One benefit from having mood problems: I tolerate bad feelings less well, and that pushes me to look for ways to feel better that I might not otherwise have thought about. Perhaps you can benefit from this without having the same mood problems I do. I hope so.
First, I give you the tweet that triggered today’s thoughts:
Let's be honest. Renamed my Todo column on Trello to Wishful Thinking.— Maarten Volders (@MaartenVolders) May 8, 2014
Indeed. This leapt immediately into my mind.
@MaartenVolders “Might Do” feels more optimistic. “Could Do” makes me feel less guilty about moving to the “Not Doing” column.— ☕ J. B. Rainsberger (@jbrains) May 8, 2014
And then this.
@MaartenVolders You need a “Not Gonna Do It” party.— ☕ J. B. Rainsberger (@jbrains) May 8, 2014
Now that I’ve pasted my Twitter feed into your RSS feed—more than enough for one day, don’t worry—I can share one simple technique that I use to help me feel better about my work.
You’ve probably heard of YAGNI, meaning “You ain’t gonna need it”. I use a special case of this, which we can call “You ain’t gonna do it”, or YAGDI. I can even change this to IAGDI (I ain’t gonna do it) without changing how we pronounce the acronym significantly. I usually prefer just to say the words I ain’t gonna do it. Even more, as a child of 1980s, I always think of this:
Simple, effective, refreshing. Seriously. I feel so liberated deciding that I’m not going to do something, particularly if that thing has hung over my head for days, weeks, months—and as someone fighting mood issues, I have a maddening habit of letting things hang over my head for days, weeks, months. You don’t even need any special tools to get started: simply pick something and don’t do it.
Frank Project Management
Of course, we have grown accustomed to playing a certain game in our work as software professionals. Remember: stakeholders exist solely for the purpose of asking developers (programmers, testers, everyone) to do more than they can possibly do with the time, money, and energy at hand. When I first accepted this axiom, I concluded that as a programmer I would necessarily always have Too Much To Do. Always. You want proof? Imagine that you don’t have too much to do. Now imagine that you have an employer. Now imagine that your employer wants to improve profit, or at least reduce cost. Either your employer invents more potential value to realise (and now you have more to do) or reduces cost by eliminating someone’s job (and now, we hope, you have more to do). Eventually, you will have Too Much To Do. QED.
Since you will eventually have Too Much To Do, it follows that you probably already have Too Much To Do. This means that you have a backlog of things to do. You probably also have inboxes where people ask you to do things, and you probably don’t turn those inboxes off while you work on your backlog. With all this, eventually, some things will fall to the bottom of your backlog and stay there for days, weeks, months.
I’m telling you to manage your work more frankly and openly by taking items from the bottom of your backlog and deleting them. Not only don’t do them, but don’t do them in public. I mean: don’t-do-them in public.
Have a Not Gonna Do It Party
I do this regularly: I set aside some time—usually 15–30 minutes suffices—I open up my backlog (I use a combination of hiveminder.com and OmniFocus) and start deleting things. As I delete an item, I say, rather obnoxiously, some variation of “Not gonna do it”. You might try one of these:
- Not gonna do it!
- Not happening.
- I don’t care about that.
- Not my job, man.
- Sooooooo not gonna do that.
- Never gonna happen, my friend! (with a Paul Reiser accent, of course)
After I have a Not Gonna Do It Party, I literally feel lighter. (Of course, I’m fooling myself, but it feels real.) I walk away from my computer feeling refreshed. This affects my mood significantly. It allows me to get done at least one thing that I actually need and want to do. This feeling makes the technique work.
Do You Have To Play the Game?
Sometimes I have to play the game. When working in a less-open environment, like a typical enterprise where trust runs a bit less freely through the halls, I keep my Not Gonna Do It Party to myself. Sometimes I even do it only in my head: I let work items languish at the bottom of my backlog, or in a bug-tracking system, and simply never talk about them again. I wait for someone—anyone—to notice that I haven’t done those things and ask about them. It happens so rarely. I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty. I’d act with much more transparency if I felt more trust, and so I work on building trust in order to free myself to act more congruently. (Of course, I see practical disadvantages to bragging about not doing work. Crazy, not stupid.)
If you find yourself in a situation where you feel bound to play the game, then play it with others, but don’t play it with yourself. Don’t let the constraints of a low-trust environment seep into your relationships with yourself, your family, your close friends. It exacts too heavy an emotional toll. If you must accept a certain amount of psychic bullshit to feed your family, I wouldn’t dare tell you not to, but don’t volunteer to heap more of it on top of yourself. (I say this as much to remind myself as to counsel you.)
Not Just Me
By no means did I come up with this idea. I’ve heard it from a variety of sources, most notably Mary Poppendieck (read this virtual panel, and especially Mary’s essay at the end of it), David Allen (he built pruning the backlog into Getting Things Done) and software development approaches such as Naked Planning and Kanban. The idea of limiting work in process encourages us to focus on what we all agree we need to do soon and let go of what we might think about eventually doing someday. While they describe it largely as a planning/flow technique, I see it mostly for its emotional benefit, and consider its practical benefits secondary.
Won’t People Hate Me?
At least one of you feels quite tense now. What if I start telling people that I’m not going to do the thing that I told them I would do? or worse What if someone finds out second-hand that I’m not going to do something important to them? Good questions, both. Let me share my experience.
People ask me to do them favors, such as review blog posts, read parts of their upcoming book to give them feedback, comment on their code… I won’t claim to feel overburdened by such requests, but people ask. I have made “reliability” an integral part of my identity. I grew up thinking “people can count on me”. This mattered a lot to me. (I mention this to establish myself as “generally not a wanton flake”.) When they ask me to do these things, I look for ways to say “yes”. I try hard not to commit, because I know that my mood varies and I don’t want to commit to something only to have my mood become the bottleneck. I try to do this openly to “set expectations”.
Invariably, after some time, when I haven’t done the thing they’ve asked, I have to admit to this nice person, “I’m not going to do it. I ran out of energy. I’m sorry. I’ll try better next time.” So far, it works, and in two ways: when someone asks me one of these favors, e has a more realistic expectation (sometimes more realistic than I have) about whether to expect me to do it; and when someone asks me to do something that e really needs done, e makes a big deal about getting me to commit. I commit so infrequently that I feel honor-bound to follow through on the few commitments I make. This works out well for both sides.
So will people start to hate you when you have regular “Not gonna do it” parties? Perhaps, but mostly people you don’t want on your side, anyway.
Also, remember how frequently people at work ask you to do things, then never follow up, and it turns out that they just stopped caring about that thing at all. I have news for you: it doesn’t only happen at work.
Try This At Home
Book 30 minutes of quiet time. Get coffee, tea, wine, beer, whatever. If you have a backlog, open it up to your list of outstanding projects and tasks. If you don’t have a backlog (in writing), find some paper and a pen, then write down all the things that you think people expect you to do that you haven’t yet finished.
Now start deleting stuff. You might start with the items that you added least recently. You might start with the items that you recognise you’ve “pushed down the list” several times. You might just peruse the list for any item that strikes you as no longer worth doing. Delete them. Delete them all.
Don’t let fear get in the way. Delete it. If you really need to do it, then someone will ask about it, or you’ll wake up in a panic and put it back in the backlog.
This reminds me of the old days of XP, when people first heard about putting stories on index cards, rather than in a spreadsheet. What happens if you lose the cards? people asked. I can think of a few answers.
First, we’ll remember the truly urgent and important items, and it only takes a few minutes to rewrite them.
Second, have you ever written a long email in a text field on a web page, then hit the wrong key and lost it all? What did you do? Either you decided not to write it at all (probably a good idea), or you wrote it again, but this time much more concisely. You turned 800 words into 150. You did a good thing.
For these reasons I just don’t worry about deleting too much stuff from my backlog.
What about items with deadlines? Well, if you committed to doing it, then either you do it or you outsource it. If you feel responsible for it, then you have to see it through to completion. Over time, as I had more and more Not Gonna Do It Parties, I began to test the boundaries of my responsibility. I started noticing the difference between feeling responsible and having genuine responsibilities to others. I slowly stopped feeling phantom responsibility. I felt less guilty. I felt lighter. A positive feedback loop of positive feelings.
So… enjoy your next Not Gonna Do It Party—unless, of course, the very idea sends you into a state of panic, in which case we should probably talk about that. Leave a comment here or track me down on Twitter, and I’ll see whether I can help—if you need a stronger commitment than that, then we can talk about how much that will cost. Fair?
I spent a few months with an infrastructure team in Iceland. You know infrastructure teams: the enterprise buries them under work requests, and they can never do just one thing for one person or one (other, internal) team, because they work on infrastructure. This means that they build frameworks instead of things. If you have the power to disband an infrastructure team today, do it. I can help you do it safely.
Anyhow, we had a frank discussion about how they accept new work and manage their To Dos. I taught them the basics of Getting Things Done and in particular how to apply them to managing software project work. They reacted typically, meaning with cautious optimism. We talked about it from time to time.
Eventually I had occasion to share a devious trick with them. They kept (most of) their backlog in Jira, a glorified to-do list. (I’ve heard people use different adjectives than “glorified” to describe Jira.) I asked them what would happen if, mysteriously, they walked in on Monday and their Jira database had disappeared. Corrupted, and, predictably, without a backup to recover. What would they do? They discussed it. I saw looks of panic mixed with relief. The mere thought of setting fire to their backlog made one or two of them feel better.
I suggested that they carefully back up their Jira database on Friday, hide the backup somewhere safe, even copy it offsite if they can, then delete the database and enjoy the weekend. On Monday, they can pretend that the disk died, then deal with the fallout. They can go to their key internal customers and renegotiate outstanding work with them. I hate doing something this devious, but it works.
To me utter amazement, they did something else: they dropped 80% of their backlog. No backup. Just gone. Deleted. They loved it. They looked lighter, so I imagine that they felt lighter. If this ever got them into trouble, they never yelled at me over it, and they would have felt perfectly comfortable yelling at me for getting them into trouble. It never happened.
Seriously. You can do this.
Amr Elsamadissy, “Virtual Panel: Is the Backlog a Vital Artifact and Practice or Waste?”. Some thoughtful people opining about backlogs.
David Allen, Getting Things Done. I don’t use every part of the system as diligently as I used to, but I carry its fundamentals with me everywhere I go. I focus on keeping my inbox small and manageable, staying on top of open loops, and keeping my commitments well within my capacity to do work for others.
J. B. Rainsberger, “Getting Started with Getting Things Done”. You don’t want to read a whole book? How’s four pages?
Mary and Tom Poppendieck, Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit. I don’t remember whether I first read Mary’s advice about backlogs here, but I recommend it anyway. When I think about this topic, I hear Mary’s voice in my head instructing me to burn the bottom 80% of my backlog.
@jbrains I guess I also need a "What Was I Thinking" column— Maarten Volders (@MaartenVolders) May 8, 2014
Much like if we’d ever discovered how to travel into the past, then we’d have seen time travelers by now. ↩