My memory is good for facts but poor for tasks and experiences. I can recall obscure details about a programming project months or years after-the-fact with a little thought, but would forget to do the laundry every weekend if I didn’t have it written down, and I certainly won’t remember promising to do something.
I’ve given up on improving my recall, and instead have developed a system to organise myself and make sure I get around to doing things I’ve said I would. Much like my personal finance system, this system has evolved over the years based on what’s made noticeable improvements to my life.
My ideas may not work as-is for you, but I hope they’ll prompt you to think about how you organise yourself, and what you can do to improve.
“Scrumban” for to-do lists
I’ve worked at a few different programming jobs now, and I’ve noticed programmers on small agile teams have a tendency to adopt a style of development I’ve heard called “scrumban”:
Like scrum, there are fixed-length sprints, but like kanban work gets added to the backlog at any time. The sprint cadence is mostly to review the pending work and prune the backlog, it’s not a target to get everything done by.
Like scrum, there is a product manager who is ultimately in charge of the backlog, and a delivery manager (or scrum master) who leads the ceremonies.
Like kanban, work is delivered continuously, but like scrum there is usually an end-of-sprint show-and-tell.
Like kanban, we use a kanban board with a WIP limit.
So scrumban is mostly kanban, but the backlog has an owner who regularly reviews it. I view scrumban as close to the minimal amount of process needed to work in an effective development team: there’s regular product oversight of the work (the sprint cadence), and everyone knows what everyone else is working on (the daily standup).
I use a form of scrumban to keep on top of my to-do list. I am the “product manager” for my life, making sure I only do relevant things, I suppose I’m also the “delivery manager” for my life, ensuring I get things done and resolve blockers, but so far I’ve not felt the need to have a daily standup of just me.
So, onto how I implement this.
Everything I need to do, which isn’t captured elsewhere (like in my email inbox, or in a GitHub issue), goes on the Trello board. And if it’s a particularly important email or GitHub issue I want to make sure I don’t forget about, and I can’t deal with it straight away, I’ll make a card for it anyway.
I’ve found Trello works better for me for this than org-mode did: the latter is very powerful, which makes it hard to use consistently; Trello is much more limited, so consistency is easy. It’s also nice to have the board visualisation, so I can see at a glance how much stuff I have to do.
The rest of my process is now more complex than it was when I first started, but even just having “To Do”, “Doing”, “Waiting / Blocked”, and “Done” lists was a game-changer. I would have got my Ph.D corrections done without Trello (because I had to), but it would have been much more difficult.
Each task I need to do is in one of these states:
Routines—a backlog of regular, time-based, tasks (see routines section).
Has Prerequisites—a backlog of things I can’t do until I do something else.
Backlog—a backlog of things which would be nice to do, but aren’t particularly important or urgent.
Upcoming—a backlog of important, but non-urgent, things.
This Sprint—a to-do list of tasks from Backlog and Upcoming which I’ve decided to get done this sprint.
Doing—things I’m actively doing at the moment (this list is very small).
Waiting / Blocked—things where I’ve done my part, and need to wait on something or someone else.
Done - things I’ve done.
Each of these is a list on my Trello board.
I used to not have the This Sprint list, and would just pick up tasks from Backlog and Upcoming based on whatever I felt like doing. But one day I realised that some of the Upcoming tasks had been there for over a year. They were important, but I was putting them off, and still feeling good about myself because I was getting through lots of unimportant tasks instead.
This is standard procrastination behaviour.
So I decided to have a fortnightly “sprint planning” session where I would prioritise a small number of tasks, ensuring that nothing got neglected too much.
I’m not terribly strict on myself: if I get through all the sprint tasks, great; if not, no big deal, they can either remain for the following sprint, or move back into a different list. On the whole this change has helped me get through things.
Calendars for routines
I manage routines using Google Calendar, another integral component of my self-organisation system.
Routines are recurring calendar events, for example I’ve got an event every Saturday morning called “weekly chores”, and another every Sunday evening called “weeknotes”.
The routines which have multiple things to do (like my chores) have a corresponding card in the Routines list on my Trello board, which has a deadline. When the time to do the routine arrives I make a copy of the card in Doing, update the deadline of the template card, and work through the checklist.
Those routines which just have a single task, like “sprint planning”, just have a calendar entry.
Routines which I’ve got cards for are:
Weekly chores—household maintenance (cleaning, laundry, etc) and checking my ledger is up to date.
Prepare game—preparation for my fortnightly Call of Cthulhu game.
Monthly chores—more intense household maintenance (cleaning the oven, emptying the hoover, etc), updating computers, and reviewing the lists.
Quarterly chores—updating my CV and website and checking my credit report.
Annual chores—reviewing my habits and preparing for the next year.
Routines on my calendar which I don’t have cards for are:
Sprint planning and Mid-sprint review—alternating Sundays, populate and review the This Sprint list.
Write up session notes—every other Sunday evening, write up notes from the game I prepared and ran.
Weeknotes—every Sunday evening, write my weeknotes.
I find having the Trello cards, rather than just putting the steps to be done in the calendar event, helps. I’m quite visual with this sort of data, I like being able to look at the calendar and see when everything needs to be done; but I prefer the Trello card interface for text and checkboxes. It’s nice having everything in its place: temporal data on a calendar, procedural data in a card.
Going analogue for household organisation
The final component of my self-organisation system is a whiteboard and some pens.
I primarily use this to note down my shopping list, as it’s much easier to grab a pen and scribble something down than to open Trello and add a comment to a card.
I also use the whiteboard for meal planning. I have a simple 5-week calendar on the board, with rows labelled “Monday” to “Sunday” and columns labelled “1” to “5”, and the first cell of each column labelled with the day number (the “week 1” column may not start with the “Monday” cell). I tend to cook large portions of meals so I can freeze some of it for later, and I note down meals for future days as my freezer fills up. This has all but eliminated getting to the evening and realising I have nothing in, which has cut down on takeaways and helped to optimise my food budget.