Having started working closely with Agile and Scrum in IT projects, I discovered that the principles and values that are used for team development of software are also suitable for working with personal projects.
What is Agile at work?
Agile is the decomposition of a large project into small stages, testing hypotheses, experimenting and working with short distances. In Agile, mistakes are not the end of the world; both negative and positive experience is important. By obtaining a negative intermediate result, it is possible to draw conclusions, quickly correct further actions and change the vector of movement to the target.
How to apply Agile to life?
Determine the goal, break it into short distances, define clear actions, observe your feelings during the process and analyze intermediate results.
Now I will tell you what tools I chose for myself and how I adapted them for personal projects.
Step # 1 – Purpose of the project. High level goals.
It is known that achieving the right goal is much more important than the achievement of dozens of goals. Often people jump over the stage of planning and immediately grab the tools to complete the maximum number of cases in the shortest period. I was like that too. Instead of thinking at the initial stage about what I need at this moment and what I want to reach for in the future, I wrote crazy To-Do sheets and tried to cram them all in: aerobics, English, driving, style, personal brand, pet sitting and a million more household tasks.
Step # 2 – Determine time reserves and limitations.
Very often we say that on the weekend, we will finish all unfinished tasks and even conquer the world. However, this never happens. Why? Because we are too optimistic when planning our own time.
To tell the truth, I used a time tracking app for a week. Now I know how many hours I spend sleeping, how many minutes I spend eating, how long it takes to take a shower, how much time I waste surfing the Internet and how much time I really devote to projects.
After that I compare the time allocated to my personal projects with my high-level goals. If I have a goal “to achieve world domination, to have billions in income by the end of the year…etc “and have just 1 hour per day dedicated to it, that means that I set an unachievable goal. Is it logical?
Then I review my time costs and try to find more time for priority goals. After all, even when we say that we are not doing anything, this “anything” is not “anything” at all. We have 24 hours a day, and they are all occupied with something! Therefore, in order to make time for something, it must be taken from “something”.
In my time tracking, I discovered that even though I spend almost no time on social networks, YouTube and other entertainment channels, I spend a lot of time per week on TV shows. Every day it is almost imperceptible, but over 7 days it adds up. My shows are not just running in the background; all of them “have meaning”. I watch them only in foreign languages in order to maintain the language level, but nevertheless, this time can be spent on more important tasks. It is impossible to live without rest of course, but why not reduce the viewing time by half. One series should be left for evenings after work, and during the weekend there shouldn’t be any time spent viewing because there is no necessity to unload from work.
What other reserves can we find? If you do clear weekly planning, you can reduce the time for preparing food, time for morning routines and you can also fill in the “windows” waiting in the lines and in transport. You can also think about how to optimize time for current work without losing income.
Thus, I can see a picture of how much time I can devote to the main goals now and how much I can find in the nearest future.
Step # 3 – Define tasks for backlog.
Next, I outline all the tasks that need to be done. For example, my first project is Agile-coaching. I need to make an appointment with client L, arrange a time to call client M, write an article in a blog, write to organization N and ask about volunteering opportunities and so on. I do this on Sunday evening in order to start my Monday morning with enthusiasm.
I love paper notebooks and stickers but for those who prefer apps I would recommend Trello or Asana services.
How does a backlog differ from a regular to-do list? In the to-do list, everything is recorded (even the appointment with the hairdresser and taking out the garbage). The backlog is only for project tasks. To-do lists have no structure and time limits, but a backlog does.
Each project has its own backlog. Tasks do not mix with one another. Tasks should be clearly defined and divided into sub-tasks. For example, the phrase “to prepare a presentation” is ineffective. It is very difficult to determine the time required to perform this task, as well as to formulate the finished result.
If this formulation is broken down into a series of sub-tasks, then it becomes much easier to plan. For instance: define the goals of the presentation, define the time allotted for the presentation and the number of slides, come up with the structure, find the content and pictures for the slides and so on. In this format, actions become simple, measurable and understandable.
Step # 4 – Determine the time slot for each task.
If you would like to be realistic in your planning, you need to determine the approximate time needed to complete each task. People tend to underestimate the time they spend on each task, so I always write down the estimated time, and then add 30% to it. I know some people who need to add 200% or 300% to their estimated time.
It helps to estimate the realistic amount of time needed for a project and then compare it with the time we determined in Step 2.
If during the day you have canceled a meeting or spent less time than you expected on a particular task, then you can easily determine which task from the list can be performed in this period.
Step # 5 – Prioritization.
MoSCoW (Must, Should, Could, Would be nice to have)
People who prefer making lists rather than analyzing graphs would love this technique.
MoSCoW as a prioritization method is used to decide which requirements to complete first, which must come later and which to exclude. Everything that is a “Must” is not negotiable. Therefore, there is a temptation to mark half of your tasks as a “Must”. This is not recommended. For example, if we are talking about learning English, I need to pay an English teacher, otherwise there will be no one to work with. This is a “Must”. I need to buy textbooks. This is a “Must” too. Also, I “must” sign up for courses at least twice a week. The other steps are not considered a “Must” and so I divide them between “Should”, “Could” and “Would be nice to have”.
“Should” is a little less rigid than “Must”. I should have at least 5 hours a week to study a foreign language, perform basic exercises, and learn the minimum number of words per day. Otherwise I won’t have a desirable result.
In “Could,” you could write the tasks that need to be done, but nothing fatal will happen if they are not fulfilled today or in the near future. For example, aside from the main tasks, the foreign language tutor gave me a book in the original language. It would be very desirable to read it prior to the next lesson, but it is better to perform the basic exercises first and read the book only after completing all the items from the “Must” and “Should” lists, even if it can happen no earlier than the end of the following week.
“Would like to” includes wishes that I want to do, but they are not necessary now. This is something that may be delayed for the future. For example, I would like to watch one movie in a foreign language every day, but if I have to constantly sacrifice my sleep or exercise routine, it is better to leave it for less busy times or give it up completely.
I prefer making lists, but for those who love graphs, I recommend the Eisenhower Matrix.
This is a great visual tool that helps determine which tasks are prioritized and which are just distractions.
The Eisenhower matrix is shown below:
The Pareto principle or Eat dessert first
The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
Once I have prioritized the importance of each task, I begin to evaluate tasks based on the balance of effort and result. For example, I already speak English fairly well and I easily remember phrases from movies. I have several priorities for the following week: to do a grammar exercise, to read an article and to learn 10 phrases. First, I will watch a movie, be entertained and maybe I will remember up to 20 phrases with almost no effort. This means that in 1.5 hours I will acquire at least 10 phrases in my vocabulary. I will read the article last, because it takes me a little more time to finish it and the result requires much more effort.
Sunday Planning and Review on Friday
Many people do planning on Monday morning but my favorite time for it is Sunday evening.
I prefer evening planning in general. My brain can work on my plans subconsciously even when I sleep and I will be excited about a new day in the morning. If I plan in the evening, I wake up even earlier than I planned, full of strength and energy for the realization of Napoleon’s plans. I even have the feeling that during sleep, someone pours energy inside me, so I have enough for everything I plan to do. If I do not plan anything in the evening and leave it for the morning, I wake up late with a headache and with the desire to linger all day. It feels like if there is no plan, there is no need to recharge the body with energy.
I used to hate Sundays. Everything is closed on Sunday evening, you can’t go to the cinema or to the disco and even if it is open, there are very few people who want to accompany you because there is a work week ahead and everybody needs to save energy.
Later, I concluded that Sunday can be used for planning ideally. I sit down, relax and imagine what I managed to accomplish in five days. Having clearly visualized the future, I return to the present and make a detailed plan on how to achieve the desired results by Friday. To be realistic, I usually choose three main tasks for the week.
When Friday comes, I sum up the week. I analyze what has been achieved, what has failed and most importantly for what reason. I define 2-3 areas in which everything is good, or 2-3 customers with whom everything went ideally and 2-3 areas or 2-3 customers with which things were not very good. I consider this on Sunday while planning for the following week.
Step # 6 – Sprint.
To plan a sprint, I use a Kanban board. My Kanban board is a wall in front of my table. I divide the wall into 4 parts: To Do, In Process, Outsource and Done. I use a different color of the sticker representing each project.
I plan weekly sprints. On Monday I put all tasks in the To DO column, and ideally everything should move to Done column by Saturday. To track how much time it really takes to complete a task, I use Toggl or Clockify time trackers.
Every day I start with a revision. I ask myself 3 Agile questions:
• What did I do yesterday?
• What will I do today?
• Do I see any impediment?
After that, I analyze my backlog, clean up some tasks, and add some new tasks.
On Friday, I do a retrospective. I ask questions:
What went well?
What was bad?
How can I improve my progress?
Sometimes I don’t wait until Friday. I do a retrospective right after a meeting with a client, or after receiving a review / letter or comment.
These simple set of tools helps me maintain a balance between work and personal life and remain in harmony with myself.
Spike as a type of experiment
In agile software development, a spike is a story that cannot be estimated until a development team runs a time-boxed investigation. The output of a spike is an estimate for the original story.
In my personal planning system, I periodically arrange experiments. For example, if I go in for sports, why not try a new diet or new exercises for a week, and suddenly it will help me to achieve the desired result spending less effort. If during the week I understand that the exercises do not fit me, then I return to the original diet and exercises on Monday. It will not be the end of the world, I just conclude that this diet or these exercises are not for me.
I have written a lot about tools and techniques here, but the goal of all this is not to concentrate only on the achievements, but on the contrary, to spend minimum time on tasks and projects and maximum on real life!