Popsicle Stick Time Management

I recently read the book Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull (President of Pixar).  The book’s tagline is to overcome the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration.  Chapter by chapter, Catmull unlocks creative leadership ideas by effective (and vulnerable) story telling.  He shares his own journey in detail – through the lens of job transitions as well as different projects (like various Pixar movies).  The book reads more like a page-turning biographical novel, with the added bonus that it has golden content on leadership.  David Slocum, writer for Forbes magazine, says “it’s one of the half-dozen best books that have been written about creative business and creative leadership. Ever” (source).

One key takeaway that I had from the book was on time management.  I’m a organized+creative+visual person, so I loved this idea that was sparked by a producer on the Pixar team.  The idea was simple: popsicle sticks stuck to a wall of Velcro.  Each stick represented a person-week (which equals the amount of work one animator could accomplish in a week’s time).  The sticks, in various amounts, would get placed next to a particular project (in Pixar’s case, a character from the movie The Incredibles).  The popsicle system gave the team a visual representation of their resources.  Here’s how Catmull described it working: “A bunch of sticks would be lined up next to a particular character for easy reference.  A glance at the wall would tell you: If you use that many popsicle sticks on Elastigirl, you’ll have less time to spend on Jack-Jack.  And so on.” When a manager would approach the team and say “This needs to be done today” the team would reference the Velcro wall and explain that they would then need another “stick” or ask where they’d like to take a stick from.  Catmull called it “a great example of the positive creative impact of limits.”

pixarI was so drawn to this example of time management and resources, that I made my own popsicle stick Velcro wall (see picture).  For my own work purposes, each colored Velcro line equals a key goal in my job (e.g. project management, 1:1’s with direct reports, etc).  And the popsicle sticks equal 1 hour of work.  So by glancing at my mini-wall, I can see where my week’s resources are being placed, and if I need to adjust in any way.  An added bonus is that the color-coded key goals correspond to the different category colors represented on my Outlook calendar (yes, I’m a bit of a nerd).

What time management tools do you use?  I’ll look forward to connecting with you in the comments section.

5 replies
  1. Peter Chee
    Peter Chee says:

    Annie, this looks like a book I need to add to my reading list! I certainly am pushing to build a great and creative culture and it looks like this book by the Pixar president has a lot of valuable ways to build both. I have always like the concept of saying “yes” to one thing means saying “no” to something else. Your popsicle example definitely provides a visual representation of that. Time is definitely a finite resource! Thanks for writing this article.

    Reply
    • Annie Duncan
      Annie Duncan says:

      No problem Peter! Seriously, almost every chapter I read, I thought “Peter would love this.” I have the book in my car so can drop it by anytime. Just LMK :)

      Reply
  2. Kamila Klimek
    Kamila Klimek says:

    As both of you mentioned, the popsicle stick system is not only a great time-management system, but a visual reminder that time is a limited resource. I would take it even further and visualize my “personal” time in the same manner, too. We make a hundred of tiny scheduling decisions every day and I tend to overanalyze and second-guess the things I’m leaving behind by making a particular commitment. This is a great way to manage that! I probably wouldn’t go as far as creating the actual board for my personal life, but I will definitely start “moving the sticks around” in my mind when I make plans the next time.
    Thank you for a great reading recommendation.

    Reply
    • Annie Duncan
      Annie Duncan says:

      Kamila, such a great idea to do a popsicle board for personal time, too! I think I need to go back to the craft store to get more sticks :)

      Reply

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