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Discussion Forum > A fundamental conflict

No matter what system I use, I still struggle with backlogs that grow out of control. The problem always gets better, but it hasn't been eliminated.

This seems to be the fundamental conflict:

(A): The goal is to stay on top of my work.

(B): To stay on top of my work, I need to finish what I've started. To finish what I've started, I need to focus on current work, meaning I should avoid taking on new work (D).

(C): To stay on top of my work, I also need to respond effectively to new demands. To do that, I need to take on new work (D').

(D) and (D') are in clear conflict.

This is illustrated here using Goldratt's Evaporating Cloud diagram:
April 30, 2017 at 2:08 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Here's another way of expressing the same thing, but in terms of meeting my customers' needs:

(A): The goal is to consistently meet my customers' needs.

(B): To meet my customers' needs, I need to finish the work I've already started. To finish the work I've already started, I need to say NO to new work (D).

(C): To meet my customers' needs, I need to respond to new customer requests. To respond to new customer requests means I say YES to new work (D').
April 30, 2017 at 2:13 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
For some reason, that last link didn't work. Use this instead:
April 30, 2017 at 3:04 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Once the conflict has been defined, Goldratt's method for resolving it is to surface the assumptions behind each relationship.

(1) Challenge A: Do you really want the goal?
(2) Challenge D vs D': Is there really a conflict?
(3) Challenge B->A and C-> A: Are the requirements to meet the goal ALWAYS requirements? Are there exceptions? What is the nature of the exceptions?
(4) Challenge D->B and D'->C: Are the prerequisites for each requirement ALWAYS prerequisites?

So that's what I'll try to do next. Please join me! :)
April 30, 2017 at 4:34 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
1. I would guess you don't really want to "meet ALL of your customer needs consistently" but rather, you wish to meet enough of your customer's needs so that they remunerate (pay) you now and in the future.
2. I suspect this is only a conflict because you more work coming in than you have the capacity to manage. I suspect that using some explicit negotiation with your customers about whether they want existing work completed or new work coming in may resolve this conflict.
3. It's clearly not always necessary to finish what you've started, after all, your customers sent in new requests before you were finished with the prior work! It also doesn't seem to me that you must ALWAYS respond positively to new customer requests. Why isn't "I can't handle this at this time" a possible response?
4. Again, if you had sufficient capacity, or knew when your customer's changed priorities, the causal connection between either of the branches would be broken.

Hope this is helpful.
April 30, 2017 at 22:26 | Unregistered CommenterRyan Freckleton
Customers don't always know what they "need." They know what they want right now, but they may not understand the tradeoffs in getting it or the alternatives they have not considered. The most amazing business innovations have delivered something that few customers imagined wanting or needing but turned out to be adored by (almost) all. Netflix comes to mind: renting movie discs through the mail sounded to me like the dumbest idea ever, until I had tried it for a few months, and then I couldn't imagine going back to the old way.

So I think this conflict is broken by having complete transparency with customers. Once they understand all the tradeoffs and constraints in what they are asking for, and have fully considered the alternatives, they will be able to be a partner with you in choosing how to allocate limited resources toward their goals.

If only this worked for personal work! Unfortunately, having a pretend dialog with my other selves about these tradeoffs and priorities doesn't seem to get me anywhere. It's still ultimately just me sitting here wondering what to do.
April 30, 2017 at 23:34 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
Ryan, your second item hits on a key assumption that unlocks the conflict, I think. The assumption is that "taking on new work always prevents me from finishing what I've already started." This is obviously not true.

So I guess a key question is: At what point does accepting new work have an unacceptably large impact on finishing the work already started?
April 30, 2017 at 23:53 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Bernie, your last paragraph hits the nail on the head. I think I made a mistake in making too much equivalence between managing personal workload and managing customer-facing work in those two conflict diagrams. They are related but not equivalent, and the customer discussion is leading away from the fundamental time management question I am trying to address.
April 30, 2017 at 23:57 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
The work I am currently doing on high-volume high-speed low-resistance lists threatens to make this entire discussion obsolete.
May 1, 2017 at 1:14 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark, I am always intrigued by your new systems, and follow them closely!

But elsewhere you wrote:

<< A “catch all” system always ends by either building resistance to the list, or by processing endless amounts of trivia. >>

I sincerely hope and believe you will find a catch-all system that overcomes these faults, but my gut feel is that No-Question-FVP isn't it. Whenever there is stress in the system, easy stuff begins to "stand out" over the hard stuff more often than it should.

Faster processing of the easy stuff is what leads to the endless amounts of trivia.

Slow neglect of the hard stuff is what leads to resistance to the overall system.

Since resistance with NQ-FVP is so low, and processing speed is so high, I'm guessing two things will happen:

(1) It will take longer for these symptoms to appear than with other catch-all systems.
(2) When the symptoms do appear, they will be more pronounced.

I could be wrong, of course, and I'd be willing to give it a spin myself, if I weren't so preoccupied right now.
May 1, 2017 at 7:28 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

No signs of it happening yet, but of course it's early days.

Bear in mind that the high processing speed yesterday was achieved by someone suffering from severe chemotherapy side-effects!
May 1, 2017 at 9:11 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I'm interested in the new NQ FVQ so will give it a go. Will report back in a couple of weeks. Seems like a good idea to try it first and see what problems crop up, or if it really does work. I will make sure I don't put any trivia on the list!

Also interested in evaporating cloud theory on the backlog problem. I'm have a huge backlog I just cannot clear, so it seems I will just have to live with it and manage it best I can. Currently working 3 days a week on new stuff in and 2 days on backlog. The backlog is isolated and prioritised so deadlines not missed.
Seraphim - how do you clear the backlogs?
May 1, 2017 at 9:16 | Unregistered CommenterMr Backlog
Mr Backlog:

<< I will make sure I don't put any trivia on the list! >>

It depends what you mean by trivia. Things like making sure your desk drawers are organized, labelling your files consistently, keeping your various inboxes at zero, etc etc, may seem trivial but have a real effect on your efficiency.

<< how do you clear the backlogs? >>

Schedule the date on which each backlog item will be re-introduced to the main list. In the meantime forget about it.
May 1, 2017 at 9:52 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Yes I agree. The things that seem unimportant have a habit of causing problems later if not actioned quickly.

I'm trying NQ-FVP for that exact reason. I'm hoping it will help get through everything and balance working on the backlog and new stuff.

Inevitably there have been a few causualites with such a large backlog - deadlines missed, client queries unanswered etc. I have been reducing commitments to ease the problem.

I like the idea of pulling in backlog tasks to the main list so will try that.

I'm hoping by the end of the year to be Mr Uptodate...
May 1, 2017 at 10:50 | Unregistered CommenterMr Backlog
@Seraphim: I think your definition of "staying on top" is not clarified enough. What do you mean *exactly* by that?

For example, if you promised your daughter to come to her baseball game next Wednesday and you said to yourself you will wear your old Giants cap to it. Now let's say, you made it to the game, but you forgot the Giants cap. Are you now on top of your work? What with all the activities you would normally do on that Wednesday afternoon? Are you on top of them if you do them on Thursday or do you have to finish them on Tuesday?
May 1, 2017 at 11:12 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher
Backlogs: I disagree with Mark about assigning a date to re-introduce each backlog. If the date arrives and you're still working on the first, adding another will be adding one more spinning plate. I speak from experience.

Instead, use that date to ask the hard questions. Why didn't you finished the first one on schedule? Is the first one even worth continuing, or should it be deleted completely?

The deadline would also encourage you to focus on the valuable parts of the backlog. In order to meet my goal for the year, I cannot spend more than a month on this pile of magazines, or more than a week per magazine. Maybe I don't need to read the articles that don't really interest me, just to be complete. Maybe even skip those that are interesting but are about things I already know. Maybe set the question date earlier, so you have time to change how you do things, so you can meet the date.

(My problem is that I don't listen to the answers to the hard questions. I want to read every article to be complete.)
May 1, 2017 at 23:45 | Registered CommenterCricket

If I were you I'd chuck out the lot. I did that in a similar situation and never missed them at all..
May 2, 2017 at 1:33 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I chucked a lot this weekend. Progress!

If I'd said "On May 1, I will start work on the second pile, even if I haven't finished the first," I'd have started the second pile on page 1, and now had two active piles. I'd take just enough action on each to fool myself into thinking I was making progress.

Instead, I asked the hard questions about the first pile, and got rid of most of it.

Looking at the second pile, I now had a few months of distance, so the hard decision was easier to make.
May 3, 2017 at 16:47 | Registered CommenterCricket
Mr Backlog:

<< Seraphim - how do you clear the backlogs? >>

I just do what Mark has often suggested, especially in the Do It Tomorrow book:

Whenever I get behind, I "declare a backlog". I put all the backlog items somewhere separate from my current work.

E.g., emails. I take all the backlogged email and put it in a separate folder and call it "backlog" with the date, e.g., Backlog May 2017. I then "start fresh" with all current and incoming email. Whenever I have some time, I clear out some of the backlog. It can sometimes take awhile, but at some point I hit a turning point and start deleting / clearing out in large swaths and it's done quickly.

There is nothing especially TOC-ish about any of this. :-)
May 3, 2017 at 22:42 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

<< @Seraphim: I think your definition of "staying on top" is not clarified enough. What do you mean *exactly* by that? >>

Good point. I will ponder that. :-)
May 3, 2017 at 22:43 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
I think "staying on top of my work" means maintaining a state in which:

(perceived demand on my time) <= (my perceived capacity)

But this is somewhat problematic. In one sense, the perceived demands on my time are ALWAYS greater than my capacity. There are always more opportunities for doing new valuable things than I could possibly ever accomplish in a thousand lifetimes. All of these represent some level of "demand".

So maybe I should narrow "perceived demand" to something like "the perceived demands which I have accepted" or "the perceived demands which I have implicitly allowed to place demands on my time and attention". I've let the dogs in through the gate -- now I have to deal with them. Or worse, maybe I don't even have a gate, and the dogs come and go as they please.
May 9, 2017 at 4:57 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

I've written loads on the subject of commitments - all of which is relevant to what you are saying. but perhaps the most important thing I say is that making a commitment is as much about what you are not going to do as about what you are going to do.
May 9, 2017 at 14:34 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark, yes, you have written extensively on this, and I agree with the principles you teach. The "what" and the "why" makes perfect sense.

The challenge for me has always been the "how".

You have addressed this also, but I don't feel I've found anything that quite works for me yet, at least not in the simple and systematic way that I want it to work.

DIT uses the "audit of commitments" approach whenever you fall behind for more than 3 or 4 days. I've done that audit many times. It's helpful - yes, it's helpful. But it's also time-consuming. And it tends to be a top-down, brute-force approach.

Top-down, in the sense that I end up with a list of all my commitments, which I then need to prioritize and trim -- and a danger with any top-down approach like this is the disconnection from daily reality, the inclusion of things that I think I "should" be doing, but in actual practice never get done, at the expense of what really has traction.

Brute-force, in the sense that you have to set aside time and force yourself through the audit process. It doesn't emerge naturally in the course of daily business. Sometimes brute force is necessary in life, I suppose, but it's always jarring and interrupts the flow of things.

Your AutoFocus and subsequent systems try to solve the problem of managing commitments with a more "emergent" approach. Just work your work, following the rules of the system, and see where it takes you, and the process will reveal what your commitments actually are, and help trim away the things to which you really aren't committed.

All the AFs, DWM, SF, spinning plates, FV, FVP -- they all manage commitments this way.

The problem is, it never seems to have struck the right balance with me. As you've written, a tendency with all catch-all systems is to lean more towards the easy stuff ("processing lots of trivia") or to develop resistance to the overall system.

The resistance starts to happen (with me, at least) especially when I am finding myself going "off system" to deal with my commitments.

Most of my own tweaks to your systems were invented to address this issue - such as this FVP hack:

I'm having fun with my new experiment, but we'll see if it helps address any of these issues or not.
May 10, 2017 at 17:12 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

I think the next post in that series is very relevant too:
May 12, 2017 at 10:39 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Yes, that's a very good post as well. It was really great to re-read these no-list posts from last year! I really like getting back to that sense of flow, engagement, and focus that no-list always generates.
May 13, 2017 at 1:17 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
I've been searching the blog for any ways of dealing with overcommitment.
Sadly, all the blogs are telling me the only solution is to reduce work coming in.
Having such a large backlog myself makes me feel bad.
It just occurred to me that if I renamed the backlog as "future log" and scheduled it all to be done later, then all of a sudden I'm 100% up to date...
Great I feel better already! I think I have solved over commitment once and for all.....
That means I can take on more and more work, but might get round to it in 3 months!
May 13, 2017 at 11:52 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
Mr Backlog;

A better way is to reduce drastically the time you spend working on backlogs. For example:

1. Reduce your work hours by half. That forces you to concentate on essentials.


2. Give yourself a date in the near future when you will delete all your backlogs. You have until then to deal with anything really important in them. The rest is chucked.
May 13, 2017 at 12:10 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mr Backlog -

Have you tried any of the no-list systems? They help me to limit work in progress so it stays focused on what's really important, and greatly reduce the accumulation of new work that I can't finish.

Sometimes this has the effect of moving the backlog off my working time management list, and off to some other place, such as my list of projects. It's generally a lot better than the catch-all methods, but it can still be a problem -- which is why I started this post. :-)

I still think the backlogs are the result of the fundamental conflict I described at the top of this thread. And I'm still not sure how to resolve the underlying conflict. My new method ( ) is really helping me find a great balance between focus and responsiveness: focus on important stuff that needs to get done (which clears the hardest things out of the backlogs), responsiveness to the changing needs and demands of the day. But the fact that I have found a "balance" bothers me. "Balance" is another word for "compromise", and "compromise" is usually a "lose/lose", not a "win/win". The evaporating cloud method is supposed to eliminate these compromises. So I think the real, permanent solution is still eluding me.
May 13, 2017 at 15:08 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
I don't tend to make lists, but just work straight from the source. e.g email, post or telecalls.
I have a small list of projects to work through at certain times of the month.
That seems to be most efficient for the type of work I do.

I guess we are all different and tend to develop our own methods to best handle tasks. Hence everyone seems to keep trying new methods.

I do use small lists to handle and focus on urgent tasks. However I have found that whenever I try to prioritise work, it just means other work is not done and that becomes urgent.

I wonder really if the only true solution to backlogs (per start of this blog), is to deal with everything in strict chronological order - oldest first, or those with specific due dates and chuck out everything else that is not really important until you have excess time available.

That sounds great in theory, but to actually put it into practice seems to be eluding me. I think like most of the world, more difficult tasks tend to get deferred. I'm thinking that is the real problem...
May 14, 2017 at 11:09 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
I like Mark's I idea of deleting backlogs after a certain date.
I know for certain there are quite a lot of tasks that are no longer relevant or have been superseded. Time for a purge!
I'm liking even more the reduce work hours by half....
May 14, 2017 at 11:29 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
Mr Backlog:

A couple of points arising from your post:

1) Prioritizing by urgency, contrary to the advice of most time management gurus, is an excellent way of prioritizing. It has the great advantage that non-urgent stuff gradually increases in urgency - so in theory at least everything should get done.

2) When dealing with a backlog, it's best to do the newest stuff first. As a friend of mine once said, that way only half your correspondents think you're an idiot instead of all of them.
May 14, 2017 at 11:32 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
That made me chuckle...So true!
The backlog - or now renamed "future log", is quite long so I have been working on it via DIT current initiative principles which works really well.
Great to see it shrinking.
I will pull out any truly urgent things and then plough through newest stuff.
Seems a good plan to me....
May 14, 2017 at 13:47 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
This month I experimented with aggressive goals for my backlog. Success! When I only have two hours to deal with 300 items, many of them get tossed. Also, doing them in a longer session helps me see patterns. i just read two articles on that topic. It's very unlikely that the remaining five will have anything new.
May 24, 2017 at 21:33 | Registered CommenterCricket