The Secret To Getting Things Done Is To Have A Simple System

Those of you who’ve been following Youngling & Feynman for a while are well aware that I’m a big fan of Kanban as a way to maximize productivity, satisfaction, quality and just systematically getting work done.

Here are a few essays where Kanban has come up.

Push vs. Pull Learning

One Day Without Procrastination

How I Schedule My Day

And my favorite: Yak Shaving.

Mainly because of the following reasons:

You get things out of your head and onto ‘’paper’’.

We often underestimate the complexity of the things we do, especially if we’ve never done it before.

Many things can be broken up into 5 or more different subtasks which, by themselves, can be broken up again.

That’s way too much to keep in your mind at once.

This creates a lot of mental repetition and unproductive loops where you take 1 step forward and 2 steps back.

‘’Going to the gym 5 days a week’’ is a habit many people, enthusiastic to make a change, set for themselves.

But you need to:

Set an alarm to wake up earlier. You need to shower before the gym. Eat your pre-workout food. You need to put on your gym clothes. You need to drive/walk to the gym.

You need to research to create some sort of system of what you’ll do in the gym, how to do the exercises well and how to measure progress (all of which are new and can be broken up even further).

Then you need to drive back. Shower. Eat your post-workout food. Get ready for the day.

That’s like 20 new habits, starting tomorrow, 5 days a week… Yeah.. that’s never gonna happen.

Which is exactly why so many people fail before January 7th after setting their NY’s resolution, waiting a whole year for this self-flagellation ritual to repeat again.

Do this enough times and people just lose hope all together saying things like: ‘’I’ve tried everything but nothing works’’.

What if, instead of setting themselves up for failure, they just started with waking up 5 minutes earlier every day to do 10 pushups daily for 14 days and let that habit form before gradually morphing into the routine described above.

You create a system that’s designed for a 10 yr old.

There’s a tendency when it comes to productivity to leave things ambiguous. But creating a process and breaking every step done so a 10 yr old understands it is so valuable.

(I argue that’s what makes iPhone so powerful. Often times, products designed for disabled people influence design for able people because they can make things simpler.Such as a Bluetooth speakers with huge buttons for example.

Humans are much more productive when we can follow an explicit system vs. having a lot of vagueness left to be interpreted by the individual.

Suppose you have a meeting:

Ineffective would be: shooting the shit and going round in circles.

More effective would be to:

Think of all the steps from start to finish:

  1. A backlog of questions.
  2. A breakdown of those questions.
  3. Answering the question.
  4. Validating that you’ve answered it well and the person/people can move on.

Now we create some rules stipulating when each step is completed.

Breakdown is done when the question is smaller than 60 seconds.

Answering is done when you’ve repeated it back in your own words to make sure you got it and then you answer it.

Validating is done when the person acknowledges that you’ve answered their question well enough.

This all seems very childish.

And yet I’ve found that precisely when you make things ‘’childish’’ or perhaps less pejoratively stated: simple, that productivity skyrockets. IMO, you can never make things simple enough.

When you think it’s simple and explicit enough, you can probably make it even simpler and more explicit.

You create clarity.

Not only do you and your people have some structure but they can see what’s going on. You know upfront what you want to do and you can see in real-time where you’re at with everything.

Knowing upfront what you’ll have done by end of day IMO is a superpower.

When you can reliably do this… it’s pretty much indistinguishable from having a magic wand. You just create some Kanban tasks and stick them in your backlog and when a stranger walks in the next day, they’re in the done column as if it were magic.

You pull vs. push.

I talk about WIP limits in the essays linked above. But a WIP limit is a work in progress limit.

You limit how many tasks each column is allowed to have.

I.e. Breakdown WIP: 1, Answering WIP: 2, Validating WIP: 1.

This prevents you from breaking down 20 questions when you’re stuck in the answer stage in this example.

That’s important because if you have a process where each next step is dependent upon the previous step, then you don’t want to have a ‘’traffic jam’’ where the previous step keeps producing while there’s obviously a block somewhere else.

Instead, you want to resolve the blockage.

This creates a streamlined throughput.

In practice, this means that if you have a process and one stage is stuck at the WIP limit, the people working on their other stages will help that person because they can’t go over their own WIP limits.

You can read more about it in this essay which goes into the history of Kanban in grocery stores.

Ultimately this is about maximizing the human brain resource and avoiding spinning your wheels while producing nothing.

You avoid busyness, taking lots of action while accomplishing somewhere between nothing and hardly anything.

By knowing exactly what you’re gonna do and what you have done at the end of the day, you can use that to gauge your productivity.

Originally published at on July 17, 2019.



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