Agile Personal Productivity

Time management is always tough, and lots of people have written some great things on the topic, such as David Allen’s Getting Things Done.  A connection I made recently that I found fascinating was the intersection of agile software development practices (Ken Schwaber’s books Agile Project Management with Scrum is excellent, recommended to me by Derek Huether) and personal productivity.  Agile concepts are based on trying to accelerate progress by relying on short sprints of productivity broken up by planning periods.  This is the best approach I’ve found to management my own to-do list — by frequently assessing my top priorities, both short-term and long-term, and working in bursts to make appreciable progress towards them.  It’s very similar to the productivity concept of putting the “big rocks” on the top of our priority list (see big rock explanation here).  But it’s more than just focusing on the big stuff, it’s also essential to focus on frequently reassessing what’s the top priority, to avoid working on something that isn’t key anymore.  It’s that key of working on what’s important, which can be hard when we want to close things out — something very tempting when you want to feel progress by removing things from your to-do list by closing something almost done when it’s not the most important thing, or just knocking out the easy things (this concept of closure seems to be especially relevant to men, see Men are like Waffles, Women are like Spaghetti).

So what I’ve been trying to do is:

  1. Examine my priorities daily, to make sure I’m focused on the right things
  2. Spend a little time (about an hour) knocking out the quick actions and delegating what should be delegated
  3. Focus big, solid blocks of time on making progress on the biggest, most important, most time-sensitive things


  1. Mike, I think that would work really well if my phone didn’t ring so much, I didn’t get so many emails, and didn’t have so many meetings/telecoms, not to mention people stopping by my desk to talk with me. If you work in a collaborative space and are inundated with sensory overload, do you recommend I find a quiet corner to go work?

    One thing I have found is that I get more coordinated and quicker via the phone (even though I don’t like talking on the phone) as opposed to through email (which can go back and forth all day long); however, many projects require coordination across internal and external organizations and talking with one person only goes so far … so even that can be limiting before having to go to the much dreaded teleconference.

    I’ve also found that completely ignoring phone calls and emails helps tremendously … at least, temporarily. If its that important, they’ll come find me, right?

  2. Joel, great point — this is certainly something I’ve struggled with as I try to prioritize my attention/energy. In reading your post, the first thing that came to mind was a short essay ( Paul Graham wrote about the different between the schedules of managers and “makers”, and I think many people have roles that blend both responsibilities (decisions and creating).

    Prioritizing effectively is something that I continue to see real results when I take the time to invest energy in doing it well, and it’s amazing how everyone complains about the same problems of “not enough hours in the day”, “lists that don’t get done”, etc. I’ve read great suggestions on how to try to make email more focused so we avoid the back-and-forth messages, which is key; and I think finding the right balance of meetings, short conversations, phone calls, and emails is very difficult; but essential to prioritizing our time.

    I don’t have a sound-bite answer, but I do hope to continue to refine how I prioritize my time to accomplish what is most important and avoid the many time-vacuums (e.g. I’m intrigued by Clay Johnson’s new book on an Information Diet

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