Agile Results

Getting Results the Agile Way by J.D Meier is not nearly as popular as GTD but it’s a fundamentally different book which means these two systems can work together rather than having pulling you in opposite directions. The good advice given in Getting Results the Agile Way is really good advice; the only problem is that the good advice is repeated ad nauseam. I’ll spare you the repetition and succinctly summarize what this book has to offer.

10 Key Principals

1. The Rule of Three

What? Limit your focus to three desired outcomes each day. Keep three outcomes in mind for weekly, monthly, and yearly time frames as well. These three desired outcomes are dynamic and will change as your priorities change.

Why? (1) It forces you to prioritize. (2) It provides wiggle room; you’ll still probably finish this small number of activities even when small, in-the-moment crises pop up. (3) It provides enhanced focus; by clarifying the three best activities to spend time on, you give yourself permission to not pursue or even think about your other tasks.

2. Value Over Next-Item

What? When looking at your to-do list, instead of blindly moving onto the next item, you should answer: “What will be the most valuable use of my time?”.

Why? This question catalyzes productive changes to your three daily outcomes and prevents unproductive changes. Worthless tasks will naturally fall off your radar.

3. Hot Spots (aka Areas of Focus)

What? Hot spots are areas of your life where you spend time and energy (similar to “Areas of Focus” from GTD). Hot spots can be divided into two main categories: Personal (i.e. mental health, physical health, emotional health, finances, friends, family, hobbies, personal projects) and Professional (i.e. work projects, professional network, roles at work).

Why? Creating a list of all your hot spots makes it easier to notice ones that you might be over/under-investing in. Identify the top three opportunities and threats within your list of hot spots. Manage threats as efficiently as possible so you have time to dedicate to opportunities.

4. Scannable Outcomes (aka List of Goals)

What? Explicitly record the goals you have for each hotspot in a single, easily scannable list.

Why? This list provides a valuable overview of your goals that you can use as a reference while planning each week, month, or year. Notice hot spots for which you have an unusually large or small number of goals as this might be a sign of over or underinvestment. Scanning this list daily helps maintain a results mindset (principle 6).

5. Setting Boundaries

What? When presented with a task or hot spot, set a maximum and/or minimum amount of time that you’re willing to invest. Instead of choosing a task to complete and spending as much time as you need to complete it, set a maximum amount of time you’re willing to dedicate to the task and complete it as well as possible within that time limit. For certain hot spots (eg health/family), you will likely benefit from setting a minimum boundary and trying to spend at least that amount of time on it.

Why? Setting a maximum time limit takes advantage of a corollary of Parkinson’s law: “Work contracts to fit in the time available”. While working within a time-limit, make sure you are delivering incremental value (execution strategy #3).

6. Maintain a Results Mindset

What? Keep the end goal in mind. Constantly be asking “What am I working towards?” and visualize the scenario you’re trying to achieve. Involve other people in defining what the end goal looks like, especially if it’s a team project.

Why? Visualizing the end goal provides motivation while dealing with individual tasks. In addition, it can identify early on which actions or projects which should be abandoned. If visualization of the outcome does not provide any motivation, reconsider whether this is an outcome you really need to spend your time pursuing. Identifying which action will get you closest to the end goal can guide your decision making.

7. Energy Management

What? Next time you find yourself energetic and focused, ask a few questions: “What time of day is it?”, “What did I do right before becoming super focused?”, “What have I not done in a while?”. Next time you find yourself drained and unfocused, ask these same questions. Identify times during the day when you’re most productive and set aside an hour (a power hour!) when you remove all distractions (put your phone away, don’t check your email) and focus entirely on a single task. Adjust your schedule to include more energizing activities (and make sure to eat right, sleep enough, and workout) to ensure you have as many power hours in your schedule as possible.

Why? Time management is worthless without energy management. You will get more done during one power hour than in many hours of low-energy.

8. Effectiveness over Efficiency

What? Measure your progress by focusing on how many desired outcomes you achieve, not by how many actions you take. Scan your list of desired outcomes frequently to keep in mind which outcomes will contribute to your effectiveness.

Why? Completing more actions isn’t helpful if they aren’t helping you achieve your desired outcomes. Efficiency without effectiveness is worthless. Make sure you’re working on the right things before you try to increase how many things you do.

9. Emphasis on Technique

What? Have an explicit technique to guide your in-the-moment actions (i.e. An execution checklist. See Execution Strategy #4). Focus on improving your overall technique rather than trying to improve each individual result because your results as a whole depend on your technique. I strongly recommend you check out the GTD system if you’re interested in a detailed task-management system.

Why? Having an explicit system makes it easier to improve because you can tweak it and see how your results change. Being unsystematically reactive leaves little room for systematic improvement. Having a system also puts small tasks on autopilot and frees up your mental energy to focus on bigger things. When you hit a rough patch, you will have heuristics to guide you so you can manage a crisis without becoming reactive.

10. Maintain a Growth Mindset

What? Maintain the idea that there’s always room for improvement. Constantly test new variations on your techniques to find new solutions or better ways of doing things. Review how much time previous activities took vs how much time you expected them to take to make better prediction in the future. Bring key liabilities up to speed but don’t worry about improving your weaknesses beyond a critical level. Spend time maximizing strengths instead.

Why? Seeing a tough problem as an opportunity for growth will encourage you to update your techniques rather than relying on outdated techniques to grind inefficiently through a problem. It also provides motivation to pursue challenges as you know you will come out stronger on the other side.

5 Planning Strategies

1. Weekly Planning (aka Monday Vision)

  • Routinize Core Hotspots: It is valuable to fix the time and duration of your core routines (eating, sleeping, and working out). Put these on autopilot so you can reserve decision making energy for other things.

  • Set Weekly Goals: Define what a good week would look like by scanning your list of outcomes and using the rule of three to define the three most important weekly outcomes. Which tasks will be the most stressful to still have on your plate on Friday?

  • Identify Time Commitments: Add meetings, appointments or other activities that are not flexible to your calendar. Also add appointments with yourself to designate time for planning/reflecting on your week.

  • Time Block: Set blocks of time aside for certain hot spots or groups of hot spots. Review your list of hotspots to ensure none are being neglected. For example, clearly define when you will be at work, in class, or at home and then further divide these time blocks as needed.

  • Batch: Group small, related tasks together into single time blocks. This is far more productive than doing them randomly throughout your day because you minimize the time/energy wasted on switching tasks. This is especially critical for email! Set a half hour aside a few times during the day to check and respond to email instead of being constantly interrupted.

  • Managing Draining Activities: Schedule draining activities early in the day and early in the week. Doing these activities while you still have energy means they get done more efficiently and once you finish them, you can look forward to more pleasant tasks for the rest of the day/week. Maintain a hard time-limit (Key Principle #5) within which to complete your draining activities. Do whatever you can to minimize the number of draining activities you’re responsible for and maximize the number of energizing activities you do.

  • Fresh start: Every week is a fresh start! If last week was unproductive, taking the time to reflect and plan your upcoming week will help you gain momentum towards making next week better.

2. Daily Planning (aka Daily Outcomes)

  • List Your Daily Goals: Every morning, scan your list of desired outcomes and record the three most important outcomes to work towards each day (with min/max boundaries if applicable). Remember to prioritize value over moving onto the next item (Key Principle #2) while choosing these desired outcomes. Title this list with the date and save it until you get a chance to reflect on it later.

  • Update Your List As Needed: As you consume information (email, meetings, conversations, etc) during the day, keep your top three daily outcomes in mind. If a new critical task pops up or was overlooked when you originally made your list, adjust it as needed.

  • Refer To This List Regularly: Keep these three outcomes in mind to guide your actions during the day. This list is your lighthouse to guide you when you get deep into the weeds of individual actions. Make sure you don’t take on any new projects until your top three outcomes have been achieved.

3. Weekly Review (aka Friday Reflection)

  • Weekly Routine: Schedule this reflection into your calendar to make sure you reserve time for it. Take notes during your reflection and save them for future reference.

  • 4 Items to Review: What you did or didn’t accomplish and why, 3 things that went well, 3 things that need improvement, what will you change in the following week?

  • Improve Planning: The more you reflect on your achievements, the better you understand how much you’re capable of achieving. Review how much time previous activities took vs how much time you expected them to take to help you make better prediction in the future.

4. Monthly Planning and Review

  • Monthly Review: Schedule extra time for the last weekly review of each month. Use this extra time to review the past month as a whole using previous Friday reflection notes, daily outcome lists, and monthly planning notes to guide you. Scan your hot spots and list of desired outcomes when deciding what to focus during the upcoming month.

  • Monthly Planning: Scan your list of desired outcomes and list of hot spots. Brainstorm as many new outcomes as possible and sort them into must, should, and could categories. Narrow this list down to the 3 most important outcomes to focus on during the upcoming month. During the following Monthly review, reflect on how successful you were at accomplishing these three outcomes.

5. Yearly Goal Setting and Planning

  • Yearly Free Write: Ask yourself “If I were granted three wishes, what three things would I wish for?” List possible wishes and do a short free write on why each wish is so valuable to you. If your wishes are unrealistic/break the laws of nature, identify what you hope to get out of this wish and brainstorm realistic ways to achieve similar outcomes. Imagine it were one year into the future, what outcomes would make you most satisfied with the previous year? Focus on what your life would be like if you achieved each outcome and describe the scenario in great detail. Which three outcomes produce the most appealing scenarios? Use these free writes to identify three goals for the upcoming year.

  • Set SMART Goals: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-limited.

  • Notice Opportunities: Clarifying your goals makes you extra sensitive to related opportunities you might not have otherwise noticed. Brainstorm a list of people, events, and resources that might help you achieve each of your desired outcomes and update/review this list regularly (i.e. monthly) during the year.

  • Yearly Planning: Map out the hot spots you predict to be spending time on each month (which hot spots are season specific?). Make a list of big events (birthdays, holidays, vacations, big projects, etc) that you anticipate in the coming year. Generate meaningful milestones for your three yearly goals and add them to your calendar at the points in the year when you want to have achieved them.

5 Execution Strategies

1. Act, Don’t Analyze

Often you will find that excessive analysis and planning doesn’t actually help that much when you go to apply it. Instead, take action ASAP, get feedback, and adjust as you go. Avoid analysis paralysis by deciding in advance how much time to spend analyzing and sticking to your plan. As a rule of thumb, you should avoid analyzing/planning for more than 20% of the time/energy that the action is predicted to take. Motivation follows action as much (if not more than) the opposite. If you wait until inspiration strikes, you might be waiting a very long time. Instead, just start and motivation will naturally follow. This strategy might be void if you’re a carpenter but in most cases, tools are available (i.e. ctrl+Z) that make the “measure twice, cut once” rule obsolete.

2. It’s a Sprint, Not a Marathon

Or rather, a series of sprints. When you’re working, be 100% focused on the task in front of you. When you’re on a break, be completely focused on anything besides your work. Spend as little time as possible working at 50%. Take regular breaks and schedule them ahead of time to make it easier to fully relax. Start with the Pomodoro technique and adjust the time spent working vs time spent resting as needed.

3. Deliver Incremental Value (aka Premature Optimization is the Root of All Evil)

Instead of trying to build the perfect product (a presentation or essay or homework assignment, etc) from start to finish, focus on creating a functional product as quickly as possible and then improve it incrementally through many short passes. After your first pass, you should be able to stop at any point and have something functional to present if you have to suddenly stop for whatever reason. Try to keep progress flowing and have something slightly better after each step rather than having an incomplete product up until the very end. This strategy is similar to the advice you’ve probably been given before taking an exam: skim through and do the quick questions first, then go through and do the longer questions, then spend your time working on the challenges.

4. Utilize Execution Checklists

An execution checklist is a list of very specific actions that will get you to a desired outcome. Creating an execution checklist separates planning from action and alleviates the friction inherent in continuously switching between a thinking/planning mindset and an execution mindset. Being uncertain of the next action is a common sticking point that can be avoided by predicting future actions or breaking big next-actions into smaller ones. As you start to go through the checklist, completing each small task provides motivation and prevents you from feeling overwhelmed. If you have an outcome that you need to achieve regularly, having a physical list of steps makes it easy to fine tune your technique and this list can be shared with others for feedback or to help in training.

5. State Dump

When you are finishing up for the day, perform a short free write about whatever you were doing and thinking about. Review this free write at the beginning of the next day to quickly get back into the mindset you left with.