Magic backlog board

My posts here tend to oscillate between the obvious and the esoteric. This one is going to bury the needle on the obvious side.

I have a good system for organizing information for projects at home and at work. In short: every project and initiative gets a page or notebook in Evernote (home) or OneNote (work); lots of linking in and out of projects and journals; individual pages for weeks, months, and years; etc. I've done this since 2012, evolving it into what I thought was a great system over the years, but this week I changed something and discovered it was only a good system.

Good not great. The parts of the system that deal with structure and organizing information are really good; the planning ahead in weekly/monthly/ yearly chunks is OK; the relationship between how much I accomplish to how much I planned to accomplish really isn't good at all. Execution... isn't this the part of the planning that matters?

Last week at work I took part in a two-day agile software development training course. I'm not a software developer myself, but I'm part of a development team, and we're using agile to do the development. So I'm trying to learn the rudiments so I don't get left too far behind.

The thing that struck me the most at the training course was how the backlog of work was treated. I also keep a backlog of tasks, but (1) it's scattered and not ranked; and more importantly, (2) I don't treat the next thing I take off the stack like something I need to finish before moving on to the next thing and the next thing. This second thing is so key.

A normal day for me would be queuing about seven or eight things to work on, and giving them each a half-hour or an hour of time on that day. That approach never worked, but there was always an internal pressure to organize the work like that anyway. I'm not sure why. Mostly I think it was the misguided idea that all things could get done if you just pushed them all forward every day. Maybe there were some other subconscious blocks, like I could make an excuse for not finishing any one thing on the sheer magnitude of initiatives I was trying to carry at one time.

So, taking a cue from the agile training, this week at work I took the list of tasks I keep in OneNote and put the top non-recurring tasks (the recurring ones still have to be done on a rhythm, backlog be damned) in a ranked backlog on my white board, with the one I'm working on now at the top, sort of like this (but with real tasks, etc.):

Review the development plan

Finish the user admin section of the spec
Draw change process figures
Draft the lower-level spec
World peace

And so on. You might recognize where the /now came from, no?

First of all, creating a ranked backlog and not moving on until the task at the top was finished was an immediate boost in focus, efficiency, etc. Things got done faster. Second, it feels good to erase the thing being done now and moving something from the backlog up. Third, putting the list on the board, instead of hidden on the computer where only I could see it, and only if I wanted to see it, added some extra motivation or direction to get the work done. Finally, putting the list on the board gave me the confidence to tell people (a) that I was working on something at the moment, where should I put their Immediate Request in the ranked list? and (b) when I finished doing some work for them I was moving on to the next thing (points at thing). There's a really fine line between being direct and being an asshole; let's just say I spend a lot of time on both sides. But I think that if I've done a good job in ranking the list, and in working with the various stakeholders associated with each of them, and in getting some cover fire from my manager by explaining what the plan is, then it's clearly the right way to handle the work.

My meta-plan now is to make the whiteboard backlog a Thing We Do on the team. Most people have to walk by my cubicle to get to their cubicle/office, so I think that if I stick to it, I can make it spread.

There is one thing I haven't figured out, though: there is clearly a threshold beyond which efficiency dies out. So there's some balance to work out there.

(I don't think anything in this post is original or new for The World. Intellectually, it's not even original or new idea for me. But I've never been able to muster the self-control to organize myself like this until recently, so viscerally, for me, this is a Whole New World.)

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