go to either or both and just type in the keywords that get you started. Then just follow your nose for a few minutes. If you started every project with 20 minutes of Wikipedia and Google time, you'd already be so much further along than if you'd just sat around staring into space, waiting for kismet to bring you a slice of cake. At least now you have something to start with. Yes, you probably have your own go-to sites for this kind of work; just do remember to use them.
  2. brainstorm - Try doodling, free writing, white-boarding, or mind-mapping to freely generate ideas, possibilities, and connections. Whatever works best for you in your own situation. You must give yourself permission to really cut loose and not evaluate here -- as they say, the goal is quantity not quality. You're just looking to stimulate new nouns and verbs that that can provide hooks into finding more information. Lightly structured brainstorming is the best way to shape unrelated and seemingly unconnected material into a useful map for further action.
  3. email - Once you've given yourself an independent education on a topic and feel that you've learned enough to ask good questions, consider writing a short email asking for advice and input from a colleague or people on your team. All the usual rules apply here, but a fast email along the lines of "Do you have a preference in foo over bar, and why?" can be a quick way to bring one honeycomb of the hive mind's experience quickly into play.
  4. call - Some of the information you need to make decisions is almost certainly available in the brain of someone close to you. When needed, make a short call to someone who you think can help guide your way. This could be anything from the person in the next cube to a customer service line to a library reference desk to that wisest of institutional historians, your Mom. Again, all the usual admonitions about respecting time still apply, but a phone call, used efficiently, can be the fastest path to an answer.
  5. agenda - If you have a big pile of a little questions that can wait for now, just capture them all into your list for "agenda-boss," "agenda-team," "agenda-spouse" or what have you. You can then quickly blow through them all at one time. (And yes, Professor Grammarpants, this is technically a verb, since it's just a short way of writing "Ask n person next time I see them...")
  6. write - Once you've gathered any amount of information -- and, seriously, don't go to committee forever on this stuff -- try writing a letter, email, one-page-report, or even a theoretical blog post about your topic. No one ever needs to see it, but if you were to explain everything you've learned about your new topic alongside how you feel about it, you might be surprised to discover you know, think, and feel more than you had realized before you started writing. My layman's theory here is that writing puts demands on the left side of your brain to turn mushy clouds of ideas into semi-coherent pyramids of information. (Sometimes those pyramids will end up looking more like they were created by a dog's behind than having arisen from the dream-visions of Pharaohs, but you'll never find out until you commit that "Shitty First Draft")

You'll notice I left off the verb you were really casting about for here, which is almost certainly "**decide**." This is not an oversight.

This one I can't help you with, because -- unless you own and utilize a jokey "Executive Decision Maker" purchased from the Sky Mall catalog -- deciding is most definitely not a physical action.

Deciding, as I hope you learned today, is actually a kind of project outcome. Trying to pretend it's an action, as your author has painfully discovered, is like trying to see our notional dog's yard pyramid as an "@dogbowl" action; that's simply not how it works and it completely confuses the process and order of thinking vs. deciding vs. doing.

Decisions can only be delivered after you've nourished them with timely and thought-provoking information. Once the fetal decision has consumed these sufficient data, a bouncy baby outcome cannot help but be born. You just need to be there to slap it on the ass and give it a good name. Just please don't call it a verb.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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