Wednesday, June 1, 2011

GTD® as my personal product backlog

No time to discuss this as a committee - Han Solo

I forget things - I admit it. I also look at a mass of work and struggle to know what I should do next. Part of the problem is that I have a wide range of interests and often work across a number of projects. Another issue is that I can get bogged down in the procedural if I'm not careful. My goal over the past year or so has been to organise myself so that I can better see to what needs to be seen to and give myself time to get above the forest.

I have kept lists for quite some time - sometimes on paper, sometimes using software. What I didn't really do though, was see these lists as an ongoing effort in knowing my priorities. In some ways, this xkcd comic boils down exactly what I was doing. Lists can be a prison if they're just a huge blob of stuff. This really hit home when I looked through the issue list for software that had been developed by a team I worked with. This issue list had hundreds of items, some were defects, others were features. Each week this list just rolled over and got larger. It was impossible to work out what needed to be seen to now and what was just some blue-sky thought. In the end, the development team appeared to just ignore the list and deal with issues they were being called about. My lists treated me a little differently - they made me feel guilty that I wasn't finishing everything.

So, with the idea that I could do better at this, I picked up David Allen's book Getting Things Done. David talks about many of the issues I was facing and presented a process that I find rather natural:
  1. Collect all of my stuff - emails, articles, meeting notes etc
  2. Process this stuff - work out if I need to do something and, if it takes less than 2 minutes I do it, otherwise I Organise it (next step)
  3. Organise tasks in terms of priority, project etc
  4. Review my tasks on a weekly basis to ensure priorities match my current context
  5. Work through the tasks as a series of "next actionable items"

What really hit me was the similarities with Scrum. In essence, I was drawing in my various inputs and building a personal product backlog. Each task is described much like a user story ("Book car in for service") and it's important that the task is described in a useful way ("Call John" is not as useful as "Call John about the new server order"). Each day I check my calendar for fixed tasks and then plan which actionable tasks I can achieve, based on time and priority - rather similar to a sprint backlog. Every week I groom my personal product backlog to ensure it matches my current reality.

Whilst David Allen doesn't use technology beyond pen and paper, I decided to look for software to help me organise myself. To be frank, the idea of using non-virtual folders and paper made me shudder. After a brief search I eventually chose Toodledo.  There's a fair number of titles on the market but Toodledo had plugins for the iPad® and Firefox® and I've found it flexible yet easy to keep using.

When I had an iPad I used Notability to collect things like meeting notes for processing at my normal time. The loss of the iPad (I left the job and had to hand it back) saw me go to system cards and I found that these work quite well. I would take a new card to a meeting, jot down any notes and then put the card in my in-tray for processing as any other collected item. What the card offers is a discrete input and avoids the notepad issue whereby you just end up with pages and pages of notes/tasks that never get actioned. The other thing I've been able to leave behind is the desk piled with papers that never get read and this makes my cubicle that little bit nicer.

It's not been an overnight thing and, at really busy times, I've had to focus and keep my rituals going but this has meant that I don't suddenly lose track of what needs to be done. I even get more time to think about the bigger picture.

The legal stuff:
  • GTD® and Getting Things Done® are registered trademarks of the David Allen Company.
  • iPad® is a registered trademark of Apple Inc
  • Firefox® is a registered trademark of the Mozilla Foundation 

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