My Agile Life: A Quick Review

(This column is posted at, Steve’s LinkedIn, and Steve’s Tumblr)

(My continuing “Agile Life” column, where I use Scrum for a more balanced and productive life continues).

I’ve been using Agile to have a more productive life, and it’s been pretty great. So to help you out (and help me organize my thoughts) here’s what I currently do. I think I’ll do these roundups every few months, so you can try the latest iteration of my system, and I get better at sharing.

First out, what I’m doing is the Agile method of Scrum in my own life. If you’re not familiar with Scrum it’s basically:

  1. Have a ranked backlog of stuff to do.
  2. Choose how much you can do in a given time frame from the top – this timeframe is called a Sprint.
  3. Do it.
  4. Review how you did, revise the backlog, and start a new sprint.

That’s Scrum. Here’s how I do it – first, the lists I keep.

  1. I have an Incubator. This is my list of Neat Stuff to do, summed up. I update it monthly or so and review it monthly as well.
  2. I have a Backlog/Roadmap. This is a list of things I want to do, in order, usually on the Project level, but sometimes broken down into stories (pieces of value). It’s ranked both by importance and “guessed” chronology – a few things are tagged with critical dates. I could probably split these up but I don’t think I need it.
  3. I have a Sprint Backlog.  This is what I decide to do every sprint – which for me is a month. This isn’t ranked, but is more sorted in a project order. This is broken down by Projects, with stories, with specific tasks. I estimate effort by hours. I review this every day.
  4. I have a cumulative flow chart, which is based on Tasks (not normal process, but most of my work breaks down pretty finely). This gives me a visual idea of how I’m doing, and is good practice on using these charts.

What I do is review things every day to see what’s up and decide what to do – but after regular review, I’m usually aware of my next few days of work automatically. I’ve kept a weekly schedule but fell off of it – I’m not sure I need to, as my daily reviews keep me aware of what’s going on.

A few things on how I operate:

  • Break down work into workable components – A real challenge at times as you can treat work as big lumps, or turn it into so many tiny tasks you can’t focus.  Find some way to break things down that you can get things done without overloading yourself, but not so much you can’t keep track of the little parts.
  • Limit Work In Progress, WIP, To 2 items.  WIP keeps you from juggling too many balls. I normally prefer a WIP of one, but when you’re doing Scrum for real life you’re going to have interruptions. Usually at most I have one “in progress” item with another “free item” for all sorts of tasks like cleaning, etc. However if I have one “ball” in the air I make sure any new one is finished right away.
  • Polish that backlog. Keep revising this as you go so when you get ready to plan, you pretty much know what you’re doing next.
  • Keep a regular task backlog. This is one way I save time planning, preparing a list of regular common tasks I have to do monthly so I already know most of my schedule. I copy that into:
  • My projected “next month” backlog. I keep a draft of what I’ll “probably” do next. This helps me plan fast as, about midway through a month, I’m like 75% certain of what’s next if not more.

All of this has made me much more productive – but it may not be for the reasons you think.

Yes, there’s the value of having a tool and a plan of some kind – but you can do that a lot of ways. I’m taking an Agile approach, and that requires me to take an Agile mindset – a focus on adaption, on communication, and on efficiency. The tool reinforces the mindset.  The mindset is what matters.

And the mindset? I’m a lot more relaxed, a lot more effective, and I waste less time.

(By the way I do plenty of books for coaching people to improve in various areas, which may also help you out!)

– Steve