Yet another post in the “it works for me” vein…

In the last six weeks or so, my dayjob workload has gone from “fairly light” to “OMGWTF.” In a desperate Friday afternoon attempt to get on top of things, I dumped my entire to-do list into my outliner at work (Tines, running in Cygwin). I didn’t worry about prioritizing or setting due dates, since they’re constantly shifting. I chose stuff from the list that was most urgent right now, and made a list of what I wanted to get done in the upcoming week. Then I made a rough estimate of how many hours it would take to get each item done. I ended up with 58 hours (for a 40-hour week), but figured I would do what I could and try again next week.

Amazingly, I knocked off the entire list by Friday morning. I picked off a couple easy items from what was pending, then decided to try it again. This time, I ended up with 54 estimated hours. Again, I was able to knock off almost the entire list in the following week.

Then, when I took a look at what I’d done, I realized I had set up my own personal sprints, run out of a Kanban board. Now purists will object to this characterization, especially since a real Kanban board is horizontal, and an outliner is vertical—not to mention a sprint is focused on a single product, and I’m working on several during a given week. But, as the referenced article points out:

The goal of a Kanban system is to limit the amount of work in process so the work flowing through the system matches its capacity.

That’s exactly what I did in the outliner—I figured out what I could get done in the coming week, and didn’t worry about what was in the Backlog list until Friday afternoon rolled around and I started planning for the next week.

You can use any outliner that supports a checkbox item (to-do list) for this kind of setup. This is what it looks like in Tines:

+ This week (54)
    [ ] Document naming conventions for attribute lists (9)
    [X] Scope SYX-Nov2017 project (2)
    [ ] Finish Troubleshooting chapter for HBI product (8)
+ Backlog
    [ ] Scope SYX-Dec2017 project
    [ ] Outline white paper on mesh networks
    [ ] Format and publish SYX-Oct2017 docs
+ Complete
    + Oct 16
    + Oct 9

Each item is a goal, as I described in a previous post. The numbers in parentheses are really more story points than they are estimated hours—a way of measuring the relative estimated time needed to complete the goal, rather than a hard estimate. I’ve found I overestimate some items, underestimate others, and it all averages out. Knowing I can, in a typical week, handle 50 to 55 story points gives me a pretty good idea of what I can get done. New to-do items get added to the backlog, to be pulled into a weekly plan.

I think three things make this work:

  1. Plan a week ahead, no more. Don’t try to plan an entire year, or even next month, because it’s all going to change before you get there.
  2. Block out an hour of time every Friday afternoon for reviewing and planning. You need (or, at least, I need) to take time to breathe, consider how priorities have shifted, then figure out what’s going to be the best use of your time.
  3. Don’t freak out when a panic project lands on your desk, and pushes everything else out of the way. While you’re waiting on something, complete as many of the other items as you can, and roll the rest into next week’s plan.

Remember, fires burn out, and yesterday’s storm is tomorrow’s calm. Focus on what’s important, and you’ll get through it.

How do you manage an overwhelming workload? Sound off in the comments!