What To Do, Part Two

Several weeks back I wrote about posting medium-term priorities at the top of my whiteboard as a way to keep from getting sidetracked. The three stories that I’m working on completing by the end of the week, the three outcomes I’m expecting (or expected) to produce. That continues to work well, though it might be better if my desk & cube walls were configured differently so that the whiteboard was in front of me instead of behind and off to a side.

The situation still arises, though, where there are many tasks to be done that all fit within those three main stories. It’s real easy, when faced with a mountain of tasks, to try to attack them all at once. “I can get a little of this one done, then a little of that one,” the thinking goes, “and hey that third one is important too so I should work some on that one so I can talk about it at tomorrow morning’s stand-up meeting.”

Bad idea. More and more, we’re hearing that multitasking doesn’t work, and I agree. Even when we think we’re getting several things done in a day, we’re not doing any of them as well as we could. The little task-switches are leeching brain-power and and we don’t even realize it.

So how can we reduce multitasking? That’s simple – just don’t do more than one thing at a time.

OK, so it’s not really that simple, but in a way it is. Pick one thing and work on it to completion, or at least to a reasonable stopping point.

How? Back to the whiteboard. Personal Kanban on my Whiteboard I still have my priorities at the top, but now I’ve started putting every task needed to fulfill those priorities on a “yellow sticky” (the generic term for 3M Post-It Notes and clones thereof). There are also three columns, a little hard to see in the photo – “Next,” “In Progress,” and “Done.” Under the “Next” column is a section I’ve called “Backlog,” which is for anything not yet in the other three columns. Now, here’s the magic part – the “Next” and “In Progress” columns cannot have more than two items in them. Can’t. It’s a rule, and I don’t break it.

I know, I know – allowing two items to be “In Progress” at the same time still implies multitasking, but in my business I know that I can’t really work on something straight through. I need to get information from someone who’s at lunch, a database task takes 20 minutes to run, that sort of thing. So I allow myself to have two tasks “live” at any time, but there’s really only one that I’m actively working on at any given point.

If When someone brings me another task, or one pops into my head, I take 5 seconds to write it on one of those magic stickies and put it on the board. Five seconds, no more, then I’m back to work. Why take the time to write it down? That’s a bit part of David Allen’s Getting Things Done – don’t make your brain keep all the little bits of “I have to do this later” thoughts, put them on paper and let your brain get back to working on what’s important.

Back to the whiteboard. When a task is done, it goes to the “Done” column and I re-evaluate the tasks in “Next” and “Backlog” with regard to my overall priorities. It’s a really simple way of keeping things straight and getting things done without all the frustration and wheel-spinning. Now, I know that you think I’m some sort of genius for having come up with this, but that’s not the case. Kanban is a scheduling system that comes from the smart folks at Toyota. you might want to browse through this personal kanban site for more info on a less corporate, factory-line take on it. There’s also this book, which I’ve not read (yet) but has good reviews.

Give it a shot — it doesn’t take a lot of setup or cost and it’s reasonably easy to implement; you just have to set some limits and then do your best to stick to them.

There is, of course, still the question of how to get that one thing done. I’ll write more about that in an upcoming post. In the meantime, have a tomato.

[note: I never did get around to that third post. Ironic, isn’t it? Anyway, take a look over at this post on the Trello Blog, it says everything I was thinking of writing.]

What To Do, What To Do?

If multiple people independently set priorities for your organization, are priorities really set at all? How do you know what to do when you’ve got too many “very important” tasks on your to-do list, and someone brings you another?

One suggestion is to stop focusing on tasks.

My personality — and I suspect that of many of my tech-minded friends — leads me to itemize every little detail, plan every move before getting started. That can result in very little actual work getting done (more on that in a later post), but also causes a lot of frustration. When you’ve got a list of 20 tasks ahead of you, where do you start? Especially when each of them has been deemed “priority” by someone.

The frustration only mounts, of course, as the list grows throughout the day, each “priority” task interrupting the “priority” task in progress.

J.D. Roth, among others, suggest taking a slightly longer view. “On Mondays, simply identify three outcomes—compelling results—you’d like for the week.” For me, that’s a good way of asking Cass McNutt’s four questions. A week is long enough to provide context and direction while not being so long-term to be easily ignored.

I’ve found this not only helps in deciding minute-to-minute what task to work on. Once you figure out what are the important stories and how they should look by the end of the week, decisions become easy. Well, easier anyway. Focus on the tasks that move the stories forward; let the others go.

my whiteboard, showing three weekly goals at the topAt the office, I’ve also begun putting my weekly outcomes atop my whiteboard. “What to do next” becomes easier to answer in light of these medium-term goals.

Not only does this serve as a constant reminder to myself, it also helps sort out the question of others’ priorities. Now when anyone brings me a task and interrupts my work, I turn to the board and ask if it’s important enough to keep these stories from being completed by the end of the week. If they say yes, I cross the story off the whiteboard, making it plain that they’ve made a decision to change priorities for me and my team. I’ve found that this helps provide focus to other managers as well — and that can only help reduce frustration throughout the organization.

Practices of an Agile Developer

This past week, I read Practices of an Agile Developer, not because I’m currently employed as a developer, nor because my employer uses them, but because I believe the guidelines are good ones to be practiced no matter what the profession. Check out some readers’ notes, then invest some time in the book yourself, especially if you are in the software development arena.

Warming or Cooling Those Around You?

When you walk in the room today — at your office, church, hobby group, poker buddies’ place, or at home — what effect do you have on the people there? As ice cools the liquid in a drink, you can change everyone’s emotional state just by adding yourself to their midst.

Are you managing your own mood, and being a positive influence on your co-workers, employees, family members, and the other people around you? As Tim Sanders writes today, “If you want to lead, lead the mood state upwards.”

Omni Adding Project Management

Good news for any PM who’s also a Mac person in a sea of Windows users. The Omni Group’s OmniPlan is in beta, with an expected price tag of US$149. The best part of all (other than being a sweet-looking Mac app, of course):

OmniPlan can open and save Microsoft Project files natively

That should smooth some of the rough water. Now, to get the project sponsors to free up a bit more funding…

You Get What You Measure

Al Hawkins: Productivity and the Law of Unintended Consequences:

I hope they understand that this means an end to the free tech support I’ve been providing, like programming the fax machines and kickstarting the network printers when they hung. No more productivity-enhancing projects, like the wiki and the information entered therein performed during the odd quiet moment. No more tutorials on web resources to speed information retrieval for insurance auths.

Echo echo echo… from my August 29, 2002 post on Corporate Culture: “The managers, intent on “making the numbers”, drove any thought of quality or customer satisfaction right out of the process.”

Write To Be Understood Quickly

From 43 Folders, a post well worth reading: Writing sensible email messages.

As we’ve seen before, getting your inbound email under control will give you a huge productivity boost, but what about all the emails you send? If you want to be a good email citizen and ensure the kind of results you’re looking for, you’ll need to craft messages that are concise and easy to deal with.

KM, Blogging, and Copyright, Oh My

It’s been a while since I wrote about Knowledge Management & Blogging. While trying BlogBridge, I noticed that it comes with a set of pointers to, among other things, some KM blogs.

Here are a couple that have interesting articles posted recently. Knowledge-at-work (see Sharing knowledge – do we know enough? for example), and APQC (including two interesting posts on Copyright and Ownership of “company ideas” posted on personal blogs).

Bonus link from Bug Bash: “If you’re already leading a 30-person Java implementation, it’s way too late to go back to the boss and admit you picked the technology because you like coffee.”

Day 2: Communications

David St.Lawrence was writing the other day about communications. Well, about getting another person to listen to you, which is partly about communicating. As the guys in the sessions I taught would probably tell you — I know I said it more than enough times throughout the course — there’s something I consider paramount to communicating.

Before talking or writing, before picking up the phone, pen, or keyboard; before heading out the door to find someone, before even David’s step 1, you’ve got to ask yourself if you care. Not “do I care” about being right, or about proving your own point, but “do I care” about the other person?

If you don’t care about the person and the topic, there are several reasons why your communication will fail. Perhaps the most obvious is that you won’t put your heart into it, you won’t do enough thinking or research up-front, you’ll only do a half-assed job and they’ll know it. It’ll be obvious that you really don’t care and they’ll just tune out. You’ve probably had teachers or presenters that didn’t prepare well, didn’t listen to your questions, were just there to read the material to you — you knew it immediately and you checked out mentally (and some of you stood up and walked out).

Or maybe you just thought they didn’t care — and “perception is reality.” You walked out anyway.

So let’s add an item to the beginning of David’s list:

  1. You must care about the other person and about the topic, and they must believe it. “They don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.”

Incidentally, this is why some instances of “corporate blogging” fail — it’s immediately obvious to readers when companies are seeing a marketing opportunity rather than a real conversation.


btw, David’s also recently completed (and self-published) a good book – go order a copy and read it.