Backlog = (Average work coming in each day) - (average work going out each day)
In spite of all our efforts to ignore this rule there really is no way round it. However we can continue to fool ourselves by acting in much the same way as a chronic debtor continues to get further and further into debt. In other words we put things off into the future. In the same way that the debtor always believes that “something will come up”, so we believe in a magic fairytale day in which we have nothing else to do other than catch up with our work. Of course this day never arrives, and if by some amazing chance it actually did the sudden relaxation of tension probably would mean that we spent the whole day goofing off rather than working.
It’s interesting to see how this truth about workload plays out in various situations. How does it work with a “catch-all” list? Now the great advantage of a catch-all list is its completeness. You get everything on your mind down on paper so you no longer have the worry of trying to remember it all. There is however a problem with this. The work does not stop arriving just because you have written it all down. In fact writing it all down may make it less likely that you will get everything done, rather than more. This is because there is a certain natural selection going on with tasks, which means the stronger ones survive while the weaker ones go to the wall. The problem with writing everything down is that this natural selection is inhibited because the weaker tasks can’t take the natural path of dropping out of your memory and your life.
Anyway, as I said in yesterday’s article overcommitment is a systems failure, and the first step with any systems failure is to look at what is happening in our present system. How does this apply to a catch-all list?
Potential candidates to be tasks on our catch-all list come from a multitude of sources, e.g. our own “brilliant ideas”, our bosses, our clients, our colleagues, our families, our reading, social media, the tv, etc, etc, etc. On top of these existing tasks which need further work get re-entered on the list rather than deleted.
Let’s first of all look at the input procedure:
A potential task arrives on the scene from one of the above sources
A catch-all system is designed to catch everything. So the task is put on the list without further ado.
Another task arrives on the scene and is put on the list
and so on
No problem so far. The input procedure is doing exactly what it is designed to do.
What about the output procedure? That’s even simpler:
We do one task after another (according to the criteria of whatever system we are using to process the list)
But it’s here that we run into a problem: the time it takes to do a task is usually longer than it takes to write a task down. Since that means that tasks come in faster than it’s possible to do them, more and more tasks get pushed into the future.
So our problem with the existing system can be summed up as:
Potential work coming in each day is basically infinite
Work going out each day is finite
Therefore the list is potentially liable to expand infinitely
Fortunately in reality this doesn’t happen to quite that extent, but it’s easy to see what the present system is inevitably going to produce. Overcommitment.
Are there any improvements that we could make to a catch-all list system so that it doesn’t result in overcommitment? Well, here’s a few suggestions:
Authorized Project List
Stringent evaluation of tasks before writing them down
Limit on the number of tasks on the list
Limit on the estimated time it will take to do the tasks on the list
These are all on the right lines. But unfortunately they all suffer from the same thing. They require discipline and willpower, plus a correct judgement of the amount of time available.
There is no doubt that a catch-all list has some advantages, the chief of which is the feeling of completeness arising from having everything down on paper. But unfortunately having everything down on paper is not the same as getting everything done.