Couple years back a friend of mine pointed me how goal oriented I was, and until then I had never really noticed. Afterwards, I started to create and improve a process I used to help organizing myself better, to ensure I was finishing what I wanted to do. That process has changed (or dare I say, improved) a lot since then but its inception was a simple To-Do list. It has been a while since I wanted to write, not about the process itself or its pros and cons, but about the iterative development which I have been using to improve it. I will explain some of the steps along the path, clarifying what drove my changes and the results observed, but there are some important considerations to do before starting.
Pen and paper are important
There are a ton of task or goal managers, either online as web services or as installable applications. I even personally developed one. They are good for managing bigger pictures, at top or epic level, but when it comes to the actual bleeding edge of getting things done at home, the old pen and paper were most efficient to me. They are technology independent, extremely fast and practical compared to any application, and with an incomparable freedom. This creativity freedom is probably its most important aspect. When iteratively developing a process for yourself, the personalization should have absolutely no limit.
Whenever you choose a tool, you will mostly have to change yourself to it, often not the other way around.
For companies or teams, it is not uncommon to use iterative development to define their processes as well, but there will always be compromise because people will always be different. There it is important to have well defined rules, because you will join or define a culture. Whenever working alone, where there are no stakeholders but yourself, there are so many natural impediments and side-tracking possibilities, that any extra decrease of motivation or learning curve shall be avoided at all costs. The only setback on using pen and paper is the lack of fancy statistics or some easily computed performance data. I love them, but so far I never really felt it was a big deal not having those. Having those metrics at big picture level have been sufficient with some additional helper electronic tools.
Discipline is important
There is no mystery or magic mantra that will help you without discipline. Fear not, it is important to note that discipline is a skill that can be developed and not a natural or inherent trait. Some personality types might have an easier way than others while developing it, but that is true with any skill. Another important point is that discipline requires training and gradual development, but it can very easily go havoc. Just like going to the gym, if you do not work hard on maintaining your habits and dedication, you will gradually degrade your ability, and you can easily pull a psychological muscle if pushing yourself too hard.
Your state of mind has direct impact on your discipline.
Knowing yourself is important to understand how some aspects of your personality impacts your discipline. There are people who, whenever frustrated or willing to escape some aspect of their lives, can focus on tasks and achievements strongly while others cannot perform anything while it is not sorted out. How to choose an appropriate discipline training strategy is a big topic on its own, but it is possible and important that you do it. My advice: try and error. Once you know how to use your state of mind into training disciplined habits, you will be able to find a balance and synergy while developing an even stronger discipline.
Everyone needs to start at some point. The first written records I have on my process date late 2009. It was a simple written enumeration of my goals, with a big circle that I gradually filled when the target was moving forward. Removed goals were simply strikeout and no relation to time was given.
Putting things into writing and actually having a place of reference, helped me to decide what to do. A list like this, for the moments where you have some idle time are ideal for answering the following question: “what should I be doing?” It is not often you find yourself that idle, but when you do, it is good to have a point where you can answer “I don’t know, but there should be something interesting yet-to-be-done in here.”
The most important lesson with this prototype was the difference between the goals. Some of them where binary and some of them I was gradually filling the circle over time. That made clear the distinction between a simple task and larger goals. Goals were more complex and took longer to achieve, while tasks were practical and could be closed easier. That raised my interest in optimizing my process to focus on granularity, allowing a more practical sense of completion and moving forward.
Granular task list
The next step on my development was only trying to be more granular. I was not yet thinking on creating epics or goals which were composed of several tasks, but simply wanted to write my To-Dos in a binary form. Done or Open. A nice code was starting to grow: minuses were open tasks and pluses were closed. New things to do were simply appended.
Not having to think how complete was a particular item on the list in an abstract manner was the first and biggest improvement. Either it has been done in a satisfiable manner or not. The granularity also helped to cross items of the list more often, which was a big improvement on the motivation and flow.
A static list became a problem very fast. First, when growing, a lot of crossed tasks created a nice environment for overlooking one single open task in the middle. Second and most annoying, because of the lack of time relation, there was no difference when you looked the list today and after two months, if there was no dedication to finish work. That could very well cause total forgetfulness on things to do.
Defining time frames
After my experience with agile methodologies such as Scrum began to increase, I could easily see that commitment and time were important variables to integrate to my personal process. In that sense, I decided to close my lists into monthly sprints, which were reviewed and rewritten every month. The coding was extended to have circles, which represented things that were postponed to the next month.
A lot was improved with this. The lists became really clearer, as each month had its own page, and only the open tasks were copied from the previous month. It is important to note at this point, the list was not planned ahead, only into the current month. Another clear and important improvement was the exercise of rewriting. It might appear simple, but the act of writing a postponed task again and again, became an incentive to finish it and get it out. Also, specially with simple chores, the effort on rewriting it into the next month was (or felt) actually higher than doing the thing itself. This improved a lot the completion of simpler smaller tasks from the list.
Procrastination had become exceedingly visible. As the list was reworked the first Sunday of every month. It was clear that the efforts and dedication towards the end of the month became much higher and things were mostly finished in the last week of every month. Besides that, a problem started to grow, as things piled up and the list became bigger and bigger every month. Was specially annoying since some of those tasks were actually not high priority or worse, required only in later months.
Training discipline further
Up to this point, the process was mostly dependent on organization rather than on discipline. The coding and writing organized and kept things clear, but did not help on actually completing them that much. Observing the procrastination effect towards the end of the month and different urgencies on the tasks, there were two paths to proceed: Planning ahead and reducing the time of the sprints. I incorporated them both in the respective order. Today is clear to me not only from my work experience but also from my own personal projects, that the best strategy was reducing the sprint time, but at the time, it was more important to me having clearer lists.
The changes for planning ahead were subtle. Important to note that I was not creating deadlines for myself, simply distributing things more evenly. The main benefit was removing the desperation effect on observing huge growing lists of tasks to do. The greatest improvement though, came on the weekly sprints. The procrastination remained the same: things were finished always towards the end of the sprint. The difference now was that, in the same period, there were four of such events, which meant that those smaller tasks got cleaned out earlier.
I used these simple things (three codings, one page per month, planning couple months ahead) for a long time, without observing anything strange. My discipline was gradually improving, which allowed me to do more things and more structured things. Parallel to this, I started organizing myself in bigger themed epics, which started to generate the tasks instead of random ideas. When my commitment started to surpass my time and discipline, that is when a new bottleneck appeared. Larger tasks started piling up, which meant larger and larger lists over the weeks. Postponing and distributing them into the future was still helping, but started to create a lot of split focuses, with several different topics being worked on the same week, which decreased productivity. This is currently where I am in.
Nowadays mine are luxury problems. What I try to accomplish and improve now with it is huge when compared to what it was when I started it. I probably crossed the line at some point over enterprising myself, but this is another discussion entirely. Trying to achieve more requires a designed process to help optimizing and supporting it. For those interested on knowing details on how I work there are some here but I wanted to close the text first. The important is to point out that this was designed and works well for me, that does not mean there are no better frameworks around.
What I described here is not much different than what several companies go through while optimizing and changing their own process. The idea behind this was to show how it is possible to map such experiences into your own personal organization, hopefully shedding some light into how to improve your personal accomplishments. The most important thing to keep in mind is to try things out and iteratively change your way of doing things until you get it right and remember… baby steps. For those looking for a magic framework that will force them to finish personal goals… Job 38:11. Only companies have this kind of leverage over you.
How my way looks like
Having tailored clothes is always better than trying to wear someone else’s. May my way of organizing things serve as inspiration for you to build your own process. I doubt you could use it as is.
I acquired this nice notebook in late 2012, when I realized my system was stable enough to be worth some sort of investment, today I would buy something even nicer. The important for me was to get something that looked nice and I liked, because one things I learned about your backlog-task-list is: you will soon start hating it. That thing will become (and fast) a reminder of all those perky little procrastinating habits. Therefore choosing something I would naturally be attracted to helped balance things out.
Organization is everything. Chaos only hinders discipline unfortunately. Here you can see that my time ahead planning are in a six months base. That has been quite ok. I also keep one week per page, and because I love ink pens, the back is not so good for writing. This also helps keeping some sort of limit on what can fit in one week. On the left there is a legend for my code.
- To Do: Open tasks.
- Done: Free of guilt.
- Procrastinated: this task can be found somewhere in the following weeks.
- Done too late: dangerous one, represents that I executed the task, but not updated the notebook accordingly. Happens when I do not work on the notebook for a while.
- Cancelled: Deprecated or ignored tasks.
- Procrastinated and merged/refactored: this is an interesting one. Every now and then a task becomes something else entirely than the originally planned, requiring it to be reviewed. This means either the scope is reduced or it is broken down in several.
Here is how an normal week’s planning look like. My latest addition was to include a count of how many weeks I have been postponing something from the originally planned. You can see those can be very high. In this case (this is the current week I am in) most of the items will be postponed again (as today is Sunday, last day) and this high count is because I have not yet fully recovered from a setback months ago.
Another latest addition I have, trying to recover from my split focus, is to define particular “Epics” I should be working on. I have a personal backlog with top level projects I want to complete this year, and those three were the ones I wanted to have done before the mid year. This helps to decide what tasks to take in and gives a check point I need to reach. In this sense I have two process I use, this notebook for the bleeding edge execution and another one to handle long-term achievements. Lot of planning is required to align both, but basically the second is the executioner to achieve the first.
Not everything is perfect
One thing that always helps, is to show how things can go wrong and that even though I have a pretty process defined up there, it is not fail proof. Having a process and all is nice, but you should never be afraid of failing, or when you do, let it consume you.
A process should empower you, not enslave you.
The important is to understand why bad things happen and change what is needed to avoid it. Another thing to say is that improve does not necessarily mean do more, or do better, but also feel better while at it. Have fun with my failures…
Classic optimism failure. I was on holidays and my mother was visiting me, I naively expected to have the same normal throughput as any normal week. Little did I know… Concrete actions for this are not so simple, simply “Abandon all hope, those who enter here” or in other words, do not kid yourself.
This is a troublesome “why bother making plans if I will do something else”. Sidetracking can be terrible, specially if you are affected by external factors such as work or an unexpected personal project. Here is a clear sign of degradation of discipline, in this particular case happened after I spent quite some time without practising my habits. It has even been a couple months since, and I am not yet fully recovered, slipping into slackness often. This goes back to one of my initial topics.
This is the root of all evil. A blank page means that, not only I was not doing anything, I was not even taking care of my organization. Basically means total lack of discipline. This was not the first time it happened, and I dare say will not be the last. As already mentioned, discipline is an exercise, so it requires patience and training to develop it.
Leave feedback! Hope this might have been useful to you.
How do you wish to be remembered? “As someone who did the best she could with the talent she had.””
– J.K. Rowling