“Never mistake motion for action.” – Ernest Hemingway
I find myself explaining this idea of “push” vs “pull” a lot because it’s fundamental to sustainable productivity in work and life.
But first, let’s start with the idea that personal energy is a skill.
And personal energy a skill that you can get better at over time, with practice.
To get better at recharging and renewing your personal energy, I recommend practicing more “pull”-based productivity.
Over 25 years at Microsoft, I’ve found that “pull” works far better than “push” when it comes to sustainable productivity.
The Power of “Pull”-Based Productivity for Sustainable Productivity
I think of “push” productivity as when you simply try to push yourself through the work that’s in front of you.
This is you using your discipline, your willpower, your habits and routines to push yourself forward through your work.
It drains your energy. You burn out over time.
I think of “pull” productivity when your future pulls you forward.
It’s compelling. It renews your energy. It inspires you.
With “pull” productivity, your work is connected in some way to your vision, or your mission, or your values and it’s this deeper connection with your inner self that “pulls” you forward.
Your future achievements inspire you through your day, your week, your month, your quarter or your year.
You enjoy the journey and the destination.
I designed Agile Results as a “pull”-based approach for sustainable productivity.
“Pull”-Based Productivity Creates “Inspired Work”
I’ve found it much more inspiring and energizing to “pull” rather than “push” your way through your work.
With Agile Results, I wanted a simple system for creating “inspired” work. I didn’t want to feel like I was “pushing” my way through a backlog of work. It was too easy to get overwhelmed or buried among a sea of tasks.
I wanted my work to “pull” me forward.
So, I designed Agile Results with a focus on creating meaningful results, working backwards from the end in mind.
I wanted to create compelling visions and inspiring outcomes that would “pull” me through any tough stuff and make the work more meaningful. Whenever I felt like I was pushing myself or the team through big challenges, I would find a way to switch from push to pull.
You can only ask people to “push” yourself or others for so long.
Pushing is when you just try to plow through whatever work stands before you. You can try to “push” yourself forward through the work before you, but that’s how people tend to burn out or get worn out or fall into a pattern of meaningless work.
Pulling is when you think of your work in such an inspiring way that the effort before you, “pulls” you forward. Problems become challenges and opportunities. Setbacks become leadership moments and learning opportunities.
These are the things great stories are made of, even the small stories you tell yourself during your day.
Your Values are the Backbone of Sustainable Productivity
I believe that values are the ultimate backbone of sustainable productivity.
You can recharge and renew yourself by connecting your activities to your values.
The key to living the good life is spending more time in your values.
We spend a lot of time at work. If you can connect your work to your values, you create a simple way to renew your energy.
It’s a personal journey but when you connect your value to your work, your work becomes the ultimate form of self-expression and a way to live your values.
And that’s how you become an unstoppable force spending your precious life force on things that matter.
And that’s the key to sustainable productivity.
Intrinsic Motivation vs. Extrinsic Motivation
Simply put, extrinsic motivation comes from outside of you. It’s external. You might hear extrinsic motivation referred to as “carrots and sticks” motivation.
Intrinsic motivation comes from within. And, as Daniel Vassallo put it so nicely:
“Only intrinsic motivation lasts.”— Daniel Vassallo
I often explain that Agile Result is about creating a compelling future that “pulls” you forward.
This is where you do your inner engineering.
By connect your future effort to your values, you leverage your intrinsic motivation:
- If you value adventure, then make it an adventure.
- If you value excellence, then master your craft.
- If you value customers, then win raving fans
Values are a personal thing. This is your inner work to figure out. That’s what makes Agile Results personal.
And when you figure out your values and connect your work to your values, this is how you unleash your most magnificent potential.
And you create a world of inspired productivity that generates energy and renews you.
“Pull” Yourself Forward Using Your Values
The most reliable way I’ve found to “pull” myself, and others forward is by creating a compelling future.
You can “pull” yourself forward by chunking up your effort into meaningful experiences, outcomes and scenarios that inspire you forward.
I learned that I could connect my personal values to work to make it much more meaningful:
- From “call back a customer” to “win a raving fan”
- From “finish that task” to “master my craft”
- From “do that project” to “lead an epic adventure”
I found that I could also connect values of the team to the work before us. And by doing so, could engage the team at the deepest level and contribution anyone could ask for.
This is human potential on fire.
You are the ultimate meaning maker. Anyone can create more “pull”-based productivity for themselves and others.
Anyone can do this by connecting your efforts to your vision, your mission and your values. You can use your vision and values to “pull” yourself forward from your future outcomes.
What Lean Teaches Us About Productivity
In the world of software, we learn a lot about productivity from a wide variety of industries and processes. In the manufacturing world, there is a set of management practices for improving efficiency and effectiveness by eliminating waste, called Lean.
In Lean, there’s this idea of “Push-Pull” that refers to the dynamic between a supplier and customer.
A goal in Lean is to flow value at the “pull” of the customer, while reducing waste and improving efficiency.
Push methods, as the name implies, pushes work through the processes based on a forecast of customer demand.
Pull methods, pull work through the process when the customer wants it.
One of the key distinctions between these two approaches is that “pull” methods explicitly limits the amount of work in a process, often referred to as Work-in-Progress, or Work-in-Flight.
Push vs. Pull Differences in Lean
In Lean, a simple difference between “Push” and “Pull” in Lean that people typically focus on is, where does the demand come from?
With Push methods, you naturally think of a centralized logistic plan. With Pull methods, you think of the customer asking for it somehow.
But the real difference between Push vs. Pull is whether you limit your Work-in-Progress.
The idea of limiting Work-in-Progress is a very powerful one that helps us with personal and team productivity, too.
Push Methods in Lean Don’t Limit Work-in-Progress
In Lean, “Push” is easy to understand because it’s the traditional method of scheduling a manufacturing or service process.
Push methods are “Make-to-Stock” because a certain number of items will be created based on a forecast of demand.
Push approaches are pretty common in factories and mass production that use Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems.
To get a sense of waste, imagine a dinner buffet where a bunch of food is prepared, but demand was over-estimated, so much of the food is not eaten, but thrown away.
Example push KPIs:
- Employee utilization – busy is better
- Machine utilization – use the machines to capacity, reduce downtime
- Production output – more stuff pops out
Pull Methods in Lean Do Limit Work-In-Progress
In Lean, “Pull” is based on the idea that customers should have the customer or service delivered when they want it.
Pull methods are “Make-to-Order” or “Build-to-Order” because customer demand determines when to pull a service or product through the process.
This demand variation forces organizations to design for flexibility and adaptability.
Example pull KPIs:
- Customer lead time – shorter time to deliver value
- Cycle time – move faster through the process
- Throughput – more output per unit time
Limit Work-in-Progress for Sustainable Productivity
When you don’t set a limit on Work-in-Progress, it’s easy block the flow of value and create a lot of waste. When you don’t set a limit, bottlenecks happen, and backlogs grow, as you exceed capacity.
Things start to pile up fast, and this pile of undone things can start to block you from finishing.
Unlimited Work-In-Progress creates context switching, task switching, and churn. You end up blocked or waiting on things, during the switching. You spin wheels without progress, because all your energy is spent on context switching.
This is how human energy gets wasted.
By setting a limit on Work-in-Progress, you can reduce waste and improve flow.
But how do you know what work is in progress when there are so many moving parts?
A simple approach is a Kanban board, or at least a simple list of Work-In-Progress.
Kanban Boards Help Support Sustainable Productivity
With a Kanban board, it’s very easy to see Work-in-Progress.
If you never heard of Kanban before, Kanban is a simple work management system. A Kanban board is effectively a visual depiction of work at various stages in a process using cards.
You design a Kanban system to help in 3 ways:
- Visualize the work
- Limit Work-in-progress
- Maximize efficiency
The whole goal of the Kanban is to improve flow of value.
And the beauty of Kanban is that you start from where you are. A process is not done to you. You start with the process you already have.
But you make it visible and increase transparency.
Note that it helps to “name” the work so that it’s not just the “stuff” you’re working on, but you can actually refer to your work, whether for yourself or for others. It’s a good thing when people can refer to that project or initiative or effort you are working on, because you actually named it.
Personal Kanban as a Tool for Sustainable Productivity
At Microsoft, my primary productivity tool was my whiteboard. I turned one of my whiteboards into a personal Kanban.
I would split my whiteboard into 3 sections:
- To Do
This would give me a very simple way to visualize my Work-in-Progress just by glancing at what I moved to my “Doing” section.
This is where I would use The Rule of 3 to set a simple limit.
I usually had an enormous backlog of To-Dos, but I did not focus on “backlog burndown”.
I focused on “value up”. I focused on my 3 Wins.
My 3 Wins represented meaningful work towards a compelling vision and outcomes.
For the team, we created a much more elaborate set of steps for our Kanban so we could really visualize our workflow and improve flow by fixing things upstream and reducing bottlenecks.
The Rule of 3 Helps Limit Work-in-Progress
The Rule of 3 in Agile Results is a great parallel to Kanban here in terms of limiting Work-in-Progress or Work-in-Flight.
In Agile Results, I use what I call the Rule of 3 to limit work-in-flight and to chunk things down. In the halls of Microsoft, I would ask people, “What are your 3 Wins?” In team meetings, I would focus on our 3 Wins for Today, or 3 Wins for This Week, or 3 Wins for This Month, or 3 Wins for This Quarter.
The Rule of 3 is a very simple way to chunk up big things into smaller, more meaningful chunks to make progress.
We’ve been seasoned for the Rule of 3 our whole life and 3 is simple and sticky. Here are some simple examples:
- Stories like the 3 Little Pigs, the 3 Blind Mice, etc.
- 3 acts in a play
- 3 legs of a stool
- 3 parts in our day, such as morning, noon, and night. (Years later, I found out Tony Robbins pictures his day in 3 scenes: a victory in the morning, a victory for the afternoon, and a victory for the evening.)
I also used The Rule of 3 because it was easy to remember 3 things (versus say 4 or 5), especially when your day is full of chaos and moving parts and information overload.
Use Personal Stories for Sustainable Productivity
You can borrow from the Agile arena and create one-sentence, personal stories that connect your tasks with your values and experiences you want to create.
When people ask me if The Rule of 3 is just a limit for “Work-in-Progress” like Kanban, I say no.
That’s just a helpful parallel so that if you use a Kanban system, you can easily understand how something like The Rule of 3 can help for personal productivity.
The much bigger idea of The Rule of 3 is to empower your productivity through simple one-sentence stories.
In the Agile arena, user stories have been a great way to communicate a user’s pains, needs, and desired outcomes.
User stories are a great unit of work.
In Agile, a simple story template would be:
As a user X, I want Y, so that I can Z.
As Bob the knowledge work, I want to organize my work, so I can feel more in control.
Why not use the same approach for your personal productivity?
- I want to clean the living room, so that I have a better sanctuary.
- I want to clear the back deck, so I can have better BBQs.
- I want to clear the path to the garage, so that I can ride my motorcycle friction free.
I used these simple home examples because sometimes people have a large laundry list of tasks to clean up their house. By breaking it down into scenarios that you value, you make it more meaningful, and you can prioritize better.
And better yet, the little steps along the way accrue to your bigger vision.
Use the Rule of 3 to Chunk Things Down for Sustainable Productivity
You can chunk big things down using the Rule of 3. By chunking bigger things down into smaller things, you build momentum.
Humans are momentum beings.
Progress is a profound form of happiness, even when it’s small, but in the right direction,
This progress helps us generate human energy and momentum.
Difficult things get easier because we can regenerate our energy.
Difficult things get easier because we can generate momentum.
Setbacks might knock us down, but we have the energy to get back up and keep moving forward.
Dream big, start small. Small progress helps generate energy and momentum.
Use the Rule of 3 to Prioritize Value
I’ve found it very powerful and inspiring to have 3 most important things to focus on for the day, or week, or month, or quarter or year.
It grounds you. It keeps things front and center. It helps you do first things first.
These simple one-sentence stories will help you in several ways:
- You can communicate the value you are creating more clearly to yourself and others.
- You can use the 3 stories to refocus and priorities when there are competing demands and distractions.
- You can reflect back on these stories to remember and make meaning for the time and energy you spent.
- You can reflect on your stories and be grateful for your efforts and achievements.
- You can use your stories as a way to look back on your adventures as work and to design your adventures forward.
These 3 things, these 3 stories, these 3 outcomes, these 3 results, these 3 highlights, these 3 headlights, these 3 wins, or whatever you want to call them, help you focus, prioritize, and energize your results and create better experiences in work and life.
And it’s a very rewarding experience to be able to look back and tell 3 simple one-sentence stories to yourself or others about the focus and results for your day or your week or your month or the quarter or even your year.
Without a simple framework, all we remember is we had a bunch of meetings, worked on a bunch of stuff, did a lot of things, etc.
Focus on Value to Reduce Waste of Human Energy
A big focus in Lean is reducing waste to improve efficiency and flow. I found this same idea is relevant for personal productivity.
Reducing waste helps create more sustainable productivity.
You reduce waste by learning what’s valued.
I found that value is the ultimate short-cut. And value is in the eye of the beholder, and stakeholder.
We spend a lot of energy doing things that don’t matter or doing do-overs because we didn’t check the value. So much waste is created when we don’t pay attention to value — what we value or what our customers value or what our team values or what our organization values, etc.
In so many cases, we can experiment and learn what’s valued earlier, before we overinvest down the wrong path. All we have to do is check with the person the value is for and validate our assumptions. This discovery process builds empathy with ourselves and other people.
When we get good at knowing what we value, we get better at generating our own energy. And when we get good at knowing what is valued in the system we are in, we get good at reducing waste. But keep in mind that one of the toughest lessons for some people to learn is that “wasting time” isn’t waste when we enjoy it, and we renew our human energy.
I know for many people this is true, and for me, it’s certainly true, that my great downtime, leads to my great uptime.
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