April – Getting My Priorities Straight (Q1)

If this were a business, I’d be in some serious trouble for only posting first quarter results 6 months after the fact. Fortunately, this is not a business. Still. Better late than never only goes so far, and I am working on a plan to bring these Personal Kanban Calendar posts up to date without posting well into 2016.  But more about that another time.

The good news is, that I haven’t written this post from patchy recollections. Although I haven’t been publishing according to the planned schedule, I’ve mostly been good about holding retrospectives at the end of each month, drafting detailed notes and – most importantly – responding to the lessons I’m learning.

And boy, am I learning some lessons …

So … Is it working?

In my retrospective at the end of April I took a step back and reviewed the year to date, not only the individual tasks from the month. I was curious to know if this approach has actually helped me to move some of my bigger life goals forward or not. After all, if it’s not helping me, then I should question the usefulness of continuing this way, right?

I certainly discovered a few things when I looked below the surface of monthly task completion.  Although there are some really good things that I can share, I also observed behaviours that have given me serious food for thought about my approach to life and my priorities overall.

And before I go any further, it’s important that I say this:

What constitutes “ugly” lower down the page is very personal and specific to me. It’s also very exposing in some ways, and I may even take some flak for my priorities and drivers. But I’ve decided to share it anyway, because this has been one of the most important and valuable experiences I’ve gone through to date in my use of agile techniques to manage my life.  And the very fact that this type of experience is possible, is why I embrace Agile and Lean techniques as powerful learning tools in my life and work.

*deep breath*

The Good

April itself was a very productive month for me. It was the first of two months I spent at home, not working full-time.  Naturally, a big focus for me during the month was finding a new role. The Career: New Role Strategy card was one of two very big tasks on my board, along with Career: Coaching & Therapy.

Goal Calendar - Goals Done This Quarter

Kanban Goal Calendar – Goals Completed by end of April

The former involved many networking meetings, staying on top of job alerts, tracking down hiring companies, interviews and working on my online presence and profile. The latter involved a lot of soul-searching, specific reflection exercises and a series of visits and conversations with various people (including a career coach) to help me figure out what I wanted to do next.

With dedicated focus and drive, I completed both of these tasks and went into May knowing for the most part what the rest of the year, at least, would look like work-wise.  In addition, I had finished 4 more annual goals by the end of the first quarter of the year, two of which were also substantial in size.

What a great way to end the month, knowing that I had (apparently) successfully navigated the first four months of the year!

The Bad

Apart from the two Big Ones, I also managed to complete another 7 of the 31 tasks I had planned to do during April. Granted, two of those were “stretch” tasks, so I didn’t expect to get around to them anyway. Oh, and 2 of the 7 were in fact unplanned tasks that I added to April sometime during the month.

I put this under Bad, because it *is* bad. Really bad. Who in their right mind takes on so many personal tasks in one month?? I realized that I had (partly) fallen into the classic trap of taking on too much in April because I had a whole month off. And this after a friend had warned me not to make this very mistake. *sigh*

Yet, this is not the first time. I keep doing this to myself. I saw evidence of this behaviour in January, February and March, too. I can’t say this is a once-off because I happened to over-estimate how much I could do while I’m at home. This pattern goes deeper than that. I realized that I can’t keep ignoring it and had to do something about it – right away.

But what? It’s one thing to recognize a pattern. It’s quite another to identify the root cause(s) of the pattern, especially a very personal one like this that is perhaps less easy to interrogate with the 5 Whys and most especially if the only one asking the questions is also the only person responsible for the pattern.

The Ugly?

Getting to the bottom of this behaviour meant asking myself some really tough questions about my priorities as a mother, wife and individual with personal dreams and ambitions.

Why am I taking on so many tasks? Why are some tasks rolling over from month to month and never getting done? What are the consequences when this happens all the time? Why am I so driven to do more all the time? Why are some things getting done and not others? What feels good about the things that I do get done? What feels bad about the things that I don’t get done? And many more in a similar vein.

This questioning exposed further patterns:

  • There are a large number of personal pet projects and community activities on my board, and far fewer life administration and goals for my own family. When I looked closely at my P1, P2 and P3 columns, I came to the conclusion that many of the “minor” P3 goals should have been higher priorities.

    Some Questionable Priority 3 Goals

    Some Questionable Priority 3 Goals

  • Apart from the unexpected curve balls I’ve had to take care of this year, most of the things that are actually getting done are things that I enjoy, or that I want to do for myself out of personal passion or principle. Very few of the mundane and humdrum things that are very much part of running a family household are getting done, or if they are, they take a very, very long time to get done.
  • My board reflects many new plans and ideas for better household management and parenting, but I am not following through on many of them at all.
  • And then, apart from the apparently skewed priorities, there’s the sheer number of these personal projects that I take on, leaving very little of my free (i.e. non-work) time for my family.

It has not been easy for me to face up to and acknowledge these patterns. And the questioning is far from over, since it’s clear that these patterns speak to some very deep-seated emotional and psychological needs that one doesn’t unravel in one sitting.

These are just some of the questions I’m continuing to wrestle with:

Is there something fundamentally wrong with my priorities as a parent and mother? Do I put my own interests ahead of those of my family? It’s okay to want things for myself, but how much personal stuff is really okay? And what’s driving these attempts to be a better parent? Am I hyper-critical of myself and my family? Am I measuring myself against other moms? Am I feeling guilty because I’m a working mom?

So … Is it working?

Oh, yes. It’s working, and it’s working in quite a painful but much-needed way. Personal Kanban is not just a visual to-do-list. Enforcing WIP limits forces you to interrogate not only what you are doing, but when and why. 

And since I have started engaging with some of these whys, I have had to make and enforce some specific changes to the board.

The Intervention: First Do What You Must Do

May saw the following changes on the board:

  • To address the volume issue, I introduced a more stringent WIP limit of 7 for the month of May. Within that, I set limits for the number of Large, Medium and Small tasks I can take on at the same time.
  • I prioritized urgent and overdue administrative and family tasks and moved many of my personal projects to June or later.

Now, a few months later, I’m still applying a stricter WIP limit with sub-limits, although it’s typically around 10 now.

Planned Tasks with WIP Limits

Planned Tasks with WIP Limits

I’m (still) finding it hard to enforce these stricter WIP limits. It’s often frustrating, because I *want to do those other things*. But I can’t, not until these very important, if less personally satisfying and inspiring, matters are taken care of.  This is a personal struggle that is far from over, and will likely never be over.

But at least I understand the challenge (and myself) better now and I have a tool that helps me see the progress I’m making – while ensuring that I stay honest with myself.

Postscript: Reflecting on Board Changes

  • The goal calendar kanban continues to emerge as I learn what I need from the system. I started in January with a simple idea: calendarising my personal projects & tasks. I put no further thought into board or process design until I started using the board in January. With each month, I discover specific information that I need or want to make visual, and add those as I go along. I started with the simplest possible approach, and augment only as I need to, rather than starting with an amazing board design for every possible edge case.
  • I’m thinking of making more changes in Trello, like hiding or archiving the Done columns from previous months because the board is growing too wide and unwieldy.
  • Task cards now typically have two labels: Planned/Unplanned and Large/Medium/Small
  • There’s also a bigger, more fundamental, change I think I have to make. Personal Kanban is based on Lean. A core principle in Lean is “pull”. Each month, I’m saying what I “want to do” and what I “have done”, but not clearly what I “am able to do”. I’m not truly pulling based on my real capacity in a specific month. I have to find a way to cater for that in Trello without complicating the board too much.

Postscript 2: Some More Random Insights

  • Tasks generate more tasks and impact other plans. Am I allowing too many unplanned tasks to creep in? Adapting to change is good; being mindlessly reactive is not.
  • I sometimes exceed my WIP “just by one” if it’s a fun, quick thing I want to do, instead of finishing a bigger piece of work, or something that will move finances or life admin forward, e.g. rather finding new races to run in June & July than tackling a project that must be done the next day. Procrastination …
  • Quite a few of the personal improvement projects on the board relate to establishing habits e.g. an earlier school routine, continuing to post regularly on the Scrumfamily blog, ensuring the boys and I practise for our sports and musical hobbies. Many of these won’t be “Done” for a long time, and involve micro-decisions and tasks on a daily basis that don’t justify tasks on a board. But they’re still life goals. So perhaps I need a separate category for those to check in with regularly? I also need to find ways to make these micro-decisions stick. Enter TinyHabits.

ad infinitum

This has been a pretty long post. If you’ve managed this far – well done! I share these retrospective posts partly to hold myself accountable, but also to share the power of continuous improvement using Agile and Lean technique with others.

And by sharing my results so openly, I believe I contribute to a healthier conversation about productivity and personal effectiveness. Because it really isn’t about how much you get done and how quickly, but about whether the things you do are the things that matter to you, and the people around you, and that add value to your life.

Finding, and evolving, your definition of what matters in life is, of course, a never-ending journey. Tools like Personal Kanban make that journey a little less scary, and a little easier.

For me, at least.

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2 Responses to April – Getting My Priorities Straight (Q1)

  1. Antoinette says:

    Maritza, I want to say, Amen Sista! If you figure out what belief system to tweak in order to take on less, please share!
    I commend you for your honesty and persistent (public) soul searching! Thank you!

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