I struggle with feeling satisfied at the end of my domestic days. Slowing down, being mindful, and making a deliberate effort to do fewer things well, I was surprised to discover, left me feeling like I was not doing enough, and bad at everything. Coincidentally, this was also how I felt when I was taking on more than I could ever hope to accomplish. My solution to investigate this? Pay even more attention to what I’m doing, or rather, pay a different kind of attention.
I have stepped off the corporate path, and am still running my tongue around my gums to get the taste out. Yet, when it came to trying to figure out what is actually going on in my BIG TIME OUT, the most sensible thing I could think to do was to run an agile board. I spend a lot of time wondering why our corporate and economic models omit so much of real life, but as it turns out, this has been a really helpful lens to understand my own behavior. Funny that.
I’ve got five epics: my personal endeavors, kids & family, and the logistics of the household, a “today” task list, and, of course, a backlog. I put down
all most some of the stuff I anticipate needing or wanting to do, estimate how long each task will take, and then prioritize the “today” column each morning. This has been a very educational experience.
I suck at estimating how long stuff will take. I rarely know how long something will take until I’ve done it. Often, I forget to measure in a discrete way, so I retroactively guess. Sometimes I skip estimating because I don’t know, but don’t bother break out a task into something more estimable, or even hazard my best guess. I’ve seen (and by and large believed) all of these things in development teams, but trying it with something so personal let me understand the limitations of estimates in a much deeper, felt sense.
I suck at prioritizing, and a rarely execute my day in the order of priority I’ve set. As a Product Manager, I wasted a lot of energy lamenting that business units have no idea how to prioritize. Turns out I don’t either. I don’t have a clear idea of what is most important. There are a lot of competing, non-binary factors that might make something more important, or not – it depends. As it happens, I can not predict the future, nor I am I all that comfortable with not being able to. I know how is ridiculous this is, still it remains true in my experience – which is frustrating.
Hierarchical models, like prioritization, are inherently binary – you’ve got more or fewer bits of “yes” turned on. But prioritization only remains accurate when layered on top of a perspective that it already matches. When they don’t match, then there’s a conflict to resolve. What I didn’t realize is that these conflicts are constant. Sometimes they’re small and obvious, like wanting to eat something before getting started, and sometimes they’re large and subtle, like reorganizing a business unit, or development team. Prioritization can be a useful framework, certainly, but expecting it to be a unifying, static definition of reality, well, that is not only impossible, but seems like a sure way to end up confused and disappointed. But we all agreed on the priorities… Equally as helpful as identifying what ever priorities are set, would be identifying all the conflicts that might impede them – and not just the obvious ones of time, budget, tools, and human talent. Comparing the length of those lists – priorities and conflicts – might be as accurate a predictor of project success, or percentage of overrun, than any other.
My “stuff” permeates the simplest tasks in way that is fairly alarming. It takes me five minutes to put in a load of laundry if I just grab enough clothes of a similar color, add soap, and start the wash. But if I do it the way I’m patterned to do it – get all the laundry from all over the house, and sort multi-tiered loads of laundry (bleachable whites, light whites, colors, and then by fabric weight within those groups, and/or other logical grouping like linens, kids, and adults) – then it takes me, well, longer, and how much longer varies based on the laundry that day. Subtle, personal preferences and patterns influence my actions in a way I just didn’t (don’t) realize.
My life is much more dynamic and emergent than a model like this allows for, which throws off my estimates and prioritization even more than they were to start. Almost nothing is linear, and I am constantly being interrupted. My tasks take way longer than I think they “should” because I am dealing with semi-rational, semi-functional, and unpredictable team mates. My kids are little and require a lot of help. Stuff takes longer because I need to do it for them, because they undo it, because they are doing something else at the same time, because they are practicing something they’re not yet good at, and almost everything at their age requires practice. I extrapolate my own (already bad) estimates onto the kids, and then end up unhappy that the reality did match a plan that was delusional to begin with. WTF? I can clean up, get dressed eat and be ready to leave in
30 minutes an hour, but doing this with my kids is a two, sometimes three hour job. I’ve spent years being frustrated by this, and feeling like this was somehow a personal failure of mine. And it was, but not in the way I thought – it was not a failure of execution, it was a failure to let reality define my expectations and actions, rather than the other way around.
My environment and the moods of myself and others are the largest influences of what I do. If the weather is nice, or my kids are foul, the day can take a radical departure from what I had planned. I am astounded at how much this alters the flow and choice of my activities; I suspect these likely hold a much larger sway in our business environments than we recognize.
Almost everything I do is cyclical, “done” is a dangerous fallacy. Seeing this (in the very concrete form of moving post-it notes back a forth, and back again) has helped me shift my attitude to valuing the quality of the process over the completion of the task. It’s also helped me see how the natural order of everything is fundamentally rhythmic. Any model that does not account for expansion and contraction is bound to fail at some point, because it’s leaving out half of something. This is what makes temporal models so tricky – time is linear, predictable, and only moves in one direction. When we bind other processes to time, it’s easy to expect them to share the same qualities, and consider the natural reset of the cycle a failure when viewed through the primary lens of time.
These are not particularly profound realizations, but rewiring my automatic response system to value action over outcome, and welcome resets, is a profound change (challenge) for me; it requires a lot of intentional awareness, emotional energy, and patience. A task is only done for a moment, before dust starts to accumulate again, or another dish gets placed in the sink. When understood in this way, valuing an instant of satisfaction, rather than the entire process in between those blips on the graph, seems insane. Why set up pleasure to be so brief, and so antagonistic to the natural course of events? I’m surprised by how strongly I associate the “completion” model with value, and how commonly I use that as my viewpoint.
The value of this process is in analyzing behavior, not outcomes. So frequently data, tracking, and analysis are used to pressure conformity to predefined outcomes – finish a project on schedule, loose three pounds this week, meet a testing standard – rather than understand the underlying reasons for any deviation that occurs. It’s good to have goals, it’s totally legitimate to have a schedule and a plan, but it’s also important to be
able willing to question if the goal and the plan were reasonable to begin with, or if they account for all the common variables. Most discussions about “failure” are focused on what prevented the objective from being met (frequently cast as unpredictable, one-time events), or perhaps they skip right to fixing the problem. Typically it’s asked: How do we make up for the deviation that occurred, and prevent it from happening again? instead of Why did we see the deviation we did?
The most valuable part of this exercise has been to help me see that the root causes of my dissatisfaction are different than I thought. I’ve become more aware of my behavior, and make more conscious choices about what I’m doing. I’m more compassionate with myself, and more satisfied with the choices I make, in large part because they’re done intentionally, with fuller knowledge of what’s gained and lost. The data is not telling me what to do, it’s exposing what I already do – indirectly, by making visible the gaps between the model and what actually happened. I’m still not satisfied, but I’m less unsatisfied. I’ve got less doer’s remorse, and this is a good thing.