Introducing… Active Procrastination!

I think this is one of the first times I’ve created something new in a psychology context. Let me first outline the problem. I struggle to relax and unwind, but sometimes (even/especially during the workday) I need to do something different to get away from stuff. I guess you’d call this procrastination. Often I would go for a walk or do some exercise, and my friends were saying why don’t you just watch TV / read the internet / play flash games. But I couldn’t. If I did, I just felt guilty and certainly didn’t get pleasure or relaxation from it.

Research by Chu and Choi suggests that:

Not all procrastination behaviors either are harmful or lead to negative consequences.

I wanted to be able to procrastinate, not least because of this cool research that can be seen in this wonderful article. Basically, people who were told a problem, then played minesweeper, then attempted to answer a creative problem, came out with many more answers. As mentioned in the article, this may not be strictly speaking procrastination, but what I can do is replicate this creativity study environment at home for myself in the hope of enjoying their reported 28% increased creativity.

Cue the world debut of the Active Procrastination Board:

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Each card has something different on it, a little like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies. Unlike oblique strategies, they are all activities designed to:

  • Take me away from what I am doing
  • Take varying lengths of time (so I can choose what I need)
  • Be things I would like to do
  • Be playful
  • Be a large range of different types of thing
  • Be mostly “wholesome” activities
  • Not be too intellectually or physically taxing

When I first used this, I started having it with dice to pick the card, one for the row-number and one for the column-number. However, I found I wanted to use the board more if I picked one I wanted to do at that time instead. For example, “heading to the library to read a random book” in the rain is annoying and takes ages, but in dry weather is fine.

Please let me know your thoughts, and if you try creating your own I’d love to hear about it!

 

Deep Dive: Retrospectives

The term “retrospective” is prevalent for any of the Continual Improvement meetings, largely due to the popularity of Scrum. However, this post really refers to any meeting where a change to process is made. Whatever you might call this, it is very important, as I hope I will show in this post.

Why should the team do a Retrospective?

  1. It allows them to talk about their feelings in a safe space (Social Connection/Relatedness)
  2. It allows them to make small changes to their processes, to try to make their delivery better (Mastery/Competence)
  3. It allows them to feel in control (Autonomy)
  4. It allows them to step back and see what they’ve achieved (Purpose/Competence)

So a Retrospective gives a lot of the things that Self-Determination Theory holds are important for motivation (highlighted in bold in the list above). If you aren’t doing retrospectives in some form, then you are perhaps missing out on a chance to motivate and inspire the team, as well as not helping them to deliver more.

Who should run it?

There are a few options here:

  1. An external (to the team) facilitator. This has the advantage of allowing each team member to equally participate. The disadvantage is that the team members may feel that the meeting is happening to them, rather than for them. And of course someone needs to arrange the facilitator.
  2. A scrum master or similar. Advantages include that they are probably good at facilitating, and know how to help the team work well together, and that it is their role so they will make sure the meeting is organised. The main disadvantage is that it can dis-empower the  team (as above).
  3. A team member. This has the advantage of making team members feel engaged with the process (especially if they each take a turn). It has the disadvantage of needing meta-coordination, and can lead to variable quality.
  4. A manager. I think this is a bad idea as it reinforces the hierarchical ideas, unless the manager is a very effective Servant-Leader and able to keep her/his opinions to a minimum!

Who should be there?

Everyone interested in the team performing well. So definitely the team including Product Owner (or equivalent), and anyone else who might having valuable insights to share.

What should the outcome be?

The outcome of a Retrospective should be a very small number of SMART actions. A small number since the team can be considered a Complex Adaptive System, and as such according to Cynefin (and common sense) should be conducting small experiments rather than many large changes. By SMART, I mean Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based. Sometimes these actions will be about how the team work together, other times they might be about improving the working environment, software, tools, or interactions with others. Whatever is important to the team at the time.

It is also very important that a Retrospective is FUN! The  desired outcome here is that the team want to do it again.

What should happen in a Retrospective?

I’d describe a good Retrospective as Serious play. By that I mean playful but about something serious, with serious outcomes. Tools like retromat give great ideas for how to construct these kind of playful sessions. In particular, using colourful postit-notes, images, memes and other creative tools can make the session feel more fun. For me the important parts are:

  • Set the scene and let people check in. It is important here to get the energy levels up and frame this positively.
  • Write down separately comments about the last Time Period in some form
  • Allow people to speak about them
  • Agree on important core issue
  • Get the team to come up with and commit to a SMART solution or experiment
  • Get feedback on the retrospective itself

I think it is important to allow people to separately write things down because it allows the less vocal in the team to say what they feel without interruption by the more extrovert. It also keeps the discussion wide initially, before narrowing. This intentionally mirrors the Explore-Exploit of “the bandit problem” which is often applied to innovation theory. Essentially with Retrospectives we are helping the team to innovate themselves.

How often should we do Retrospectives?

Scrum says once a Sprint, where a Sprint is usually between one and three weeks. However, the team should decide the frequency. More frequent Retrospectives give fast feedback, and shorter feedback loops, so if you are very “agile” then it is likely you will be doing this very regularly. I’ve worked in teams that have a Retrospective each week, and others that have a Retrospective only once month.And of course they can change the frequency whenever they need, through the Retrospective itself. It really depends on what the team wants (more often is better as it gives faster learning).

 

Working from home?

I’m often asked “How do you manage to ACTUALLY work from home so often?”.

Well, for me the answer is simple: routine and adapting.

Thanks to reading lots of psychology/sociology books, I also think I have a reasonable handle on what makes humans happy: things like Social Connectedness for example. That means I build them into my rituals.

My schedule:

6AM: Wake up. Yes, every day same time. Apparently this is better for you. I also get out bed immediately, no snooze-button. I have always been a morning person, and appreciate this doesn’t work for everyone. My wife is now almost adjusted to this schedule (we find sticking to it works much better if we both want to sleep at the same time).

6:05AM: Go exercise! I follow a training plan as I’m normally on autopilot this time in the morning, and I find it keeps me motivated. This can be anything from a 30 minute light cycle to a 2hr run. Currently I’m following this half marathon plan. On my way out I let out the chickens (and if everyone else has bins out, I do that too. I can lose track of what day it is).

 

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7 days behind… I can’t keep up.

After this, I stretch, have a protein shake and
shower, then read the news over breakfast (which invariably involves eggs).

 

9AM: Depending on how long the workout has been, this might be a hour or on a rest day even two hours earlier: but I will definitely have started work by 9AM. First up I write down the stuff I’ve thought of during my workout – I often am like “oh yeah I must do XX”, for example today as I am about to go on holiday it was to look up the best way of exchanging Czech Republic Koruna. I add these as kanban cards to my board. I then check the priorities for the day look right: if I’m lucky I can catch my wife before she goes to work and see if she has anything she wants my help with. An important part of this process is that I’m blending “work” and “home” things together as part of the same list.

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Today’s board. The high WIP is due to waiting for replies to emails.

This allows me to flex onto whatever is more important, reducing the amount of “work” I do for “home” if that is what is needed. These tasks might me anything from “Do laundry” to “Write a blog post” to “Find out if data.gov has usable, open Littering Data”: I think the variety of these tasks keeps me engaged throughout the day.

 

9:15AMish: Crack on! Picking up either what was in progress yesterday, or whatever is more urgent today, I do it. And repeat. During these large work periods, I break it up with water breaks and whenever my Garmin Vivoactive watch tells me I need to get up and go for a quick walk round the block (around every hour).

12AM: Early lunch. No resting, just refueling. Usually leftovers or steamed veg.

12:30PM: Back to work. At around 3-4PM I am likely to start flagging, so I’ll probably change what I’m working on. I’ll also try to speak to a friend or family at some point.

6PM: Stop work. Sometimes if I’m not feeling in the mood this will be earlier. Make dinner. Eat with my wife (usually not chatting as she doesn’t like “eating air”).

6:30PM: Go for a walk with my wife (usually 5km, in the countryside). We talk about our days etc.

8PM: Home, get ready for bed. Read (currently”A song of ice and fire” and “Chase one rabbit“).

10PM: Lights out.

You might be thinking that anything like “going out” or requiring a late night would throw everything out of whack: and it does. I try to see friends on nights before I’m having a rest day for exercise, and I allow myself to wake up later if I need on that day. I ran several experiments where I reduced sleep, and it led to much less being done during that day. Seeing people is really important, and as such I try to go to one work-related event (eg Agile Meetup) and one friend-related event (eg pub) a week.

I make sure I top-up my social connectedness at weekends: like many young professionals I don’t have “free weekends” very often. The biggest thing I miss about working in an office is the social connection I found with colleagues, and indeed I am consider going to a co-working space, or even choosing to take on a full-time contract that would require me being in an office for several months.

I am also not fixed in this way of working, I am always trying new things. I tried a month of 5am starts in July, and did evening work sessions in August. Again, Inspect and Adapt is king.