My Personal Agile: Work Breakdown

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

And back again with my attempt to describe my “Personal Agile” productivity methods.

One of the challenges of getting things done is to figure out how to get it done. What do you have to do? What order? How do things work together?

To figure this out part of most any Agile practice is breaking down work to find out what to do, how to do it – and maybe if it even needs to be done (by finding the value as mentioned earlier).

So here’s how I break down work – this is the last stop before we get on to the real hands-on work.

Please note, these are my own definitions, tweaked for personal productivity. They may not fit various other Agile methods or ideas.


At the top of this all are Projects.  Projects are major, often large, initiatives. These are usally the big things you want to do like cleaning the garage, launching a new website, or writing a book. It may even be a thing you do regularly like cooking twice a week.

How do you define a Project? Here’s a quick guide to what a Project is in my book:

  • Distinct. Projects stand on their own and have their own identity that is (mostly) not dependent on anything else.
  • Has one of two lifespans:
    • It is distinct and will complete and be done, such as finishing a book or a program. Note that something like a software program may then spawn new projects like “maintenance.”
    • It is a distinct effort that is continuing, like a software maintenance program or an exercise routine. I call these Regular or BAU (Business As Usual) Projects. The effort is distinct enough that you could decide to end this Project in the future as a discreet act
  • Usually large. Most Projects will be of some size. However I argue that the Distinction and the Lifespan together define a Project more than size. And since this is my method, I’ sticking with it.

Project Value:
How do you determine if a Project is worth doing – in short, it’s value? There’s formal methods used in business, but on Personal Agile I find that there’s two ways to express – and measure – it’s value.

  • The binary. “I want X so y.” It could be as simple as taking a vacation so you relax or getting a certification as it’s standard career progression.  This is a lot like a User Story (below) just jacked up a level.
  • The measure. This is when you can tie the value to a measure and thus by measuring, determine if something was done and worth it. If you got a certification to try and get a raise then you can measure if that goal was reached – and it can fail as you may get the certification but not the raise. If you want to make X amount of profit with a book in a year, you can evaluate it – after a year.

Because Project success can be defined in many ways, I always look for “congruence,” that gut-level feel that the Project and any measures connect to my life goals. If that gut-level feel isn’t there, you might be wasting your time – or doing this under duress.

By the way if neither work, you can try describing it like a Story.  In fact, those are next.


Projects consist of Stories. Stories are where we get down to real work and hands-on value. Stories are also where a lot of work and breakdown and arguing goes on. So get ready for some opinionated stuff that might get me into a fight with other Agile practitioners.

A Story is the smallest unit of work you can do in a Project that still delivers value and helps complete the Project. It may be of limited value. It may be to a limited audience. It may not be that helpful without other Stories. But it has value that wouldn’t exist if you took it apart any further.

Ideally a Story should, when completed, be valuable if all other work stopped. It might not be much, but it’s something. Note this is an ideal but it doesn’t always happen.

The best way to get to breaking down Stories is to try it.  So let’s try . .  .

EXERCISE: Look at a Project you want to do.  Now write down everything you’d need to do for it to get done.  Don’t get over-detailed, just give yourself about five minutes.  We’ll talk how to make good Stories in a moment, but I want you thinking breakdown.

Interesting isn’t it?  Determining stories is definitely an art.  I also bet that the Story breakdown you have just brainstorming isn’t quite clear or satisfying.

So if you’re thinking “These Stories seem both really defined and kind of fuzzy” you’re right. Agile is both knowing what to do but not overdoing and overanalyzing. Fortunately there’s a tool to clear them up – and it’s a core part of Agile and one of it’s big contributions to management thought period.

Story Value
Stories in Agile are sometimes called User Stories (the terms get thrown around interchangeably). This is because they are, bluntly, focused on delivering something (value) to someone (a user) – and that forms a Story. The formula is a key to quickly determining what a Story is and what it delivers is to title the Story thus:

As (person) I want (thing) because (reason)

Sound simple, right? But this tells you three things – why you’re doing something for whom. If you can’t figure out any of these three parts, you either need to break it down more, do research – or realize it has no value.

When you define your Stories this way, you get:

  • The Person- Tells you who you do it for, who to ask for questions, and who approves of the result. Vital for good feedback, communications. Though in Personal Agile this is probably you a lot.
  • The Thing – Tells you what to do. The better defined it is the better idea you have what to do but don’t overdo it.
  • The Reason – Tells you why. Why is a great guidance for evaluating what you do, determining if you’re delivering, and motivating you. Reason is also one of the major places where you discover “hey, this is kinda worthless.”

If you’ve ever done something and wondered “why am I doing this?” imagine how knowing these three things would have helped.

As you can see, the Story method is pretty powerful. Sure you might need more details, you may have to find them, but this is a great way to know enough to get doing things. It also helps prevent over-designing things.

By the way, if you need more details, let me refer you to the classic Kipling poem’s opening line:

“I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.”

You got Who, What, Why. If you need more details see if any of their friends should go in: When, How, and Where.

By the way, when in doubt, yu can use this formula everywhere. To evaluate an action, to quantify a Project. So be it the biggest Project or the simplest task, when confused, ask “why an I doing this thing and for who?”

A few notes:

  • In Personal Agile you may not need to do formally described stories, but it does help. When in doubt, use them – they’re wonderfully clarifying, even if later you go back to more simple terms. If you’re new to this, definitely use them.
  • Some Projects are so big that they have “big stories” or “bundles” of stories called Features, Epics, Legends, etc. These let you organize stories into groups.  I don’t use them in my Personal Agile.


Tasks are the final part of good Agile planning and breaking down work. This is when you figure out what you do hands on.

Remember how you broke down Projects into Stories, the smallest bits of value?  Tasks are when you break down a Story to figure what you have to do to get that value.  Every Story has at least one Task, and each Task contributes to completion of that Story.

Figuring out Tasks is also a bit of an art, but is usually more hard-nosed than, say, Stories. You can pretty much look at a Story and figure out what has to be done.  Remember you may find more Tasks are needed, but you can usually get a good start.

There’s no real way to describe Tasks, but I’d describe them as clearly as possible for the sake of clarity.  The value of them is also pretty apparent as they’re directed to a goal.

EXERCISE: Look at one Story for the above exercise.  Describe the Tasks necessary to do it, and try to make them of reasonable size.

Interesting exercise isn’t it?  You can define Tasks but how do you get your hands around how much work they take?  That’s what’s next.

Tasks and size
Tasks are also where sizing takes place. Sure, sometimes people size Stories and even Projects in various ways (I don’t always in my Personal Agile so I won’t cover it). However, no matter what, how you size a task affects real work – so we need to discuss that.

There is a lot of discussion in Agile about how to do this. In turn thereare a lot of great ideas. In turn, a lot of people actually ignore these half the time. The other half they argue.

Me, I use hours of work. If I were planning a larger Project with more people I might use other methods, but in this case I have a pretty good grip on how fast I work.  This also lets me figure out how long I can spend on things and may let me track odd things that just require a block of time (if, say, I want to spend X hours studying)

However I do have an additional rule I call Fibonacci Hours.

I size tasks in how long I think they’ll take. But I have a few rules:

  • Tasks should be sized so in theory I can do them all in one go – even if it may take setting some time aside (usually 5 hours or less).
  • Tasks are sized in hours – minimum one hour.
  • Tasks hour-sizing must fall in the Fibonacci sequence – 1,2,3,5,8,13, etc. Basically each number is the sum of the ones before it. If something is “between” the two I have to make the call if it’s more likely the lesser or the greater.

In using these Fibonacci hours I’ve been amazed how accurate they are – usually more accurate than my attempts to figure the “exact” time. This is because in our ability to estimate, we’re not always good making fine distinctions, especially with larger numbers. This just enforces a pattern that, as a story gets larger, you have to think in a wider range between sizes.

By the way, I try to break things down to never be more than 3 hours, 5 at the most, unless it’s for something odd (like setting aside time to write).

By the way if you use Agile, you’ve seen this used for “points” and other methods of work. I just found they worked for hours.

A Few Tips On Tasks

  • In an ideal situation each Story would have only one task because you were able to break down value so specifically.  This can happen a lot in Personal Agile, but not as much on larger Projects.  It’s something to aim for, but remember it may not be achievable for certain efforts.
  • It’s best to describe tasks well, but in Personal Agile usually you’re the one doing them so don’t waste time.  Just make sure you can remember what you described.
  • A few times above I noted sometimes a task is just spend-so-much-hours on something.  Don’t be afraid to do that – in Personal Agile it really helps.

Onward To Action

OK you know to think about value. You have an idea of how to break down work. Now we’re gonna get started.

By the way, even if you never use any of my other Personal Agile methods, thinking about work like this will help you.

– Steve