When offering Agile coaching, practitioners often repeat the phrase, “Stop starting and start finishing”. This is an instrumental principle that reminds us to respect our work in progress limitations. The benefits of this phrase extend beyond the software development community. I once had a colleague say that his wife never appreciated a household chore halfway done.
It was only a few weeks ago, as I was running outside, that I noticed a version of this phrase on most crosswalks. The sign read, “Finish Crossing If started”. This sign resonated with me because it is yet another example, of why work in progress limitations need to exist.
Yes, it may be a rather morbid example, but imagine what could happen if you decided to start walking, then suddenly stopped, and started doing something else? You could severely injure yourself or even worse be killed. Most of us do not need a sign to remind us of the danger we take on when crossing a crosswalk but we could use a reminder when it comes to less serious tasks.
Think about it. We start working and then the phone rings, so we pick it up. We begin doing the dishes and then stop to help our children with homework. We begin to analyze data and then answer an unrelated email. We start an important conference call and then get distracted by a text message. It is a never-ending cycle of context switching and with each interruption we lose productivity.
So why do we do it?
We do it because we are not good at waiting. We do it because we are bad at saying “No”. We do it because it has become admirable to say, “I’m so busy”! We may even do it out of habit because the world is moving so rapidly around us and focusing takes practice.
Regardless, we must stop. We must build better habits. We need to finish what we have in progress before we stop and start something new. We know the consequences of context switching are dire. They cause quality deficiencies. They increase stress levels, they delay delivery and sometimes even put lives in danger.
So, what should you do? Start by setting work in progress limits for yourself. Remove distractions where you can. Once you have applied this principle to your own life, then help your teams, colleagues and children establish work in progress limits.
Talk openly about the value of waiting and celebrate examples where you recognized it helped. Lastly, identify where you are getting stuck and learn from sticky situations, so you continue to get better. Remember that once you start, the goal is to cross the street completely.