My friend @melisacollett recently described what she felt it must be like inside my head. She thinks it’s like a field full of butterflies*, each butterfly a cool new idea. My problem, as she sees it, is my inability to pick just one butterfly. This means
it appears like I am procrastinating. Too many butterflies = not enough productivity.
I need to net just one to work with. (This is her particular gift to me, and is how and why we work so well together. She helps me be awesome.)
But whereas Melisa helps me pick just one thing, I am already aware I have a problem.
I have a good and reliable ‘tell’ for when I have too much on my plate. It starts by me needing to change the format of my current ‘To Do’ list.
If it is currently digital, I decide to switch back to a notebook.
If I am currently using a notebook, I find it irritating and need to opt for the always-with-me reliability of digital format on my phone.
This is the first sign that things are not going well for me.
The next sign is harder to ignore: multiple ‘To Do’ lists. Not just stuff in more than one place though, different stuff in different places. If that doesn’t shout anti-pattern to you, I don’t know what will.
I suddenly need several notebooks to keep home chores separate from my work ones. But I am always addressing the wrong problem.
Why do I need to separate my personal listings from my work ones?
Because there is too much on the list altogether.
As an agile coach, I am often advising: start with the single 1 thing you HAVE to do today, do it, and nothing else. Then stop.
This is sound advice. All of us working in the agile world should recognise it:
- Pick one thing,
- Do it until it is finished.
- Don’t pick up anything else until the first task is finished.
So, because I feel it is important to show that no one is perfect, lets compare that to my lame attempt to clean the house this weekend. I need to tidy the kitchen, so I need to empty the small bin under the sink and put it in the big bin outside. Since I am going outside, I reason, I may as well empty the bins upstairs too, as it somehow feels like the same job.
Already I have emergent work that is arguably out of scope.
(This is exactly what many developers do when they start gluing carefully broken down stories back together again. We end up with 5 things in progress all being worked on by a single developer. It feels more efficient to do them at the same time because they are all in the same bit of code.)
So, I set off upstairs to grab the other 2 or 3 waste bins in the house, so that my job can be done ‘properly’. Since I am going upstairs, I reason further, lets not waste the trip. I can take up some of this clean laundry to the bedrooms on my way.
I grab an armful and set off. I drop the laundry on the bed of the owner and notice that really, the carpet needs hoovering in here. I can’t do that right now as the hoover is downstairs, and there is toys/clothes/paperwork/something all over the floor.
At this stage I am still feeling hyper-efficient, so as I am already in the room, I start to pick up all the things on the floor. And to put them away (I need to do it properly 😉 ).
This is a classic example of abusing the ‘Boy Scout’ rule for development, to always leave the code base better than you found it.
My extra task involves working out what I have picked up, assessing it and finding a new, appropriate location for it. This takes longer than the minute I had anticipated. Still, it will make hoovering much easier when I come to do it later, so it has saved me time in the long run.
And the complexity continues to spiral exponentially….
Some of the things I have picked up actually need to go back downstairs, but that’s ok, because I’m going down in a moment anyway when I take the waste bins. I leave a neat pile by the stairs and collect the bins.
Ah. I don’t have enough hands to carry everything down in one go. Not to worry, the tidy up stuff was an extra job anyway, I can do that as soon as I get back on schedule.
I recognise I may have over-reached, and start to self-regulate, but not for long.
Meanwhile, at the bottom of the stairs, the dryer has been beeping for some time. It is insanely annoying, and as I am practically walking past I park the bins and turn the dryer off.
The dryer is full of clean, dry clothes that now need folding. If I dont’ fold them whilst they are warm they will need ironing (shudder), so I grab armfuls of clean laundry and take it to be folded.
Now that is done I look around. I have finished a task, so what do I pick up next? Oh yes, I need to clean the kitchen. I go over gather the breakfast plates, head to the dishwasher – you guessed it: full, clean & ready to be emptied.
I empty and re-load. Then I wipe down the work surfaces, the cooker and oven. I have these handy little wipes that I can just use and throw away….only the bin is full.
I didn’t empty it yet.
I’VE BEEN AT THIS FOR NEARLY AN HOUR AND I’VE NOT DONE ANYTHING!
Do you feel my frustration?
We are all human, and it is easy to fall into these traps. Learning to recognise triggers for our bad habits can help us interrupt our usual patterns and change them.
*This is NOT how it feels in my head. Unless they are vampire butterflies, circling with evil intent.