Personal Kanban and Time Surfing: synergetic practices

Mid-2014, after 25 years of uninterrupted professional commitment, I started a nine-month sabbatical. One of the fortuitous discoveries of that period was the Personal Kanban (PK) approach to time management. Here I republish a series of three blogposts that kept track of my experiences with PK. I will write two more posts that reflect on what happened with Kanban since I took up a regular work schedule again. My initial post is here. This second post was written soon after, about 6 weeks into the sabbatical.

Dutch zen buddhist Paul Loomans has come forward with an interesting time management approach. It’s called Time Surfing (TF) and pivots on seven mutually reinforcing principles. It seems to me, as a Personal Kanban (PK) newbie, that the method is a valuable complement to PK. It may also be the hardest part. In fact, time surfing injects a spirit of ‚mindfulness’ into Personal Kanban.

The principles behind the ‚time surfing’ approach are listed here (in Dutch). I’ll recap them briefly:

  • Focus on one task and make sure to finish it: a day consists of a string of tasks each of which is our sole focus for that moment. No multi-tasking! Large tasks divide themselves quite naturally in different subtasks. This meshes well with the key PK principle of limiting your Work-in-Progress (WIP) and pulling tasks into the DOING column only when we have capacity for it. But it’s not quite the same. Time Surfing, as will be obvious from the next principle, attends very much to what happens in the moment.
  • Pause at what you are doing and consciously accept the task at hand: when we engage with a new task Time Surfing recommends to take a brief moment to confirm that this will be the main activity for that particular moment. The idea is to ‚surrender’ ourselves to the timing and nature of the activity, whatever it is. Rushing is, of course, at odds with being guided by this kind of natural attention. The conscious pulling of tasks through the Personal Kanban value stream offers a good opportunity to exercise this kind of mindfulness.
  • Create blanks between activities: when our attention flags or when a task is finished it is good to have a blank space. We let our mind wander for a moment. But we don’t give in to the temptation to check email or browse the internet. We leave our desk, pour a cup of tea, empty the waste-paper basket, take a shower. Anything that doesn’t require us to focus. (Actually, smokers must be very familiar with these kinds of blanks). A blank provides repose but it also gives our brain the opportunity to shift to another mode. As far as I am aware Benson and Barry do not specifically highlight the role of blanks in their Personal Kanban approach. But they do draw attention to the importance of the so-called ‚waste’ quadrant of ‚not urgent-not important’ in Stephen Covey’s classic time management matrix: „Options are not always discovered during planning, they often come from happenstance. In the other three quadrants you will find work; here you will find inspiration. This is the organic quadrant.”
  • Give full attention to disruptions: Create a relationship with everything you do: a colleague who walks in with a question, an unexpected call, flashes of thoughts about things to do (but NOT the 37th email of the day that drops into your inbox). Rather than to distribute our attention, we emphatically and consciously shift our focus to the interruption, even if it is only to communicate that we will attend to it later. This aligns with PK’s disposition to accommodate constantly varying contexts. In PK it is always allowed to re-prioritize based on what happens around you or newly available information. Again, Time Surfing enriches this flexibility with a mindfulness element.
  • Be aware of ‚gnawing rats’ and transform them into ‚white sheep’: there will be tasks that we are reluctant to deal with, for all kinds of practical or emotional reasons. Again, it is key to create a relationship with these tasks. Approach, observe, reflect on what keeps us from moving ahead. Then we let it go. Once there is a relationship we are open to cues from the environment that may help us in dealing with the task. The agitation disappears. The ‚rat’ has been turned into a ‚white sheep’. In PK we create a similar kind of setting by visualizing our backlog and value stream. Personal Kanban is a meta-cognition tool. It helps us to construct a narrative not only of what we are doing but also of how we are doing it. The emerging patterns alert us to the presence of rats. Once we are aware of them, we can start to build a relationship.
  • Observe background programs: often stress emerges in response to emotions of fear, disappointment and uncertainty that we do not give a presence. We need to become aware of these suppressed emotions and allow to express themselves. First feel, then think. A walk around the block or a short meditation can be helpful here. PK does not talk about negative background programs. But it does stress the importance of paying attention to moments of ‚being in the zone’. Once we understand what causes positive peak experiences we can increase their frequency and duration.
  • Spontaneously choose what you are going to do: Time Surfing tells us that our intuition is the best guide to manage our time. We are focused on what we are doing in this moment, not so much on ‚working through a program’. The blanks provide space to let that intuition play out. In my opinion Loomans is not totally clear about the importance of keeping lists or agendas. On the one hand he finds lists are overvalued. He thinks we can do without. We might use them to check whether we haven’t forgotten anything, rather than to plan ahead. On the other hand he advocates the disciplined use of an agenda to inform our intuition about the time we have available, the rhythm of appointments and target dates. Obviously this is an important difference with Personal Kanban which accords a much greater significance to the visualization of our work context. But a PK practice does not preclude in any way an impromptu selection of tasks.
  • My experience with PK over the past weeks has alerted me to all kinds of default stressful routines. I haven’t quite mastered the pull dynamic yet. I tend to fall into a routine of pushing, of trying to work through as many tasks as quickly as I can. It’s the old ‚to do list’ drill. I really need to get rid of that and it seems to me that the principles put forward by Paul Loomans may help me accomplish that. But while the Time Surfing theory seems simple enough, implementation is another matter. Likely I’m not at this point a very mindful person. I constantly feel my brain skidding, bumping into obstacles, going off on tangents. The process of shedding these unhelpful patterns has only just begun.

I’ll end this post with a reference to an interesting piece of research that I picked up in the newspaper. Under the heading ‚Hit the reset button in your brain’, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin discusses how the brain’s attentional system works:

„Our brains have two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network (…) The task-positive network is active when you’re actively engaged in a task, focused on it, and undistracted; (…) the task-negative network is active when your mind is wandering; this is the daydreaming mode. These two attentional networks work like a seesaw: when one is active, the other is not. This two-part attentional system is one of the crowing achievements of the human brain, and the focus it enables allows us to harness fire, build the pyramids, discover penicillin, and decode the human genome. Those projects require some plain old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness. But the insight that led to them probably came from the daydreaming mode. This brain state, marked by the flow of connections between disparate ideas and thoughts, is responsible for our moments of greatest creativity and insight (…) This is the mind-wandering mode, making connections among things that we didn’t previously see as connected.”

I thought these science-based insights provide a remarkable validation of the principles embedded in Time Surfing: the state of natural attention, the blanks, the free play of intuition …