Thomas August Ryan

In Praise of Sticky Notes

The sticky note is my favorite personal management tool. Some consider the sticky note to be an archaic tool. But I love it dearly.

If you write a work item down on it, that text is permanently paired with a slightly sticky square of paper. The often-bright paper colors serve to isolate that packet of information from its often-drab surroundings.

As the notes accumulate into stacks, rows, and columns you get a tangible sense for what is being accomplished.

As you get less and less careful about how you place the notes into a grid; they develop a sense of imperfection, perhaps even clutter. Products are imperfect creations. Work items and ideas get cluttered as they multiply. In this way the sticky note’s limitations are exactly what give it value.

Thinking Inside the Box

The physical actions that I take to write an item down on a note, and then post it to my board give the work item meaning. This is not to say that sticky notes should be treated with a special reverence, but rather the that there is value in the process of condensing an idea down to something that can be reasonable read from a distance.

The limitations that a sticky note imposes upon your thought process are valuable because the bring focus to your thought process. But in the same way that tweets are not a replacement for a thoughtful debate, sticky notes are the wrong tool for product documentation or gathering requirements from a customer.

Sticky notes are easy to create and destroy. Yet they are still a physical object. When you realize that the work item on the board is bigger than it seems you can stop, reassess the situation, and replace it.

The process of writing out multiple sticky notes to replace an existing item, then tearing it off the board and discarding it is tactile reminder that you are in control of your workflow. More importantly this process sets your expectations for what you can accomplish.

The value of sticky notes is that they give you consistent, predictable, physical control. Sticky notes don’t change, they don’t delete themselves at random, their security is a physical issue, not a technical one.

Hand-crafted for You

Sticky notes act as an abstraction over whatever you can conceptualize as your work items or workflow. If you want to try out a new workflow you can rearrange your columns. If you want to adjust the priority of an item, just move it around.

But sticky notes aren't transferable between authors. For specific information like phone numbers, passwords, or emails they can serve a purpose. But handing your coworker a sticky note with a work item that you wrote is a mistake. Rather the best method here is act as resource for their questions as they go through the sticky note creation process.

This is because sticky notes are personal to their creator. Often this gets lost when items are drafted from a ticketing system on to a digital kanban board. Rather than being authored by those responsible for them, these imitations are a product of the system created them. The priorities and values of ticketing system are not the same as those of a human, and they are expressly non-human.

It’s naive to expect that a human would have much empathy and investment in a receipt from a machine as they would in a square of paper that they conceptualized and wrote themselves. In this way the process of creation, the process of physical creation, is deeply tied to the sense of self involved in working. It is because of these factors that the austere sticky note is such an effective way to engage with and understand your own workflow.