Tackle Life Together

A blog by Sally Waters

sally [at] homescrum .co.uk

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externalised: out of brain onto paper

“It’s like Lego” – Why Home Scrum works well (especially for neurodivergence)

It’s like Lego: modularity, atomisation and externalisation

Lego is modular, atomised and, well, external (hopefully)

Something that makes a Scrum board different from a to-do list is that every task is written on its own, discrete piece of paper. The task is not just represented by a bullet point and a few words, it becomes an independent physical entity, which in the tech industry is called a ‘ticket.’

The effect of turning abstract tasks into concrete tickets is surprisingly profound.

Say you are overwhelmed by thoughts, or trying to hold in mind all the parts of a task or goal.
Moving your thought process to outside your own head (externalising them) means that your thought process is captured in a stable form that you can now observe and consider more easily.
We can then identify the component parts and atomise them, so that you are considering smaller pieces of the whole, and not everything at once.
Putting each atomised part onto its own piece of paper means that they are now modular, and can be independently moved around, rearranged, and reordered in whatever way makes most sense.

Firstly, it lends a very satisfying physicality to the whole thing. The task is externalised onto the piece of paper, and that piece of paper embodies the task in a way that an item on a to-do list can’t. You can handle it, move it around and decide what to do with it as an object in front of you.

A day’s worth of tasks on the board for me, in rough time order.

This adds way more flexibility than a fixed list. You can move each task around independently—you can make your tickets into a to-do list on your board but then easily reorder them at any time. It’s kind of like a Lego™️ block, each ticket is like a brick; it’s modular. You can put the tickets together in whatever way makes sense.

Making your to-do list modular also means that context comes into play. That is, where your ticket is on the board (in the Doing column, for instance, or on a particular day on the calendar) adds a whole new dimension of information to that ticket that you don’t even have to explicitly write down; just moving it into the relevant place is enough.

For any type of modular system to be effective, the size of each module needs to be fairly small. To make our Home Scrum system work well, our tasks need to be atomised, or broken down, into some meaningful fundamental unit of action.

This is actually quite hard to do in practice, because our brain naturally chunks information into logical groupings, so what seems initially like an indivisible task might actually hide several steps within it. For instance, even a task like ‘take the bins out’ might involve: 

  1. checking on the council website for which bin to take out this week;
  2. going around the house gathering rubbish from each room’s wastepaper basket; 
  3. physically taking the bin bags outside to the wheelie bin and the wheelie bin to the kerb; and 
  4. replacing the bin-liners inside the kitchen bin.

You can always go further in atomising a task into its most basic actions, and in fact, taking this to the extreme is a recommended tactic of world-class self-taught learning master Josh Waitzkin, who focused for months on perfecting every nuance of a simple punch when he was becoming the world champion in the martial form of tai chi. However, it would get absurd to go too far with this for your everyday tasks. If the steps involved in taking the bins out are already internalised and easy for you to visualise, then keeping it as one task on your board is completely fine. But remember not to beat yourself up if doing that is not easy for you; if a task, no matter how apparently simple, still feels at all intimidating, then one way to deal with this is to remove it from the board and replace it with separate tickets for each component step.

Executive functions

There is much more going on in the brain than we realise, especially when it comes to being able to think ahead and plan tasks for the future. The executive functions of the mind are a set of cognitive abilities that are housed in the prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobes (the area of the brain just behind your forehead), and they are crucial for regulating your emotions and behaviour. It is these abilities that are disabled by ADHD, and affected by other neurodivergent conditions, such as autism, as well as dampened in effectiveness by various mental illnesses, such as depression.

So what exactly are the executive functions? I like Dr Russell Barkley’s definitions for them:

  1. The mind’s eye and ear (nonverbal working memory): we ‘see to ourselves’ and ‘hear to ourselves’—in short, we have a way to hold in mind and replay past experiences. This leads to self-awareness by allowing us to foresee the consequences of our actions; in fact, it is only by using this aspect of our imagination that we have any sense of the future at all.
  2. The mind’s voice (verbal working memory): we ‘speak to ourselves’ to make sense of our situation and question ourselves for useful information. This helps us solve problems and create rules for ourselves to follow. It also helps us follow other people’s instructions because we can hold those instructions in mind by repeating them to ourselves.
  3. The mind’s heart (self-regulation of emotion): by dampening down undesirable emotions, or coaxing out positive ones, we can have some control over our energy-levels and motivation, and also make sure we express our emotions in socially acceptable ways.
  4. The mind’s playground (planning): we can manipulate everything we’re holding in mind to create new scenarios and possibilities, then evaluate these options, break them apart and shuffle them around into a different order until we have a sequence of steps we can take to reach our goal.

All together, these four abilities enable four different types of self-control. They help us inhibit unhelpful responses and regulate our impulses. They are the reason that we can (sometimes) bridge the knowing-doing gap, and use what we know in the moment to choose our best course of action. But for those whose executive functions are impaired, that bridge has been destroyed or damaged, making the knowing-doing gap an even more frustrating and omnipresent part of life: you know what you should do, you’re not short on intelligence at all, but you don’t seem to be able to find a way to muster the motivation to act on that knowledge.

You may now be able to appreciate why ADHD (which, Dr Barkley suggests, would be much better described as ‘executive functioning disorder’) can have such serious consequences in terms of negative life-outcomes. It’s not a huge problem in the moment, and can even seem trivial since we all struggle with self-control sometimes, but over the long-term, pretty much any major good thing in life (like having financial stability, maintaining your health and relationships, and achieving any long-term or large goal) rely to some extent on our ability to defer gratification.

In our house, Francis’s impaired executive functioning can look like a whole bunch of things (and all of this is with life-long medication): misplacing his phone/shopping list/car keys, losing his thread in a conversation, bouncing around on tangents in a conversation, sometimes coming across as arrogant initially to people he’s just met, getting angrier than other people about relatively small things, having a tendency to be very untidy and not pick up after himself, impulsively buying himself many sweet treats while at the supermarket, going to bed in the early hours, being more susceptible to addiction, interrupting films to make observations, tackling me with a flying hug out of the blue, ordering a lot of take-aways, lacking any desire or interest in regulating his budget or planning his time, gaming for hours, taking many attempts to pass his driving test, checking recipes obsessively because he keeps forgetting the next required step, procrastinating his preparation for a work assessment until it’s too late, inviting me to dance in the middle of the living room a propos of nothing in the middle of the afternoon. Some of this behaviour definitely brings spontaneity and joy into my otherwise much more dull and rule-bound life. But overall, it is something we have to manage carefully so that it doesn’t severely disable him in reaching his hopes for the future and create chaos in both our lives.

Knowing about the executive functions also has an important ramification for how we talk to ourselves about what we want to get done: a lack of self-control is not a moral failing, because it is not a choice—it is a skill that can be developed and supported, but your initial aptitude for it is partly (maybe mostly) down to your genes. (Your choices do still matter, of course, but they are not the only factor at play, and to me at least it was a relief to realise that.) In short, banish the word ‘lazy’ from your vocabulary; there is always more going on than you think.

Incidentally (or rather, centrally to the point of this whole blog), the process of atomising, externalising, and modularising tasks nearly entirely removes the whole issue of struggling to hold elements of the future in mind. On a Home Scrum board, you can literally represent the future and manipulate tasks and steps of a process in physical space, which substitutes nicely for doing it all internally. This is how Home Scrum can function like a ‘wheelchair ramp for the mind.’ Just like an access ramp, the Home Scrum system is a piece of environmental infrastructure that gives people the capability to do something they couldn’t do before (access a building, or hold tasks in mind). Also just like an access ramp, it is likely the case that the disabled person will always need these extra environmental adjustments. Like I talked about in this post, providing required resources so that everyone can share the same level of capability is a form of equity. By atomising, externalising, and modularising tasks, Home Scrum enables people to make better use of their executive functions even if they are impaired.

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