My Personal Agile: Work

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

Now let’s get on to the next step of my Personal Agile – doing actual work! You’ve got your Sprint Backlog, which is everything you plan to do this sprint (a month) so let’s go.

How Do I Start?

Every day I look at my Sprint Backlog and figure what I should do and want to do. Then I do it. In time you get into a rhythm where you unconsciously know what you want to get done – usually.

Yeah, that’s it. A daily review – maybe more than once a day – and doing stuff. Sounds simple? Of course it is – because you’ve thought this over and taken a manageable chunk of stuff to do. One of the great parts of Agile methods is that you get enough mindwork done up front and break stuff into manageable chunks that it’s easy to focus.

Well, What Do I Do First?

That’s pretty much up to you. In general, you should tackle highest priority work first and work your way down.

In practice, it’s often not as clear cut:

  • There are time constraints on when some things have to get done. You may not list cleaning that grungy guest room sink as your highest priority, but mom’s visiting.
  • Some work may need approval, materials, etc. Those art supplies you needed are late.
  • Some work you can’t stand doing for an extended time period. Maybe you start mowing the lawn this evening but finish tomorrow (but hey, maybe your mowing should be two tasks or even two separate stories).
  • When you start things you quickly realize your priorities are off. You really don’t need those new clothes.

Priority order is a good guide, but the only one.  Do what works.

Sticking With Things

To make sure you progress and stay focused, you want to stick with work.  Here’s a look at what I do:

  • If you take a task, make sure it’s one you can complete in one sitting or one that you’ll get done without anything else interrupting. For instance if you want to write up an essay but don’t finish it before bed, then the next day that’s your top priority.
  • Once you start tasks in a story, that story should (more or less) be your top priority. This lets you focus on delivering value. It also helps get the Story out of your mind. Remember, good breakdown means more stories with less tasks, and that makes this easier.
  • In all cases, try to focus on something being done and complete. Deliver value – or parts of value.

Sticking with something helps you stay focused and keeps you from the mental waste of switching gears over and over.  In a lot of cases it’s better to finish something and start the next thing unless you really have to.

How Do I Track Work?

You want to track the work you’re doing and to know what you’re up to and what you’ve done.  Here’s what I do:

When you start a task, move the “hours” estimate into the appropriate column, and keep moving it. This way you’re tracking work done:

  • Define – You’re fleshing it out and getting ready.
  • Developing – You’re doing it.
  • Review – You (or someone else) are confirming it’s done.
  • Done – Well, duh. Done. Congrats.

This is why I keep totals at on my spreadsheet so, at a glance, I know how many “hours” of work are done where. I’ll go into this more later.

One thing you’ll note is that I track the state of every Task (some methods only do stories). I find if you track and validate Tasks, the stories usually take care of themselves – a truly well made Task may not complete the story but is verifiable. It also lets me follow my progress in miniature as I’m pretty focused on this.

You may only need to check your progress story-level. You can use a pivot table for this, or other forms of visualization I’ll cover next.

How Do I Avoid Being Overloaded?

OK, here’s where we get a new concept: Work In Progress.  This is important.

Work In Progress, aka WIP, comes from Kanban, and has been adopted into many Agile practices, including, of course, some variants of Scrum. The core idea is to limit what you’re working on so you focus – and so you find blockages to completion.

It’s simple – you set a limit on how much work can be in each column (Define, Developing, etc.).  This is usually only one item.  I usually limit it to one task, but sometimes it’s limited to one story.  Nothing can move ahead until there’s “space.”

This idea of moving ahead only when there’s space is called “Pull.”  You don’t push items forward – you pull them when available.  I find this comfort is very comforting, it changes your focus on work.

But what if you’ve got a task in Developing, it’s done, but you have another task in Review waiting on approval? You don’t move that Developing task. It sits. You can either go Define a task and do some research, or try to get the task in Review, well, reviewed.

If all three are filled up? If your Defined thing is Defined, your Developed task is all developed, and you in-review task is in review? You should focus on the in-review task, but if everything is blocked, it may be time to take a break.

Now of course work may have to move forward, but you should acknowledge how you got blocked and fix it in the future. When things get jammed up that’s the sign of a flaw – and a sign you should change your approach so it doesn’t happen again.

Think this is tough? Some folks like to keep it down to one item being worked on period, no matter what the state. In fact, I’m an advocate, on the individual level, for doing this method. Sometimes I even succeed.

So what does all this stuff with Work In Progress Do?

  1. It forces you to avoid multitasking. Multitasking really distracts you, and the more you pile up half-done, the more you’re distracted.
  2. It rethinks work. The idea of “pull” of moving forward only when there’s space helps you see work in a more relaxed, appropriate manner.
  3. It reveals blockages and obstacles. Think of your workflow as a pipe system. If you restrict the amount that goes through it, when a jam up occurs you learn a lot. This is an enormous amount of Kanban – to the point where I’ve heard people say Kanban isn’t a management tool but just a way to find and remove blockages.
  4. It works better with good work breakdowns, so helps validate them.

Now because life gets complicated, I practice what I call WIP 1+1. That means the usual limit applies, BUT I allow myself to work on something else as long as I can get it finished in one go. This means if, say, something is sitting at my editors, I can go do some cooking or clean the bathroom. But I wouldn’t start something that may need another editor’s attention.

As noted, I do this on the task level.  You might find it works on the story level.

What If Something Takes Longer Than I Estimated?

That’s fine, that’s OK. It’s something to note for review at the end of the sprint.

If this requires you to cut work, fine. Figure what the least priority items are and don’t do them unless you suddenly have time. You’ll review this.

One thing I do is change my estimate to fit my new findings.

What If I Get Everything Done Earlier?

Well you could take a break. Otherwise, just bring the topmost items in from the Backlog into the Sprint Backlog, one at a time. Finish those items before taking something else off the backlog.

So This Is Just Taking A List Of Stuff And Trying To Do It Without Multitasking In A Given Timeframe?

Well, yes. Welcome to Agile, where we cut through the bullshit or break the bullshit into manageable pieces.

Next Up?

This may seem easy, but we’ll talk tools and visualization.

– Steve


My Agile Life: Pull

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

More on my use of “Agile” and Scrum in my life!

Let’s talk Pull, Agile, and personal productivity. Unfortunately this requires some backstory so I’ll try to keep it short.

  1. I use Scrum as my Agile method to keep life in order. That’s basically “have an ordered list of stuff to do, choose what to do in a timeframe from the top priority, do it, revise, repeat.”
  2. One of the foundational methods of Agile is Kanban. Kanban is simpler – have a workflow, and move work along the various states (like analyzing, doing, testing) while limiting work in progress. Often you only have one item in every state if that. Keeps you from multitasking and a big part is “pull” – something only moves along when nothing is ahead of it, ideally.
  3. Alot of Scrum uses Kanban elements including Work In Progress and Pull.

In this case, I’m big on Work In Progress and Pull. I’ve written about WIP before, so let’s talk Pull. This is a near-forgotten part of good productivity or personal productivity. There’s also a heavy psychological component that, when you acquire it, you’ll find your productivity soaring.

The basic idea of “Pull” is:

  1. You have certain states of work. Usually this is “backlog”, “definining”, “doing”, “testing”, and of course “done.”
  2. “Backlog” and “Done” have no limits, obviously.
  3. our backlog is in order of priority.
  4. hen one state is empty (no work in progress) then you can move an item into it. That’s pull. I like to think of it as a vacuum – when a state is “empty” it can “pull” something that’s ready to move on into it.

Catch the subtlety there? You can only move an item along your workflow when there’s a “void” that pulls it in. If it’s not ready, it doesn’t move (like a column not being ready for an editor who has free time). If there’s something ahead of it (like the editor is editing another column of yours, so your latest has to sit) it doesn’t move. You start thinking not in “pushing things ahead” but making space for things to move along.

I can’t tell you what a revelation this was to me, and it took me awhile to realize just how much I learned. It really started when I had a vacation weekend where no one was around and I wasn’t sure what to do. I had “space” so I not only relaxed, but I just “banged out” a lot of work and chores and the like. i would say “that’s done, I have space, what’s next” and I felt that pull and that workflow.

Later I saw it at work, where one of my teams uses Kanban. I could see flows both work and get jammed up and suddenly saw the importance of thinking in pull. Thinking in pull means keeping your workflow clear of blockages, of constantly focusing on making space and moving things along so other things can move.

This “Pull” idea is also a lot more relaxing than the endless emphasis of “pushing” things along. Pushing things along eventually creates a pileup and a wreck. Thinking in “Pull” means making things run smoothly – and getting more done in the end.

So try this, whether you use the same techniques as me, different ones, or are just trying to be more productive. Focus on “pull,” on keeping your workflow clear of blockages. Move along the thing closest to done first, limit what you have in progress, and see what happens when you open up space for yourself.

(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: 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