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.

Getting Things Done

Beyond the anecdotal evidence of over 1200 glowing reviews on Amazon, David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (GTD) system has been successful enough to attract the attention of cognitive researchers from The University of Brussels. Heylighen and Vidal praised GTD in their publication “Getting Things Done: The Science behind Stress-Free Productivity” which provides a summary and review of David Allen’s GTD method and connects it to cognition theories in an attempt to explain why these methods work so well for so many people (TL;DR: the brain is fantastic at generating ideas but is awful at recall so there is a lot to be gained from the external storage system that is at the heart of GTD).

Basics

Allen presents the ideas of horizons from which you can view your life. These horizons fall roughly into 5 different levels:

  • Actions you are doing moment to moment
  • Projects you are working on
  • Goals you are working towards
  • Areas of focus
  • Life purpose

Someone’s life purpose (5) might be to live an unforgettable life. An area of focus (4) could be rock climbing and a goal (3) could be to ascend El Capitan’s Great Roof route in Yosemite. To work up to this goal, a current project (2) might be to increase arm endurance so today they are going to do (1) a pull-up workout.

The GTD system focuses on organizing all of the actions (1) and projects (2) that are on your plate but doesn’t talk much about organizing horizons 3/4/5. For this, I recommend you check out Tim Ferriss’s “The 4 Hour Workweek” and read his discussion on lifestyle design and dreamlining. But before you can focus steering your ship, you’ve got to stop focusing on keeping it afloat. And that requires dealing with all of your “stuff”.

“Stuff” is anything that tugs on your attention due to it’s incompleteness. It could be a book report, a flashlight with dead batteries, or the business card that’s been sitting on your desk for over a year. Keeping track of “stuff” in your head is mentally expensive so you can free up a lot of brain power by minimizing the amount of “stuff” you have to keep track of. This doesn’t require finishing everything on your to-do list, you can get the feeling of complete clarity and control over your life by simply storing everything you need to do in a trustworthy system outside your brain.

The GTD system is composed of 5 steps:

  • Capture
  • Clarify
  • Organize
  • Reflect
  • Engage

There are four habits that stand out to me as being particularly powerful. If this whole system seems like too much to incorporate into your life, I recommend you at least make note of these 4 habits (ctrl+f “Powerful Habit #”) as they alone might remove any feelings of being overwhelmed.

Step 1: Capture

Powerful Habit #1: Capture everything.

Keep a notepad (physical or digital) at hand at all times and capture everything that you need to remember or do. To maximize the utility of this habit, you should capture with as few tools as possible and you should empty these capture tools frequently (at least once per day).

I can say from personal experience that it is incredibly relaxing to have 100% of your “stuff” stored outside of your head in a trustworthy system. The mosquitoes (“I can’t forget to call Dr. Bob today!” “Is that essay due tomorrow or the next day?!” “Oh I really need to prepare for that meeting tomorrow”) will stop buzzing in your ear and you will be able to start thinking about your obligations rather than just reminding yourself of them.

The first step to creating this trustworthy system is having an in-tray where you store anything that needs to be processed. Allen preaches about having a physical in-tray but I’ve just been using a digital list and so far it has worked like a dream.

Putting it into practice

There is a world of difference between capturing most of what you have to do and knowing that you have captured absolutely everything. If you’re used to mentally storing all of your “stuff”, you’ll want to set some time aside to perform a complete mind dump. Sit down in front of a notepad and record everything that has your attention. Browsing a (http://lifehacker.com/5611657/use-a-weekly-review-list-to-stay-a-step-ahead-this-semester”>list of triggers] is helpful in making sure you’ve got it all. Gather everything from your room and workspace that is not exactly as it should be, where it should be and add it to your in-tray. Trash can be thrown away immediately but wait to process anything else until you’re confident you’ve gathered everything.

My personal in-tray is the “To-Do List Widget” that’s on the home screen of my phone. I empty it first thing every morning.

Step 2: Clarify

 

 

The paper stacks represent buckets (lists/folders/etc), ovals represent decisions, and rounded rectangles represent actions. This diagram is based on a similar flow-chart provided on page 36 of GTD.

For each item in your in-tray, follow the above flow-chart. Simple as that. More information will be provided about each of the end categories in the next section.

Powerful Habit #2: Find and record a specific answer to: “What is the next action?”

Any ill-defined items that have landed in your in-tray need to be clarified. When you have vague tasks like “start working out” or “get a summer job” on your to-do list, the unmade decisions about how exactly to go about completing the task will stress you out and encourage procrastination. If you find yourself avoiding an item on your list, chances are it is not defined specifically enough (“free write for 30 minutes then create an outline” is better than “start writing my paper”). The next-action decision must be made eventually and it only takes a few seconds of focused thought so there’s no reason to put it off! In the examples mentioned above, the next actions might be: research workout routines, ask Jack for a gym recommendation, circle all the interesting jobs in the newspaper classifieds, or ask Wanda if she wants me to mow her lawn.

Powerful Habit #3: If it will take less than 2 minutes to complete, do it immediately.

Once you have decided on the next action, you will be adding it to a list of actions. If an action will take less than a couple minutes to complete, the time spent storing it in your actions list could be better spent by just finishing the task and being done with it.

Putting it into practice:

Go through your in-tray starting with the first item and deal with each one at a time. Do not even look at the next item until the one that has your attention has been processed. Make sure to update your projects list (see next section) as you go, any item that requires more than one action is a project.

Step 3: Organize

Your external storage system has, at it’s core, seven buckets (shown in the above flow-chart as stacks of weirdly shaped paper). These seven buckets are:

  • Actions list (actionable list)
  • Calendar (actionable list)
  • Projects list (non-actionable list)
  • Someday/maybe list (non-actionable list)
  • Waiting-for list (non-actionable list)
  • Project Files/Folder (folder)
  • General Reference (folder)

Actions List: A list of actions that you need to take. The list should be separated into contexts but the number of contexts you need to stay organized depends on the number of actions you have on your list. Common contexts: at the office, at home, online, errands, calls, agendas, read/review. Agendas are an important context, use them to keep track of things that need to be discussed with specific people (i.e. “ask for gym recommendations” might be added to the agenda for Jack).

Calendar: Contains the hard, unchangeable landscape for each day. Both time-dependent actions (i.e. meetings) and time-dependent information (i.e. directions to a party) should be included. Nothing time-independent should be included. Do not put anything on Monday that you would like to get done on Monday (i.e. get groceries). Only include things that must happen on Monday (i.e. doctor appointment).

Projects List: Any task that will require more than one action is a project. List all of your current projects in one place but don’t include any details about a specific project (that’s what the projects folder is for). This list provides a valuable overview of your commitments that comes in handy during your weekly reviews.

Someday/Maybe List: This is an eclectic list that is best described by listing a bunch of examples: things to make, hobbies to take up, skills to learn, creative media to explore, clothes or toys to buy, trips to take, organizations to join, service projects to contribute to, things to see, things to do, books to read, music to explore, movies to see, gift ideas, website to explore, miscellaneous ideas, etc.

Waiting-For List: When you give a task to someone else to do, record it and include the date. For example, after sending a couple emails on June 12th, you might add the following to this list: “Wanda re: lawn mowing (6/12)” and “Jack re: gym recommendation (6/12).” If you review this list in a week and notice that Wanda still hasn’t gotten back to you, that will be your reminder to either contact her again or ask to mow someone else’s lawn.

Project Files/Folder: A place to store details, ideas, and information regarding specific projects. Good for planning which actions a project might require in the future but do not rely on files in this folder to remind you of next actions. All next actions should be in your actions list or calendar.

General Reference: Make sure all reference materials can be filed away and retrieved quickly. There should be a single, alphabetically ordered list of material with sub-folders only added for large projects/areas of interest. Purge this folder once per year.

Managing the Buckets

It is important that each of these buckets has hard edges and there is no overlap or ambiguity. Do not have any lists/folders that contain both actionable and non-actionable items! Next actions should only be stored in your calendar and your actions list.

It’s often a poor use of time to maintain an item-by-item internal organization for a list (i.e. ordering by priority or size). Categories can be useful for large lists (especially the context categories in the actions list) but anything more involved than that should be avoided.

Some items (magazines to read, emails to respond to) can act as their own reminder and therefore do not need to be recorded on you action list. No need to list the emails you need to respond to when you can just look at your inbox.

Putting it into practice:

I use a simple text editor to manage lists stored as .txt files in a Dropbox folder. I have a projects folder in Dropbox and use my computer’s Documents folder as my general reference. I use Google Calendar and, when on my android, I manage it using aCalendar+ (the widgets for this app are beautiful).

Step 4: Reflect

Daily Review:

  • Process in-tray
  • Review calendar and actions list

Powerful Habit #4: Weekly Review

  • Capture, clarify, and organize everything that escaped your in-tray during the past week
  • Review and update your calendar, actions list, projects list, someday/maybe list, and your waiting for list.
  • Your projects list should be at the heart of your weekly review. Review it and remove any that are complete. Review your someday/maybe list and horizon 3/4/5 materials to see if there are any new projects you want to embark upon.
  • It is recommended that you set aside the last hour of your Friday workday for this. The workweek will still be fresh in your memory and it will allow you to enter the weekend feeling in control.

“When you make plans ahead of time and decide what actions will be carried out in which contexts, the proper behavior is nearly automatically enacted instead of being drawn from your limited reserve of willpower.” – David Allen

Step 5: Engage

This is where the context categories of your action list shine. When you’re in your office with an hour to spare before your next meeting, it is easy to browse your “in office” context for an action that you can complete during that hour. When you’re leaving to get groceries, it’s easy to browse your errands for any other stops you can make on the way. When Jack stops in to say hi, it’s easy to glance at your agenda for Jack and see that you wanted to ask him for a gym recommendation.

This part of the GTD system is purposefully left unstructured. Setting an elaborate plan ahead of time is useless when a crisis at the beginning of your day completely changes your priorities. Keeping the hard landscape of your calendar in mind while you fill in the gaps from your action list ensures that you will always have something valuable to spend your time on.

Summary

  • Capture absolutely everything that’s on your mind
  • For everything that you capture, find and record a specific answer to the question: “What is the next action?”
  • If the next action will take less than two minutes to complete, do it immediately.
  • Store all time dependent actions in a single calendar
  • Store all time independent actions in a single action list that’s separated into contexts
  • Maintain a list of projects, someday/maybe items, and items you’re waiting for.
  • Maintain a general reference and project folder where you can quickly store and retrieve files.
  • Review and update your system every week.

You will start to gain the full benefit of the GTD system once the above fundamentals become habits. Once you reach this point, you will be able to handle crises by spending extra time reflecting on your priorities and actions rather than “taking a break” from the system, going into panic mode, and focusing solely on in-the-moment actions. As you get more familiar with the system, you will integrate it more deeply into your life and custom fit it to suit your unique situation.

Once horizons 1/2 are on autopilot, you’ll have you’ll have extra energy to put towards horizons 3/4/5. Once you can stop worrying about keeping your ship afloat, you can focus your attention on steering it towards your destination.