My Agile Life: Agile Relaxation Your Relaxation

(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 put a lot of time here discussing agile techniques and mindsets for productivity.  But, let’s discuss relaxing and how it applies to an Agile Life.

Relaxing?  Having fun?  Yes, these are part of your life, so you’re going to have to figure how to handle them.  If you don’t, then you’ll either be less productive than you expect, or burn yourself out not relaxing or relaxing too hard.

First, relaxing and having fun can take time, obviously.  So how do you account for them in your taking an Agile approach to life?  I find two approaches work:

  1. One approach is to make sure you pick a workload that gives you time to relax.  If you’re good at making that call you should be fine – by the way, I’m not.
  2. A second approach is to capture social time as part of your plan – actual tasks/stories.  That way you get whole blocks of time to relax and it reminds you to relax.  This is probably good if you’re a bit of a workaholic – they act as roadblocks to that tendancy.
  3. A third approach, which I use, is to combine the above.  I capture major social events, and try to balance things out otherwise.  This mostly works for me.  I actually think if I did #2 I’d way overplan my own relaxing.

Now, once you find a way to make sure you have time to relax, I’ve found you have to approach it with the right mindset.  This is important – and believe it or not I’ve actually learned to relax better with Agile.

RESPECT YOUR WIP: I’ve discussed WIP, Work In Progress, the amount of items you want to work on at one time so you’re not distracted (I set my limit to 2).  Relaxing should be part of your WIP – if you do something big (like a con or a party) it should not violate your WIP limit.  If your WIP limit is one item at a time, you should have your plate of work cleared so you can focus and enjoy.

FOCUS ON YOUR FUN: Much as you want to avoid multitasking when working on something, you should avoid the same thing when relaxing, at least on big things (like a party, a really good video game, or so on). Give yourself a chance to have fun, don’t suddenly switch to work in the middle of it, don’t try to fuse “serious” relaxing with actual tasks.   Just as you should focus on a task, you should clear your mind for fun.

So there you go.  Some Agile insights on fun.  That’s why I do these things.

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

– Steve

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

Steve’s Agile Life: Work In Progress

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

Here’s the latest on my “Agile Life” experiment (where I use the Agile techniques in  Scrum).  Let’s talk Work In Progress or WIP, something my mentor wanted me to learn more about, and something that inspired my “Agile Life” experiment.

WIP is Work In Progress, a measure of how much is being worked on but is not done. It’s core to the Agile technique of Kanban and the measurement has been incorporated into other practices. WIP is “on it but not done with it” – from waiting on a test for finished software to just note done.

Why is it important? Because in general too much WIP (some would argue any more than one story) is a sign of bad things or can be bad things.  To much WIP might mean:

  • People are multitasking a lot.  Too much being done at once, nothing finished, lots of context shifting.
  • Too many blockers.  A lot is just holding people up.
  • Bad work.  Too much is held up in testing and fixing.
  • Testing problems. Maybe stuff is happening too fast and it cant be tested as fast as it’s getting done, or the testing team has problems.
  • Poor story and task design. The work as broken down is hard to finish or isn’t what people thought it was.

Note the first issue – Multitasking. Even if you’re not blocked by anything else, starting but not finishing things distracts you. You have to context shift. You have to keep track of many things. WIP’s problem can sometimes be its mere existence.

Very quickly as I worked to get more Scrum-like in life, I could see how easy it was to have too much WIP. This was especially bad with domestic chores, things I could “do any time” or “complete whenever.” For my first sprint, it certainly shaped up my housekeeping.

This also made me aware of the issue of tracking completion of Tasks versus Stories. Stories may deliver value so you want to get them out – but individual tasks can also get stuck in never-being done. Tracking those specific “in progress” tasks can be helpful. Makes me wonder if a cumulative flow of both Stories AND tasks would help me or other teams – after all if you’ve got 5 stories not complete due to 5 different tasks or one story not complete due to 5 different tasks, that tells you something.

Some Agile practitioners and practices limit Work In Progress (and people fight over this). The idea is that there’s a limit for a person, team, group, etc. on how much can be up in the air. Past a certain point, it’s either finish it, unblock it, or go do something else not in the Backlog until the stars align. This limits multitasking.

Frankly, I can see why people do it. One Agile Coach I know said in a class that a team at its WIP limit should do nothing until stuff gets done, even if other people spend time to go to training or something. Yes, I watched a highly experienced expert outright state – with conviction – that if a team has too much WIP and one guy has nothing to do, he ought to go read a book instead of start something else. His time would be better spent not complicating everyone’s lives by starting something else.

My guess is you can sympathize.

What do I consider ideal WIP? I’d say for an individual 2 stories and 2 tasks at most, and I’m starting to see why people often make it one story, at least in business.

A final note on WIP. Having lots of small stories you can bang out easy may sound great – but may also tempt you to do them when there’s a big pile of WIP. Even if you can finish something quickly, maybe you ought to finish something from that big pile first.

(By the way, there’s no guarantee reduced WIP is going to have benefits, there’s other variables. But it’s a worthy goal. And yes, people fight over this.)

– Steve