Ever found yourself stressed by the sheer enormity of your to-do list and the tsunami of unread emails in your inbox?
Perhaps frantically switching from task to task without seemingly completing any of them?
Cold comfort, I know, but you are not alone.
For many individuals and teams, a significant and growing cause of processing overload is the nature of work, and in particular the environment in which work is carried out. Most modern workplaces are awash with distractions and often don’t give individuals much opportunity for reflection, enquiry or quiet, focused attention to a specific task. Some of these distractions may be human interactions. However, we have found that the predominant distraction is access to a wide range of communication technologies, such as mobile phones, email, the internet and other networking software. This often leads to individuals undertaking multiple tasks at the same time, under the illusion that more work can be done in the same amount of time.
Processing overload as a norm
Recent research has shown that multitasking is actually an extremely stressful and inefficient way of working and can actually slow down productivity. It is part of what entrepreneur Joe Kraus bemoans when he argues that ‘We’re creating a culture of distraction’. Switching between tasks, such as checking emails while trying to read or compose a report, causes a strain on the brain as it has to constantly reset its focus. Furthermore, multitasking requires the brain to make more decisions and question priorities. Queries arise such as: does this email require an instant response? Who else needs to know about this? Given its brevity, does this email have an underlying, unspoken message? These competing questions add to the potential for distraction and stress. And it isn’t only the process of multitasking that creates cognitive strain; the very opportunity to multitask has the potential to lower performance. The unfortunate consequence of a distraction-rich environment and the ineffective use of multitasking is that by lunchtime some individuals may feel a greater sense of processing overload than they did when they started that morning.
There is another way …
There are many tools available to develop skills in prioritisation and workload management. However, there is one that I strongly believe ticks all the crucial boxes in terms of reducing processing overload. It also has the advantage that it can be used by both individuals and whole teams. The strategy is called kanban, which translates literally from the Japanese as ‘signboard’. It was developed by Japanese firms to manage workflow.
Kanban is a deceptively simple tool which has four important principles that give it a massive advantage over traditional to-do lists:
1 Writing down every task that needs to be completed removes the need to remember everything in your head, freeing up cognitive space.
2 Only after all the work to do has been identified can effective prioritisation take place.
3 Processing overload is avoided by identifying which tasks require immediate focus and attention, which tasks are in the pipeline and which tasks can be put on hold.
4 The obsessive focus is always on the completion of existing tasks, rather than the unfocused starting of new ones.
These principles are seemingly common sense, yet, by combining them, they can yield huge rewards.
Building your own kanban system
Step 1: Write down, on separate sticky notes, all the individual tasks that need to be completed. It is important to add an estimated timescale for how long each task will take to complete and a deadline for completion. Here’s an example:
It is crucial that every single task is logged, with absolutely no exceptions. There are two reasons for this: first, writing down every task means the brain no longer needs to remember them, thus freeing up memory space and providing clarity, and, second, effective prioritisation requires that all information is available at the point of sorting.
Handy hint: It is much more effective to chunk down large tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks on separate sticky notes. This is because it is easier to estimate the time it takes to complete smaller tasks.
Step 2: Using the four columns below, neatly arrange all the sticky notes in the waiting column. At this stage it may seem as though all that has been created is a very colourful to-do list; however, there is a significant difference. The waiting column is the place where you go to select every single new task that you plan to work on each day. It is also where you will add any new tasks that arise in the future.
The advantage of the kanban process is that, if you follow it correctly, it is impossible to be overwhelmed by work. Each day, you will make choices about which tasks you are going to transfer from the waiting column into the action column, which is for tasks that are going to be worked on to completion that day. This choice will be informed both by those tasks which have top priority (i.e. a combination of importance and deadline) and, most importantly, those that can be completed during the time available in the day. If there are only four hours available due to meetings or other commitments, then only four hours’ worth of tasks can be transferred into the action column. This avoids the curse of multitasking, where individuals find themselves mentally jumping from one uncompleted task to another without finishing any of them.
Prioritisation of Time
The kanban process demands self-discipline to prioritise the focus for that day based on the tasks in the action column, without being distracted by other tasks in the waiting column or any new tasks that suddenly materialise. This discipline prevents the danger of multitasking from slowing task completion.
Running kanban as a team naturally creates an environment for valuable discussion, particularly around prioritisation and the allocation of time. Agreement has to be reached each day between team members and the team leader on what to move across to the action column and what to leave in the waiting column. These discussions include:
■ The allocation of tasks: are any members of the team more overloaded than others? What might be the consequences and causes of any imbalance? Do some team members need to switch tasks to correct imbalances?
■ Prioritisation of tasks: what are the team’s priorities in terms of focus for transferring new tasks into the action column? What will be the consequences of the prioritisation decisions that have been made?
■ Work in progress: which tasks are taking more or less time than predicted? What reasons lie behind any variance? What can we learn from this? What are the knock-on effects of any delays?
Step 3: The holding column is for any tasks that are held up because the team is waiting on information, feedback or resources from elsewhere. This both avoids frustration and prevents the action column from getting overly clogged up. It also avoids the ever-present risk of forgetting the task. An example is shown below. This task is in the holding column as the phone call from CC to confirm the date/time of the meeting has not yet taken place.
Step 4: The done column. There is something indefinably satisfying about clearing the decks of work. This rarely happens with a traditional to-do list. However, with kanban, the satisfaction of definitively completing tasks becomes the daily norm, as each day the sharp focus of the individual or team is on clearing the action column. Suddenly, work becomes doable. After all, you have selected the work to move from waiting to action based on the time available on any given day. Therefore, the cognitive load is much more manageable as the workload has been matched to the capacity of the individual or team. In addition, the at-a-glance visibility of the sticky notes shows that work is flowing, and the tactile experience of moving them from waiting to action or holding to done gives a satisfying sense of progress.
As work is completed, the kanban process offers more opportunities for reflection and discussion. For example:
What were the reasons for tasks that were completed behind schedule?
What were the reasons for tasks that were completed ahead of schedule?
What did we learn from working on these tasks?
Could we approach that task differently and more effectively next time?
Do any tasks in the waiting column need to be reprioritised as a result?
For those whose work means they are rarely in one place, and therefore can’t use a physical kanban board, there are a plethora of online apps, such as Trello, which serve the same function. Many of these enable teams to share their planning too.
If you are feeling stressed with the sheer weight of your personal workload, or are putting in so many work hours that it is eating into the rest of your life, becoming a kanban devotee might be the start of a whole new way forward.
As one leader exclaimed,
It’s radically reshaped my life and outlook, now I’ve discovered that I am in control of my workload.
‘Plus One’ reflections
Do you find yourself ever multi-tasking?
Does workload seem overwhelming at times?
What aspects from the blog above, could help you or your team go ‘plus one’?