For a while I thought the solution to being a better worker in the information age was a Kanban board with post-it notes. I read David Anderson’s Kanban, a towering, life-changing classic on software engineering. Then I found a not-quite-so-classic self-help book called Personal Kanban that suggested a specific board design for individual knowledge workers (and ambitious massage therapists). I made a fancy (for me) board with 3M Command strips and a nice heavy piece of plexiglass. I divided it into sections according to the book and started putting tasks on it with post-it notes.
It didn’t work for very long. Then I realized the problem was the post-it notes themselves. They come in any color as long as it’s hideous. They force you to summarize complex concepts (while bathed in the intellectually stimulating aroma of Sharpie) in artificial, trivializing ways. Their visual form is the very essence of clutter — you can’t ever get them perfectly straight and the way the bottom never sits directly on the wall distracts from what little superficial information they convey.
But more than being little squares laden with aesthetic criminality, post-it notes have become the calling card of the modern work environment. Check out this photo from a company called IFTTT presumably designed to entice you to work at their hipster headquarters in San Francisco. Post-it notes everywhere, like some sort of disgusting virus that no one can kill. What are the post-it notes doing on the back of that dude's monitor? What function can they possibly serve?
Post-it notes now signify the rule breaking startup work environment where little ideas are flying around like crazy! We reconfigure our business model as easily as Lego! We were so excited about what we’re ideating we couldn’t stop to take actual notes! Hmmn, maybe we should release a version of Max that does nothing for people who love pretending to “think” with post-it notes? Actually we’ve used a collaborative tool called Realtimeboard with perfectly acceptable virtual post-it notes, so the problem’s already solved. And if you want something like Max that does nothing, I strongly suggest looking at Gliffy, an online tool for making flowcharts. I’m still trying to convince my friend Chris he should just put Max behind the flowchart, but that’d probably ruin his business.
Here’s an idea, how about just stopping with the post-it notes for a week. Try thinking on sheets of paper or, as a transitional object, the back of an envelope. Try complete sentences, paragraphs, scenes, or a 16-bar song. What do you notice? The world is a continuous flowing stream, not a series of discrete tasks. Nothing is ever really finished, and coming to that understanding is a cause for celebration, not something that should make you feel inadequate.
I replaced my lonely barren Kanban board with a beautiful cowboy painting by an artist from St. Paul, Minnesota named Cameron Booth that belonged to my parents. (St. Paul, as it turns out, is where post-it notes were invented, but the oft-told tale of their accidental success is a complete myth: it took many years of trial and error before they found their market.) Yeah, it's probably bad advice for a software company to suggest its prospective employees could be looking at cowboy paintings all day instead of post-it notes. I don’t care. I love looking at the painting and while it may not capture the state of my work, it reminds me of what is important: whatever you do in life, aspire to complete the picture, not the task.