Never postpone what others can do for you today.
Being a Web project manager was the most stupid move of my career. After spending 25 years surviving the French school system relying on my memory only, I had some critical self management problems. The result was terrible, and I spent 4 years running around in circles trying to fix unrecoverable things. Things came out of hands and I had to resign before I burnt out.
Just before I left the company, my boss gave me Getting Things Done. I liked it and I started building TODOs. I wrote down everything I had to do. I built a TODO at work, a TODO at home and a side projects one.
On the short term, managing lists was a good thing. I didn’t forget all the important small things anymore and even though I hated my job, ticking lines on my list made me feel I was achieving something.
On the long term, writing TODOs for everything gave me hell. I mixed what I wanted to do and what I had to do without making the difference. Despite working 24/7, I was unable to finish what I had planned for the day. I started every morning with a pile of late stuff and the sensation of putting a constant pressure on my head until I drowned myself.
One day, I arrived at work with a 984 elements TODO from « answer that email » to « apply that critical security fix » or « pick up my kid at 6PM ».
The same day, I was leaving for a 3 weeks vacation. 3G didn’t exist yet, and WIFI wasn’t as common as it is. Everything had to be done before I jumped in my car.
I read a lot during my vacation. I thought a lot too. When I came back, I deleted all my TODOs and started over.
If you pay attention to people, anything they ask, any of their clients is so urgent the world must stop until it’s done.
That’s partially true. From their point of view, this is high priority, which means it’s top priority for everyone else. It’s just a question of point of view. Sometimes, they’re right, but most of the time, they’re wrong which they don’t always want to understand.
One day, I was managing a production incident. It was a huge one with a critical part of the infrastructure being out of order. She had a problem: a feature on staging did not work so she could not perform her tests.
– Fred, the feature XYZ doesn’t doesn’t work on staging. – In case you missed it, the whole production is out of order. The clients can’t access the service. – I know, but feature XYZ doesn’t doesn’t work on staging and I can’t do my tests. – Didn’t you hear the production is out of order? The whole company is on fire and you’re talking about staging? – Yes but the feature…
I don’t remember what happened then. Someone probably asked her to leave before I throw her through the window.
This story is typical of the biggest problem with TODOs: managing priorities. If tasks are not prioritized, they all have the same importance, which means they have none and everything becomes urgent.
To get myself out or trouble, I started to setup priorities. There were tasks I had to do the same day, during the week, during the current spent, and the other tasks I would do someday. Maybe.
Most project management tools allow such priorities. I love setting milestones because they give my TODOs a time frame. Then, I cas assign the tasks various priorities.
Once again, I did everything you’re not supposed to do. Don’t push granularity too far, the simpler the better.
- Tasks to do in a sensible time.
- Tasks dealing with a client.
- Usual stuff.
- The backlog.
That way, you keep TODOs of a manageable size that make you want to achieve them instead of committing seppuku with a narval horn.
Everything being relative, you need to reprioritize things as soon as you add a new tasks. A production incident takes precedence over everything else, applying a critical security fix over many.
When you’re dealing with the whole company, which is the case when you work in IT, you need patience to make your colleagues understand that, as important as their problems are, you may be dealing with even more important ones.
This is where planning is involved.
Plan less to do more and better
When I studied Stalinism, what stroke me beyond the legendary paranoia and repetitive purges was the 5 years plans. Every 5 years, former USSR decided what the would produce for the 5 years to come up to the ton. It was silly when you think about it because it was impossible to achieve, but the whole nation was working its hardest to achieve it.
When I started building TODOs, I decided to mimic the USSR 5 years plans. Every Monday, I decided what I would to that week, then every morning, what I wanted to do that day.
It was stupid. The first rule of the daily TODO is that you can’t achieve your daily TODO.
Even a the best plans never go as expected. Things you planned for an hour take 3, the expected unexpected goes worst than expected, and you can be tired.
To get out of that trap, I’ve setup a simple ritual. Every morning, I pick up enough things to fill in my day, then I remove the least important half. Everything else is about managing the unexpected, answering my colleagues, or finishing what needed more time than I thought.
50% is what I know I’ll be able to do, and so far, I’ve been doing quite well. It’s like managing velocity in a scrum, you need experience to know what you can achieve.
To do this, I cut / paste everything I want to do in a text file, then I write down everything I will do on a real notepad. Writing my TODO on a sheet of paper makes it more concrete, and things that looked easy when I typed them show all their complexity.
Even the super heroes have late laundry
When my father was a student, he had a sign on his door saying:
Don’t postpone to tomorrow what other people can do for you today.
Beyond the classic joke lies something important. Even super heroes are late on washing their clothes. Since they can’t be everywhere at the same time, they delegate to someone else.
I’ve considered myself a super hero for years until I got overwhelmed by the amount of late laundry. I had to teach myself to delegate if I didn’t want to burn out.
Delegation looks easy. You just need to find someone to do the job instead of you. That’s easy when you’re no passionate by what you do and you just want to get rid of the job. When you’re really into what you do, it becomes harder, because you need to learn to trust your colleagues, and believe they will do it as well as you do. It’s also hard, because you sometimes rely on a colleague’s job to finish a task. In the end, you tell yourself « It will do it faster ».
To delegate well, you need to know your colleagues enough to understand who’s able to do the job. You also need to balance between keeping the fun stuff to yourself or the more boring one. Finally, it requires the humility to accept that you can’t be everywhere and sometimes need help.
It took me lots of time to setup this, because I first had to learn to trust people I was working with. I also had to learn how to communicate so I would not stay alone in my ivory tower anymore. It looks easy until you do something specific and are the only one doing it in the company (hint, if they don’t want to hire someone else, leave).
To summarize my strategy in 4 points (yeah, I write the tl;dr at the end of the post, how nice of me), I got out of the TODO hell by:
- Reducing my daily workload so I would also deal with the unexpected without getting drowned by all the things I was supposed to do for last week.
- Applying very short term priorities on my tasks, and review it every time a new tasks comes to keep a balanced workload.
- Writing my « real » daily TODO on a paper notebook to make it more real.
- Learning to delegate (just a little bit).
That’s all folks. It’s time for me to leave you and process my HUGE blog posts TODO list.