Agile and Focus

Similar to my need to Be Brave,  I need to Focus.

I have typed previously about how I am doing some experiments with my to do lists, looking at them in such a way that better reflects a realistic view of how I spend my time. I have a work list, and then an “everything else” list.

I have extended this experiment for a month to see if I can use Agile methodologies and mindsets to see how I am spending my time. Agile stuff has been popping back up in my life, so it’s relevant.

One thing I have come to realize this that, outside of a work/professional environment, I have a hard time setting deadlines for myself that don’t revolve around concrete events. Specifically, if there’s no set-in-stone reason like ‘you need to do this by this date or event or the date or event won’t happen or bad stuff will explode,’ then the deadline doesn’t really work for me.

I think it’s mainly because I am not beholden to anyone else, when working on my own projects. In  way, since I know nobody is “relying” on me to complete the project, I don’t “need” to do it by any certain date. It’s really hard to even pretend that something is urgent, or that a deadline is real.

At work, there are lots of reasons to do things on time, and well, and this stuff should be obvious so I don’t really need to get into details. The thing that I am trying to figure out is how to realistically motivate myself to work on my own things, in realistic amounts of time, with realistic expectations. When I’m chewing on these concepts, ‘give yourself a deadline’ is usually the first suggestion I see, but it never works.

One issue I have always had is lack of focus. Something will inspire me: I’ll want to write an article or essay or capture my thoughts or opinions about something, so I will make note to do so. The idea will stew in my brain and I get excited about doing it, but I have more pressing stuff I need to do, so I can’t work on the new idea right away. Sometimes a day or three will go by before I can make time to do the thing I want.

During these day or threes, more often then not, another idea will pop into my head, another kiss from the muse, and then, another thing on my list of things I want to do. Since this one is newer and more fresh, it is often more appealing and ends up on the list “above” the previously mentioned idea.

Repeat forever.

Within the past month alone, I have been recording every single one of these things and putting them into a massive priority list. This list is also cut with my required chores and day-to-day life stuff. Again, we are all dealt the same finite amount of time, and barring work stuff, the time in which I can do things on this list is technically all coming from the same pool.

I think one of the reasons I have a hard time setting deadlines is because “life gets in the way” – chores, responsibilities, even blowing off steam, in many cases this stuff ends up higher on the list of things to do then the creative stuff. I don’t really want to set a deadline and then struggle to meet it when life inevitably interrupts, because I just end up feeling bad for missing a deadline I have made for myself.

It’s also worth stating that I am aware that it’s my choice to not push myself. You could argue that if I wanted something bad enough, I would work harder for it. My thought about that is that I value a work life balance and tend to want to enjoy my time on the planet. This may end up acting as a handicap, because blowing off steam tends to win out over working on projects, but I have learned first hand that I, (and would argue that humanity in general,) do need rest and relaxation and release to keep myself balanced.

So in doing this painstaking quantification of “stuff I want to do,” I am starting to notice a few things. As I previously mentioned, re: Agile stuff, I am now doing “point estimates” for all the things that end up on my to do list.

If you are not familiar with the Agile stuff I am referencing, the point estimate stuff I am referring to is based on some of the fundamentals of the Agile philosophy. In particular, the philosophy believes that human beings are innately bad at estimating. An example being: you might have a hard time guessing how many pounds a bowling ball weighs.

However, another point in the Agile philosophy is that despite being bad at estimation, humans are actually really good at comparing. To continue the example of being bad at guessing how much a bowling ball weighs, humans are better at giving a good guess as to what would be heavier: a shoe, or a bowling ball.

The practical application of this, and one that is relevant because it’s been a subject that I have been interested in years, previously  as a project manager, and currently as a developer, is figuring out the relative difficulties of tasks by comparing them to each other. Instead of saying, “this feature should take me six hours to code and test,” you would compare the difficulty of the task at hand with a task you have previously completed. An example being – if you know adding a button to a menu in a game is relatively straightforward , that might be worth worth 3 points – and you could then base the point values of other tasks off of this example task. Something trivial, like changing the color of a button might be worth 1 point, but something more involved like adding a new game mechanic might be worth 5 points.

Its worth noting that the point values and descriptors don’t matter as much as the relativity does. The points help you form a shorthand for comparing tasks.

Once you get good at these comparisons and assign these relative point values to the tasks you set out for your self, you can do some cool things like see how many “points” worth of work you can accomplish in a week.

Perhaps you see where I am going with this now?

My experiment is assigning these relative points to the “everything but work” tasks I have mentioned before. Writing a review is worth 8 points, doing a sink full of dishes is worth 2 points, balancing my finances for the month is worth 5 points. I keep track of my To Do list and,  (using some Agile tracking software to help,) I work off those things. If I need to do something spontaneously, or that’s not on the list, I add it in after, and asking a relative point value, (which is often easier, after the fact, because you know exactly how much work it took!) Likewise, if I estimate something as worth 2 points, but I do it, and it ends up being closer to 5 points, i can simply adjust the estimate to the reality.

In typing this out and reading it over, I could see, out of context, that this seems ridiculous, or overkill. In its defense, the software I’m using is slick enough that it’s really just as simple as typing out the bullet point task, and then selecting the point value from a drop down. The tasks are easily able to be prioritized and shifted around, as life’s priorities constantly shift. There’s a bit of a learning curve to the theory, but the practice is meant to be lean and streamlined.

My hope is, after a month, I will have accomplished a few things:

  • I will have an increased awareness over the relative difficulty and amount of work behind each and every task – chore, creative, etc – I put on my list.
  • I will see, realistically, how many “points” of work I can expect to accomplish over a given week or month.

The increase of awareness will help with the psychic weigh of constantly feeling behind when hopping from idea to idea. I will be more aware of the work that goes into the ideas, and honestly will feel less badly about having to bench them, in regards to things I feel more strongly about overall. For example, if I want to write an opinion piece about a popular culture event that pops up, I will have to ‘spend those points’ for that week instead of spending them on something that is part of a longer-term, bigger picture project, like writing a chapter from a fiction story.

I will also have a grasp over what is referred to as “velocity” – the number of “points” a week on average I could expect to get done. For example, all things considered, (outside of work responsibilities,) if my velocity ends up as 50 points a week, I can make some assumptions and prioritize the actions on the To Do list in such a way that I may get certain things done by the end of this week, versus the end of extra week.

Now, how does all this relate to Focus? Imagine the following metaphor: Imagine that you have a Focus ray that you can shoot at tasks to complete them. Each task has an exact amount of ammo that needs to be shot into it before it gets completed, (and you don’t really know exactly what that amount is,) and you are only allowed a finite amount of ammo a day to shoot at tasks.

Using the above system and applying it to this metaphor, you will eventually get the hang of generally knowing how much ammo you need to dump at individual tasks, and also how many tasks you can hope to zap every day/week/month.

In taking a critical look at how I spend my time, what ‘stuff’ I spend my time on, and how much ‘stuff’ I can get done, I am hoping that it will help me make better decisions as to how to spend my time. Lastly, and hopefully, it will help me stick to bigger projects and actually complete them!