Thursday, May 9, 2019

Personal Busy Lists and Skills to Manage Them

I'm a compulsive recovering list maker. I used to be worried about forgetting a great idea for a blog, unless I immediately wrote it down. After all, it felt important at the time, and having a great idea go to waste because of my forgetful nature would be such a waste. So I wrote it down. I wrote hundreds of them down. And whenever I was thinking of writing a blog post, instead of writing that post I would prioritize my list of ideas until I was out of time.

We people can remember only a handful of things at a time. In the late 70s, research pointed out that our "human envelope", ability to remember things was 7 ± 2. Ten years later, the envelope had shrunk, and repeated studies identified we could remember 5 ± 2 things. Latest repeated study I have got my hands on is from 2001 and reports our envelope as 4 ± 1 things. Sometimes I wonder if we today can even hold one thing in our mind.

So we write lists. Particularly, we write lists of things we need to remember to do at work. Sometimes, those lists are private and structured in various different ways. And more often than not, we create a place for our shared lists with issue trackers.

For my work related lists of testing work, I've grown aware that there are two kinds of work.

  •  Things you do until they're done (open ended)
  •  Things you do for a particular time to declare them done (time-boxed)

Best way to declare testing done is to time-box it. Give me 5 minutes, and I'm done. Give me five days, and I will be done too. Whatever you do, you do so that you assume your time is running short and the work you do may be all the work you got to do - prioritize the important first so that when you're out of time, your most important work has been done.

My lists of testing work change so much, that I quite prefer not splitting them into lists of testing work in a shared structure that reflect my real understanding. Learning changes my plan and I want to be able to throw away the old when it is time to bring in the new. List making habit won't help me with that.

Recently I've been trying to pay attention to different ways people create and manage their personal busy lists, and how that reflects on what they ask of others. I try to remind myself of treating others as I would like to be treated extended with caring how they actually want to be treated over pushing my definition. I very often find I fail with the corollary principle, but still feel this self-righteous joy when I believe others are not yet there even with the first principle of not asking as much (or more) from theirselves.

I believe I cannot ask others to work only on issues from Jira since I never do that.

I believe I cannot ask others to put all the work they do in Jira as I would never do that.

I believe I should not think that having a ticket in Jira assigned to a person actually means they have accepted the work, can do the work and that the work is progressing as I wish without speaking about it.

I believe that when people make wrong choices on priorities and do less important things first, missing the things they really should be paying attention to, there is always a reason. Accepting human reasons like need to sprinkling joyous tasks around to make the boring bearable should be default.

Sometimes, our personal busy lists grow to lengths we can no longer manage. When everyone has a personal busy list, the attempts to try and share the important work on our own list becomes overwhelming.

Practicing the skills

1. Share the top

When you are working from a list and you have people around you, instead of sharing the whole list, share the topmost items. Share what you're working on now. Implicitly, you're sharing what you are not working on now, because if it isn't on the top and you are working on the top, the rest of it waits.

2. Seek to understand priorities

When you choose what bubbles up for you, you need to understand the environment you're working in. What defines urgent and important? If you have 7 things someone pushed towards your personal busy list with their wishes and hopes, you'll need to be making choices on what happens (now) and what waits.

With continuous releasing, being away from office for a day can mean that whatever was on your list has been moved on someone else's. Learn a way to track priorities.

3. Keep list short

When you let lists grow even if you don't share them to a common standard, the list organizing can take up significant effort. Reflect on how that is serving you. Find a way of making a part of your long list your short list. And check back if the long list was really something you needed.

4. Share to learn

When you tell others what is on your list, others will share things inspired by your list. It might be on priorities. It might be on how they would like to help you. It might be on what more they'd appreciate as your contribution. Take sharing as a learning experience.

What other rules to manage your busy lists do you have? Think about it, and let me know.