April 14, 2017

Make limits and rewards a part of your development plan

Special thanks to Nicholas Shaw for giving me the inspiration to finally write this post (sorry it took four months to finish!), and to Guna Petrova for her feedback/adaptations to the system.

During my recent appearance on Let's Talk About Tests, Baby, and within my LinkedIn blog post The battle with yourself, I spoke a little about the collection of kanban boards which I use to help organise, manage and limit my ongoing personal development plans. Kanban is good for visualising workstreams/blockages, but does lend itself to generating an endless stream of work; I often find that by the time I've cleared a task, three more tasks have taken its place in the backlog. As somebody who's struggled to avoid burnout and overworking in the past, this can create an unhealthy obsession over progress.

Achieve more by taking on less

My first fix was to visualise my work-in-progress, and set limits for myself. As a Chrome user of Trello, I found the browser extension Kanban WIP for Trello to be incredibly useful. By appending a number in square brackets to the end of your column name, the extension will highlight the column in yellow when you reach this limit, or red if you go over the limit.

Should you have one board for all of your work, or many boards? It's largely a matter of personal taste, but I find it helpful to segregate. For instance, I have separate kanban boards for the following:

  • Tasks/activities I want to do at work (including new tools, investigations, ideas I want to try)
  • A more general personal development board for non-work-specific activities (which is what I'll be focusing on for the rest of this article)
  • A board for arranging the preparation, recording, editing and publishing for episodes of the Screen Testing podcast
  • Similarly, a board for organising/collaborating on session ideas for Weekend Testing Europe
  • Other boards if, for example, I have an epic project to undertake (e.g. I had a "House Move" Trello board at the end of last year).

For me, this segregation is useful for two reasons. Firstly, it allows me to explicitly determine which "mode" I'm currently focusing on; if I'm at work, I can have my work board open, and know that I won't be sidetracked by personal projects. (There are plenty of people who'll tell you it's easy to mix work and personal together, but that hasn't been my experience of late, so that's a reason to separate my boards. If you can manage all this in one stream: good for you!)

Secondly, by having separate boards I can keep the individual WIP limits very low (2 per board). If I was trying to track all of these things on one board, I'd need to have a fairly high WIP limit, and it'd be easy for one type of work to monopolise my time.

One of the most useful lightbulb moments occurred when I discovered Jerry Weinberg's book Weinberg on Writing - The Fieldstone Method. In it, Jerry shares the process that he uses when generating ideas for books and articles - most notably that it's not a linear process. An idea might begin as a rough outline, parked for months, and returned to later (or perhaps never) when fresh inspiration arrives. Through this realisation, I'm now not scared to stop working on an idea, allowing me to free-up space for other work.

Note to readers: At this point in my draft, there's a note that I posted to Nicholas which says "I'll try to write this up over the Christmas period" - the fact that it's taken almost four months to complete this article is a good visualisation of the above!

Take a break by rewarding yourself

In order to disrupt the constant stream of activity that a kanban board can produce, I've added one extra column to my board, with one simple rule. The "Rewards" column contains a backlog of things that I'd like to do which benefits myself personally, but does not necessarily give any professional benefit. (In other words, a whole list of things that I'd like to do if I wasn't too busy working.)

My (self-enforced) rule states that, for every time I complete five pieces of work from my personal development plan, I must take a reward before I do any more work. As you can see in the screenshot below, I enforce this with the aforementioned Trello plugin, by setting the column title to "Done [5]".

Trello board snapshot
Here, you can see that I have two items in progress, but because my "Done" column is glowing, it's time to take a reward before I continue!

It's not a perfect system, because (like user stories) the tasks on my kanban board aren't equally-sized; sometimes I'm clearing a lot of small tasks very quickly, other times I might have an epic-sized card with a large checklist of activities on it. The important thing is that "should I be taking some time out for myself" is at the front of my mind at all times, so I'm finding it easier to avoid drowning in work.

I've found a really useful secondary benefit too: I'm saving a lot of money! For instance, if I'm interested in making a big purchase (for example, a 4K television or a new bike) then rather than purchasing it immediately, I'll add it to my Rewards column. It's helping me to control my spending by reducing impulse-buying; I'm allowed to reorder the lists any time I want, so if I really want it, it'll bubble up to the top of the list before long. And if I really REALLY want it, I'll work harder to complete other tasks more quickly!

One useful piece of feedback from Guna Petrova is that I need to be careful that my rewards aren't simply work in disguise! For instance, I have a few cards in my rewards column which are things like "Take a writing class" or "Buy a Pluralsight subscription"; these may feel like rewards, but could potentially generate a further stream of hard work, denying myself the downtime that I need.

Similarly, some cards in my Rewards column might look like work, but could actually provide physical and mental advantages - for example, "Learn to swim" - and there can be measurable benefits to playing these rewards at the earliest opportunity.

Thanks, Guna!

Limits and rewards: a virtuous cycle

I find the rewards system actually combines really well with my work-in-progress limits: because I can't afford to keep buying myself rewards all the time, I learn to pace my work a bit better. But it's still a challenge, and I undoubtedly still need to get better at switching off altogether, something which is a bigger challenge now that I'm working 100% remotely (stay tuned for a follow-up blog post on that).

When trying to switch off, finding interesting extra-curricular activities can be a big help. For instance, in 2016 I set myself a goal of watching 500 films within a year, which guarantees me an average of 2-3 hours a day where I can unwind and let my synapses relax. (By doing this late in the evening, I find that an added benefit is that I find it much easier to drift to sleep immediately afterwards.) I'm also participating in a lot more non-work-related social events these days. Basically - I'm trying to be busy enough that I have to limit how much work I do!

Try it - what have you got to lose?

As with all ideas, nothing here is set in stone, and I am not laying claim to any part of it. You can absolutely steal it, adapt it, improve upon it, or share it!

Whether this method will work for you, only you can judge. All I can say is, as somebody who has really struggled with juggling many disparate projects in the past, I feel that I'm now happier and achieving more, and this is evidenced by feedback from friends, family and colleagues. If you're already managing a kanban workstream, why not try it and see - it'll only take a few minutes to implement, and could deliver you a huge personal benefit.

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