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 Complete

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

So more on my “Agile Life” experiment where I use the Agile techniques in Scrum for a more productive, less-stressful life.  This is all about getting things done – so let’s talk about something we don’t often think of, limiting how much we complete in a day or a time period.

Remember when I talked about WIP, work in progress? That’s measuring “what’s not yet done,” and reducing it usually helps productivity and reveals problems.  But I found something related you want to pay attention to.

How much work gets completed in a day and over time.

I began noticing sometimes I’d deliver regular amounts of work, sometimes huge lumps. I came to realize that monitoring how much you get done in a time period – often a day – helps you improve your agility and your work.

Here’s what it can reveal:


It Can Reveal Overload

I’m going Agile and it means I’m getting more done.  That makes sense; I’m clear on what to do and what’s next, I can adapt to change, and because of all this I feel less pressure.  Yet, at times, I’m feeling kind of stressed despite improvements.

I realize now that this is because I kept looking for the next thing to do.  The productivity had become habitual and addictive, and I kept trying to move more to “done” – bringing more stress back to a process that’s supposed to reduce it.

This can be worse if you have well-defined stories and tasks. You can blaze through them relatively easily. You can get them to “done” pretty quick. I had a day “off” where I got a lot of work done as I had it broken down well – and then realized “hey, I am tired.” That spike in my cumulative flow was a reminder to go play some Overwatch.

It Can Reveal Bottlenecks

Those sudden droughts and onslaughts of completed work can reveal bottlenecks in your work and your plans.  This is usually heralded by a block of Work In Progress, but isn’t always.

Let’s say you’ve had to write three articles for three websites, sending them each out to editors, each at a different time. You’re getting work done while you wait, maybe keeping your Work In Progress from getting too high – then bang, all the articles come back at once.  Turns out they’re all great, you just have to sign off, but that’s stressful.  It shows your editors may be a bottleneck and you need consistent response time.

Also that sudden onslaught of “done” can be disruptive and jarring – context switching.

It Can Reveal Poor Breakdown

You’re working on all sorts of tasks, from painting a table to writing a book, but it seems they get done in huge lumps.  This might be a sign of poor breakdown – you’re delivering enormous “chunks” of work as you’ve got it set up to be worked on in enormous chunks.  Maybe your stories can be broken down into smaller pieces of value to do.

This can happen in “Agile Life” pretty easy as we may not think of breaking down tasks we’re used to – or lump similar ones into one pile.

It Can Reveal Forgotten Work

This happened to me a great deal in my first “Month Sprint” of April 2017. I noticed some of my erratic delivery and then, when asking myself what I did that day, realizing I’d done a lot of tasks that probably should have been in my backlog. If you see erratic delivery of work, it may mean you should be capturing more work.

This was a real revelation to me – because once I started capturing this work (a mix of social events, obligations, and my cooking schedule), my stress dropped. I was more aware of my goals and time commitment and could plan better and be more agile.


So beyond workload and work in progress, keep an eye on how much is getting “done” each day. It may reveal some problems in your plans and give you new ways to improve.

This recalls The 8th Agile Principle the value of a good, sustainable, pace of work.

– 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