The Importance Of Not Doing

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Do you have a schedule and plans? Daily plans? Weekly plans? Do you do them – them decide “well, I’ve got a bit more time” and go farther? Do you then realize . . . maybe you’re overdoing it?

Then do you try to not overdo it and still fail, going beyond your plans to do even more and burning out?

I had a realization about this recently as I was trying to keep up my daily schedule. I use schedules to keep myself focused during the Pandemic, and they’ve helped me “anchor” myself in these strange times. But I noticed on a day I was getting everything done, I asked what more could I do.

Then I caught myself. Why did I want to do more? Why couldn’t I stop?

Then I realized something. Schedules are not just ways to ensure things get done – they’re ways of setting limits so you don’t burn out. Part of the reason you have a schedule is to tell you what not to do or when to stop.

And of course, this ties into two parts of the Agile Manifesto. If you didn’t think I was going to tie this to Agile, you must be new here. Welcome aboard.

Anyway, in the Agile Manifesto, the tenth Agile Principle states “Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.” I always liked this as it was a good reminder to avoid unneeded tasks and technology. But recently I realized this applies to your schedules and plans – there’s a time to stop and not do things.

This also ties into the eighth Agile Principle: “Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

Good, sustainable work is at a pace you can keep up. This means not just being sustainable, but asking if you need to do something, removing things from your plans or not putting them in. Make a schedule that works for you, and remember that there is a time to not do something. Sure you may do it later, but you don’t have to do it now.

In fact, celebrate the fact you set limits! That should be one of your goals. Being able to not do something effectively is a success – you have time to rest, recuperate, and come up with the next neat thing to do . . .

Steven Savage

Work That Isn’t Work

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Last month started productively – but then got brutal. I got sick, I had to reprioritize, and was annoyed a side project had to get delayed (sorry, no spoilers). Something felt off about what was going on, so as I sat there battling allergies and a cold I caught because of allergies (really, that kind of week), I wanted to figure what was off.

Why did I feel bad, overpressured, and even when sick not want to do my fun projects like writing and generators?

I used the “Five Whys” technique. This is a good one to learn, but in case you don’t care, you ask “why” about your situation, then “why” to your answer, then “why to that answer,” and so on. Eventually you get an idea of what’s wrong and how to solve it. It’s like having a helpful child in your head to pester you until you explain something, and like talking to a child, it’s a way to realize how smart or how stupid you are.

I’m quite fond of it.

This took more than the supposed “Five” whys, but I realized something amazing and liberating – I had lumped all my “work” in a month into the same pot. Cooking and working out was the same priority, a fun piece of writing was just as important as my weekly budget. All the things I wanted to accomplish were sitting in one pile saying “do me,” so I began treating all things the same.

The problem with treating all things you have to do as the same is that you don’t prioritize (or in Agile terms, you forget their value). In fact, you sort of end up with a worst-common denominator effect where you treat everything as a collection of the worst – often conflicting – traits. Everything was a boring and overwhelming must-do task that was also not important.

At that point I realized my organization had killed my motivation. So how did I solve this? I broke them up by relevance and changed them on my own Big Visible Chart.  OK it’s a spreadsheet, but still.

First, are the must-do tasks for a month. These are important life tasks that I want to do and do as soon as possible and most are repeating.. My motivation is “I really better do these.” Now I know what has to get done, and I’m motivated to do them out of importance. Also there’s less than I thought so that helped. In my list of work I marked them “hot” colors – yellow for do at the start of the month, orange in the middle, red at the end.

Second are the important things to do for a month that are kind of regular maintenance; blog posts, cooking, working out, and maybe some lower-priority stuff that’s added for the month. These things can shift around, but are also the “daily grind.” Seeing this made me realize a lot of them can be done reguarly and over time – in fact many have to be (I’m not going to cook 80 meals at once or workout for 15 hours in one day). I saw that these could be paced, that they didn’t need to build up – and that I should never see this as a giant task to surmount, but one that’d be done over time.

Third but not finally is my creative work – books, the Sanctum, other projects. These are things that I do in addition to “life” stuff – and they’re the fun things. I didn’t overload this for the month of April, but may add more. In my chart they’re green.

Seeing it like this made me see what I’d done wrong:

  • Trying to spread out my most vial (“hot” colors) work as opposed to getting it out of the way or just doing it at the right time and not worrying about it. I had a gut feel that this was wrong, but this helped me put it into words.
  • Being unsure how to pace my more regular tasks like cooking and so forth (blue). Because there was so much, I kept trying to do all of it and feeling overwhelmed by this big pile of “stuff”. Really the pile would decrease over time.
  • Viewing my more fun work (green) as labor by conflating it with regular tasks. I had treated it like other work, trying to fit it into other things to do. Now I could see this wasn’t a grind – this was stuff to do when the other work is done, caught up, or has just bored me.

So what solutions did this give beyond solving my issue:

  • For the vital work that has to be done at the start of the month, my goal is to get it over with early, even if it’s a bit of a haul.
  • For vital work due other times in the month, I don’t worry about it until I have to.
  • For the regular grind, pace myself. Don’t let it overwhelm me, or try to get too far ahead of it.
  • For the fun stuff, I realized now that I’m aware of it, I can make space to do it when I want to relax, when I want to get it done, or when I’m caught up on the other work.

Ironically, I think I’ll get more done since I’ll be less stressed, less juggling work, and have better priorities.

So your takeaway, know your priorities and what work means to you. It’ll help you get the vital things done so you’re not distracted, pace yourself with the regular grind, and be aware when you can/will/want/should do your fun stuff.

– Steve

My Agile Life: Agile Relaxation Your Relaxation

(This column is posted at, Steve’s LinkedIn, and Steve’s Tumblr)

(My continuing “Agile Life” column, where I use Scrum for a more balanced and productive life continues).

I’ve put a lot of time here discussing agile techniques and mindsets for productivity.  But, let’s discuss relaxing and how it applies to an Agile Life.

Relaxing?  Having fun?  Yes, these are part of your life, so you’re going to have to figure how to handle them.  If you don’t, then you’ll either be less productive than you expect, or burn yourself out not relaxing or relaxing too hard.

First, relaxing and having fun can take time, obviously.  So how do you account for them in your taking an Agile approach to life?  I find two approaches work:

  1. One approach is to make sure you pick a workload that gives you time to relax.  If you’re good at making that call you should be fine – by the way, I’m not.
  2. A second approach is to capture social time as part of your plan – actual tasks/stories.  That way you get whole blocks of time to relax and it reminds you to relax.  This is probably good if you’re a bit of a workaholic – they act as roadblocks to that tendancy.
  3. A third approach, which I use, is to combine the above.  I capture major social events, and try to balance things out otherwise.  This mostly works for me.  I actually think if I did #2 I’d way overplan my own relaxing.

Now, once you find a way to make sure you have time to relax, I’ve found you have to approach it with the right mindset.  This is important – and believe it or not I’ve actually learned to relax better with Agile.

RESPECT YOUR WIP: I’ve discussed WIP, Work In Progress, the amount of items you want to work on at one time so you’re not distracted (I set my limit to 2).  Relaxing should be part of your WIP – if you do something big (like a con or a party) it should not violate your WIP limit.  If your WIP limit is one item at a time, you should have your plate of work cleared so you can focus and enjoy.

FOCUS ON YOUR FUN: Much as you want to avoid multitasking when working on something, you should avoid the same thing when relaxing, at least on big things (like a party, a really good video game, or so on). Give yourself a chance to have fun, don’t suddenly switch to work in the middle of it, don’t try to fuse “serious” relaxing with actual tasks.   Just as you should focus on a task, you should clear your mind for fun.

So there you go.  Some Agile insights on fun.  That’s why I do these things.

(By the way I do plenty of books for coaching people to improve in various areas, which may also help you out!)

– Steve