maximise work not done

Start Less, Finish More

I was reading the 4-Hour Chef on the weekend and was thrilled to discover that Tim Ferriss is as passionate about Agile as I am! He didn’t say so in as many words, but I know that’s what he meant. Tim builds many of his successful high performance strategies around the concept of the minimum effective dose, or MED.


The heart of MED is to identify the smallest ‘dose’ required to produce a desired outcome. In Agile canon we know this to be “The Art of Maximising the Work Not Done”. This is a principle that I struggled with at first. It seemed counterintuitive to set performance benchmarks that celebrate doing less, but it is actually a stroke of genius. Doing Less = Finishing More.


Mark Twain expressed this beautifully when he penned “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” While others are madly scrambling to deliver an ever expanding scope, the discerning agile project manager is continuously reflecting and prioritising. This means their final ‘letter’ is elegant and high quality. It is the mark of a mature and experienced project leader to be clear not only on what is, but also what isn’t required for the success of the project.


In retrospect I realise that many of my project successes and failures could have been predicted entirely on the clarity of scope. That is, where my team and I were clear on what did not fall within our realm, and focused on completing what did (seems obvious now, right?)! It is not a complex idea, but it is extraordinarily powerful.

How to Finish More

Here are three red hot tips to guide you to start less, and finish more:


  1. Minimise Work In Progress (WIP). Be really clear on your deliverables in each iteration. For those of you playing at home, that means only take on one project/outcome at a time. This not only allows us to reprioritise and drop tasks if necessary but also reduces the damaging effects of context switching between multiple tasks in progress. Although it can seem to be more efficient to tackle multiple streams simultaneously, that is rarely (ahem, never) the case.


  1. Stop multitasking. As we know from experience, multi tasking is only doing multiple things badly. Research has increasingly brought prominence to the amount of time that it takes for an individual to refocus their attention on a specific task after even a minor distraction. If you add up the 2 minutes per email, task shift, or phone call, then you are creating massive amounts of unnecessary project downtime. In Agile that means focusing exclusively on the tasks in your current iteration.


  1. Reflect and Review. There is little point in producing impressive quantities of work that are superfluous to your vision, or working diligently on a top priority task that has since become obsolete. Maintaining a tight cluster of specific tasks means that the team is continually reassessing priorities before pulling up the next set of deliverables, and that you are ever on point in a dynamic and changing environment.

I wonder, what is it that you are currently working on that is adding little value to your life or results? Is it time to start your own “To NOT do” list?


Want to learn more? The Agile Project Manager, authored by Emma Sharrock, is your one stop resource centre for all things Agile Project Management.  You can buy your copy here. Emma is one of Australia’s leading authorities on how you can best apply Agile principles to your projects and your life.



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About Emma Sharrock

Emma is the author of The Agile Project Manager: Thrive in Change with Agile. An experienced change leader, Emma is passionate about working with people to facilitate successful change. Emma utilises Agile techniques, coupled with the Agile mindset to coach leaders and teams to achieve their business goals.