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A Holistic Approach to an “Agile” Life

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Do you want to be more productive? Do you want to get the most out of your days?

These are silly questions, obviously. Of course you do. But if it was as easy as just saying you want it, we’d all be productivity machines.

Over the course of my career, I’ve gone from freelance designer all the way to a leadership role as a director. Regardless of the different skills and responsibilities in these roles, a common thread presents itself: it’s possible to miss deadlines, exceed budget, or compromise in quality and scope.

These outcomes yield unhappy clients, employees, and individuals. Sound familiar yet?

Workplace and Personal Life

Interestingly, I began to notice the same pitfalls in my personal time; my nights and weekends balancing social commitments, chores at home, and hobbies were stressful, and often left me wondering where all my time had gone.

In both the workplace and in my personal life, three things were always competing: 

  1. What needs to get done
  2. The time available to do it
  3. The resources (think money) required to do it

It seemed like anytime I focused on optimizing one of these three things, another would go haywire. I was determined to find a more adaptable, productive, and successful process.

When things go haywireWhen things go haywireWhen things go haywire
When things go haywire

As it turns out, I’m not the first person to experience these problems. In fact, in this process of discovery, I realized someone very close to me had gone through the same process of discovery: my father.

Over the course of some late-night conversations and coffee, my dad expounded on the words I had been hearing for years at the dinner table. This is how I was introduced to the concept of “Agile.” 

Say “Hello” to Agile

At its most basic level, “agile” is exactly what it sounds like: being able to change when necessary. We have to be agile in order to do agile. Agile begins with a mindset of how you approach projects and manage your time. The specific techniques and ceremonies come later. 

We exist in a world where change is inevitable. 

“Our processes should not ignore the reality of change; rather, they should (and must) embrace change.”

The agile philosophy came out of this respect for change in the way we balance time, work, and the resources to get something done. Employ the philosophy outlined in the Agile Manifesto, and you will “do” agile. From this core idea, I derived the values that have revolutionized the way I spend my time, and the way I coach teams to spend their time. I want to teach you those things today.

Let’s apply that to a-day-in-the-life of you. By adopting a few simple agile tactics, you can better manage your time, prioritize and accomplish your daily tasks, and experience both productivity and contentment. 

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That’s better

Sounds like a silver bullet, doesn’t it? Not so fast. 

Doing agile still requires hard work, dedication to excellence, and focus. So if you’re here for a simple solution to your complex problems, you’re in the wrong place. Instead, this is about taking your dedication, maximizing it, and pointing it in the right direction.

How We’re Wrong About Time

We all have things we want and need to accomplish. We also all have one constraint that we won’t ever escape: time. Time is a singular, continuous spectrum we can’t escape. Here’s a pro-tip: The way you view your time is likely holding you back.

The human brain has a tendency to avoid the realities of time. We tend to view our time as compartmentalized, conceptually separating our work, family, hobby, and social time in our minds. We make decisions based on compartments as if they were not part of a whole. 

In reality, time doesn’t respect the boundaries of our schedules, no matter how we try to slice it.

From the time you wake up to the time you go to bed, you can choose how to spend your time. Think of all 24 hours in your day as one entity.

Agile: Take It One Day at a Time

So if time is continuous, what’s the best way to manage our time without viewing it as one structureless blob? Instead of viewing your time as one big chunk with compartments, create regular, short segments of time with a repeatable pattern.

In agile, these segments are called a “sprint”.

The length of the sprint is short enough to remember the things that go well (and the things that go poorly).

Start small, with one day as your regular, repeatable working cycle. Begin your sprint when you wake up in the morning and consider it finished when you lie down to go to bed.

Sprints have three primary phases: 

  1. Planning
  2. Execution
  3. Review

When iterating on an agile day, you may choose to reconfigure your idea of a sprint from one day to one week, or even two days. I’m going to walk you through exactly how you can build your first Agile Day.

Your First Agile Day

Managing tasks can sound (and actually be) pretty boring. However, don’t worry; the advantage to an agile day is that you accomplish more of things you have to, and have more time to do the things you want to. The boring tasks become less boring and more rewarding. The more productive you are, the more you’ll experience accomplishment and repeat those habits, leaving time for fun “tasks” in the end.

An agile day sprint correlates to three time-of-day phases: morning, afternoon, and evening.

Good Morning: The Planning Phase

Good morning! The first thing to do in the planning phase is set up a physical or digital board to document and track your progress visibly during sprints. Your board should have four columns: 

  1. Planning
  2. Do
  3. Doing
  4. Done 
Agile Trello boardAgile Trello boardAgile Trello board

The key to this Planning phase is that you make it visible. The value is in recording your to-dos visibly and ordering them by priority. This allows you to know importance at a glance and see the status of their progress at any time.

Tip: Try using a free, digital tool, like Trello, as your board. It allows you to use it wherever you go throughout your day as you accomplish tasks.

Write down all the tasks that you want and need to do, from home to work to after-hours, and place them in the “Planning” column. 

Next, order your tasks top-down from highest priority to lowest priority.

Once they are in order, add an estimate of how long these to-dos will take you on the card. Think in terms of a day—will this take an hour, a few hours, or half a day? Make comparisons to get comfortable with estimating. For example, is the first task bigger or smaller than the second? Will this task take longer than that task?

After you are done setting up a Planning list of tasks in priority order, with estimations, determine what to pull from Planning into the “Do” column. Ask these questions to know which ones and how many:

  • What can be done this Sprint? (Today)
  • How will I do the chosen tasks? (Basic Plan of Attack)

Based on your estimates, move as many of the cards that add up to one day into the Do column. The trick is to pull over only the tasks you want to accomplish most and will have enough time to complete in a day.

Be realistic with your estimates. Overestimate how long the task will take, and underestimate what you think you can accomplish today. The neat part about this framework is that it’s adaptable enough that if you finish quicker than planned, you can grab another task from Planning with no fear of wasting time on unimportant things.

Good Afternoon: The Execution Phase

You’re all set and ready to “do” after your Planning phase this morning. During the day of your sprint, you’ll perform the execution phase. 

Execute on your tasks in the Do column. Start with one. Pick from the very top of Do by pulling one task into the Doing column and begin “doing” that task. Your Doing column should reflect precisely what it sounds like; the single task that you are actively doing right now.

“The key to the execution phase is not simply executing, but how you execute—by limiting your work in progress.”

Doing one task at a time is absolutely key. Focus on one thing until it is completely finished, before you start on the next. Limiting your tasks in progress helps you focus and finish. The less you cloud your mind (and your Doing column) with, the more productive you’ll be. For more on why this is so effective, check out this research on multi-tasking (hint: multi-tasking is bad for you).

Part of the execution phase is not just doing but finishing. Once a task in Doing is finished, move the task to the “Done” column. The definition of “done” means the task is finished, fixed, complete, ready to hand to a customer, or put on a shelf.

Full boardFull boardFull board

The Standing Meeting

Every afternoon during the execution phase, you should have a meeting on your calendar with one attendee: yourself. 

Everyone hereEveryone hereEveryone here
Everyone here? Good, let’s get started.

During this short meeting, answer these three questions:

  • What have I completed?
  • What will I complete with the remaining hours of my sprint?
  • Are there any roadblocks keeping me from the items in “Doing” or those remaining in “Do?”

This allows you to have both the awareness and time for adjustment before the sprint is over. Remember, agile is all about being flexible to change!

By the time evening comes in your agile day, the goal is for the tasks you pulled into Do to have made it into the Done column. Remember, choose the tasks that are most valuable and achievable, and focus on Doing one at a time. 

A Note About Rest

Humans are not machines. We don’t operate at full capacity all the time. The agile framework allows you to focus on the most important thing in the moment, but don’t forget, sometimes the most important thing is rest. 

The way I like to structure my days is to provide myself a resting reward for finishing a given task or set of tasks. You can even put this reward on the task card so that you know exactly what you get when you complete that task. Bonus points: make the bigger tasks have bigger rewards! Another popular method for building rest into your process is the Pomodoro Technique. Whatever you do, make sure you don’t burn yourself out!

When iterating on an agile day, you may choose to rename your board’s columns from Planned, Do, Doing and Done to “Backlog”, “Planned”, “In Progress”, and “Completed”… or something else you identify with. Find language and documentation that works for you; build from here and make it your own!

Good Evening: The Review Phase

Good evening! How does your Done column look? Hopefully, it’s full of the tasks that were in the Do column this morning. 

At the end of your agile day’s sprint is the review phase. Take a moment to review what you said you would do, what you actually did, and anything remaining to be done. If anything remains, leave it for your second agile day. It will become the first thing you do and finish tomorrow.

The key to the review phase is balancing the good with the bad for the sake of refinement.

First and most importantly, celebrate the good. What went well? Look at what you’ve accomplished, and soak it in! Maybe even take time to celebrate each of the tasks that made it from Do to Done. Commemorate the positive outcomes of your agile day. 

During the second part of the review phase, identify the bad. What didn’t get done? What did not go well today? Why did that happen? Can you identify any root causes? If you record what didn’t go well, you can become aware and improve upon those aspects in your next sprint. It’s much harder to recall what didn’t go well at a later date, so it’s critical to do this immediately after your sprint.

Try asking yourself these questions:

  • Good: What worked well this sprint? (Celebrate it and do it again tomorrow.)
  • Bad: What didn’t work well this sprint? (Recognize it and try something new tomorrow.) 

It’s simple, yet powerful. This is the scientific method in practice! We learn and progress when we test our ideas. Experiment, inspect, and adapt.

Your Second Agile Day

Good morning! It’s a new agile day, and time to sprint again. Take the board you created in your first Agile Day and begin your Agile Day 2.0, today.

It’s your decision how you will handle today. Take this opportunity as a license to decide what is most important for you to invest your time in today. In the morning, plan. In the afternoon, execute. In the evening, review. And remember, don’t forget to celebrate!

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