How to Focus with Work-in-Progress Limits

When I’m working on multiple things at once, and priorities constantly change, it can feel like I’ll get nothing done. Not only does my mind feel like a jumbled mess, I’m always thinking about the next task to complete.

The good news is, I’m not alone. Studies show that multitasking isn’t the most productive way to work, yet we still do it.

To my surprise, there’s a great explanation for all of this. It’s called the Zeigarnik Effect.

Getting teams to focus

The Zeigarnik Effect is the psychological phenomena in which:

  1. Tasks we start but don’t finish cause us ‘mental dissonance’
  2. We easily forget what we’ve completed

We literally cannot stop thinking about things we’ve half-done. In fact, we divert our attention (and celebrations) away from the things we have done, and put it back into the new things we haven’t completed. Many video games, like Farmville and Destiny, use the Zeigarnik Effect to encourage addictive behavior by always leaving the user with something incomplete. This keeps the user’s minds stuck on finishing their incomplete tasks.

But, as Carl Vikman puts it, while multitasking can seem productive:

doing many things is not the same “as getting things done”

To regain focus, we can do two things to get on top of multitasking:

  1. Limit “work in progress”
  2. Visualize and celebrate completed work

Work in Progress (WIP) limits

Unfinished tasks can be a huge energy drain, especially when new work pops up. They also hinder our ability to be creative. Multitasking decreases our focus and makes it harder to navigate our way through complexity.

That’s why being aware of how many things you do at the same time and limiting this makes a massive difference. And it works for both individuals and teams.

I usually tell people if you have a team of four and they are working on ten things at the same time, this means that people are probably working on too many things simultaneously.

Ideally, for your team you will find a “flow-zone” where the amount of work you undertake and your capacity align.

Flow is a function of capacity versus amount of work being done

Blossom has a neat way to make sure you’re aware if you’re escaping your “flow-zone”. If you don’t think it is a good idea to work on more than two features at a time you can set your team’s work in progress limit to two.

Whenever you work on more things than you’ve set as ideal (in this case, two) we’ll show you a small indicator to make you aware of the fact that you might be trading focus for fighting multiple fires.

Work in progress limits on a kanban board

It’s not a hard limit, and that’s on purpose. In the end, the point of a WIP limit is to help you get things done, not to stand in your way.

Make sure to celebrate

…with celebration comes motivation. And with motivation comes better products. And with better products come happier customers. — Getting Real, Basecamp

Celebrate a shipped feature, a major release or something your team has completed. Visually celebrating our wins help us keep them in our minds. They remind us how far we’ve come and motivate us to achieve more. Using handcrafted emails, Blossom can notify and remind everyone that a feature was finished. These celebration emails show who was involved as well as how long it took for a feature to be completed. It serves as a visual reminder of how much time and work went into creating a great solution.

Celebrate your completed work

Celebrating a shipped feature doesn’t have to stop with emails. Blossom can also send notifications to group chat tools, like Slack, Hipchat and FlowDock.

Our distributed team lives in our chat tool. It’s our shared environment, a virtual headquarters and party location. As a bonus, it also means we get to celebrate achievements using emoticons and shoutouts.

Share your achievements in your instant messaging system

Focus on less and celebrate your achievements

Maintaining focus is a real challenge, yet so incredibly important if you want to deliver high quality.

Working on a few clear things at the same time and celebrating your achievements are key ingredients that make an effective team and enable you to do the best you can.