Sleep: Your Workflow’s Most Important Form of Slack

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It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it. ~ John Steinbeck

In Personal Kanban, Jim and I discuss how workflow should be optimized for throughput, not capacity. Work shouldn’t “fit” into your day but rather, it should flow. Much like how a freeway grinds to a halt when its capacity is exceeded, so too do people who are overloaded experience physical and mental gridlock. As with any system – animate, mechanistic, social, or ecological – the importance of incorporating slack to absorb and /or respond to variation, create efficient processing, and maximize performance is not simply good practice, it’s indispensable.

Recently, a series of disconcerting conversations caused me to reflect on how much we tend to undervalue our most important form of slack: sleep.

  • A  taxi driver shared how he works 12+ hours per day, with one hour off for lunch, seven days per week because as he explained, “I can sleep when I’m dead”;
  • A nail technician who works 7 days each week, 10+ hours per day, and only takes off holidays expressed pride in her “work ethic” while dismissing her colleagues who work 5-6 days per week as “lazy”; and
  • A software developer boasted he could – and in fact, does – exist on a diet of Red Bull, chocolate-covered espresso beans, and as little as 2-3 hours of a caffeine-induced coma…but admitted he greeted each morning in a haze of stupor.

Sure these folks might be “productive,” but how effective are they really in the long-term?

I spend endless days at a time without enough sleep. At first, normal activities become annoying. When you are too tired to eat, you really need some sleep. A few days later, things become strange. Loud noises become louder and more startling, familiar sounds become unfamiliar, and life reinvents itself as a surrealist dream. ~ Henry Rollins

We wear our busyness like a badge of honor. It has become our default way of existing.

Sleep, we rationalize, is for the weak and ironically, for “slackers.” We see it not as a function essential to our existence but as a reward to be earned. And when we do finally deem ourselves “worthy” of a healthy night’s sleep we “cheat” in an attempt to compensate for the hours we’ve been deprived of.

From the National Sleep Foundation:

Sleep experts say most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night for optimum performance, health and safety. When we don’t get adequate sleep, we accumulate a sleep debt that can be difficult to “pay back” if it becomes too big. The resulting sleep deprivation has been linked to health problems such as obesity and high blood pressure, negative mood and behavior, decreased productivity, and safety issues in the home, on the job, and on the road.

Beyond the obvious self-destructive nature of burning the proverbial candle at both ends, fatigue impedes our brain activity which leads to lack of clarity, which necessitates more effort, increases mistakes, diminishes judgment, and further contributes to our WIP.

So long as we view sleep as a luxury we will dismiss it as waste, de-prioritizing it when in actuality, it’s the ONLY thing absolutely vital to our workflow.

Does it really need to be stated? Humans cannot live without sleep.

So I propose we begin looking at sleep as integral to our workflow. Slack is not simply vital to your Personal Kanban, it’s vital for smooth, efficient flow and maximizing performance.

If you frame sleep as part of your work, unfinished sleep becomes WIP. We then struggle with focus, multitasking and task-switching become inevitable, creating a vicious cycle that interferes with the quality of other parts of our life. When we are sleep deprived, our WIP limit should actually be reduced.

I work in the quiet of home 7-8am to sort out things that are stuck or unresolved. Only after I have landed that thinking do I go into the office. ~  Tiffany Overton

A quiet mind, a fresh perspective leads to improved memory, longer attention span, sustainable  learning, and improved judgement.

Sleep better. Perform better. It really is that simple.

About Tonianne DeMaria

Tonianne is partner & principal consultant at Modus Cooperandi, co-author of the Shingo Research and Publication Award winning Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, co-founder of Kaizen Camp™ and Modus Institute. Toni explores the relationship between performance, motivation, and neuroscience, is passionate about the roles intention, collaboration, value-creation, and happiness play in “the future of work,” and appreciative of the ways in which psychology, Lean, systems thinking, and the work of W. Edwards Deming can facilitate these ends. She enjoys Coltrane, shoots Nikon, butchers the Italian language (much to the embarrassment of her family), is a single malt enthusiast, and is head over heels in love with her adopted home, Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @Sprezzatura.
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2 Responses to Sleep: Your Workflow’s Most Important Form of Slack

  1. Timothy Scott Wason says:

    So, in practical matters, how is sleep represented on the Kanban Board? Is it a post-it like other things, can you show how it works on the chart so we actually do get sleep.

    Bleary and needing sleep in San Francisco.

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