Agile Achievement

Have you ever been inspired to write a plan for your life, and then months have gone by and nothing has got done? We often focus on what's right in front of us, and our long term goals get left behind. Setting a goal is only part of the process, you must also review the goal and take action.

One problem you may face when setting big goals is that they are difficult to get a grip on when planning. Setting yourself a large target, such as becoming a millionaire, is easy enough, but planning all the steps necessary to achieve it is much, much harder.

Extreme Programming

As a software developer, I'm used to breaking large tasks into smaller chunks, and it seemed like some of the methods used in software development could be used in the field of personal development and goal achievement.

Software can be big and complex, and creating it can be very expensive and risky. There are plenty of methodologies that can be used to create it, but one that has recently caught my attention is eXtreme Programming. Although the name makes it sound like programming whilst leaping out of a plane, it's more about making developers more productive by distilling all of the various tasks into smaller units.

The rules of XP are broken into 4 sections: Planning, Designing, Coding and Testing. Not all of these fit into goal achievement, so I've revised them into more appropriate categories. They are: Defining, Planning, Taking Action and Measuring.

Of all the categories, Taking Action is the most important. Without Action, nothing else will happen. You can plan a goal forever and a day, but unless you actually do something, it'll never happen.

Defining

The first stage of any goal is to define the ideal outcome that you want. Without a clear picture of what you want to achieve, you'll struggle to get anywhere at all.

Define the Outcome

This is the process of deciding on the "what". The "how" comes at the planning stage, so concentrate on what is to be achieved and don't worry too much about how it will be achieved.

Goal setting can be a very difficult, but also a very rewarding process. It takes time and patience to understand the best way to set your goals, and there's no "one size fits all" solution. It's best to experiment with different methods to find which style suits you the best. I wrote some tips for goal setting in "goal setting for beginners", which might help at this stage.

Create Visualisations

Once the goal is defined, use the power of visualisations to imagine the goal as already completed. You can use vision boards or picture goal books to help.

Planning

There's no escaping the fact that any sufficiently large goal will require a degree of planning in order to achieve it. Planning should follow these rules:

Break Into Iterations

Instead of trying to achieve the goal in one fell swoop, break it into smaller chunks, or "iterations". The advantage of using this approach is that you can quickly react to changes in your circumstances.

You can think of using iterations like creating a sculpture of a person. The first iteration is the rough outline, creating large blocks such as limbs and the head. More detail is then added with each successive iteration, until eventually it is complete. You don't start by carving out the fine detail.

Only Plan One Iteration at a Time

It can be extremely tempting to plan several stages ahead, but you must resist this urge at all costs. You should only plan the current iteration, as planning too far ahead removes the advantages of using the iterative approach.

Have Frequent Releases

Don't squirrel away on a project for years until things are "just right". Get something done and get it out there, and then refine it as time goes on. Taking the "ready, fire, aim" can help to beat procrastination, and will also help you gain valuable feedback as you go. It might turn out that your goal isn't having the desired effect on your life, but by breaking it into small chunks you'll find out much sooner.

You should aim for every chunk to have at least one deliverable. For example, writing a book might have a rough outline as a deliverable, or a single chapter or 10 designs for the layout.

Adopt a "Just In Time" Mindset

Don't add anything before it is required. It can be tempting to spend days working on "laying the foundations", but that time will be wasted if you find out you didn't actually need any of it. For example, if you're starting a new business, don't buy hundreds of business cards or a purchase a monster web server until you actually need them.

Refactor Often and Mercilessly

In software, refactoring is the process of changing your code to make it more readable or better structured without changing the behaviour the same. For goal setting, improve your visualisations and goals as often as you need to. Instead of ripping them down and starting again, build on the foundations.

Be open to change, and don't become attached to how things are. Your goals have got you this far, when they've had their time be prepared to let them go. A good analogy for this from the XP website:

A caterpillar is perfectly designed to eat vast amounts of foliage but he can't find a mate, so he must refactor himself into a butterfly before he is designed to search the sky for others of his own kind.

Taking Action

The most important phase is taking action. Only you can move yourself closer to the completion of your goals, so take action to get there!

Don't Work Alone

Don't feel as if you have to do it all on your own, because you don't. Find a mentor or use a focusing partner to help you reach your goals faster. A focusing partner will help you with your goals by giving encouragement and objective observations, and will also give a sense of accountability.

Review Frequently

A forgotten goal will never be achieved, so review it as frequently as you need too. Ask your mentor or focusing partner to help, so that your goal is cemented into your mind. Put up reminders around your house and office, and use visualisations and affirmations to help you keep the goal in the present.

Don't Optimise Too Soon

This comes from taking the "ready, fire, aim" approach. Don't optimise until the groundwork is laid and you have some form of measurement that you can use to improve your situation. Don't worry about getting everything perfect the first time round. NOTHING is created perfect, and more often than not you'll find new ways to improve things once you've started taking action.

Don't Work Overtime

If a task is taking a lot longer than expected, don't give in to the temptation of putting in more hours to sort it out. Instead, use your next planning session to modify the project accordingly. Working overtime will suck out your motivation and make you miserable, and although it sounds logical that working longer will help you get more done, it can (and does) have the opposite effect.

As the saying goes, "work smarter, not harder". Burning yourself out will achieve nothing.

Measuring

Keeping some form of measurement is a simple way of increasing your productivity. When you measure your progress, you can see areas for improvement and work on them accordingly.

All Goals Have Tests

You should be able to know at any point in time if a goal has been achieved or not. Be specific when setting your goals, and don't leave them open to interpretation.

Measure Your Success

How you do this is up to you. You might want to use a progress log, or something else. Journal often, and look for areas where you can refactor or optimise. This is really down to individual preference, and you may wish to track different things for different goals.

Measuring anything will help you improve it, and when you have frequent planning sessions you're able to put these new things into effect quickly.

Be Flexible

The most important part of "agile achievement" is to be flexible. It's a fact of life that circumstances will change, and this will cause rigid goals to break. Be flexible and open to change, and don't get attached to any particular way of doing things.

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Progress Tracking and Beyond

In my last post I looked over my progress log system, and what has and hasn't worked. It's time for a change, but it would be easy to add a tonne of stuff I don't need so it's important that the purpose of the system is clearly defined:

Something to help me stick to my goals, both long and short term, and to help me change my habits.

Onto the requirements:

Requirements

Paper Based – The main reasons for this is that I find it much easier to modify a paper based system "on the fly". The other main reason is that I find paper to be more rewarding to use when ticking things off. It also means I don't need to switch the computer on first thing in the morning, which would stop the "I'll just check my email" phase that can last hours.

Printable – As much fun as it was to draw all that stuff, it really needs to be printable so I can stick it in a binder and save myself some time.

Bigger System – Ideally it should cover my long term goals as well as my weekly ones, and also my affirmations and intentions. These items should be easy to access so that I don't overlook them. There should also be the potential to add slots for my 30 day trials.

Points Tracking – Points tracking worked well in previous versions of my progress tracker, so I'll be keeping it.

Space for Reflection – There should be space to write down what worked and what didn't work, which I should be able to put in a stack and review when my monthly/quarterly goal sessions come around. There's not much point in writing these things down if I won't be using them.

Weekly Goal Tracking – There should be a space to monitor the progress of my top three goals.

Weekly Review Checklist – The weekly sheet should have a checklist for completing my GTD weekly review. This is more of a system to help me get into the habit of performing a weekly review.

Version 1.0

I'm not much of an artist, so this version is somewhat bland. I fully expect the design to change over time, so I'll be linking to updates from this page.

Weekly Goals Tracker - Side 1 Weekly Goals Tracker - Side 2 30 Day Trial -- Progress Monitor

Weekly Goals Tracker

The first document is the "weekly goals tracker", which takes the place of my old drawable system. It's quite similar to the old version, but now has two new sections. The first one is called "three things to be thankful for" which is another tool for making sure I don't overlook the positive things that have happened in the week. The second new section is a checklist for my GTD weekly review.

30 Day Trial – Progress Monitor

The second document is a progress monitor for 30 day trials, and is geared towards changing bad habits into positive ones.

Licence and Credits

These files are released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 Licence, which means you're welcome to share and modify them as long as you keep the original link and don't use them for commercial purposes.

The b-Alert tracker is taken from "The Power of Focus", and the 30 day trial is a modified version of the habit changer taken from the same book. The scoring system was inspired by David Seah's "The Printable CEO".

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Progress Log - Redux

It's been over a year since I first wrote about my progress log on my shareware development blog, and a lot has changed in that time. I'm still using the system, but I'm starting to outgrow it quite rapidly. As I focus more on long-term goals and my overall purpose, I notice that tracking the really short term goals is a struggle as the long-term vision is forgotten.

Large goals need to be broken into smaller steps, but you must always keep your eye on the larger picture in order to succeed. Forgetting where you are going is one of the biggest barriers to goal completion, so the progress log should have a system that prevents long term goals from being forgotten. There's nothing more frustrating than finding some goals you wanted to achieve written down on a hidden scrap of paper with a date from 6 months ago.

There are still barriers that prevent me from using the progress log on a regular basis, which really defeats the point of having it. Let's look at what works and what doesn't…

What works?

The points system – I definitely get more done when I've been using the system for a few weeks, and it really motivates me to work harder. It's really a private commitment to do something, and having it written on a piece of paper that is regularly reviewed galvanises it in the mind.

Reflection – It's all too easy to keep your head down and work without looking up to see if you're doing the right thing. If you find yourself saying "I'm too busy to look at my goals", then you have a problem. Taking time at the end of the day to reflect on what has happened can help you keep a check on your progress, as well as helping you analyse what your stumbling blocks are.

If you work from home, you can also use this reflection time as "closure" to your day, which you use to signify that the working day has finished. Work will quite happily encroach on the rest of your life, give yourself a definitive ending point to stop it doing this.

Helps to build & maintain habits – It takes roughly 30 days for a habit to form, and those 30 days can be extremely difficult if you don't have a system to help you. Getting into my habit of daily exercise was helped by tricking it off on my goals tracker. It almost acted like a contract with myself, and it pushed me to exercise in some pretty manky weather!

Weekly goals – Seeing my weekly goals helped me create schedules and keep track of my progress. It didn't do much for larger goals, and if I missed a weekly goal it created a backlog and decreased my productivity.

Increased motivation and focus – How you work is affected by how you feel, but instead of making ourselves feel good about our work we often only remember the bad things. Keeping a record of the things that have been achieved prevents us from warping what actually happened, and makes us feel better about ourselves.

What doesn't work?

Lack of focus on larger goals – There isn't really a reminder of my big goals or purpose inside the tracker, which means they can be forgotten too easily. Putting them in my progress log seems like a logical step, especially if I'm going to be looking at it more than once a day (see below).

Not reviewed often enough – This is more of a flaw in how I used it than how it was laid out. I firmly believe that you need to look at goals at least once every day in order to root them into your brain. It might sound like overkill to look at your goals several times a day, but if that's what it takes to work then it's worth it.

Scoring system too vague – Things like "concrete project work" don't go far enough to explain what they actually are. This is especially important as GTD defines anything with more than one action as a project, so just about any action would fit here. Something like "publish blog or site article" is much better defined. Trying to group all tasks into scoring zones is quite difficult, so it might be a case of breaking them into A, B and C tasks as I mentioned in "How to create an effective schedule".

No rewards – I'd like to experiment with tying the scoring system into some form of reward scheme. It would be nice if the work was always its own reward, but sometimes you need that little extra encouragement to push you through. This would also help me partition my time between pleasurable pursuits and work related stuff.

Drawing it all – Yes, it was fun to draw and colour it all in, but it still takes a lot longer than printing a new sheet out. Any form of barrier that discourages me from using the system should be eliminated.

Further Improvements

As you can see, there's a lot that can we built upon, but also a lot that needs to change. The biggest change the system needs is a tie-in with my larger goals. In my next article I'll be writing about the new and improved system that I'm about to start experimenting with.

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How to Banish Zombie Tasks

Looking over my to-do list the other day, I noticed the same tasks that had been there for weeks, and it's a pattern I've observed since I started keeping to-do lists. There always seem to be some tasks that have an almost undead quality to them. You either end up looking at them and ignoring them, or you hack away at them for an hour or two and are still no closer to completion at the end.

The worst part about these tasks is that they suck away your energy and distract you from your major goals. Completing a task and ticking it off helps to fend off procrastination, so seeing your next action list swell with hordes of undead tasks is not helpful because it can cause you to ignore the list altogether.

How do we put these zombie tasks to bed?

Why do we get Zombie tasks?

The easiest way to make sure a task keeps coming back is to define it incorrectly. There are a few mistakes that seem to keep cropping up, and it's important to keep them in mind when creating your next action lists.

Mistaking a to-do item with a someday/maybe – I love the "someday/maybe" list from the GTD system. If you do any kind of creative work, you'll always end up with creating ideas you don't have the time or energy to implement at your current point. Keeping a someday/maybe list helps you keep track of these ideas so they don't disappear into the ether.

If you see a task on your to-do list that you aren't going to work on for a while, it might be best to move it to your "someday/maybe" list instead. As long as you're reviewing this list in your weekly review, it won't get forgotten and you'll be able to divert your energy to other tasks.

Mistaking a to-do item for a project – This is an easy mistake to make, especially if you're not clear on exactly what a project is. A project is anything that requires more than one next-action to complete, and a next action is a physical action that will move a project closer to completion. It can take time to fully appreciate the difference between the two, but once you've mastered the technique you'll find your to-do lists are much more helpful.

Not giving a task finite limits – A next action should have a beginning and an end, and should ideally involve a single activity. The reason for this is that you want to start it, work on it and then KNOW that it's finished. If you can't work on it for a session and know that it's finished, it's probably a project.

Missing previous steps – This is another problem I've run into quite often. I'll see a task, but remember that something else has to be done before I can do it. It's a good idea to enter this new task into your system, and move the old one to the project task list.

I like to plan ahead, and one of the things I don't like about the GTD system is the lack of next action grouping. Keeping a separate task list for each project helps a little, but if you have a lot of projects it can get quite unwieldy.

Preventing Your Tasks From Becoming Zombies

Now that we know what not to do, let's take a quick look at the qualities that make a good next action.

Something that can be done in one sitting – This isn't an essential requirement, but I've found that it helps to list tasks as something that can be done in a single session. If it will take a lot longer, then it's possible that it's actually a project so I'll try to break it down further.

It's a physical action – The next action list should only list actions that need to be performed. If you're looking over a list and having to process items as you go, then they need to be re-worded.

Finite Limits – There are set conditions for the task completing. Instead of "Brainstorm article ideas", use "Brainstorm 25 article ideas". This way you know when you've done enough. It sounds simple, but it's an easy detail to leave out.

Cleaning Up The Stragglers

The easiest way to get rid of the lingering tasks is to re-process them during your weekly review. I've found that I get a lot more zombies if I've been lax with my weekly reviews. It can be a difficult habit to get into, but it really is the most essential component of an effective GTD system.

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How to Create an Effective Schedule

Do Schedules Work?

Some time ago I looked at how David Allen's "Getting Things Done" system was working for me, and pondered over some of the improvements that could be made. One of the improvements I thought about was the use of a schedule, so I've been experimenting with them over the past few weeks.

The overall results have been very positive, and although there's still a lot of improvements that can be made, I'm confident that it's worth the effort.

Why Bother With One?

  • Structure – A schedule gives you a sense of structure for your day, which can help you organise your time and resources.
  • Helps you focus – You'll constantly be looking at your goals and projects in order to put together your schedule, which helps prevent them from being overlooked or forgotten.
  • Highlights your limits – This might seem like a strange thing to mention, but being able to see your limits is very helpful when you're planning your working week. We'd all like to be able to do more in less time, but seeing how long tasks actually take can stop you from overloading yourself and burning out.

Creating a Simple Schedule

Here are a few recommendations to help you when you're creating your schedule:

  • Create it the night before – Creating your schedule the night before gives your subconscious time to process everything on it whilst you sleep. It also means you're able to get on with your work as soon as your day starts, instead of having to figure out what needs doing first.
  • Use large blocks – Don't divide the day into chunks that are too small. Hourly blocks are generally large enough, but it can take time to get into the flow state required by some tasks so you may need 90 minute or 2 hour blocks.
  • Group similar tasks – If you have a lot of small, similar tasks, it's best to stick them all in a half hour group and just dash through them. Clearing up all of these small tasks will give you a sense of satisfaction and leave you feeling energised.
  • Schedule your rest and relaxation – Working for long periods without a break will eventually take its toll, so schedule some time to get up and have a walk around. If you're an early rise, you may also want to schedule a 30 minute nap around lunch time. This can give a much needed boost of energy, and will stop you flagging later in the day.
  • Keep it flexible – It's very difficult to predict how long each task will take, so make sure your schedule is flexible and can cope with a reasonable amount of unexpected delays. One important point: don't fall into the trap of using your relaxation time as a "buffer" zone. Relaxation time should not be seen as something that is a luxury, and should be treated as important as any other activity.
  • Know your limits – We'd all like to be able to get more done, but it's important not to overestimate how much you can physically do. If you don't give large tasks enough time, you risk creating a backlog as the day goes on which will bog down your mind and demotivate you.

You may need a few days to get into the groove of using a schedule, but the more often you do it the more proficient you will become.

Optional Extras

Example of a schedule

As you'll notice from the rather colourful photo, I colour coded the tasks on my schedule. I tried two main methods of colour coding during the trial.

The first method I tried was to colour code by category. This seemed like a logical idea at first, as I could see which projects were getting the most attention and which were being neglected. I soon realised that I would run out of colours if I used a different colour for each project! I modified the system slightly to use colours for more general categories, such as "computer projects", "business projects" and "personal projects".

After a few weeks of this system, I switched to colour coding by priority. I used the Covey Quadrant style categorisation for this method. If you're not familiar with Covey's four categories, they are:

  1. Urgent and Important Tasks – Firefighting, pressing problems and deadline driven tasks fit here.
  2. Important and Not Urgent – Tasks that need to be done, but aren't particularly urgent. This is the area your should spend most of your time on.
  3. Not Important and Urgent – Things like some phone calls and meetings.
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent – You should look carefully to see if these activities are worth doing at all.

So far this method has worked the best, as it forces me to look at the bigger picture and to be more careful about where I spend my time. It might seem like a clash between the relatively priority free GTD system and the rigid quadrant based thinking, but really helps to keep a tight focus on what is important and what isn't.

Future Improvements

Although using the quadrant method of sorting tasks worked well, I think there is room for improvement. I tent to think that most tasks are important or they wouldn't be scheduled, so it's pointless to classify everything as a quadrant two task. One method I'd like to try out is Steve Pavlina's 50-30-20 rule (the Pavlina Pyramid?) for sorting tasks. These segments are:

  1. A Tasks – These are tasks that will yield significant benefits over a 5 year timespan (and beyond).
  2. B Tasks – Tasks that will bring benefits over the next 2 years or less.
  3. C Tasks –These will only bring improvements in the short term, and probably won't be remembered further down the line. However, ignoring them could cause problems at a later date.

You'll notice his system of prioritising is much more focused on long term goals and benefits, which can often be left behind in the rush to get something complete.

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