This is a reworking of an article that I wrote in 2017, titled “Make limits and rewards a part of your development plan”, but five years later it’s one of the most engrained practices in my professional and personal life, so I’m going to continue to promote it!

The “just one more thing…” spiral

One of the major challenges of following a scrum or kanban approach to working is that it doesn’t inherently contain time for pause, reflection or recharging. (Sure, the scrum process espouses the benefit of an end-of-sprint retrospective, but these tend to be a one-hour pause for thought, often scheduled to run immediately into the planning session for the next sprint.)

Frequently we’ll fall back on the natural breaks in our calendar - also known as “weekends” - as the time to recentre ourselves, but as anybody who’s a parent or caregiver will know, often the weekends will be even busier than your day job (and there’s no way of pushing-back against your home responsibilities). I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve had an exhausting working week, have spent most of Saturday just trying to get over the week gone by, and then much of Sunday gets consumed with psyching myself up for the week to come.

All this means that “me time” can be quite hard for us to come by, and again this is doubled for anybody with significant familial responsibilities, even during unprecedented periods of lockdown. (Our son was born on the day before the first UK COVID lockdown; downtime? What downtime!)

Make rewards a part of your development plan

Agile (and especially kanban) aficionados, and users of tools such of Trello, will be well aware of the concept of a “WIP limit”; that is, a mechanism for restricting the amount of work items that are in any given state at one time. (Given the acronym, you might think that this only applies to work in progress, but you can limit other columns of your work too; for instance, I’ve worked with teams who’ve put WIP limits on their “In Test” columns. If there’s too much work queued up for testing, the team’s focus shifts to helping get those tickets tested before commencing any further new development.) But that just controls throughput in the system - if people are struggling, this merely means that they will drown more slowly.

On my personal kanban board, my lightbulb moment came when I realised that I could add a WIP limit on my Done column, and use this as a way of rewarding myself. In other words, as soon as 5 tasks are moved to Done, the column glows red and prevents me from moving any further work through. At this point, I force myself (without exception) to do something to reward myself; once I’ve cashed-in my reward, I empty the Done column and work commences again.

Rewards can be of varying sizes, although ideally they should be easy to take, and shouldn’t require much financial outlay. (Otherwise, the more work that you push through the board, the more tired and penniless you’ll be!) To give a few examples that might help spawn ideas for you - and maybe give you a bit of a glimpse into my psyche - here are a handful of rewards that I’ve cashed in for myself over the past month:

  • Had a Zoom catch-up with an old work colleague who I hadn’t spoken to in a decade.
  • Took some shears and cut back the nettles/thorns on an unmaintained public footpath near our house.
  • Do a tour of one of my local breweries.
  • Grab an ice-cream from Mr Tee (celebrity purveyor of ice-creams) when he’s next in the region.

I keep these ideas in a column on my personal kanban board which I’d previously titled “Rewards”, but this summer I’ve renamed it to “Self-Care Ideas” to acknowledge the fact that such breaks are critical for our wellbeing, and I’m not “spoiling myself” by playing one of these cards - I’m helping to ensure that I continue (to some extent) to be a happy, efficient, functional member of society.

It’s not just for your personal life

While schemes like this seem easier to apply to life outside work, we can use them to benefit ourselves and our teams in the workplace too. I’m sure we’ve all got a list of things we’d like to do at work which are always getting treated as low-priority, because something more important always seems to come along. Well, a rewards column would be perfect for these. Maybe it’s a piece of code that you’ve been longing to refactor, trialling a new tool which could help with your day job, or watching a conference talk on YouTube. Heck, in reading that last sentence, you’ve probably thought of ten of them: write them down now! You’ll find that you create a virtuous cycle, because now you’ll be enthused about completing your everyday work, as it moves you closer to doing one of these things that you want to do.

That said, don’t hide important career development into your rewards column. “Learn a new skill” or “Take the next level of that certification exam” should be items that your company are supporting you to complete, rather than something that you try to complete on the side. Training budgets are always a dark art, but at the very least, you won’t get it if you don’t ask - so start the conversation with your manager today.

Key takeaways 📝

  • The work is going to keep on coming. If you need a break, you need to create the opportunity for yourself.
  • Keep a list of small, fun activities that you’d like to do - and reward yourself with them at regular intervals.
  • You can utilise this technique in both your personal and professional life.