Cursor Curated
11th March 2024

Deliver more by doing less

How to stop swimming against the tide

27 cover deliver more by doing less
Cursor Curated Issue 27
Daniel Westlake

It’s always nice to chit-chat at the start of a meeting. Just a few minutes to ask how things are going whilst someone is setting up their camera. We work with a diverse range of customers, from independent schools and training providers to large membership organisations; and when I ask how things are, they all reply with the same thing - it's busy.

Work is about getting things done but sometimes there’s so much work, it feels like you're swimming against the tide. No matter how hard you try, even after a full day of working hard, you're no closer to your goals, your inbox is just as full and your to-do list is longer, not shorter. It can be difficult to see a way out and if you are a small business owner like me, the last thing you want to hear is that you should spend more time working ON the business, rather than IN the business. I know what’s to blame: multitasking.

Multitasking is not a virtue

The ability to multitask is often seen as a virtue but it's not. You might feel like you are getting things done, but working on three different tasks simultaneously is a sure way not to finish any of them. It takes time to context switch and it’s enough to deal with interruptions from colleagues and scheduled meetings let alone to then have to juggle different tasks as well. Multitasking is a trap which encourages you to do work without actually getting anything done. If you and your team are all working hard but still trapped by bottlenecks and missing deadlines, then perhaps it’s time to implement some limits to work in progress.

Visualise your work using kanban boards

Any user of Trello will be familiar with kanban boards. The word kanban comes from the Japanese for billboard and they are a great way to visualise work as it passes through various stages of a workflow. This could be ‘To do’, ‘In progress’ and ‘Done’ as shown below, but in practice your workflow will vary according to the type of work you do.

27 kanban

Here at Cursor, we use Jira, a more advanced (or just more complicated) version of Trello which is popular for software development teams. Whether you use Trello, Jira or a white board with sticky notes, the principle is just the same - move work from the left to the right through different columns that represent the stages of your workflow. 

Once you’ve been doing this for a while, you’ll begin to notice that as your work moves to the right, it seems to slow down. Starting to design a new web page is easy but getting the product information it needs from your busy sales team is hard, let alone copy from your even busier Head of Marketing. Even when you’ve moved past ‘In progress’ and into ‘In review’, it's almost impossible to get the Managing Director to sit down with you to approve final changes and sign off. As the work slows down, it can be tempting to pick something else to work on but to quote Admiral Ackbar: “It’s a trap!”.

It's vital to manage 'work in progress'

We need to limit the amount of new things we start so we can concentrate on getting things done before we start something new. In Kanban, this is called a Work In Progress Limit (WIP Limit) and it functions by setting limits on the number of tasks in any given stage. This limit is usually set as the number of team members + 1. So if you have a team of 4 people, you would set the limit to be 5 so each team member can only work on 1 task at a time and must finish this before taking on new work. Of course this is just a guide so feel free to experiment and see what works for your projects.

Setting WIP limits can be hard to adapt to, especially if your organisation has leaders who come back from holiday bursting with new ideas of things to try (sorry team, I know I do this), but the benefits are clear. 

You can see where work is getting stuck and how this could be related to a person or team’s capacity. Provide more resources to unblock this bottleneck and the whole team will get more done. 

Another benefit is predictability; if work goes through consistent stages it can be easier for teams to accurately predict completion times for tasks. This in turn aids in planning and setting realistic expectations for stakeholders. With realistic expectations and deadlines, the quality of work improves and there is time for team members to suggest refinements that benefit the whole team.

If you’re new to Kanban and managing work in progress and would like to find out more, then have a look at this short 'What is Kanban?' video from the Agile Coaches at Atlassian.

Beware of the infinite 'to-do' list

To-do lists may initially seem like a helpful organisational tool, but in reality, they often become a source of stress and frustration. When everything is added to the list, it can quickly become overwhelming, leading to a never-ending cycle of incomplete tasks. The truth is, there will always be more ideas than time available.

27 to do list

Whilst it's important to capture all your ideas, it’s more important to select which ones you will actually work on. So instead of relying on a single, never-ending to-do list, consider using a two-list system. One list represents what you are currently working on, and another acts as a backlog for all remaining ideas. This approach limits work in progress (WIP) similar to a kanban board. You can even have multiple lists, each corresponding to different parts of your business. By prioritising, you can select the highest-priority item from your backlog and add it to your "this week" or "today" list.

The old ways are sometimes the best

Handwritten lists have their advantages over computerised ones. There's something satisfying about reaching the end of the week and re-writing your list, eliminating the crossed-out items. This process maintains a manageable master list and prevents it from becoming too long, which can happen easily when using a computer.

27 paper list

If this sounds like your kind of thing then I recommend you check out the bullet journal method. This is a customizable analogue system that combines elements of a to-do list, planner, and diary. It provides a flexible framework for organising tasks, events, and notes and you can create different sections for various aspects of your life or business. Each section can contain lists, trackers, and logs relevant to that area. By using symbols to denote tasks, events, or notes, you can easily identify and manage priorities.

Harness the power of timeboxing

Another effective strategy to manage work in progress and have realistic expectations about your daily accomplishments is through the practice of timeboxing. This method involves assigning specific durations to tasks, allowing you to allocate your time efficiently and create a structured schedule.

By dedicating a fixed amount of time to each task, you establish clear boundaries and prevent tasks from expanding indefinitely. This helps you maintain focus and prevents the common tendency to spend excessive time on certain activities while neglecting others.

To implement timeboxing, start by breaking down your day into manageable time chunks. These can be hourly, half-hourly, or even shorter intervals, depending on your preference and the nature of your work. Allocate specific blocks of time for different tasks or categories of tasks based on priorities and deadlines.

If you are considering timeboxing then you are probably best looking at a system which is computer-based, allowing you to put a duration against a task and then assign this to your calendar. Todoist is a good way to try this out but the gold standard in timeboxing is set by Sunsama and Akiflow. These specialist apps introduce daily routines and rituals where you can prioritise your work and select only what can be realistically achieved in the time available.

27 sunsama
27 akiflow

When I started to use Sunsama, it really helped me to set realistic goals and get away from the constant feeling of being overwhelmed. More recently, I’ve moved to Akiflow which works in a similar way but has powerful integrations with software like Slack and Jira, so incoming conversations and tasks can all be managed in one place. Both are excellent, so have a go and see if timeboxing helps you to stay on track with priorities and get one thing done before starting the next.

We’ve talked about doing less, but exactly how does this deliver more?

If you limit work in progress there will be less time and resources wasted on things that are left partially complete. Only when you complete work will you gain the benefit of it, whether this is by unblocking your colleagues, sending out your latest email newsletter or the launch of new features on your website.

The phrase "don't let perfect be the enemy of good" is particularly relevant when working on digital projects. It's not as if we need to get everything absolutely 100% perfect because we are going to have a million copies printed and no changes can be made. Getting a good version of a new feature out quickly and then improving it over a series of iterations will deliver more value than waiting until it’s perfect before anything goes live.

Let me explain that in a bit more detail...

27 imagine

Imagine I’m running a software company and each week we can design and build a new feature that produces one unit of business value. I’m not sure of the unit of measurement for business value but as I was first introduced to this by someone called Gareth, for the purpose of this explanation, I’m going to call a unit of business value a ‘Gareth’.

In week one, we work on the first feature and at the end of the week, it goes live and starts generating Gareths (value). You can see how this progresses in the table below:

27 unit of value

In week two, the second feature is completed and the feature completed in week one generates 1 Gareth of business value. In week three we complete work on the third feature which is added to the already live features, one of which has been live for one week (generating 1 Gareth) and the other which has been live for two weeks (2 Gareths) giving us a total of 3 Gareths. This progression continues, with each subsequent week adding to the number of features developed. After six weeks of hard work, we might have the seventh week off, but as the features are already live they are still generating business value, bringing the total number of Gareths up to 21. In contrast, if we had waited until week six to launch all of the features at once, our week seven total of Gareths would be just 6.

By launching after each feature, we can start providing value to users earlier, even if it's in smaller increments. This allows for feedback and opportunities to learn and iterate for subsequent features. If you use this technique, you can deliver more value to your end users or customers by limiting work in progress and shipping completed work more often.

Conclusion

Multitasking is not a virtue, but rather a trap that prevents us from getting stuff finished. If you are able to limit your amount of work in progress, your team will improve their productivity and work will become more predictable and easier to plan. Finally, if we embrace the concept of launching features early and continuous improvement, we really can deliver more value to customers, and achieve greater success and satisfaction in our work.