〽 Bringing Your Work to Life

We spend more time at work than probably doing anything else. And, with the current lockdown and work from home scenario, the boundaries between work and not work have further diminished. You may be starting your day in your Donald Duck attire (for those who don’t know what a Donald Duck attire is, it simply means dressed above the waist) for your early morning cross-location client meetings, ending your day in your PJs with your team and everything else in between. Even if you are a student, college assignments and studies take up a big part of your life. Don’t even get me started talking about the “Student Syndrome” 😉

Work comes in all shapes and sizes – be it your client-related assignment, or a mini self-project you are hustling side-by-side, or even a piece of free support for a troubled colleague. And with the ever-slimming line between personal and professional boundaries, it is easy for the work to get piled on and you feeling overwhelmed. These days, I am finding it difficult to balance this with my daughter walking in every 30 minutes or so asking for help in her assignments or just for plain attention. I am an entrepreneur, and so I have my own activities planned out and I am my own boss at work. But, I can understand and feel for the working professionals whose bosses may be breathing down their necks trying to squeeze out every minute of their day and night.

Although each one of us, with or without lockdown, practically has the same number of hours in a day, they never seem enough as work starts never to be finished, or slips through the cracks, or even worse, just forgotten. How many of you can relate to this over the past month or so?

At the end of the day, you just feel tired and disoriented, in spite of having put in more than the required number of hours, and without having accomplished much.

While a big reason for this happening is often attributed to our inability to say “No,” or to take initiative, what I have seen and believe to be true is that the reason is often much deeper. In my opinion, the real culprit at play is when we seem to take our work as inanimate and don’t make an effort to make it more satisfying. In other words, bring your work to life. Give it a persona of its own. Approach your work with a technique of visual work management.

The method of visualizing your work that I am going to talk about is compelling when it comes to organizing your work and more importantly feeling accomplished and satisfied at the end of the day. It’s like giving each work activity a life having a cycle of its own. And, what I have found from research is that people who don’t take the time to visualize their work often end up all over the place, spending energy and focus in a hundred different directions, with mediocre results and outcomes.

Introducing Kanban, a simple yet effective visual technique, pioneered by Taiichi Ohno of Toyota in the late 1940s. While Ohno introduced this process into his manufacturing plants, and he had borrowed the concept from a supermarket, the technique is so versatile that it can be easily adapted to your daily work, making sure you exactly know what’s on your plate, and how it is moving ahead towards completion. Moreover, since the technique is visual, it stays in your sight and helps you keep track of your priorities and accomplishments. With Kanban in place for you to visualize, track and manage your daily work activities, it also makes it easier for you to say “No” to taking on more work when necessary and also take initiative as required. Think of Kanban as different from a schedule that you often create (or that your boss or client sets for you.) It is more like your daily workflow tracking system that helps you visualize and stay focused on your daily work activities.

The Kanban technique consists of a simple board around which all of your work revolves. In its simplest forms, the board consists of 3 columns – To Do, Doing, and Done. You can easily draw this board on a piece of paper, a whiteboard or even digitally using an Excel spreadsheet.

As you may have guessed, your work activities start in the leftmost (To Do) column and travel across the board to the right as they get closer to being done. This board can be quickly evolved and adapted by introducing more specific columns as required by the nature of your work activities, but it’s best to start small and simple with any new process.

The only other important aspect of Kanban is limiting the Work in Progress (WIP) items. What this means is that you limit the number of activities in each column at any point in time. For example, in the figure, you can establish a WIP of 2 for the Doing column. This means under no circumstances would you be actively working on more than 2 work activities. Only when you are able to push out either one of them to the third column, is when you could pull in one item from the first column.

Here’s how my Kanban board looks like

Setting WIP limits on the To Do column effectively teaches you to say “No” to additional incoming work. It also helps you take initiative and pull in work that is not assigned to you.

The beauty of Kanban is that it forces you to start thinking in terms of the board and mapping your tasks or activities to the board. It gives you a clear and visual frame of reference that eases decision making, and effectively reduces fatigue and overwhelm. You could even gamify the board to bring it more to life.

This excerpt is taken from my book, The Winning You: Master Your Focus and Avoid Distractions. If you’d like to delve deeper into this topic or have a burning question, “How do I decide what tasks or activities to put on my board?” grab a copy of the book here.


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