Agile Methods for Tackling the Work You Don’t Want to Do

I bet your list of things to do is overflowing. You have a ton of work. You know you need to do it. And, if you’re like me, some of it is work you don’t want to do.

I’m not excited about cleaning my office. I have much more interesting work: articles, books, client proposals … But if I don’t clean my office, the clutter will distract me and I will eventually become unable to work.

Aside from distasteful tasks, there’s another kind of work I don’t want to start: work I don’t know if I can finish to my satisfaction. I’m writing fiction—at least, I’m trying to. My perfection rules and imposter syndrome are kicking in big time. If I don’t start this writing, I can’t learn how bad I am. I won’t have to break any of my perfection rules or feel as if I am an imposter.

Here’s the interesting thing I’ve noticed about me. When I get that feeling in my gut—“I don’t want to do this. I’ll have to admit I’m not perfect or I’m still learning”—that’s the time I learn the most.

I get the most value out of doing the work I don’t want to do.

How do I reconcile not wanting to do a certain kind of work, yet realizing I will gain the most value from doing it?

I use two classic project management approaches you might associate with agile. I ask these questions:

  • What’s the smallest thing I can do and still show value?
  • How small a timebox can I commit to and still deliver value?

For cleaning my office, I can commit to cleaning the left side of my desk, near the printer. That’s a couple of square feet, max, and has papers I need to file. I can probably take care of that in twenty or thirty minutes. That will deliver value and let me proceed to the next to-do item on my list.

For the fiction writing, I decided to work in fifteen-minute timeboxes. I can write a few hundred words in that time. Even if I decide to not use the words later, I have broken my “stuckness.”

Another perspective I take is that I don’t have to be perfect. When I break the perfection rule, I can take the perspective that I am learning. That frees me to start.

When I wanted to automate tests, I would automate for fifteen minutes and see what I could do. I could provide something of value and not feel as if I were stuck in automation hell. When I learned new programming languages, I didn’t feel as if I had to succeed at the entire language. I just had to deliver something, even as small as “Hello world.”

If you, too, suffer from wanting to have finished the work but not wanting to actually do the work, try these ideas. Consider value, and you’ll start on your list—especially the things you don’t want to do.

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