Getting things Done — Agile

I have always considered myself as someone who can get things done. Over the past years, I have refined my methods as my workload increased and the type of work I was doing became more managerial and strategical.

In the past week, I have been working on my Scrum Certification and as I was studying the concepts, I realized that I was practically doing scrum every day of my life; the process I had created for myself was mirroring the events and guidelines from Scrum and other agile methodologies.

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Let me run you through a regular workday and how it is structured essentially like a Scrum Sprint.

Scrum (n): A framework within which people can address complex adaptive problems, while productively and creatively delivering products of the highest possible value.

Sprint Planning (Checking your To-Dos)

Sprint Planning answers the following: What can be delivered in the Increment resulting from the upcoming Sprint? How will the work needed to deliver the Increment be achieved?

This happens at the beginning of the day and is the first thing you do as you sit down at your workplace. You open your Backlog (to-do list) and see what Items (to-dos) are there. People usually are using a tool such as Wunderlist, but there are many paid and free out there.

The Product Backlog is an ordered list of everything that is known to be needed in the product.

Important to note: You will read later how to do it, but keep in mind that you need to be constantly taking care and refining your Backlog to ensure it is properly prioritized at the time you start your morning.

If you are applying my methods thoroughly, at this point, all your tasks for the day should already be in your list. Of course, if you forget something or an urgent task popped up, you can still add it to your list. These rules are not set in stone. In case this happens, you just do a little bit of grooming, moving Items into the future or putting them in the appropriate category. If you are unsure when you can get to a task, you can always just move it to the next day. I advise you, however, to critically think how many meetings and how much time you have remaining on the next day; based on this you might want to move it further ahead.

1 minute — Eat The Frog (The Most Important Thing)

A sub-step of my sprint planning is to ask myself: “What is the one thing that I have to do that is taking most of my willpower?”

Each workday is long. I know by personal experience that if you leave the thing that is the answer to this question of the end of the day, you are very unlikely to actually do it. For any reason, these tasks take a lot of your willpower and just reading them makes you cringe. This makes them easy to identify. They’re tasks like “Planning out this complicated project”, “writing performance evaluations”, “giving feedback to Ali, etc…

By tackling this head on you are clearing this task from the back of your mind and you are gaining a lot of energy from completing this as your very first task of the day. Plenty of thought leaders, such as Robin Sharma with his 90/90/1 rule or Gary Keller with “What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” suggest you should rather identify the task that is most contributing to your most important project or goal. In my experience, answering any of these questions will lead you to tackle the same task.

Daily Scrum (Breaking Tasks down)

The Daily Scrum is used to inspect progress toward the Sprint Goal and to inspect how progress is trending toward completing the work in the Sprint Backlog.

Key to tackling any task is to break it down into sub-tasks that you can easily execute without thinking about it. “Write an email about project progress to my boss” can easily be broken down into:

  1. Update project tracker
  2. Create slide-deck
  3. Draft email
  4. Get feedback from Ali
  5. Send email

What writing down these steps does for you is that it conserves your willpower. For the time it takes you to finish the whole task you will have to take fewer decisions about how you approach your work, making it easier to reach a flow state. Additionally, it allows you to identify impediments. Imagine Ali is not in the office that day and you can only get feedback tomorrow. You can now decide whether to get feedback from someone else or split up the tasks and move the last steps to the next day. Still, you will have made visible progress to your most important goal.

Your Daily Scrum actually happens not only at the beginning of the day, but every time you are tackling the next task in your backlog.

The Sprint Backlog is the set of Product Backlog items selected for the Sprint, plus a plan for delivering the product Increment and realizing the Sprint Goal.

Backlog Refinement

Product Backlog refinement is the act of adding detail, estimates, and order to items in the Product Backlog. This is an ongoing process.

This is the simple most important step and if you get this right you will have gained a competitive advantage over everyone else. You will find yourself writing down every little thought that you want to capture and action-upon but usually would have forgotten. You will find yourself contributing to areas you usually would not. You will find yourself sending reminders about things they did not even ask you to be reminded of. You will be a super-brain. As soon as you “receive” a task, you must put it in your backlog. No keeping it in the head, no writing it down on a separate list on paper, no keeping tasks in a separate project tool. You must write it in your backlog. Of course, all your tasks may reside in any of the aforementioned places, but your backlog must act as the single source of truth that will always hold all your tasks.

If you don’t write it down immediately (this can be the most challenging, I have my best ideas in the shower or while driving the car), you will end up forgetting something. This leads to you subconsciously losing trust in the system and the new habits that you are just forming will fall apart like a house of cards. Trust me, I’ve been there. I have actually had to rebuild these habits a few times.

When adding an item, you do not necessarily have to sort your tasks (if you’re like me and have an idea in the shower, you just want to record your thought and not think about priorities, deadlines or how to make it the most actionable). You can now be rest assured that they’re not forgotten, but clear it off your brain, conserving willpower and headspace. If you are using a tool like Wunderlist, these unsorted tasks will just reside at the top of your inbox, waiting for you to sort them. By following my system, you will stumble upon them during your Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum, the next time you write down an idea or in the Sprint Review (just read on) and are able to prioritize them then.

Prioritization

I am using a mixture of Eisenhower Matrix and what I have learned to work for me personally.

Screenshot from Coda.io

As tasks come in I order them in either one of those 4 categories or any of the following:

Routine: I block off 1 hour in every day that is spent doing things that do not fit into this framework, such as answering my emails or verifying user stories. I found myself adding this into my routine when I found myself perfectly clearing out my to-do list but not having time to answer to emails or similar routine tasks, amounting a pile that induced anxiety would I only think about it.

Home: Anything that I would like to achieve during the day but I can only do at home (i.e. “bring a package to the post office”).

Reminder: These are not necessarily to-dos but things that I have to remember on specific days. These cannot be tasks. Do not put “remember to put out the trash”. This belongs as a recurring task in Home. I put things like “remember to give constant feedback” that don’t come to me naturally.

Yes, you should put recurring tasks that come automatically. Never spend energy trying to remember to “change your bedsheets” every once in a while or to “call your mom”.

These are the categories in my to-do list that determine the order in which my tasks are displayed:

1. Urgent
2. Important
3. Routine
4. Reminders
5. Tasks
6. Delegate
7. Home

This order also ensures the proper management of your energy during the day. Starting with the highest value items before noon when you still have the highest energy and willpower. Mundane tasks and routine come after lunch when you are usually tired. Reminders are just in between to ensure you stumble upon them as you move through your tasks during the day. You finish off your day by delegating work to your peers before you leave to ensure you are one of the first emails in their inbox when they come to the office the next day.

Sprint Review & Retro

A Sprint Review is held at the end of the Sprint to inspect the Increment and adapt the Product Backlog if needed.

Before going home, I usually review my to-do list to inspect any work that is not finished. I decide whether its priority changed and if I will do it the next day or another time. Unsorted tasks get categorized and I assign it its deadline. I also use this opportunity to reflect what worked well during the day and what did not improve in the next day.

The Sprint Retrospective is an opportunity to inspect itself and create a plan for improvements to be enacted during the next Sprint.

Further Thoughts

Personal vs Professional

When I encourage friends to use some of my techniques, one of the questions that keep popping up is whether they should use the same the to-do list for both personal and professional tasks.

In my opinion, separating your lists is the biggest mistake you can do (Plus, Scrum does not allow you to keep 2 Backlogs).

First of all, your job and life should be aligned with one common vision and goal that you have. So if there is something that you need to remember to do, it should be in that backlog (i.e. picking up groceries or calling your doctor during lunch break). You don’t want to spend energy during your workday to remember to check your Personal To-Do List for something.

The best tool

Another question is about what tool I am using. Honestly, I have been trying to find a tool that fulfills all my needs for ages and was not able to find it. Wunderlist is one of the best (and free) tools that I have tried so far. However, the biggest bottleneck for me is that not only would I like to put tasks in the future based on dates, but also on time. This would allow me to keep as few tasks as possible in my inbox at any given point in time, reducing willpower to decide which task to focus on, as sometimes there are tasks in my inbox that I can only get to at a specific time. For example, setting tasks to appear only after lunch would allow me to continuously ride a wave of achievement and not feeling overwhelmed, achieving a flow state.

Luckily I have found Coda, a tool that allows you to build docs as powerful as an app. This basically allowed me to create a to-do list tool as I have always imagined it. Using it in the last week was a revelation. Check it out!

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