Manage your work in progress…

Posted By admin on Jan 15, 2015 | 0 comments

Here’s a little post I wrote when I worked for the Medical School at the University of Michigan.  The thing is, it completely fits for everything we do in life.  Whether it is writing a tune, recording, managing household projects, or attaining your fitness goals.  Enjoy.

People think that they are that rare snowflake that can multitask. There is a mountain of research that proves otherwise. Our brains just aren’t made to deal with more than one complex task at a time. I hear it all the time. I’m different. I can’t work any other way. I’m faster when I do more than one thing at a time. The truth of the matter is that you’re not different. That is unless you have an additional lobe in your brain in which case, you better see a specialist. You’re not different, but you are cheating your team, the company, and yourself.


 Dr. Clifford NASS: The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking. So in our research, the people who say they’re the best at multitasking because they do it all the time. It’s a little like smoking, you know, saying, I smoke all the time, so smoking can’t be bad for me. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way… NASS: …That’s right. No, they actually think they’re more productive. They actually think they tend to – and most notably, they think they can shut it off, and that’s been the most striking aspect of this research. We – the people we talk with continually said, look, when I really have to concentrate, I turn off everything and I am laser-focused. And unfortunately, they’ve developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. They’re suckers for irrelevancy. They just can’t keep on task.

In fact, this is a great quote from some of the research Dr. Nass has done:

We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.

When many people visualize what happens when our minds are “focused” on more than one thing they see a highway with a traffic jam. It’s pretty obvious that things aren’t moving. That means no one is getting on or off. Practically in our context it means work isn’t getting done.

What’s even worse is that work that doesn’t get finished tends to stay in our minds causing anxiety and stress.

I’m not going to go through all the science behind multitasking and its effect on the brain. I’ll let you do that if you don’t believe me. A quick search for multitasking will get you started. I haven’t seen a single study that says it is good. So if we can just make this small step together and admit that multitasking is bad, we can move on.

Good. So now that we know that multitasking is bad, how do we deal with it in our projects? We make the concerted effort to Minimize Work in Process/Progress (WIP). Let’s start by a subtlety in the definition of WIP. WIP stands for Work in Process and Work in Progress. It turns out they mean two slightly different things. Work in Process means all the work that is actively flowing through your process. In the case of Kanban it’s all the work that is on the board in one state or other. Similarly in Scrum, it’s all the work that is on your Scrum board. Work in Progress however, is the thing (preferably one thing) you are actively working on. In this case it is more like the story you have in a column. It’s a bit subtle, but we should get our lingo straight so that we are all talking about the same things.

Now, how do we handle it? If you haven’t done Kanban before, skip the next box!

Well, we set a limit on each of the columns in your process. If you have a column called “In Progress” you should set a limit of how many items can be in that column. If you have a team of 4 people, you may start with it at 4. One story for each person on the team. After an iteration or two, you should start to see if there are bottlenecks in the flow of your work. If there are, you can try making some changes to your WIP limits. That’s the simplest place to start. While it’s a simple way to start, it really works. If you start dumping 10 stories into In Progress, you have violated your WIP limits. Don’t do that. Resist the urge. Finish one story, move it on in the process and pull the next one forward.

If those last two paragraphs confused you…don’t worry about the lingo.  It was fairly specific to the work our teams were doing.  This insight will work for you too.  It’s all about limiting the amount of things you’re working on at one time.  Often our todo lists are super long.  The problem is when we are jumping from one thing to another without fully completing the item before it.  So the tip here is:

1. Prioritize the things on your list. 2. Finish one thing before you move on to the next.

I challenged myself a few weeks ago to write a new song every week.  That meant every Monday I was “done” with whatever I had started the previous Monday.  Because it was a priority, I elevated “song writing” on my todo list.  That meant that until I got the song under control, I wasn’t going to do other things like work out, house work, etc. (yeah…guess who was happy about that?!)

This was a bit of an extreme experiment since I have a day job and lots of other obligations, but for 6 weeks, a song got written and they weren’t half bad.  It felt awesome to “finish” one each week too!

Good luck.  More on this in future posts!

Photo Credit: sardinista via Compfight cc

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