Finally, we have reached Chapter 2 of Monotasking by Staffan Nöteberg. It is ironic that a failure in my ability to control WIP in my personal life led to a two-week delay in delivering the re-read of this chapter titled, Cut Down on Tasks to Do. All the hand wringing aside, the delay has allowed me to reflect more on the chapter and to hone my use of the short-list and panorama cues and sessions. Long swaths of meetings still give me trouble, but getting the short list down to tasks that I missed in my first read of Chapter 2 has made a ton (imperial or metric) of difference. 

Chapter 2: Cut Down on Tasks to Do

The first sentence in the second paragraph of this chapter delivers the punchline to the whole chapter.  “We must learn to regularly remove tasks from our to-do list.” Things on my (and I assume most everyone else’s) to-do list can be limitless. While having a boundless backlog might sound harmless it can harm our ability to deliver value by existing if for no other reason than it needs to be reviewed and tended periodically. That time has to come from somewhere.  Lists of things that we will never get to also represent a moral hazard. Being on the list is an inferred promise that someday we will deliver on that to-do.  Hence the need to limit the list. Staffan uses a lawn care metaphor in this chapter which will be recognizable if you own a home or your parents felt that anyone under the age of 18 was equal to lawn care professionals. 

As with other chapters Staffan opens with five simple concepts that underpin the chapter. In this chapter they are:

  • The Busyness Fallacy – The number of tasks you start or the number of meetings you have on your calendar is not correlated to the value you deliver.
  • The Short List – Your 5 (not 6) most important tasks right now. In my initial implementations, I missed the word task in my initial read and compiled my five most important projects — that did not work well. The idea that items need to be small and actionable also puts the onus on every one of us to refine work into manageable chunks — this is the same concept as refinement in Scrum. This is the hard part of using the short list. As with all of the concepts in the book, I recommend experimenting until you find a flow and process that works for you. 
  • Weekly Purpose – Think of this as the flag on the hill you are rallying to when you consider what is next.
  • The Grass Catcher List – A list of all those things that have not been refused but are not on your short list. The term “refused” is important, you need to learn to say no or you will disappoint people and your blood pressure will require chemical management. The twist that Staffan adds to the classic to-do list is adding the stakeholder and date added to each item. Knowing the stakeholder serves two purposes, the first is input to prioritization and the second lets you know who you need to talk with when you “weed” the item from the list. The date starts the clock for purging.
  • Weeding – The side of my yard has a garden that has several shrubs, groundcover, and weeds. On a periodic basis, I have to remove the thistle plants that can grow taller than the shrubs or the garden delivers no pleasure (and looks like …). The grass catcher list is a lot like the garden, periodically you need to weed it. My personal weeding process is less incremental than suggested by Staffan; on a quarterly basis, throw everything out and start again (I put the old one in a folder in Evernote). Occasionally I go back and look at old lists, a few items pop back up, but the VAST majority were at best aspirations and probably closer to baggage that I was mentally hauling around.

The items on our grass catcher list that are baggage need weeding sooner rather than later. If one of those to-dos is for someone else, they need to be told you are not going to do them. Like using the short list, saying no requires practice and is mandatory for delivering the most value and not generally disappointing people (More reading – The Art of Saying No).

Chapter 2 boils down to a challenge to control work entry and therefore work in process. Where we have control (not everything is within our span of control), we need to hone in on what is the most important thing we should be doing NOW. During my experiment using panorama cues (indicator to call for a panorama session) and panorama sessions (reprioritization sessions) meetings were the biggest issue until I recognized that some I had control over the need to attend and others were mandatory.  Fear of being left out was driving my time prioritization over what was really important. An interesting life lesson.

Next week I am going to focus on adding stakeholders and dates added to my grass catcher list and I am going to try a weekly weeding exercise.

Have you bought your copy of Monotasking by Staffan Noteberg?  Focus on it!

Previous Monotasking by Staffan Nöteberg Entries

Week 1 – Logistics, Game Plan, and Preface 

Week 2 – Introduction 

Week 3 – Monotasking In A Nutshell