Get More Done By Doing Fewer Things

In Scrum: the art of doing twice the work in half the time, Jeff Sutherland makes the provocative point that work that is half-done is the same as work that isn't started.  You can't give the customer a half-written or even three-quarters-written report.  You can't deliver a presentation that hasn't been fully outlined.  A half-built car cannot be delivered to the customer.  That work, until it is finished, doesn't have value for your key stakeholders.  It has value to you, of course, because it gets you closer to being done.  But what matters most, fundamentally, is the work you complete, not the work you start.  If you shift your team's focus to completing things rather than starting, you may find that you're able to get a lot more accomplished.  

Manufacturers use a concept called kanban to limit the amount of half-finished inventory they have in their warehouse.  Knowledge work "clutter" is not as obvious as a bunch of components sitting on the factory floor, but it is every bit as problematic.  Research on task-switching shows that having just five active projects at a time results in seventy-five percent time lost just to switching between them.  It's more effective to have just a few projects active at a given time and finish them before adding something else to the list.

The following approach will help you transition to a kanban model where you limit the number of projects that are active at any one time.  It will also give you a visual representation of the work that you can use to communicate with your boss about where a new "#1 super-important priority!!!" project fits into what's already on the list.  If nothing else, just having all your work documented in one place will be helpful in giving you a sense of accomplishment and focus.

Part 1: Setup

Decide whether you want to go low-tech or high-tech with this.  
ecommendation: if this is just for you or if your team is co-located, go low-tech.  If you have remote team members, go high-tech.

Obtain your "board."  
If you chose the low-tech option, this will be a large whiteboard that doesn't need to be used for other things.  If you chose the high-tech option, this will be a free Trello account.

Set up columns on your board:

  • To Do
  • Doing
  • Done

If you're using Trello, these will be lists.  If you are using a whiteboard, draw vertical lines.

Optional: I like to have an Ideas or Backlog column for the things that are not pressing but I would like to do if possible.  

Calculate the limits for each column and write/type the number next to the title for that column: 

  • Ideas (if you use this column): unlimited
  • To Do: 
  • Doing: 3 x number of people whose work is on the board 
  • Done: unlimited

Identify all of your current and prospective projects.  I recommend breaking down large projects into components that can be completed in no more than 4 but ideally 2 weeks.  They shouldn't be all the way to the task level; ideally they 

Put each project on a separate card (Trello option) or Post-It (whiteboard option).

Part 2: Prioritization

Move any projects that are "nice to have" but not critical to the Ideas column.

On a large table, sort the "must-do" items by priority.  
If you have a lot, split them into groups based on importance or timeframe (must be done in next two weeks, by end of the month, by end of quarter).  

Review your top-priority items, in order of priority if possible.  
For any item that has been started, move it to the "Doing" column.  Stop once you reach your column maximum for Doing (3 per person).

Put the remaining top priority items in priority order in the To Do column.  

Review the middle-priority items (more important/urgent than the nice-to-haves but not as much as the top-priority items).  
Are any of them currently in progress?  If so, are they close enough to completion that it would make sense to bump one of the top-priority items currently in Doing back to ToDo?  (I know your temptation will be to just add it - resist!  The whole point is to focus and limit active projects so that you can get them done.)  If not, put those items below the top-priority items in To Do.

Review the To Do column.  
Are there too many things in it?  If so, move some of the less-critical items to Ideas.  If there aren't too many things, review the list and make sure it is well-prioritized, at least based on your current information.

Start working on one of the Doing items.  
No new items can move into Doing until an item moves to Done and makes space!  This may seem really elementary or narrow, but it's the way that kanban teams are able to get more done.  Limiting the Work-In-Progress is the most important part of the whole process.  

Note: depending on the makeup of your team, you can either have team members pick from the top of the To Do list as they complete other tasks or you can separate the To Do items by person.  

As items change category, move them to the appropriate column.  
This will give you a quick visual of what's in progress and what might be stuck.  

Part 3: Ongoing

Revisit the Ideas and To Do columns.
To make this work on an ongoing basis, it's important to make sure that there are items in the To Do column and that they are properly prioritized.  As the team picks up speed, it might be important to spend time each week, perhaps as part of the team meeting, to discuss new items that have come up as well as things already in the Ideas column and where they fit in the priority list.  

Size projects more accurately.
Over time, you'll get a better sense of how to break down projects into roughly equivalent chunks.  You can then start tracking how many you're able to complete in a week, which will make it easier for you to make realistic plans for yourself and your team.  

Identify roadblocks and opportunities to increase efficiency.
As the team leader, it's important for you to keep an eye on things that appear to be "stuck" in the Doing column.  

Adapt and continuously improve.
Kanban is a simple system, but you can make it more detailed if that makes sense for your team.  Do a Google Images search for "kanban boards" to see the wide variety of approaches people use for themselves and their teams.  (Searching "personal kanban" will help you find boards for family/home situations.)


Getting Started with Kanban
This free (short) e-book goes into the different ways you can set up your columns depending on your workflow, so if you'd like something more sophisticated than to do/doing/done, check this out.  

Kanban Kick Start Field Guide
This free 79-page e-book provides an in-depth implementation plan, including the change management aspects of "selling" the team on the approach.   It's way more than you need to implement kanban just for yourself, but if you are thinking of implementing it for an entire team, this guide could be really helpful.

Kanban, Wikipedia
This is a somewhat convoluted explanation of a very simple concept, but if you want to understand the origins of kanban this is a good summary.