Making Space for Creative Chaos

Ever since I can remember, I have thrived on organized chaos. Where some people find ambiguity and change frightening, I have always enjoyed the flexibility of going with the flow, of following my thoughts down interesting paths to see where they may lead. Some of my greatest creative moments have been the fruits of a meandering journey of associations and links, leading to an unexpected, happy result.

When I first started using Scrum and later Personal Kanban, it was in fact an idea triggered by yet another of these “what if” moments. But the idea was very much born out of dire necessity. Ten years into being Married With Children I found myself with two very active boys, a demanding full-time job and a household to run. My last-minute style of  life management was getting me into trouble more often than not and I was floundering from one school logistics crisis to another. I had to do something.

Two years down the line, I look back with great satisfaction at the progress we have made as a family. We have brought the wild horse ride that we used to call our life firmly under control. Oh, we’re busier than ever, but we’re generally on top of things now, rather than being driven to distraction by the many balls we have in the air. We’re so on top of things, in fact, that we now start our weekends with a planning meeting and end it with a retrospective …

Too Much of a Good Thing

But somewhere along the line, that creative animal inside of me has become dissatisfied with all this imposed order and structure. Like a wild beast, caged somewhere far from its natural habitat, it has started gnawing quietly at the shackles of swimlanes and stickies. Increasingly, I have been finding myself mildly resenting our weekend Kanban in particular, sometimes even petulantly ignoring it for an entire Saturday, until Sunday rolls around and reminds me that if we don’t get back on track,  we’re setting ourselves up for a disastrous week.

I had to find a way, and quick, to satisfy the hungry beast within – without our family falling back into the darkness of a life unplanned. I needed spaces in my togetherness (with apologies to Kahlil Gibran). I needed breathing room.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

In Kanban terms we call this Slack, and it’s something you have to plan for. In a production Kanban system, you usually don’t run your system at full capacity all the time, you allow for a small amount of slack in the system – an explicit agreed underutilization of capacity – that allows for system improvements and repairs if necessary. It’s creative time. Free time. Google 20% time. Me time.

In my use of Personal Kanban at home, I had neglected to explicitly build in Slack. Although our weekend Kanban also has Happy Cards – things we want to do in the weekend that are just fun, and not chore-related – they’re still structured and planned activities.  And this is what my inner voice was whispering in my ear. It was saying: Let me do whatever comes to mind, won’t you! 

A Little Bit Goes a Long Way

The answer turned out to be deceptively simple. I now take time out over weekends to feed the beast. Instead of a specific task on our family board, I add a Freewheel card. While the Freewheel card is on the board, I can use the time to my disposal freely. If I feel like lying in bed reading a book, I can. If I’d rather potter in the garden pulling out some weeds, that’s okay too. And if halfway through pulling weeds I remember I still wanted to read up on some children’s books I’d heard about, I can do that. Right away. No stickie needed. And I can come back to the garden afterwards, or simply leave it until later. Whatever.

Of course, if I do this for a whole weekend, those boring things like checking up on homework or preparing school bags and menus for the week will never happen. So there has to be a limit to how much freewheeling I can do. Right now, that limit is not explicit like a Work In Progress limit, but rather dynamic. It’s based on how much time I need to feel connected to myself again. That in itself can depend on the kind of week I’ve had. The tougher the week, the more freewheel time is usually required.

Generally, though, freewheeling is working out to be anywhere between a couple of hours to a full morning or afternoon. It also moves around between Sundays and Saturdays, depending on where it best fits in between our other planned family activities.

It’s not always a whole lot of time, but right now it’s enough for me to feel that I’ve achieved a better balance between productivity and organization, and embracing the creative energy that fundamentally makes me who I am.

The Moral of The Story

Personal Kanban is not (yet another) stick that you should beat yourself with. It should help you map work and navigate life, but it should never start feeling like a strait-jacket. Always make room for yourself inside the process. Personal Kanban has built-in mechanisms to make sure you do just that – use them!

Care to Share?

Using Personal Kanban? Finding it a challenge to stay on top of your life? Or just want to share your thoughts about the way I’m using agile and lean thinking? Leave a comment below, or find me on Twitter to connect.

If you’re new to the concept of Personal Kanban, the Personal Kanban site is a good place to start. Or join the conversation in the Personal Kanban Facebook community.

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2 Responses to Making Space for Creative Chaos

  1. This is a great post, and something we all deal with and have to come to terms with at some point.

    A while back I added some “fun me time” tasks to my pk so that I would make time to actually sit down and get to that stack of magazines I wanted to read (for example), it worked out really nice. It has now evolved into adding a “pass” task, which gives me the freedom to do whatever I want when I pull that sticky. I am using these “pass” tasks when I practice pomodoro primarily. I work and then give myself 20 minutes to read, or check out that one website I’ve been meaning to get to, etc. This has worked even better for me at this point in time.

    Your post is exactly what I love about pk, your pk board does not lie. It truly helps you to begin to really get into “flow” and start “evolving”.

    Thanks for sharing your experience, I always get takeaways from your thoughtful posts.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Patty! And I love the idea of your time-boxed “pass” tasks. Those sound like they might work for me as well, especially if I find I need to start limiting those free time slots a bit more explicitly.

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