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On Focus: Conquering the Shiny Squirrel

TonianneFeatured, Neuroscience, Primers, Psychology2 Comments

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The vibration of your mobile phone calendar reminding you of your 11am conference call. Dots flashing on your Fitbit guilting you to get in your steps at lunchtime. Aural and visual radiators on your desktop alerting you to additions to your inbox, changes made to Dropbox, and yet another instant message. Ubiquitous numerical displays incessantly signaling friend requests, status changes, and other social media updates that, in both Pavlovian and FOMO fashion, condition you to keep myriad tabs open responding as they beckon.

So what about that otherwise simple “five minute memo” you sat down to compose almost an hour ago? Given all the distractions you’ve already had to contend with you’re now 47 minutes in and have but two intelligible lines written. Barely intelligible.

We live in an era where wending our way through the daily deluge of digital distractions has become synonymous with how knowledge workers function. When pulses and Pings! and pop-ups jockey for our attention and task-switching (also known as context-switching) typifies the way we’ve come to work, it’s a wonder our already drunk-monkey minds are capable of completing any of the things we’ve begun, let alone complete them thoughtfully, and with quality.

Blame it on the Siren’s call (or perhaps more appropriately, the Siren’s duet) of novelty and immediate gratification. For better or for worse, our brains are hardwired to respond when something new is introduced into an otherwise stable environment. Optimized to minimize risk and maximize reward, the brain is primed to detect, remember, and ascertain what type of outcome the seemingly unfamiliar will provide.

Does it pose a risk? Might it result in a potential reward? Will the immediate gratification be more fulfilling than the delayed payoff for what I am currently doing?

Well let’s stop what we’re doing and go find out!

It’s not simply technology that is responsible for our distractions. Human interruptions are also a factor, as are cognitive ones like lack of clarity, self-doubt and fear, all which can invite procrastination. There are likewise more stealthy interruptions – the “neural noise” we try but seldom succeed at suppressing: the aircon set too high or too low, the aroma of freshly-baked cinnamon buns beckoning from the break room, triggering a rumble in our stomach, stimulating our salivary glands, compelling us to drop what we are doing mid-task and tend to this newly-realized “need” at once.  Any deviation in our environment or our expectation of something within our environment can compromise focus. To include noticing our colleague in the adjoining office now sports a fresh-coating of jet black hair where little – very little – existed yesterday.*

In and of itself, acknowledging and responding to the unfamiliar or unexpected is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, exploration of the new is how we learn and, perhaps more importantly, how we were able to survive as a species. Detecting an atypical smell, a sudden rustle of leaves, or the slinking of a shadow where one previously did not exist kept prehistoric man from succumbing to his predators. What does prove problematic about novelty in the context of knowledge work is when it compels us to shift our attention mid-task, naively anticipating a smooth return to the task we first shifted our attention from.

Now where was I?

Anyone who has found themselves asking this question while reading the same page over and over upon returning from a distraction knows there is seldom a seamless transition when shifting gears, especially when dealing with high-cognitive tasks that are dissimilar in size and/or type.

As is evidenced by the proliferation of scholarship in cognitive science, neuroperformance, and the growing sub-field of “interruption science,” task-switching has reached epic proportions in the 21st Century workplace, the negative effects of which can not be overstated.

Unfortunately, the impacts of this executive function are often underestimated. It’s like my grandmother used to say,

Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should do it.

When it comes to optimal processing speed, the brain processes high-cognitive tasks sequentially – one thing at a time, one after the other – rather than in parallel. When there is a disruption in that workflow, we incur not just a carry-over cost from the first task, but a ramp-up cost for the second. The more complex the task, the more our cognitive ability is degraded, the more processing speed and quality we sacrifice in the shift, setting off a cycle that is nothing if not vicious.

Task-switching begets more task-switching – not completion. This is often attributed to “the Zeigarnik Effect,” a phenomenon in which information and tasks left incomplete don’t leave our mind. Instead, we dwell on those incomplete tasks, and those intrusive thoughts render us vulnerable to distractions. The energy that consumes – the metabolism task-switching requires – drains our cognitive capacity, causing frustration, burnout, impeding focus and inviting error and rework, preventing us from realizing our optimal potential.

When we task-switch we break our flow-state. And you can’t achieve flow without a healthy constraint.

Enter Personal Kanban

Limiting work in process (WIP), the second of Personal Kanban’s two rules, enables that flow-state. When we don’t limit our WIP we are more susceptible to the immediate gratification we get from responding to a distraction. In the absence of Personal Kanban’s first rule Visualize your work,  the penalty for taking on that new task without completing tasks already in flight is never made explicit, and so we continue to overtax our “system of production,” our brains. Visualizing work and limiting WIP compels us to focus on and complete our priorities, and complete them with quality. And that completion comes with its own reward.

The brain thrives on completion; accomplishing a goal literally feels good. A recent study posits a chemical reaction in the brain occurs when we so much as say the word “done” upon completing a task, no matter the task’s size. When we achieve a goal or overcome a challenge dopamine – the neurotransmitter that regulates the brain’s pleasure center – is triggered, leaving us calm, confident, and focused. And let’s face it – those feelings can be addictive. We are then primed for another “hit” of dopamine, inclined to repeat the behavior that triggered the dopamine reward in the first place and so anticipating the pleasure that comes with completion sets into motion a virtuous cycle.

To be sure, interruptions are the nature of the beast when it comes to knowledge work because the “gemba” – the metaphorical workshop where we create value – is in our head. So the next time you need to drown out the cacophony of social and aural and visual and neural noise from your colleagues and your phones and your monkey minds simply to get that five minute memo off your plate, remember how a boost of dopamine dulls the allure of even the shiniest of squirrels.

*The author of this post makes zero claims about the efficacy of Personal Kanban – or any productivity method for that matter – to curb the unfortunate distraction presented by a hair-in-a-can situation.

To learn more about how visualizing your work and limiting your work in progress can help you gain focus and achieve more, register for Modus Institute’s latest online course: Personal Kanban.

For more on hacking your brain to increase productivity and satisfaction at work, at home, and everywhere in between, sign up for the Modus Institute Newsletter. Brought to you by the creators of Personal Kanban.

TonianneOn Focus: Conquering the Shiny Squirrel

Personal Kanban Interview – Mixing the Personal and Professional with Meghana and Sameer Bendre

Jim BensonApplications, InterviewsLeave a Comment

MegclipIn this interview, Toni and I got to interview two long time Personal Kanban users, Meghana and Sameer Bendre from Atlanta, Georgia. They mixed home and professional use – using PK to manage recovery from surgery, calming nerves in the house, visits from parents, and siblings with learning challenges. Of course, they also used PK at work managing teams and projects.

Jim BensonPersonal Kanban Interview – Mixing the Personal and Professional with Meghana and Sameer Bendre

Dealing with Cans of Worms

Jim BensonApplications, DesignPatternsLeave a Comment

We are all cursed with “surprises” at work. We come in, sit down, get ready for the day. We select a task to start on and about half way through, it explodes on us. The seemingly simple task now has 30 subtasks all lined up, ready to destroy our day.

This is stressful. Since we’re likely already overloaded, this new surprise just adds more work to the day and delay to our backlog.

However, if we’ve limited our work-in-progress we look at these “cans of worms” a little differently. They still might be annoying, but they aren’t quite so stressful. We understand that, like it or not, the amount of work necessary to get this task done has increased and we can adjust. The slack we’ve created in our schedule and our work by limiting WIP allows us to adjust gracefully (you can still gripe, it’s okay) and plow through the extra work.

Jim BensonDealing with Cans of Worms

Sleep: Your Workflow’s Most Important Form of Slack

TonianneDesignPatterns, Featured, Neuroscience, Primers, Psychology, Uncategorized2 Comments

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It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it. ~ John Steinbeck

In Personal Kanban, Jim and I discuss how workflow should be optimized for throughput, not capacity. Work shouldn’t “fit” into your day but rather, it should flow. Much like how a freeway grinds to a halt when its capacity is exceeded, so too do people who are overloaded experience physical and mental gridlock. As with any system – animate, mechanistic, social, or ecological – the importance of incorporating slack to absorb and /or respond to variation, create efficient processing, and maximize performance is not simply good practice, it’s indispensable.

Recently, a series of disconcerting conversations caused me to reflect on how much we tend to undervalue our most important form of slack: sleep.

  • A  taxi driver shared how he works 12+ hours per day, with one hour off for lunch, seven days per week because as he explained, “I can sleep when I’m dead”;
  • A nail technician who works 7 days each week, 10+ hours per day, and only takes off holidays expressed pride in her “work ethic” while dismissing her colleagues who work 5-6 days per week as “lazy”; and
  • A software developer boasted he could – and in fact, does – exist on a diet of Red Bull, chocolate-covered espresso beans, and as little as 2-3 hours of a caffeine-induced coma…but admitted he greeted each morning in a haze of stupor.

Sure these folks might be “productive,” but how effective are they really in the long-term?

I spend endless days at a time without enough sleep. At first, normal activities become annoying. When you are too tired to eat, you really need some sleep. A few days later, things become strange. Loud noises become louder and more startling, familiar sounds become unfamiliar, and life reinvents itself as a surrealist dream. ~ Henry Rollins

We wear our busyness like a badge of honor. It has become our default way of existing.

Sleep, we rationalize, is for the weak and ironically, for “slackers.” We see it not as a function essential to our existence but as a reward to be earned. And when we do finally deem ourselves “worthy” of a healthy night’s sleep we “cheat” in an attempt to compensate for the hours we’ve been deprived of.

From the National Sleep Foundation:

Sleep experts say most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night for optimum performance, health and safety. When we don’t get adequate sleep, we accumulate a sleep debt that can be difficult to “pay back” if it becomes too big. The resulting sleep deprivation has been linked to health problems such as obesity and high blood pressure, negative mood and behavior, decreased productivity, and safety issues in the home, on the job, and on the road.

Beyond the obvious self-destructive nature of burning the proverbial candle at both ends, fatigue impedes our brain activity which leads to lack of clarity, which necessitates more effort, increases mistakes, diminishes judgment, and further contributes to our WIP.

So long as we view sleep as a luxury we will dismiss it as waste, de-prioritizing it when in actuality, it’s the ONLY thing absolutely vital to our workflow.

Does it really need to be stated? Humans cannot live without sleep.

So I propose we begin looking at sleep as integral to our workflow. Slack is not simply vital to your Personal Kanban, it’s vital for smooth, efficient flow and maximizing performance.

If you frame sleep as part of your work, unfinished sleep becomes WIP. We then struggle with focus, multitasking and task-switching become inevitable, creating a vicious cycle that interferes with the quality of other parts of our life. When we are sleep deprived, our WIP limit should actually be reduced.

I work in the quiet of home 7-8am to sort out things that are stuck or unresolved. Only after I have landed that thinking do I go into the office. ~  Tiffany Overton

A quiet mind, a fresh perspective leads to improved memory, longer attention span, sustainable  learning, and improved judgement.

Sleep better. Perform better. It really is that simple.

TonianneSleep: Your Workflow’s Most Important Form of Slack

Dave Prior’s Quest for Understanding: A PK Interview

Jim BensonUncategorizedLeave a Comment

Dave Prior’s interview covers three or four big things.

1. What is our work really? Is it getting things done or is it satisfaction?

2. What is collaboration?

3. Why does Personal Kanban lead to surprising realizations about the impacts of our choices?

4. Backlog guilt.

A fun, excellent interview with Dave, a long-time Personal Kanban user and trainer.

Jim BensonDave Prior’s Quest for Understanding: A PK Interview

On Working Intentionally: The “Thinking Ticket”

TonianneDesignPatterns, Featured, Neuroscience, Primers, Psychology, UncategorizedLeave a Comment

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The quality of art is that it makes people who are otherwise always looking outward, turn inward. ~ the Dalai Lama


There’s a certain irony in the fact that knowledge workers are often afforded little time to do what it is they are enlisted to do: think. In an era defined by constant connectivity, information overload, ceaseless distractions, and the perfidious fetishization of multitasking our days, our processes, our modus operandi is increasingly becoming reactive.

Our “fast thinking brain” as Daniel Kahneman refers to it, helps us wend our way through this neural noise with the aid of subconscious shortcuts or, cognitive biases. So we traverse our lives myopically through a sequence of habits, intuition, emotions, one assumption after the next, to the point that our focus turns to frenzy and the output of our work precludes us from taking a serious and vital look at what inputs affect it. Over reliance on this fast, shortcut-driven “system one thinking” can compromise our understanding of what it is we’re actually doing, and why.

For innovation, for improvement, for personal fulfillment, this type of workflow is not sustainable.

Science estimates the human brain processes on average between 50,000-80,000 conscious and subconscious thoughts per day, and so reliance on heuristics is both an efficient and necessary use of our brainpower.

But it’s not always effective.

That’s because these shortcuts – the assumptions that drive us – are not always correct.

In an age of overload, what happens to the brain when we silence the neural noise and take a moment to simply pause to consider what we are really doing, and why?

Unplugging, incorporating ritualized pauses into the workday breaks the cycle of assumption, shifting us from the emotional, to the rational “slow thinking brain.” Disengaging and taking a cognitive time-out engages our “system two thinking,” shifting our consciousness from the habitual, the reptilian, to the intentional, helping us solve problems thoughtfully, make decisions more deliberately, and generate new ideas.

Looking for more EUREKA! moments? Add a “Thinking” ticket to your Personal Kanban. Unplug. Look out the window. Take a walk. Break the cycle of reaction by tapping into your creative mind.

This article was inspired by a conversation with Maggie Churchville

For more on how Personal Kanban can help you be more intentional about your work and by extension your life, register for our FREE webinar, our online class, or our next workshop  Personal Kanban for Knowledge Work, Seattle 12-13 April.

TonianneOn Working Intentionally: The “Thinking Ticket”

Personal Kanban and Micromanagement

Jim BensonExpert, PsychologyLeave a Comment

At one time or another we’ve all lost faith in a process and reacted by wanting to keep track of every detail. We want to make sure it gets done right. We want to make sure that we and others don’t look bad.

That person micromanaging you is no different. They have lost faith in a process they can’t see. So … let them see it. If we all have access to real-time information managers can do what they are supposed to do: facilitate the completion of important work. Without that information, they cannot facilitate. Without being able to facilitate, they will control.

This video shows how all this works.


Jim BensonPersonal Kanban and Micromanagement

It’s About Communication: PK Interview with Trent Hone

Jim BensonUncategorized1 Comment

Trent Hone uses Personal Kanban to manage teams, to consult, and to help his family get things done. In this interview, Trent talks about how he uses Personal Kanban and what changes its fostered in his family’s stress level, his ability to complete work, and his teams’ camaraderie.

This is the first in a series of weekly interviews of Personal Kanban users, practitioners, and thinkers. Watch for how they build their boards and how it makes them feel.

Jim BensonIt’s About Communication: PK Interview with Trent Hone

Capacity: It’s a Matter of Content…and Context

TonianneExpert, Featured, Neuroscience, Primers, PsychologyLeave a Comment

Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 10.15.48 PMEnvision This:

You’re heading to a cabin in the mountains for a week-long getaway with your family. Your car is in the shop so you schedule a rental to be delivered.

In addition to six bags of groceries, a box of pots/pans/utensils, and a cooler full of water, your four children each pack a suitcase; your wife packs three, your mom and dad who are visiting pack two. They then proceed to set their luggage along the curb.

Your two daughters ask if they could each take their best friend, bringing your passenger count to ten, and luggage count to eleven.

The weather forecast for the next few days predicts lots of sun. So you tell the kids to grab their bikes, and stand them next to the luggage. You then head into the garage to pull out the bike rack.

Conditions on the lake are likewise supposed to be ideal and so you ready up your single axle trailer with your 28 foot sailboat.

You’re kneeling on the sidewalk next to the curb, tightening a bolt in the boat hitch when a clap of thunder followed by a flash of lightening pierces the unexpectedly darkening sky. Just then the rental car pulls up. Still eye-level to the wheels, and through the initial drops of a soon to be teeming rain, the first thing you notice is that the air pressure on the back two tires is low.

It isn’t until you stand up that you notice the second thing: the car they delivered…is a Miata.

To recap:

6 bags of groceries

1 box of cooking paraphernalia

1 cooler of water

10 people

11 suitcases

6 bikes

1 boat

1 2-seat Roadster

Without having visualized your capacity first, how could you possibly have known how much would fit in the car?

Keep in mind the overload here isn’t simply attributed to people, provisions, and luggage. A host of other factors would further diminish the car’s capacity including the wind resistance created by the bike rack, the added weight of the boat trailer, decreased visibility and traction during the four hour ascent up the mountain during a storm, and lower fuel efficiency due to the decreased tire pressure.

Capacity – it’s not only impacted by content, but by context.

It’s the same with information. Despite the persistent, insidious, and scientifically proven to be counterproductive practice of expecting knowledge workers to multitask, people – like automobiles – are not unconstrained resources. When it comes to processing cognitively complex tasks, our brain has finite processing capacity.

Especially when it comes to knowledge work, understanding capacity as well as the potential for variation is paramount. Much in the way the car above would be impacted by external conditions, the brain’s bandwidth is likewise impacted by its context. Physical illness, emotional stress, hunger, and fear of threats real or imagined likewise impact cognitive capacity, compromising performance and quality.

Visualizing your work and limiting your work in progress on a Personal Kanban allows you to not only to see, understand, and communicate your capacity to others, but it likewise prevents against taking on more work than you can handle. And when contextual factors are at play, such as mood, health, energy level, task difficulty etc., Personal Kanban helps you respond to that variation, allowing you to adjust your capacity by dropping your WIP limit accordingly.

For more on how Personal Kanban can help you visualize, understand, and improve your capacity while giving you the agility to respond to variation, register for our FREE webinar.

TonianneCapacity: It’s a Matter of Content…and Context

Pattern Matching: Use Your Personal Kanban to See What is Really Happening

Jim BensonDesignPatterns, PrimersLeave a Comment

I see people setting up their Personal Kanban with one color of post it note and then finding it hard to select their next task or figure out what they’ve done at the end of the week. The strength of Personal Kanban is that it is a visual system. Visual systems rely on visual cues that let us know what is happening.

If our boards are a sea of sameness there will be no patterns.

Using color to differentiate task types, projects, people, urgency, cost or whatever you find important will instantly transform your board from a sea of undifferentiated tasks to a clear story of your work. We can then engage in pattern matching, which our brains do specifically to make sense of the world.

This video describes how and why we should use color to design our Personal Kanban.

Please share this article with someone you know you needs to know this.

Jim BensonPattern Matching: Use Your Personal Kanban to See What is Really Happening