Goodbye to Doing More with Less

I have decided to interrupt my Report Back series to share something else with you instead. As it is, the last of the Report Back posts has been a while in coming. And this post has something to do with that delay.

This particular post has been simmering as a draft for a few months now. And it hasn’t strayed far from my thoughts during that time. That’s because it reflects a fundamental shift in my life view; a shift so fundamental, it’s practically seismological. And with changes like that, it often takes me a while before I am ready to share them.

So here it is: I have finally accepted the single biggest constraint in my life. Sleep.  

The Trap of Doing More with Less

Every system has at least one constraint that determines the maximum throughput that is possible under current system conditions, and at most, a handful of them. A core aspect of the theory of constraints is optimizing flow through the constraint to maximise the resultant goal.

Now the goal for a software team is usually shipping quality code to production. When teams find themselves not shipping enough code to production, they will attempt to optimize the system to ship more code. This sometimes lures them into increasing the work that flows through the constraint, e.g. by taking on three features instead of their usual two, even though they know that doing so is likely going to mean working long days, and maybe nights, to finish all three features while still shipping at their usual interval.

They rationalize that it’s only for a short time; that they’ll go back to doing two features at a time as soon as they’ve shipped this very important feature for this very important customer. And they make it – barely, but they do. Everybody is exhausted, but quite satisfied. After all, they’ve just shipped more code to production! The very important customer has his very important feature.

But notice that I’ve left out an important word this time. Quality. The price the team pays for increasing their throughput beyond the natural limit of the constraint is that quality drops. The very important client finds the bugs they missed in the middle of the night. Customer Support is left holding the phone. Product management receives a rather unhappy email from the very important customer. The team is raked over the coals for doing shoddy work.

Nobody is happy anymore. Doing more has hurt everybody in the system. Doing more has hurt their goal of shipping quality code.

How Doing More with Less Hurts Me

I have fallen into the trap of Doing More with Less far too often in my life.  It’s been a pattern that I recall following since high school. I take on too much – between work, family tasks, community work and my own pastimes – and then I have to work long hours  to get around to everything that I’ve committed to doing.  And for a day of two, I am able to manage with 4 or 5 hours of sleep without noticing the effect too much.  I feel good, because I’m moving a lot of tasks to Done in my Personal Kanban and answering a lot of email.

But then it starts. I become short-tempered and irritable. I find myself arguing with my family, sometimes over petty things.  My brain feels foggy and I can’t express myself clearly. I work slower. I make mistakes.  Mistakes that hurt people’s feelings. Mistakes that hurt the projects that I’ve been working on so hard in the first place.  I become frustrated because of having to fix my mistakes. I eat chocolate and drink more caffeine to get through the late afternoon.  It helps for a little while. Until it doesn’t help anymore and I eventually crash, too tired to even read my boys a story or put them to bed.

No More

Personal Kanban is about Doing More by Doing Less. That’s a very different thing to Doing More with Less. That means NOT pushing through more and more tasks all the time. It means finding your Work in Progress (WIP) limit and honouring it so that you can, in fact, do more. Because more here means more happiness. More satisfaction. More joy in doing fewer things well. More peace in the home and at work.  More fun with your family. More good communication. More of the things that really matter in life. More Quality.

When I first started using Personal Kanban, I didn’t yet understand this very important truth. I thought I’d found a system that would help keep my busy life organized so that I could get more things done.  And for a while, it was like that. I moved a lot of stickies. Fewer things fell through the cracks.  But as I’ve continued to respect the rules of Visualizing Work and Limiting Work in Progress, it became clear that the key to doing more is not to stay awake longer every day. Whether I like it or not, this human body needs a certain amount of sleep to function properly every day.

With this lesson now firmly entrenched, I have started transforming my life according to this principle since December 2011. Most week nights I now get to bed before 10 pm. I still have some late nights, but they’re becoming the exception rather than the rule. This is having a profoundly positive impact on my quality of life. I smile and laugh more with my boys.  I’m seeing the small things again. That says a lot.

It’s also forcing me to be very jealous of my time. My life goals and priorities are becoming clearer with every passing day. Because I only have 16 hours of awake time to work with on any given day, I have to make sure I use them wisely. Because I know I’m not going to get to everything today, I choose to work on the most important things I can do today, and leave the rest for tomorrow. Or the next day. Or not at all. As I’m completely redefining my definition of what’s important and what’s not, some things are being ejected from my backlog or being delegated or outsourced to others, even if I have to pay for a service.

Where does that leave blogging?

Towards the middle of last year I set myself a goal of blogging every second week. I even have a recurring calendar reminder set up for that purpose. But some weeks it’s just not going to happen, because something else takes priority at that moment. And instead of feeling guilty about it, I’m rather enjoying those times when I do get around to writing. I still love writing. I still enjoy sharing our Personal Kanban experiments with the world. As it is, I have a whole piece planned on how I’ve been using Personal Kanban at work for the last two years. But I will not sacrifice sleep or other important priorities to blog.

Quality over Quantity. Personal Kanban certainly has taught me that.

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 and my blog, use the Getting Started page to find your way around the site. It also has links to other excellent Personal Kanban material to help you on your way.

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2 Responses to Goodbye to Doing More with Less

  1. Laziness is the root of all innovation. And laziness is just systematically wanting to do more by doing less… 😊

    It’s one of the things that has vaguely worried me about most of the personal effectiveness methods; leaving room for slack is not generally incentivised. The systems are generally measured on output, so the tendency is to focus on this metric to the possible exclusion of all else.

    Your life is now under your control, but is it the life you really want?

    I wonder if when you start down the PK path you shouldn’t also be using something like this ( in addition to e.g. WIP

  2. Hi Carlo,

    Thanks for stopping by! You make a good point. Although Personal Kanban (like the original Kanban) stresses the importance of slack, there is no explicit mechanism that prevents the over-achievers and performance-driven folk from fixating on the productivity metric.

    It’s only when you measure the quality downstream that you discover that things aren’t working as well as you think. Having the equivalent of a “bug rate” to keep you focused on real value is a great idea. I did toy with the idea of putting up a Niko-Niko board ( for a while, but I never got around to it.

    The big value of this is that your “happiness rate” becomes a leading indicator, rather than a trailing indicator that only hits red (argument with family!) when you’ve already blown your limits.


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