Simple techniques to keep you sane

New Thinking 15 September 2015 Joe Kearns

Ever worked for a business or organisation where there are more projects than there are people to get the work done, people are assigned across multiple projects and forced to split their time between 40% on Project A, 40% on Project B and 40% on Project C (yes, the maths are correct!)?

While the organisation recognises that there's more work than they could possibly get through, they’re also about to get started on a number of new projects! Sound familiar?

In many of the businesses I work in, this is not an unusual situation. There's a lot of stress and a lot of frustration at various levels of the organisation as an apparent (or real) lack of progress grinds people down. Work keeps piling up and your personal backlog is getting bigger rather than smaller.

So what can you do if you find yourself in this situation? Here are a few techniques to help you take control of your work and use to highlight some of the issues.

Stop starting stuff, start finishing stuff

Often, we can get bogged down by pressure to start projects and lose sight of the fact that we should be focusing on finishing work before we start any more. Have a look around your desk and ask yourself 'What is the most important thing I can complete today that will free me up to work on other things?'. If what you should be working on is a big job, then break it down into achievable chunks so that you can finish pieces of it every day.

Now take a look at all of the things you have 'on the go' at the moment. Chances are it's a lot or way too many for you to handle. If that’s the case, perhaps you should consider implementing work in progress (WIP) limits. Decide that you will only have three, four or five things in progress at once and you won’t start something new until you've completed one of the things you currently have in progress. This technique is great for focusing you on finishing work or tasks rather than starting them.

If you're interested in learning more about this technique, read about Kanban.

Highlight 'corporate noise'

Corporate noise is the day-to-day business activity which stops you from getting on with the work you really want to get done. It could be an impromptu meeting you get called into at the last minute, the shoulder tap to discuss a piece of work, someone else’s problem that turns into two hours’ work, or the scheduled meeting that starts late and runs over by an hour.

Often you will be shocked by how much of your day gets eaten up by corporate noise and your manager and senior management team will no doubt also be alarmed. My advice? Take a stack of Post-it notes (preferably red) and every time something unexpected gets in the way of what you were attempting to do in a day, briefly make note of what it was and how long it took out of your day and stick it up somewhere prominent near your desk. Making it visible is key.

At the end of the week, add up all the minutes on your Post-its and look for trends in the actual tasks. Do they involve the same people interrupting you? Is it the same types of tasks? Take a minute to think about how you might reduce the corporate noise. Track corporate noise again week after week. Is it increasing? Decreasing? Also make sure the person you report to is aware of your level of corporate noise.

Visualise technical debt and start to pay it back

'Technical debt' is to technical endeavours what financial debt is to financial endeavours. It's the corners cut as a result of schedule pressure, release pressure, lack of understanding of the work or sometimes by pure incompetence. Now, it's important to note that not all technical debt is necessarily bad, just as not all financial debt is bad, for example, a mortgage is generally considered good debt.

Sometimes you need to compromise your work in the effort to get a release out. Sometimes this is good, as long as it won't cause problems further down the track. Regardless of whether it is good or bad technical debt, if it's work that needs to be completed or readdressed (refactored, for example), then it needs to be acknowledged and recorded somewhere.

Take a moment to think about all the things you've started and not finished, or tidied up and released or checked-in knowing you'll come back to it at some point in the future... but never did. If you're not in a technical domain, then think about what work you've done recently under time pressure where you may have cut corners or not done your best work. Does it have the potential to have ramifications in the future? Then mark it down as debt. Take a Post-it note (a different colour from corporate noise) and briefly describe each item of technical debt and give it a risk rating out of 10 (1 being very low risk, 10 been extremely high risk) and stick it to a wall near your desk.

After a week or two of recording technical debt, analyse the types of debt incurred, review them with whoever you report to and create a plan to pay back some of that debt. Perhaps start with the highest-risk items first. You'll start to feel better already. At the very least, you should agree not to create any more technical debt.

Don’t put the monkey on your back

Many people don't even realise the 'monkey on their back' is even a thing and that they're doing it. This is where somebody comes to you with a problem or an issue (the monkey is on their back) and you agree to solve their issue for them or do the work required for them (the monkey is now on your back). I put this in a similar box as corporate noise, but the difference with putting the monkey on your back is that you are allowing responsibility for a piece or work or a problem to be transferred onto you.

How can you avoid this? The reality is that sometimes you can't. Sometimes you have to take responsibility for things you hadn't planned. But you should at least try and avoid the monkey where you can and reduce the troupe of monkeys on your back at any one time. Techniques for this include working through a potential solution with someone (helping them to see the solution and then having them own it), facilitating a meeting with key people to identify the solution and setting actions (and avoiding actions for yourself where possible). Or setting yourself up as an advisor or consultant to review a piece of work when complete or in draft rather than doing the work yourself.

I find that just being conscious of the monkey on your back concept is enough to recognise when it is happening and take appropriate action. Try visualising the monkeys you currently have and create a Post-it note for each and stick them on a wall near your desk. You can have some fun with this concept too – like giving each monkey a banana rating based on how much effort is required to get that particular monkey off your back.

Above all, stay sane

At the end of the day, you are responsible for your own sanity. Sure, organisations have a vested interest in ensuring their staff aren't stressed to breaking point or cracking under pressure, but ultimately you should focus on what you can control. Focusing on things you can't control can be counter-productive and make things worse.

I hope these techniques help keep you sane… the world needs more sane people!

Any more tips on keeping yourself sane? Let me know…