An Experiment In Perspective And Productivity

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By now if you read my blog or my posts anywhere you know I’m kind of obsessed with Agile philosophy, Agile methods (Scrum with a heavy helping of Kanban), and I use them in my regular life. I’ve started experimenting with some of my practices and wanted to share my findings.

So first up, my basic way of being productive is a month-long sprint (a period of time where I decide what I’ll do and focus on that). With that focus I’m able to avoid distractions, measure success, and know what’s coming.

Secondly, I estimate the work I’m doing in hours, trying to break things down to manageable chunks of a few hours. My exception is writing, where I set aside an “hour budget.”

OK with that said, I began noticing a few problems I experienced. Tell me if these sound familiar.

First, as life has been complex, I felt overwhelmed. There was a lot on my plate for each month. I’d often try to “front-load” work.

Secondly, because a lot’s been going on, I was often having to shift around work and priorities. That was annoying because, yes, Agile says to embrace change for productivity, but I wasn’t feeling any gain, I was just changing. Was I wasting my time?

Third I got into a good rythm, but found myself over-focused on measuring hours and time. I was investing a lot of time in trying to measure time. This was also weird as I had things so well broken down I wondered why I fiddled with hours.

I have no doubt some of this sounds familiar.

So I sat down with myself, dived into the classic “Five Whys” method I’ve reccomended, and asked what happened. The answers became immediately apparent:

  • A month-long sprint had so much and was so broad it was unweildly and didn’t acknowledge how each week was different, and it was hard to change.
  • My estimates in hours were “too real.” Thinking of things as hours led me to spend too much time trying to map “real time” as opposed to getting stuff done. So I was actually less efficient because of asking “is this an hour or not.” Another reason the whole Scrum “points thing” makes sense.

So now I’m experimenting with a few changes to help me be productive and also lighten me up a bit.

First, I’m now doing classic two week sprints (Monday to Monday). This takes me out of monthly thinking, focuses on a smaller time frame so I can better evaluate what I should do, and makes it easier to adapt. This has already been a godsend in focus.

Secondly, I’ve – yes – ditched time estimates and Fibonacci points. Because I’ve gotten really good at breaking work down, I’m now just treating everything as “things to do” and breaking them down to the smallest components. For things like writing, I’m giving myself “X writing sessions” each sprint to sit down and write. Then I just check off “done.”

I’ll let you know more about my findings (and I may need to update my Personal Agile book).

However, I do want to answer an unspoken question: do I regret my earlier productivity techniques, with month-long sprints and so on? No.

What I did worked for the time. It got things done. It also let me learn so I could keep improving what I did. It may even be that worked then but I had to find a different way to do things now.

It’s OK to change how you operate and get things done. Doing things is how you learn to do them better.

Steven Savage