This article was originally published on the FugBugz blog.

With the new year just around the corner, we’re entering the season of New Year’s’ Resolutions. Prepare yourself for overcrowded gyms and inspirational Instagram quotes tagged with #bigdreams.

If that’s not quite your style, I’d like to introduce you to a very different way of making progress on your goals: Component Thinking.

Instead of fixating on far-off, audacious horizons, Component Thinking has you focus your efforts on creating small, reusable components in the short term, knowing that you’ll be able to assemble them into something bigger in the future.

Digital work is made up of components

Every work product is made up of smaller parts, which I will call “components.” This is true of physical products, but it’s not very easy to take them apart and put them together in a different form. But for digital products, reuse is easy.

Any snippet of text can be copied and pasted anywhere else. Any image or video can be edited and uploaded to different places. And of course, a piece of code can be reused in different parts of a software program, or even in different programs.

Here are some simple examples of how to create reusable components:

  • If you create a lot of business proposals, make a proposal template you can use again and again
  • If you often design websites, start collecting web clippings of websites you like in a notes app
  • Instead of just updating your resume every few years, start collecting work deliverables you could show off in a portfolio
  • If you find yourself writing the same onboarding email multiple items, make it into a knowledge base article that you can reference with just a link
  • If there is a common customer service issue you have to deal with, record a 2-minute screen capture that you can upload to your website

These actions are valuable not just for one-time use, but for many possible future needs. A template for business proposals is inherently valuable, independently of any specific proposal. A notebook full of model websites could be useful in any kind of web design project. A portfolio is always a good thing to have, whether you’re applying for jobs or raising a round of funding.

Having many of these components ready and waiting gives you a few powerful benefits:

  • Each one gives you optionality, increasing the number of options you can consider
  • Each one helps you take action more quickly, because you can reuse past work instead of starting from scratch
  • Each one can remove uncertainty by testing assumptions, making future projects less risky
  • You can improve components incrementally over time, by tweaking and adjusting them each time you use them, instead of trying to make all the improvements at once

 

The modularity of digital work

The impermanence of digital work can often feel like a curse. Nothing ever seems to be finished. We rarely get to celebrate a clear-cut completion. But we can turn this curse into a blessing – if nothing is ever final, there’s no point in waiting to get started!

Instead of waiting until you have all the pieces in place, launch a basic version and upgrade it slowly over time:

  • Launch a beta version of your app, knowing that any component of it can be added later through software updates
  • Send out a draft of your blog post, knowing that you can update the text at any time
  • Self-publish an ebook on the Kindle platform, knowing that any update to the manuscript will automatically be synced wirelessly to anyone who has purchased the book
  • Publish a simple, one-page website with a photo and a bio, and add a new page every few months when you have extra time

Digital work is naturally modular – the various components that make up a product can be created at different times, evolve at different speeds, and be swapped in and out. We can take advantage of this modularity to make progress on our goals in small pieces, instead of in one huge leap.

Solving problems by making things

Most people solve problems through analysis, which means “separating” the problem into smaller parts. The way makers solve problems is through synthesis – by making things and testing them. There is nothing like a tangible thing placed in front of a real human being to bring a dose of reality forcefully into a project.

The best components are those that:

  • Answer questions or test assumptions
  • Simplify or speed up future projects
  • Make future decisions faster or easier
  • Need to be done anyway

People are often afraid to start on projects until they know they will succeed. But this is like waiting to cross town until all the traffic lights are green at once. It won’t ever happen. We have to make progress whenever and however we can.

By focusing our efforts on creating multipurpose, reusable components, we are preparing the ground so that we can quickly take action when an opportunity presents itself. Instead of waiting for the conditions to be just right, we are actively revealing assumptions, learning new skills, and preparing the resources we’ll need.

This new year, instead of setting a flashy resolution, try creating a reusable component.


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