My Personal Work in Progress Limit

I have a really interesting post brewing, based in part on the excerpt from Bob Wachter’s Digital Doctor that has been making the rounds in my little corner of the internet. It requires me to complete some background reading, though, and to think carefully about what I want to say.

As excited as I am by the idea that has sparked that post, I wasn’t making any progress on it. I finally realized why over the weekend: I’m over my personal Work in Progress limit, and that was making me feel frazzled, which in turn made it hard to get things done.

The Work in Progress (WIP) limit is one of my favorite ideas from kanban. The idea is that each stage of your process has some natural WIP limit. If you go over that, quality (and throughput!) will suffer. I think this is a really powerful idea. You cannot keep loading more and more work into the process. At some point, it will break down, and you’ll actually get less done.

Personal kanban applies that idea to individuals, and I have found it to be a great tool for improving my own productivity and happiness. I think that everyone has their own natural WIP limit, and that limit will vary from individual to individual. Some people like to really focus on one project a time, and have a WIP limit that is approaching 1.  Other people like to be able to put a project down and turn their attention elsewhere for awhile, and they will have higher WIP limits. Importantly, someone with a WIP of 2 and someone with a WIP of 5 might get the same amount of work done over a 2-3 month period. They just have different preferred ways to organize their work.

Personally, I like a WIP of 5. This is a bit high, and I think that is partly because I don’t tend to break my tasks down into small components. This means that I often have a couple of items in my “Doing” list on my personal board that are actually parked- i.e., waiting for someone else to complete something before I can proceed. A purist might argue that I should break those tasks down into the portion I can do before the other person’s task and the portion I will do after. I am no purist, though, preferring instead to find the level of process that is most useful for me.

Anyway, I took a look at my personal board (which I maintain in Trello) and realized I had something like 9 tasks in progress. That was too many! So I pulled some- like my detailed blog post- back to “to do,” and I am concentrating instead on finishing some of the tasks that are in progress. I closed two tasks out last night, so maybe soon I’ll get back to that blog post I want to research and write. I am already feeling less frazzled and more focused, which is a sign that I made a good change.

I thought I’d share this little story, though, to highlight the fact that your personal productivity process is not something you fix once and then forget about. It is something you constantly monitor and tweak.


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